It’s week two of Black History Month, and Americans are gearing up for Valentine’s Day--a holiday characterized by extravagant bouquets, unwanted chocolates and sappy Hallmark cards.
While Valentine's Day may seem like a race-neutral holiday, a professor of African American studies at Northwestern University is bringing back some cards created between 1895 and 1940 that expose not-so-sweet elements of its past: a history of commercial racism.
A closer look at Valentine’s Day cards from the early part of the last century, Professor Harvey Young told The Chicago Reporter, reveals a pattern of commercial racism that has now been confined to auction halls and collectors’ basements. But Young plans to bring some of those images out Thursday evening for a lecture he’s prepared dubbed, “A Racist Love Note.”
Young says that the cards, which have gained popularity within a community of collectors in recent years, tend to depict black characters in three different contexts: scenes of violence, impoverished black children and scenes set on plantations. Many of the cards feature characters with cartoonishly big lips, unrealistically dark skin, unkempt hair and raggedy clothing.
One card, that’s currently being sold on eBay for $2.49, features a young black figure holding an oversized heart, with the words: “Ah hopes you believes in signs.”
Another Valentine’s card that Young found depicts an African-American man with a rope around his neck, tied to a tree. The text reads: “Be mah Valentine. Ill be hanged if yo’ is goins’ to say no.”
Though the images would shock us today, Young said in the early 1900s they hardly bothered the white males who enjoyed mocking people for their poverty and lack of education. These cards were purchased and traded frequently.
"They capture in a material object the racial discourse occurring at the moment,” Young said. “You can really get a sense of how common and everyday and widely accepted these cards were. It gestures to this past moment when racism was more apparent in society.”
When comparing cards today to those of generations past, it becomes clear that the card industry has come a long way. But Young’s presentation, which will be held Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Evanston Public Library, teaches us that racial discourse is embedded in our history and lingers today, even on the most “loving” day of the year.