Yesterday's racist ads are today's collectables

Cole Moreton and MP Bernie Grant (right) inspect the 'nigger' images set to fetch high prices at auction
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The Independent Online
There was a sharp intake of breath, and a muttered "Jesus". Bernie Grant, militant black MP for Tottenham, was reading the caption on a postcard that showed five black toddlers sitting in a row. It said: "God made the little niggers, he made them in the night. He made them in a hurry, and forgot to make them white."

Then a rueful smile began to play on Mr Grant's lips, and he shook his head. This was not some racist propaganda from the present day. It was a postcard from 1929, part of a collection of black ephemera due to go on sale at Bonham's the auctioneers in London on Tuesday.

The Independent on Sunday had asked Mr Grant, veteran campaigner for black people's rights, to give his verdict on the collection. It includes books, songsheets, advertising posters and packaging from Europe and the US, dating from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Taken as a whole, the collection provides a fascinating insight into the way white society's attitude to black people changed over the years. Such material is usually snapped up by black American collectors, say the experts at Bonham's, who expect it to sell for more than pounds 2,000.

"Maybe they're buying this stuff to get it off the shelves," Mr Grant said at first. But his views changed as he saw more.

The earliest items in the collection are trade cards and packaging for goods such as soap and boot polish, dating from the 1880s. Beautifully illustrated, they portray young black men as exotic, almost superhuman figures from faraway lands, riding on giraffes and elephants. They are at one with nature - or, as Mr Grant said, "like animals".

Some are dressed as dandies, minstrels or huntsmen - which would have seemed amusingly outlandish to white Victorians. Many ads show products such as cocoa and cotton with the Africans who produced them, for authenticity. Others use shock tactics. Few show slaves in chains, but several portray black subjects as menacing. "The idea is to shake people up, in advertising terms - to attract their attention," said Mr Grant. "It's similar to what Benetton do now."

Some of the packaging mirrors the Victorian fascination with tales of brave missionaries "civilising" the savages. One ad entitled "The Birth of Civilisation - A Message from the Sea" shows a black man clutching a bar of Pears soap, washed up from a shipwreck. "The consumption of soap is a measure of the wealth, civilisation, health and purity of the people," says the caption.

Items from the turn of the century onwards show a fascination with black children rather than adults. The two most popular themes of the period are children eating watermelon - still an exotic food in Britain at the time - or being eaten themselves, by crocodiles.

"There was colonial unrest," Mr Grant said. "The missionaries felt that these people were sub-human, but they were still people. Portraying them as happy, smiling children, always eating, meant that they were not threatening. They needed educating, and there was no need to worry about them as a threat.

"Also, portraying them in this comic way detracted from the exploitation that was going on."

By the 1920s and 30s, the illustrations have become more savage and cruel. Black people are no longer seen as a separate species but inferior and worthy of derision. The card featuring the five toddlers was posted from Epsom in 1929. "About this time there was a lot of theoretical racism," said Mr Grant. "People were using pseudo-scientific methods to prove that black people were inferior."

Bonham's says the collection was made by a white film editor from Norfolk named Richard Perfitt, who died a year ago. "If you want to perceive it as racist, it is," said Leigh Gotch, head of the firm's toy and ephemera department. "It would be totally wrong to put this sort of thing out now. But it is crucial to see this material in its historical context."

By the time he had seen the whole collection, Bernie Grant was over his shock. He has campaigned for Lottery funds to help set up a library of black culture at Middlesex University, and said this was exactly the sort of material that such a project would like to buy. It would, he said, be "invaluable in tracing the history of racism" - "Looking at this, you can see where many of the racial stereotypes that people have today came from."