The Phenomenon of the “Black Man” Cane
One of the more interesting questions facing collectors in the world of decorative walking sticks is the strong but enigmatic appeal of the so-called “Black Man” cane. The key to solving this puzzle requires the recognition and acknowledgement that the term, as employed, actually encompasses two distinct, and very different, cane types.
One type is readily identified by the exaggerated and cartoonish, caricature-like features carved into the faces of the men and women depicted on these canes. The resulting faces are unflattering and disrespectful to the subject matter. They are, by original commission, deliberately intended to heighten and focus on an awareness of racial difference. Examples of these sticks could easily be labeled “Sambo” or “minstrel” canes. There is little doubt that the origin of this genre of walking stick lies in its willing contribution to the myth of racial inferiority and the historical role this myth has played in the justification of the forced subjugation of one identifiable group of people to the will of another. A recognized sub-set of this style of cane is the “Reluctant Beheaded” cane. Its membership in this class of cane is certified by the fact that the victims of the vicarious, but cruelly violent imagery depicted in this cane are invariably black and male.
The original appeal, contemporary to its manufacture, of this type of cane can be properly described as an extension of the slave-owners mentality, and for those purchased after the Emancipation Proclamation, an overt expression of the caneholder’s resentment and contempt towards the shifting mores of society. The strong modern appeal of this type is slightly more complex. It has become collectible, both as an example of a firmly established and recognized genre in its own right, and as a safe investment that, due to its specialized nature, is certain to hold its value. Some collectors may also seek to possess this variety of cane, as well as other memorabilia of a similar nature, as a somber and tangible reminder of an era of shame, when the marketplace of civilization failed to heed the cries of human conscience. Unfortunately, it must probably also be acknowledged that some avid collectors of this family of canes, in our own times, are still responding to some diminished echo of that original pathetic need to feel superior by virtue of their birthright, rather than any measure of personal merit.
There exists another wholly different class of cane that is usually included under the general rubric of “Black Man ” canes. This group can be identified by the canemakers’ realistic, or occasionally idealized, renderings of the heads and faces of black men and women for the handles of their sticks. It is interesting to note that the models for these canes are predominantly men and women of Moorish, North African, or Caribbean descent, representative of regions far less frequented by the slave traders. Examples of these canes are often exquisitely carved and finely crafted works of art, whose value and appeal to the collector rest purely in the beauty invested in them by the artists. As such, their value is innate and, not unlike the men and women whose visages they portray, they simply do not require a separate page of text to account for their existence.