Curator Speaks on Lessons Learned
Published: Thursday, October 6, 2005
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 17:05
On September 30, Neilson Browsing Room was full of people there to learn about "Objects and Object Lessons from the Jim Crow Museum." The lecturer was Dr. David Pilgrim (academic, activist and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia), brought to Smith by Professor Nancy Marie Mithlo of the Department of Anthropology in association with her "Anthropology of Museums" class. Dr. Pilgrim began by describing how he came to accept the notion that "every man is my brother." Using a projector screen, he showed the audience an antique postcard featuring a black man being publicly whipped. This image, said Dr. Pilgrim, had once made him so furious that he whole-heartedly rejected the notion of universal brotherhood. However, re-examination of the image, (particularly a white child in the scene, who reminded Dr. Pilgrim of his own son), brought him to believe in the interrelatedness of all people. The postcard was one of many commercial objects he displayed, all of which represent black people as sub-human threats, deserving victims, or both.
Dr. Pilgrim has been collecting these objects since he was a young man. He destroyed the first "Black collectible" he purchased, then decided to keep them. The change occurred when he realized their educational value as evidence of the extent of racism and as prompts for its analysis. Since then he has collected about 4,000 items that "portray blacks as Coons, Toms, . . . Picaninnies, and other dehumanizing racial caricatures" (quoted from www.ferris.edu/jimcrow). According to Dr. Pilgrim, all of these items are still being sold, and most of them are still being produced. Since arriving in Northampton, Dr. Pilgrim said, he had purchased twelve.
These items are featured in the Jim Crow Museum, located at Ferris State, Michigan. Its mission is "to promote racial tolerance by helping people understand the historical and contemporary expressions of intolerance." The museum's pieces are catalogued at www.ferris.edu/jimcrow.
Dr. Pilgrim presented and gave commentary on dozens of objects, ranging from the arguably innocuous to the indisputably vicious. He also referenced online products as examples of the internet "bringing the fringe to the mainstream."
Dr. Pilgrim maintains that propagation of Jim Crow lay less in "Whites Only" signs than in the millions of mundane objects representing blacks as inferior. More than once while presenting a caricature, Dr. Pilgrim asked, "Does this look like someone who should be voting?"
Dr. Pilgrim also referenced mainstream, post-Jim Crow depictions of racial minorities. These are present in strictly modern venues (music videos and video games), as well as in new releases of traditional products (Halloween masks, board games, etc).
Race-based satire was also examined. Dr. Pilgrim complimented some of this genre, while also warning that satirists often reinforce stereotypes by giving the informed humor to an uninformed and/or uncaring public.
Dr. Pilgrim ended his slideshow by contrasting racial caricatures with candid photographs of actual people, mostly his family and friends. This technique is paralleled in plans for a revised museum, in which the final rooms defy caricature with realistic, affirming representation of people of various backgrounds.
Dr. Pilgrim's final message was presented in a quote (reluctantly cited as Ross Perot's): "The activist is not the one who says the river is dirty. The activist cleans the river." He asked his audience to "make new objects, new images," so as to "make the river clean."
The audience was quiet and attentive, many of its members in tears. Says Jessica Netto '07: "I knew images play a huge role in forming institutional racism, but I didn't quite know the extent of how horrible some propaganda was and still is. For example, Milton Bradley used to sell a game called 'Bowling for Niggers.' That's preposterous.