American Renaissance

Are Hobby Lobby’s Statues Racist Relics or Harmless Decorations?

A picture of the offending statues from the article.

Andrew Tangel, News-Leader.com (Missouri), Feb. 27

Bryon Holman searched Hobby Lobby on East Battlefield Road recently for fabric to make blankets. What he found instead made him livid.

Greeting him were statues of monkeys holding serving trays — sitting on the same shelves as figurines of dark-skinned servants. The figures, the 34-year-old thought, harked to the bygone racist caricatures of African-Americans as ape-like subhumans.

“I’ve been in Springfield for 12 years, and every day I feel more and more like we’re making progress,” Holman said. “I felt safe and secure that my kids aren’t going to be raised in a racist, violent, dangerous environment, and now I’m worried that maybe I was wrong.”

Manager Jim Hutchison saw it differently: “From a retail point of view, that particular style of decoration is extremely popular right now.”

The statues are part of what interior designers call an “African desert” or “British colonial” motif, which has gained favor with decorators in recent years.

“It’s just a popular brand, but as far as offending anyone, I don’t think that ever entered into anybody’s thought when they bought them,” Hutchison added.

The statues’ racial undertones may lie in the subjective gray area of art between what pleases and what offends. And the difference in interpretation highlights a long-running debate over art some consider racially offensive.

It’s unclear whether the servant statues are portrayals of Africans; stickers say they were made in India, and one African-American studies professor suggested the statues could be depicting dark-skinned Indians. A Hobby Lobby lawyer wouldn’t identify the manufacturer of the statues.

Springfield interior designer Cindy Love cautions not to read into the images. She calls the suited primate statue “just a whimsical way of dressing a monkey.”

But that’s what riles Holman and others. When people accent their homes with “cute” statues without knowing what they may depict or resemble, it’s disturbing, says Kenneth Goings, chair of the African-American and African Studies Department at Ohio State University.

“They’re less aware of the kind of hurt and pain that these images and these kinds of objects brought to an older generation of African-Americans,” Goings said.

Since the 1800s, blacks have been caricatured in images ranging from Aunt Jemima to Little Black Sambo to lawn jockeys.

Blacks were also portrayed as apes and gorillas to dehumanize them, Goings said.

The two statues Holman saw probably originated in the late 1800s, maybe as late as 1930, said Goings, who wrote “Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping.”

Goings, who viewed the statues in an e-mailed photograph, said the servant statue looks very close to traditionally black lawn jockeys. And the other statue appears to “invoke an African-American,” he said.

“There’s many humanlike qualities to the face,” he said, adding that such statue caricatures show an “intelligent monkey” that’s “happy to be working for the master.”

These largely faded from American culture after the 1950s, Goings said.

Hobby Lobby, an Oklahoma-based company with about 315 stores nationwide, has no plans to phase out any of the statues, company officials said.

Hobby Lobby will continue selling the servants because the store has similar statues of all complexions, said Ruby Race, executive assistant to company CEO David Green.

And Green said the monkey statues will remain. “We will not stop selling monkeys. We don’t see that as something that should be offensive.”

Still, regarding the tall, suited chimp statue, Southwest Missouri State University philosophy professor Johnny Washington said in an e-mail : “Clearly an image such as the one under discussion seems to be intended to project African-Americans in a dehumanizing light.”

But others may just be reading too much into the statues, said Larry Maddox, president of Springfield’s NAACP chapter.

“You know what I see in that?” he said. “A monkey in a tux.”

Contact Andrew Tangel at atangel@News-Leader.com.