Last year, the Kentucky State Fair board banned the sale of items that “represent racist ideologies” after discovering that Nazi and KKK memorabilia was for sale at a gun show at the Kentucky Expo Center. That was on top of an existing ban on selling items featuring the Confederate battle flag. But there are still places at the Fair where racist imagery is displayed.
Take the antiques competition.
This area is tucked away in a relatively quiet room next to the flea market at the Expo Center. There are glass cases with all kinds of memorabilia: clothing, tools, Bibles. There are more specific categories, too, such as items from the Civil War or the World Wars. And some of these contain sensitive items, like a German iron cross with a swastika and a medal on a Confederate flag ribbon.
The Black History section is different than the rest. Although it also contains photos, letters and dolls, they all depict black people. And many of them use offensive caricatures.
There are a number of so-called “mammy” dolls…a souvenir menu from an old all-white venue called Club Plantation… and not one but two Smokin’ Sambo firecrackers. When you light them, they’re designed to blow the head off the black minstrel they’re shaped like.
As I wandered down aisles of plants, crafts and foods also submitted for competition, I began to wonder: Why is it OK to compete for small cash prizes with racist imagery, but not to sell it?
Ian Cox, a spokesman for the Kentucky State Fair, said antiques judges don’t disqualify items for being racist. But there are some they’ve held back due to “sensitivity.”
“One thing that does pop up frequently, according to our judges, is chains or some sort of lock or some sort of tag” that were used on slaves, Cox said.
He said curators, or someone in a similar role, decide what is accepted and displayed.
Cox would not describe the makeup of the state fair’s four-judge panel, except to say that some of them are assistant museum curators. He said next year, entrants will be able to submit descriptions of their submissions online for the first time. And he said the description would be verified for accuracy, just as the items are verified for authenticity.
What’s in these descriptions could be key to changing how fair-goers view items such as mammy dolls — which are a type of damaging propaganda meant to depict black women as being happy while enslaved.
Cox argued that seeing these types of items in the fair’s antiques competition is similar to coming across them in a museum. He said they can be thought-provoking, and he doesn’t think they make the event unwelcoming.
Aukram Burton, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and an expert on black images in the media, said seeing these types of symbols at the fair is not the same as in a museum. The difference is context. Museums can have plaques explaining the significance and implications of certain kinds of imagery, which the fair currently does not.
He said he’s seen demeaning images of black people across the South, and across the world. So I asked him, should anyone be upset that the Kentucky State Fair is displaying these caricatures?
“Yeah, I really do think that they should be upset about the fact that these images even exist,” he said. “But the question becomes, the real question is, what are they going to do?”
Burton said the real issue here isn’t that mammy dolls and Smokin’ Sambos are sold or displayed at state fairs or flea markets. It’s that these symbols continue to exist and to influence how black people are seen — whether by themselves or by others.
For him, the real win would be if kids learned about these images in schools, if community members discussed them, if the media addressed them. That way, he says, maybe people would stop perpetuating them and the versions of them that exist today.