New Racism Museum Reveals the Ugly Truth Behind Aunt Jemima
David Pilgrim was 12 years old when he bought his first racist object at a flea market: a saltshaker in the shape of a mammy. As a young black boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he’d seen similar knick-knacks in the homes of friends and neighbors, and he instinctively hated them. As soon as he handed over his money, he threw his purchase to the ground and shattered it into pieces.
Pilgrim’s story brings to mind the young biblical Abraham, smashing idols in his father’s shop. But that mammy was the only racist icon Pilgrim ever destroyed. Today he owns thousands of them: cereal boxes, statuettes, whites-only signs, and postcards of black men being whipped and hung. The public will soon be able to see his entire collection and more at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which opens April 26 at Ferris University in Michigan where Pilgrim spent years as a sociology professor.
The museum is divided into sections, each reflecting a different distorted vision of black people in America. One features Uncle Toms: cheerful, servile black men like Uncle Ben or the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Another showcases “brutes”: muscular ogres who lurk in dark alleys and ravish white women. Most of the objects predate civil rights, but there’s a section devoted to modern racism: It includes dozens of caricatures of President Barack Obama as a monkey, a terrorist, and a watermelon-eating “coon.”
I’ve nothing against such a museum - on the contrary, I think it’s a great idea. However, I will use this as an opportunity to vent. I also am not sure “race” exists, but will use this word for lack of anything better.
One problem with racism, when it existed as long as it did, is that it poisons interracial relations (whatever one might mean / understand by “race”) to the point where you can no longer make any statement about “race” or the past without offending someone. People of all races are so confused about what they are allowed to say that some, such as Charles Murray or the producers of Girls, may choose to exclude one “race” altogether rather than go into the fog of [race] war.
Take “Aunt Jemima” maple syrup, for instance. I never bought it because it’s not natural (at least the one whose label I looked at), but should I have to explain I’m not racist for not buying it to a black person who looks at me passing it disapprovingly on the produce isle?
Why should every representation of blackness or black culture be so politically charged? It is so difficult to fully vet something for potential racist overtones that most people who create something prefer to simply exclude anything black-related from their creation, dreading potential RFCs and long-winded apologies. I suspect this is partly what has happened with Girls:
Sometimes when someone says something racist, it’s an accident — that’s what happens in The Human Stain — but other times, upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the person knew what she was saying. Lesley Arfin, a writer for HBO’s Girls, responded to criticism that the show doesn’t have any non-white main characters by tweeting on Monday, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” She deleted the tweet Wednesday night, and apologized — “Without thinking, I put gender politics above race and class. That was careless. The last thing I want is girls vs girls” — and then deleted the apology. (Perhaps because there do not appear to be any gender politics involved in her original response.) But there are some other weird racial quips Arfin’s written that haven’t been erased, and they highlight the creepy strain of “ironic” racism among the crowd she is a part of. Racism is cool if a young urbanite is doing it ironically, right?
Well, no. On Arfin’s website, she’s posted a guide to being a groupie on tour titled, “The Groupie Chronicles 3: When the Shit Hits the Fan.” It’s about to deal with the unpleasant physical realities of being a girl on the road, like getting your period. The fourth section is about defecating, a topic Arfin introduces like this: “That Which Shall Not Be Named: You know, ‘dropping off the kids’ or ‘taking Obama to the White House.’” Get it? That is “funny” because the president has brown skin, and brown is the color of feces.
(I can think of some answers to my Q, but this situation still infuriates me.)
What happens is that people caught in the headlights of an accusation of racism overthink their statements so much that they lose contact with reality. Anything can be interpreted as being racist so they either shut down or get caught in a neverending cycle of posting a reply, then deleting it.
I have a pet theory / solution, but it will take a while to explain :(