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Jim Crow is alive and well

Racist objects still being made today, curator says

Monday, January 16, 2006
News Staff Reporters

Visitors came to Howell from throughout Livingston and Washtenaw counties Sunday for a lesson in racial stereotyping from an exhibit called "Hateful Things.'' The 39-piece exhibit, which runs all week at the Howell Opera House, is part of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery from Ferris State University.

Lee Reeves, vice president of the sponsoring Livingston 2001 Diversity Council, said the exhibit is an important part of the group's mission to "provide education experience to our residents about other cultures.''

"Our aim is for all visitors to see the racial stereotypes Dr. King fought against,'' Reeves said during a preview for news media and others. "By putting this into the context of information, we learn how bigotry, intolerance and hatred has been advanced and people dehumanized.''

Mariah Martin, a 13-year-old from Fowlerville who came to see the exhibit Sunday afternoon said she was upset by what she saw.

"It's sad that this stuff actually happened. It's horrible. We've been learning about it in school. It makes me think about what I say to people.''

Grace and Alex Washington, a black couple from Brighton who grew up in Arkansas, said they found the exhibit educational.

"A lot of our children don't know the history, and by not knowing history, don't understand the present or the future,'' said Grace Washington.

The exhibit in Howell includes such items as Aunt Jemima advertisements for pancakes and "Rastus,'' the smiling chef on the Cream of Wheat box; signs, like "white only'' used during segregation in America, a print of 10 naked black children with the caption "alligator bait'' and underneath a letter opener in the shape of an alligator both portraying black children as food for animals; and various distorted and exaggerated caricatures of black Americans.

While many of the pieces reflect the past, David Pilgrim, the museum's founder and curator, said items in the museum "in some form are being made today.'' A check of Internet sites such as eBay and Yahoo shows that "literally thousands of things are being created,'' he said.

The traveling segment of the museum will be displayed throughout Michigan as well as other states, including Florida and Wisconsin, said Kevin B. Miller, interim associate dean of FSU's College of Arts, Sciences and Education.

"We're one of the few institutions that can handle toxic material (the racist objects) because we handle this in a scholarly context,'' Miller said after the exhibit was set up.

The Jim Crow Museum features a collection of more than 4,000 racist items that trace the history of the stereotyping of black Americans. Pilgrim said that for the most part, the exhibit has been well received in communities.

When it comes to people attending the museum, Pilgrim said, the most common response is a "kind of reflective sadness, then from there the questions come.''

"This is a very serious critique of racism,'' said Pilgrim, a sociology professor at Ferris State. "Our goal is to create a place where people can talk about race honestly, though it may be uncomfortable.''

The items, by themselves, may seem demeaning and insulting, but they can be used as ways to further discussions on race. "We must place this in a scholarly context and use it as physical material evidence in race relations,'' Pilgrim said.

It's not that Americans don't talk about race, Pilgrim said, but they don't talk about it in an "open and constructive setting'' where their views can be challenged.

"We know February is Black History Month and we want to teach our kids that it's not right to have negative stereotypes about anybody - people of color and people not as well off,'' said Kevin Kingshott of Green Oak Township as to why he and his wife and two daughters had come to look at the exhibit.

Pilgrim said he is planning to open a new exhibit at FSU in April called "Them: Images of Separatism'' that will feature stereotypes of others who have been oppressed, including women, Polish Americans, Jewish Americans, Asian Americans and Arab Americans.

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