Excerpted with permission from Collectors Weekly
At one point, Anita Pointer—lead vocalist and writer for the Pointer Sisters’ top 10 hit “I’m So Excited”—was one of the most famous women in the world. During the early ’80s, she and her sisters June and Ruth tore up the pop music charts with singles like “Jump (For My Love),” “Neutron Dance,” “Automatic,” “He’s So Shy,” and “Slow Hand.” If you search for the girl group on YouTube and watch videos from the height of their popularity, you’ll be whisked back on a buoyant romp of sequins, neon, shoulder pads, sky-high pink and blue hair, and relentlessly optimistic synthesizer beats. “In the ’80s, we were hot, boy, I’ll tell you,” Anita remembers. “Before Destiny’s Child came along, it was the Pointer Sisters.”
But the Pointer Sisters’ story goes much deeper than the glittery MTV-era glee. The six Pointer children—two boys, Aaron and Fritz, and four girls, Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June—grew up poor preacher’s kids in 1950s Oakland, California, a predominantly Black city across the bay from San Francisco. Anita Pointer also spent part of her childhood in the small town of Prescott, Arkansas, with her grandparents, facing Jim Crow segregation. As a young woman in 1960s Oakland, she protested racism and police violence.
What most people don’t know about Anita Pointer is that she’s also a serious collector of Black memorabilia. This collecting category encompasses exoticized images of Africans made by Europeans, artifacts of African American slavery, mementos of Jim Crow-era segregation, objects associated with Black celebrities and memorabilia from the Civil Rights Movement. The most controversial type of Black memorabilia are antiques designed with racist caricatures, based on stereotypes that often originated in vaudeville Blackface performances. Such imagery proliferated after the Civil War to promote the belief that white people were superior to newly freed Black people. Typically, the caricatures—which could be attached to anything from toys to cookie jars to advertising tins—depict Black people as happy-go-lucky buffoons and servile simpletons, such as Mammy and Uncle Tom, with oversize eyes and lips.
Today, Pointer has so much Black memorabilia from all over the world, she’s estimated it would “probably take up a basketball court.” Her collection includes a tin of N****r Hair Tobacco, children’s books like Ten Little N*****s and Little Black Sambo, an Aunt Jemima cast-iron bank, water glasses and a dinner plate from a restaurant chain called Coon Chicken Inn, “Mammy and Chef” wall plaques, Staffordshire figurines depicting Uncle Tom and Eve, Golliwogs from England, Blackamoor ashtrays, and even a set of slave shackles. Earlier this year, she told AARP Magazine that a Sotheby’s appraiser was wowed by her collection because he’d never seen half the stuff she’d collected. Pointer buys these objects to serve as a stark reminder of the racism she’s fought against her whole life. We spoke with Pointer on the phone from her home in Beverly Hills about her collection and how it ties to her personal history.
Collectors Weekly: What was your childhood like?
Pointer: Our dad was the pastor of the West Oakland Church of God, and our mom was the assistant pastor. So we couldn’t do anything. Growing up, it was all about the church. We couldn’t go to parties; we couldn’t go to movies. The first movie I saw was The Ten Commandments, and the whole family went because it was about God. Now I understand the control they had over us. There are so many horrible things in this world that you need to protect your kids from, especially when you’ve got six kids that are rambunctious, funny, crazy and smart. When Mom and Dad were gone, we would just take over the house and have our times. We’d have talent shows in the living rooms. Me and Ruthie would stand on the piano stool and tuck our dresses into our panties to make them look like little ballerina tutus, and we’d sing.
Collectors Weekly: As a child, you also spent some time in Jim Crow-era Arkansas?
Pointer: Yeah, it was shocking. My parents would drive our family from Oakland across the country every year to visit my mother’s parents in Prescott, Arkansas. My dad would also speak at church conventions around the South. One year in the late ’50s, I said I wanted to stay in Prescott, and Mom said that I could go back and go to school there for the fifth grade.
The people there were living so poorly, I couldn’t believe it. I thought we were poor in Oakland—my dad was a minister, and we barely made it. Our church would have a pastor’s aid day, where the church members would bring food for us. My grandparents in Prescott were also not well off, but they were not the poorest people there. They were the ones who had a TV and a car. The other kids would come to our house to watch television.
The poorest people in Prescott still had outdoor toilets. They had no running water in the house. I was just amazed. The kids only got shoes in the winter. They would run—I mean run—on gravel roads barefoot. I saw these kids running on the gravel, and I said, “I’m going to try that.” Oh, my God, I thought my feet were going to be cut to shreds. I couldn’t do it, but their feet were so conditioned to walk on the gravel roads barefoot. I used to help them do their laundry. They made their own soap—these big, ol’ chunks of lye soap—and they’d have a scrub board and a big, ol’ round tub out in the backyard. You’d think it was the turn of the century, but this was the ’50s.
One day, my grandmother let me go pick cotton. That was fun. [Laughs.] I couldn’t believe how much you had to pick to get a dollar. The bag would be 25 feet long, and you had to fill it up. Then you’d get maybe 50 cents. It was a learning experience for me, but I saw people out there with their families trying to make money for their livelihoods. It was unreal.
The schools were segregated, and the Black school had leaky ceilings. When it would rain, the kids would have to run around and put buckets all over the place. And we had to wash the windows in the school. They also didn’t have a science lab at the Black school; they had none of the stuff that the white school had. In downtown Prescott, there were the signs on the water faucets, “colored” on one side and “white” on the other side. Me and my friends would go downtown and drink on the white side and then run away to make the townspeople mad. At the movie theaters, we couldn’t go in the front door. We had to go to the back and up these stairs to the balcony. It was the same thing in restaurants, you couldn’t go to the front door. You had to go pick up your food on the side. I couldn’t believe it.
Oh my goodness, it was such a different place than Oakland, California. I went back to Prescott for the seventh grade and the 10th grade, so I experienced elementary, junior high and high school there. I love it there. I love the people. I love the smell of the place and the whole country vibe. I have to get back there soon.
Collectors Weekly: Were you involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a teenager in the ’60s?
Pointer: Just after high school, I remember carrying my baby daughter, Jada, around and catching buses to rallies in San Francisco. We traveled to the first Black Power and Arts Conference in L.A. and did an African fashion show, modeling African dresses, hats and head ties. This was 1967, and people in Oakland were trying to get to Lowndes County, Alabama, to support the black people there who were trying to exercise their right to vote.
My brother Fritz Pointer had gone away to college and majored in African studies, sociology and theology. He came back to Oakland with all this information about politics, race and religion, so he started a free student study group. If you wanted to come and didn’t have a way, he’d pick you up. In these free classes, he taught me more about Black history than I ever learned in the school, hoo! Going to school in Oakland, the only things we ever heard were that Black people picked cotton and that one guy, George Washington Carver, invented peanut butter. That was it! I was like, “Come on, this is cold-blooded. You won’t even give us our history!” [Laughs.]
We would also go to civil-rights meetings, which is where I met Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Muhammad Ali even came and spoke to our group. Those were some courageous times for us because we were young and invincible. Both Black and white kids were a part of the movement. We were all good friends with Black Panther Party leaders Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. We were with Huey the night he got shot by the cops; he was leaving the student study group we were having at our cultural center. We all rushed to the hospital. The police had shot him and put him under arrest in his hospital bed. And, Lord have mercy, we got out there trying to protest, shouting, “Free Huey!” The cops came out with shotguns and dogs and told us, “Everybody, disperse!” We started running because those Oakland police will shoot you. They don’t care. If you don’t move, you’re dead. So we got out of there.
It was tough. It’s still tough. I can’t believe the things that the American system puts people through just because of race. It’s unbelievable. The so-called justice system is just so horribly corrupt, to this day. We’re repeating history. We were out there marching in the ’60s, and racists are still killing Black people today. Young people are marching for freedom now and trying to get the government to take down that stupid Confederate flag. I swear, come on! White people have got to understand that Black people built this country, too. We were here doing all that labor for 400 years with no pay. Why don’t we get a tax break? Why do the corporations get a tax break?
I’m so disgusted with the American system. Maybe that’s why I collect these racist things, because I want to get them off the market. But at the same time, they remind me of who I am, as compared with what the world thinks of me, and that I have to prove them wrong. We’re not buffoons, we’re not stupid, and we’re not just dancing and singing all the time—even though that’s what I do. [Laughs.] But everybody is not like me, OK? My older brother Aaron, he played pro baseball, and then he was an NFL referee for many years. He was also president of his high school class, and he got a scholarship to college. My brother Fritz he was drafted by many basketball teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters. But Fritz didn’t want to go, because he felt that all American society would allow Black men to do at the time is become an athlete. So he chose to be a teacher. And he became a great professor.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me how the Pointer Sisters formed?
Pointer: We started as itty-bitty girls, singing in church as the Little Pointer Sisters. Some of the members didn’t like our singing too much because we’d go get it, jazzing things up. When I was 20 in 1968, I saw Bonnie and June singing with the Northern California State Youth Choir, which was touring with a hit song, “Oh Happy Day” featuring Dorothy Combs Morrison. I went to see them at Fillmore West in San Francisco one night, and I just lost it. I sat in that audience, and I cried, and I sang along. The next day, I quit my job. I said, “I’ve got to sing! I’ve got to do it. Oh my God! I want this so bad!”
I had been working at a law office in Berkeley for maybe a year and a half, and it was good job. But when it hit me at that show how good it felt to sing, I said, “I’ve got to try!” After I joined the choir, it split in two. Edwin Hawkins led one choir, and Betty Watson the other. Since Betty was our friend, we went with her. We rehearsed and rehearsed to go on the road. The day of the trip, the organizers came to my mom’s house and said the tour was canceled. It was a shame because Mom had already gone out and gotten a $300 loan to help pay for the trip. When you have to get a $300 loan, that’s really poor. Mom did what she could for us.
I had this guy friend who thought he knew everything, and he said wanted to introduce me and my younger sisters to some people, producer friends in his hometown of Houston, Texas. He was a car dealer, so he always had fancy cars, and he wanted to drive the three of us to Texas. He said he knew all these music-industry people in Texas who could get us a record deal. But he didn’t have anything together—he was just a big puff of smoke. In Texas, everybody he talked to told us to come back the next day, and when we’d go back, the doors would be locked. It was disgusting. We went to a couple of little nightclubs that let us sing, that’s about it.
This guy got mad at me because we wouldn’t obey him. I said, “I think you’ve got the wrong three girls. Me and my sisters are not your women. We are singers, and we are on our own. We are not what you think we are.” Oh my God, he got mad and put us out, and we didn’t know anybody in Houston. A girl we met in the club the night before, we begged her to let us sleep on her couch. She did, but her house was full of roaches, so we had a horrible time.
Bonnie happened to have a card in her purse from David Rubinson, who ran the Fillmore and Winterland music venues with Bill Graham in San Francisco. I called and told him, “We’ll sing for you forever if you get us home,” and he sent us airplane tickets. As soon as we got back to Oakland, he called us to San Francisco to record backup vocals with a group called Sunbear. Then we recorded with Elvin Bishop and Grace Slick, and we started going on the road with Elvin as his backup singers. We became the go-to backup singers for the San Francisco Bay Area. It was great training because when you’re a backup singer, you get a chance to see what all the people in the background go through. You learn how to treat your people because you’ve been there.
Collectors Weekly: What do you have in your Black memorabilia collection?
Pointer: It encompasses all representations of Black people, from negative to positive. I wish I had focused on one type of thing, but I just bought every piece of Black memorabilia I found. There wasn’t a whole lot of it still out there when I started collecting. I don’t know who got it all—maybe Whoopi Goldberg? I’ve found paper stuff like postcards and advertisements. I have a list of slave auctions. I have ceramics and wooden objects. I have potholders, cookie jars, banks, toys, dolls, aprons, hair combs and hair-grease tins. I have collected Michael Jackson memorabilia, Michael Jordan memorabilia, Muhammad Ali memorabilia, Louis Armstrong “Satchmo” memorabilia and dolls of Flip Wilson. I just collected anything that I saw that was related to the Black experience—and also some Native American objects like kachina dolls.
There are a lot of racist caricatures. I’ve donated an image from a Cream of Wheat advertising campaign to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. It shows a Black man pulling a cart like a mule with a little white boy driving the cart with a whip. It’s just despicable. But this reminds me that everybody don’t love you and that you have to prove them wrong. You’re not a buffoon. The artists tried to depict Black people in an insulting way, but I think big lips and big booties are beautiful. Some of the caricatures look beautiful to me, even if they were meant to be jokes. Now all the white starlets are trying to get that look, filling their lips with injections and getting fake booties. We’ve always had that!
These items serve as a history lesson. When the Civil War ended, white people did not want to praise Black people. They wanted white people to continue to think that Black people were stupid and couldn’t do anything but sing and dance, take care of their kids and work for them for free. That’s the disgusting part. People today have to search their hearts to see if they have any evil feelings toward another race.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think it’s important for people to know this stuff exists?
Pointer: Yes, I really do. My granddaughter, Roxie, never knew about any of this stuff. She was never confronted with a “whites on one side and coloreds on the other side” sign. It’s important to know your history; if you don’t, you’re doomed to repeat it. I don’t ever want people to think this way about my people ever again, because it’s not so. We’re beautiful, and we’re not going around getting kicked in the head by mules like the cast-iron banks depict. It may seem like it’s getting better, but when I saw the news about the mass murder at the church in Charleston, South Carolina—holy shit! How would you know that someone is going to be that evil still in this day? I just couldn’t believe that boy walked into that church and shot all those people. It hurt my heart to see that we’re still going through this shit, when we fought so hard in the ’60s to make people appreciate that we are human and we do matter. [Her voice cracks.] Our racist society can still destroy Black people’s lives—with mass incarceration, bad bank loans, unemployment, so many things—and it makes me cry. It hurts me to see that there are so many evil people in this world still.
I am grateful for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. For many hundreds of years, white supremacists would kill our people with no repercussions. It’s horrible the way people think that they are better than others. I just don’t get it. I wasn’t raised that way.
Photo by Roxie Mckain and Jacinta Dellinger