Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer

Jim Crow haunts a new generation

Detroit Free Press

by Desiree Cooper
Free Press Columnist
February 14, 2006


About the museum

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery at Ferris State University in Big Rapids is a 4,000-piece collection of racist artifacts collected and donated by Ferris State sociology professor David Pilgrim. Although the images are dehumanizing caricatures of African Americans, they are a part of history that still has resonance today.

The museum is used for classes on campus and is not open to individuals, but anyone can take a virtual tour at

Groups can tour the museum, but are encouraged to schedule an appointment at 231-591-5873, or by e-mail to [email protected].

To support the construction of a new facility, send tax-deductible donations to Ferris State University, Development Office, Prakken 101, 420 Oak St., Big Rapids, MI 49307.

Desiree Cooper

When Comedy Central phenom Dave Chappelle walked away from a $50-million contract in May 2005, people wondered if the provocative, African-American comedian was having a nervous breakdown. Days later, he resurfaced in Africa, but he never explained his strange vanishing act until earlier this month on the "Oprah Winfrey Show."

His story was meandering, but one contributing factor was this: He was doing a sketch involving a character in blackface when it elicited an unnerving laugh from a white person on the set. It was then that he sensed something was wrong.

"I was doing sketches that were funny but socially irresponsible," Chappelle told Winfrey. "I felt I was deliberately being encouraged and I was overwhelmed."

That's when I became convinced that he didn't need a therapist so much as a ghost-buster. Chappelle was being haunted by Jim Crow.

No laughing matter

The Jim Crow era was the period of legally enforced segregation that followed Reconstruction and continued until the mid-1960s. During that period, derogatory images of black people saturated popular culture, including the asexual, maternal mammies; gentle, servile Uncle Toms, and simple, childlike coons. The images were found on everything from canned goods to cookie jars.

"Jim Crow images contain a history of humiliation, degradation and separation," said Susan Morris, a humanities professor at Ferris State University. "It's not the kind of thing that you get over -- they show up again and again in modern ads, music and film."

Morris and her colleague, associate sociology professor Anthony Baker, are experts from Ferris State's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Imagery, a collection of more than 4,000 artifacts from the Jim Crow era through today.

On Friday, Morris and Baker spoke to about 75 students gathered by New Detroit Inc. and the University of Michigan-Dearborn for the ninth conversation about race they've sponsored on campus since 2004.

In explaining the topic, "The Ghosts of Jim Crow," Morris made certain to point out that she and Baker are white.

"These images come from the imagination of whites, and it's whites who need to address them," said Morris.

Jim Crow imagery, she added, may have slipped into history, but it has not left our psyche. "There's a real connection between the misrepresentation of African Americans in popular culture and the violence that has been lodged against them, both physical and economic," said Morris.

Baker agreed, noting images of black men as brutes, black women as seductive Jezebels and black children as worthless all surfaced after Reconstruction, when black people went from slavery to freedom.

"The mammies and Uncle Toms made people feel good about slavery," said Baker. "The later images helped justify the violence that was perpetrated against blacks after they were freed."

The picture of prejudice

The images are disturbing: Postcards with naked black infants lined up near a pond and labeled "alligator bait." Cartoons of black women with exaggerated body parts and tiny heads that made them look more like animals than humans. The monstering of black facial features so they were viewed as grotesque and nonhuman.

As horrible as they were, many of the images survive today, many in videos and music produced by black people.

"Never underestimate internalized racism," said Morris. "People can be oppressed, yet continue to express their oppression in their own choices."

The images also continue to be used by white people. Racist images are still put on items like clocks and mouse pads.

About two years ago, a board game called Ghettopoly, developed by a Taiwanese immigrant, allowed players to build crack houses and get carjacked. Game pieces included a machine gun, a basketball and a marijuana leaf. The game stirred an uproar and eventually was dumped by its retailer, Urban Outfitters.

"To this day, images of apes and monkeys are used as a way to depict black people," said Morris. "It's what it will always mean. You can't just dress monkeys up like people and not conjure Jim Crow."

The power of images

Which may explain why black and white people often have a hard time deciphering what is racist and what isn't.

"Whites may not have any intent to hurt anyone when these images surface," said Barbara Kuchmanich, 24, a freshman from Royal Oak who is white. "They don't feel aggressive, so they don't understand it when someone gets defensive. It's very subtle, and we often can't talk about it."

Shauna Gray, 22, a U-M Dearborn senior who is white, added that many images have lost their meaning over time.

"This generation often doesn't see Aunt Jemima syrup as racist," she said. "If you can't see the racism in an image, does it matter?"

It does, according to Morris. "You have to be aware of the history so that you don't unknowingly perpetuate the racism," she said.

Deidra Woods, 53, is an African-American Northville resident and a senior at U-M Dearborn. She said she worried that even if children don't understand the racist history of popular images, they are learning new racist ideas from cartoons.

"In cartoons, it starts with the language of one group as being different than others," said Woods. "It creates an understanding that this is the way the 'others' speak and behave. It's funny at 6, but by the age of 12, you know it's supposed to be black people."

For Baker, that's the key reason for the Jim Crow Museum. "We act as if there's no history -- that we encountered each other yesterday," he said. "But these images are alive, and they creep up on us in an innocent, everyday way."

According to Chappelle, maybe it's not so innocent.

"I would go to work on the show and I felt awful every day," he said. "I felt like some kind of prostitute or something. The hardest thing to do is to be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching."

I'm glad he had the guts to stand up against the specters of Steppin' Fetchit, the contented darkey and the black brute. Maybe because of his actions -- and those of the young people who attended the conference -- people will now realize that after 150 years, Jim Crow has outlived its usefulness.

Contact Desiree Cooper at 313-222-6625 or [email protected].

Copyright © 2005 Detroit Free Press Inc.