My son is off to college and I am in his closet. Sorting things into piles of “save” and “lose,” I pull down boxes of dinosaurs and Legos. I find Crabman, a plastic figure who, for many years, stood guard over our sandcastles. There is the purple mouse we made together from a felting kit, its body a loose roll of wool. Should I toss it? It’s the face that makes the decision hard—the face on the figure, the mouse, but also the face these items conjure: that of my child, small again, and still mine.
I think Betye Saar would understand. She raised three daughters in her Laurel Canyon home. In her free time, she browsed flea markets, gathering discarded things to use in her assemblages. She plucked up figurines of “mammies,” Aunt Jemimas, and other ugly, racist caricatures of Black women, mothers, daughters, and sisters. Maybe Saar’s heart broke for them—the abandoned figures and the women they so cruelly represented. Maybe she thought she could save them, bring them home and set them on her shelf, dignified and loved.
In 1972, Saar made The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, positioning a gun in the hand of a “mammy” figure. Her most iconic work, it transformed an object of humiliation into a symbol of power, challenging a caste system that placed Black women on its lowest rung. By then her girls were teenagers, getting ready to enter the world. I don’t know if she cleaned their closets; I know she gave them a warrior, a new possibility to guide them.