February 6th, 2014

The Acacia Collection in Country Home Magazine!

by Larry Erickson

Country HomeVisual Jazz

Seared by the savage desert sun, the African acacia tree thrives where little else survives. “It is a metaphor for the African-American people,” says Carroll Greene, a curator and historian in Savannah, Georgia. He and a cluster of friends have gathered a treasury they call the Acacia Collection of African Americana. “It celebrates a triumph of spirit, of self-reliance, and the will to survive,” he says.

Artifacts range from the sinister to the sublime. A cold metal slave tag lists a tax number and the bearer’s job. A variety of meager, rough-hewn gifts–made with match- sticks, cigar boxes, and care–honor the strength of the heart. Unglazed pottery from the 1600s shows African traditions evolving with exposure to European and Native American influences. This hybrid of styles, in its frail and crumbling form, embodies the beginning of the African American union.

The private preservation of such tokens is invaluable to scholars and ultimately to public understanding. “The museum world has not paid much attention to African American material culture,” says John Michael Vlach, a professor of American Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Carroll Greene has been one of the pioneers in this ongoing effort.”

Even as a child, growing up in the shadow of museums in Washington, D.C., and New York City, Greene recognized those institutions’ colorless image of history. “I was aware, from my teachers and family, that African Americans had contributed,” he recalls, “but I didn’t see this around me in the museums.”

 

Searching the Past

As a young museum curator and later as director of the Maryland Commission on African-American History, he sought to explore beyond those museums, to delve into one of history’s darkest corners. The search led eventually to Savannah, once the largest port of entry for slaves, now the most fertile point of access for remnants of their lives.

Unlike Europeans, who brought their material culture in the holds of ships, African arrivals carried only memories and shackles. Their culture was held not in steamer trunks but in their hearts and minds and in the skills of their hands.

The most telling antiques, and those with the most widely shared heritage, show how people managed to rise above their meager means. Greene calls it “a culture of making do, a culture of survival and self-reliance.” That philosophy led to the humble gifts at the heart of African-American folk art. This collection, for example, includes a coverlet sewn from feed sacks and fabric scraps. An attached note quotes the Georgia quilter’s sentiment for her children: I might not be able to give them much, but I swore they wouldn’t be cold.” Pieces also include doll furniture tacked together by a dad in the 1930s or ’40s; a scrap-wood table given as a wedding gift in the 1920s; and a crock of hooch, lettered “Johnny’s jug, February 2, 1938, love always from his mother.”

Filling shelves and cabinets, walls and floors, the collection spills out from two rooms in a private home. Pieces often get loaned to museums, and the principals hope eventually to place the collection in a permanent museum exhibit.

The Acacia Collection’s message of simple faith is underscored by an offering plate carefully assembled from Popsicle sticks. Nearby, a primitive still life hangs unframed on one wall. Some determined artist rendered the work in leftover house paint on the metal lid of a bucket.

“This collection shows people doing the best they could with what they had,” Greene says. “The results are mixed, depending on the technical skill, ingenuity, and imagination of the people involved.”

Amid pieces of crude furniture, a hall tree is literally that–the trunk of a slender sapling, its limbs sawn to stump length to serve as coat hooks.

A century-old quilt covers one wall like a tapestry, faded but still vibrant. Its pattern defies predictability, with inventive shapes and colors reaching in random directions. The quilt has the impromptu qualities of jazz in a visual medium, a rhythm unlike the symmetry of more mainstream American quilts.

Crude musical instruments include a banjo crafted from a gourd in 1859. Its silence prods viewers to imagine it more than a century ago, a joyful voice rising in harmony with hope.

CELEBRATION OF LIFE

The pieces represent “a triumph of the human spirit,” Greene says. “There is a spiritual aspect that one can extract” from studying them, he says. “We should look closely at what it is we discard that could enrich our lives.”

The collection invariably strikes a familiar chord with visitors. “I’ll have people come in and look around until their eyes light up at the sight of something, and I’ll say ‘tell me about it,”‘ Greene says. Triggered by the pieces, memories come to life and stories tumble from visitors who come to learn and learn to share. From the stories comes understanding.

“The culture of making do is universal,” Greene says. “It is the culture derived from poverty.”

COLLECTOR EXCITEMENT

Garage-sale items only a few years ago, scraps of this culture of making do are gaining the attention of collectors of Americana. Adding excitement to the search is the unpredictability of the market. As with folk art a quarter-century ago, America stands at the cusp of a new appreciation for these remnants of social history. By the nature of their meager origins, many pieces lack intrinsic value. So prices tend to be set by a seller’s sentiments rather than any objective frame of reference.

Recognized collectibles in this genre have soared in value. Slave tags, for instance, traded for a few hundred dollars a decade ago, now fetch several thousand. Poring over the contents of attics, in yard sales and flea markets, Greene measures value in metaphors, weighing cents and sentiments. As unique and emotion-charged objects, their prices are never predictable, he says.

The appeal of these objects transcends ethnicity and reaches out to touch collectors of many backgrounds. “African-American material culture is a hybrid culture, not a transplantation,” Greene says. As such, in its triumph and its tragedy, it is a powerful part of us all.