An important part of African American history and culture is under attack from an unlikely source — Assembly Bill (AB 44).
Supporters of the legislation might be surprised to hear this, but in prohibiting the “manufacture, sale or distribution of fur products in the state,” which AB 44 calls for, you are demonstrating a breath-taking ignorance and total lack of concern about how important fur was to a segment of your fellow Americans who saw it as one of the few avenues of dignity open to them.
“Many black women in the early 1920s through 1970s could only work as domestics, and those who did work as educators or nurses or hairdressers were still earning lower wages than their white counterparts,” writes Chicago Tribune reporter Lolly Bowean from her interview of Charles Bothea, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum.
“It was an era of segregation, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and housing discrimination. So, saving enough to purchase a coat priced from $5,000 to $20,000 was a way of showing that they could overcome the barriers of inequality … It was also a way of presenting an aspirational image while challenging the stereotypes and perceptions of black life.”
For her New York Times story, A Black Legacy, Wrapped Up in Fur, model, and radio personality Jasmine Sanders had a long chat with her mother. “My mother never owned a house. She couldn’t afford it,’ my mother said. ‘And even if she’d had the money, they wouldn’t have let her have one.’ Federal housing codes that barred fair loans from being offered to black people, as well as other forms of housing discrimination, rendered homeownership impossible for many black families, and arduous for those who could attain it. So, money was put toward other markers of personal prosperity, the kind that retained value and could be passed down to the next generation. ‘My mother never had a house,’ my mother said again. ‘But she had fur.’ ”
Interestingly, AB 44 does exempt “fur products used for religious purposes, traditional tribal cultural or spiritual purposes by Native American tribes,” so some cultures were taken into consideration, after all.
Here’s something else supporters AB 44 might be surprised to hear: I am not advocating for blacks to get their exemption. To think that is to compound the first slight of cultural ignorance. I want the State Senate, where the bill now lies, to kill it.
How many other instances of a government ordering the entire elimination of lawfully operating enterprises can you name? Nothing the fur industry does is any different than what the industries producing our beef, pork, chicken, and lamb do. When did we allow centuries’ old, legally running, tax-paying, and job-producing businesses to die by government fiat? That is why we must oppose AB 44 with all our might.
I don’t accuse the people pushing Assembly Bill 44 of any intentional racial bias, but maybe I should leave the last word to Jasmine Sanders on that:
“ … there is a sense among many black women that this broader, cultural disavowal of fur has coincided with our increased ability to purchase it. (Or as Paula Marie Seniors, a historian, and professor of Africana studies at Virginia Tech, reported her mother saying: ‘As soon as black women could afford to buy mink coats, white society and white women said fur was all wrong, verboten, passé.’) For women like my mother and grandmother, my aunts and my sisters, a fur coat is more than a personal luxury item. It is an important investment.”
We give our U.S. and state senators longer terms in office so they can, theoretically, be more deliberative. It will be interesting to see if that concept holds up, but for the California Senate’s two black members, AB 44 presents to them a teachable moment they should not pass up.
New York Times