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Viewpoint on "Hateful Things" Exhibit

***The staff of the Jim Crow Museum receives dozens of letters and emails. Some of these communiques offer insight into race relations -- historically and in the present. While some are hateful, we have decided to share some of these letters and emails with our Internet visitors.***

My name is Teresa and I recently visited the "Hateful Things" exhibit at the Muskegon County Museum with my oldest son, who is 10. Thank you for sharing part of your collection with our community. I am enclosing a letter that I sent to my school, and also to the museum, to share my experience with you.

Keep on, keeping on.

Hello Lincoln Park Teachers,

I just wanted you to know my viewpoint of the "Hateful Things" exhibit at the Muskegon County museum (field trip Tuesday, 10/30).

I've always considered myself to know a thing or two about racism, and African American history. As a child, my parents raised me to know my heritage. When "Roots" and "Eyes on the Prize" came on TV, I was made to watch it, and we would discuss what we saw. It was through tears and anger, but it was still a good learning experience. I've also been through the Institute for Healing Racism workshop, which is quite worthwhile.

But I was not prepared for the exhibit.

On Tuesday, I saw the "Hateful Things" exhibit as a woman who has seen and experienced her fair share of racism. But I also saw it as a mother. The way the women and children were depicted was especially hurtful, and when I saw the children's eyes -- and especially my own little boy's -- wide eyes looking at the wretched displays of mockery and savagery, it was more than I could take. I had to leave the exhibit and gather myself in the hall, and Marcus followed. There, with his head on my shoulder, we wept together. It is one thing to try to teach your child about racism, but quite another when you're staring it in the face. We had a good talk.

The children were all given assignments to write what they observed. At one point, he told me quietly that he did not want to return to the exhibit. I told him he didn't have to, that maybe we could get the teacher's permission to come back later and finish it when less people were around, or we could go back in together. A few minutes later, he chose the latter.

The children went from be-bopping through the Michigan natural history displays downstairs to somber and quiet in the exhibit. I am glad that they did not make light of the things that were shown. I don't think I would have been able to take it if they had. I give credit to the teachers for preparing the children well.

In the hall, a couple people walked by us and I could tell they wanted to talk to us, to say something, ANYTHING, to make us feel better, but they didn't. It was awkward. Then a little girl from our group reached out to us. Twice. The first time, she said softly, "You know, it's not like that anymore...That is some stupid stuff." Then a few minutes later, as we looked at photos of lynchings, she said, "My family has never done anything like that to anyone."

I'm not sure if she was trying to reassure us, or herself. But it was so precious that she tried to make us feel better. I wish I knew who she was.

I am grateful for the experience because it was a true learning experience. I told Marcus that as ugly as it is, it is part of our history. It's important to see it for what it is, even though it is painful. Most importantly, I am so glad I was with him when he saw it, not to baby or coddle him, but to let him know, "I am here, I feel it, too. I understand."

I know that racism is an extremely sensitive subject, and I think that many schools, organizations and companies don't want to touch it with a 10-foot pole for fear of a backlash.

I commend Lincoln Park and the teachers involved that day for taking the group of students to see the "Hateful Things" exhibit. It could not have been an easy decision. (I have also noticed other areas where diversity is emphasized in the curriculum with books and required readings, which I'm also grateful for.)

I plan to write letters to the museum and also the man who holds this collection, because it is hard to look at, but definitely worthwhile.

Thank you,

Teresa Taylor Williams
Muskegon, Michigan
-- November 6, 2007