Sunday, December 30, 2007

Thoughts on racism (part 5)

[To read the entire series, click on "racism" on the sidebar under "POSTS BY CATEGORIES".]

I had no idea. No idea whatsoever. This was such a painful read for me, taken from "The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects" (written about the Jim Crow Museum)

A thick naiveté about America's past permeates this country. Many Americans understand historical racism mainly as a general abstraction: Racism existed; it was bad, though probably not as bad as blacks and other minorities claim. A confrontation with the visual evidence of racism -- especially thousands of items in a small room -- is frequently shocking, even painful. In the late 1800s traveling carnivals and amusement parks sometimes included a game called "Hit the Coon." A black man would stick his head through a hole in a painted canvas; the background was a plantation scene. White patrons would throw balls -- and in especially brutal instances, rocks -- at the black man's head to win prizes. A person living in the 21st century who sees that banner or a reproduction gets a glimpse of what it was like to be a black man in the early years of Jim Crow.

And then this:

Near that time, I took a colleague's students into the Jim Crow Museum. I showed them the ugliness, the Mammy, the Sambo, the Brute, the caricatured sores foisted on black Americans. I showed them. Showed it all. And we went deep, deeper than ever before, deeper than I meant to go. My anger showed. After three hours they left, all but two -- a young black woman and a middle-aged white man. The woman sat, paralyzed, transfixed, and stunned before a picture of four naked black children. The children sat on a riverbank. At the bottom of the picture were these words: "Alligator Bait." She sat there, watching it, trying to understand the hand that had made it, the mind that conceived it. She did not say a word, but her eyes, her frown, the hand at her forehead all said, "Why, sweet Jesus, why?" The white man stopped staring at the items and stared at me. He was crying. Not a sob, a single tear stream. His tears moved me. I walked toward him. Before I could talk, he said, "I am sorry, Mr. Pilgrim. Please forgive me."

He had not created the racist objects in the room, but he had benefited from living in a society where blacks were oppressed. Racial healing follows sincere contrition. I never realized how much I needed to hear some white person, any sincere white person, say, "I am sorry, forgive me." I wanted and needed an apology -- a heartfelt one that changes two lives. His words took the steam out of my anger. [emphasis mine]

May we all be sincerely contrite...God forgive me...God forgive us all.


The 21st century has brought a fear and unwillingness to look at racism in a deep, systematic manner. The hedonistic desire to avoid pain (or anything uncomfortable) is counter to our method of directly confronting the ugly legacy of racism. Moreover, there is a growing desire among many Americans to forget the past and move forward. "If we just stop talking about historical racism, racism will go away." It is not that easy. We may not talk openly about race, but that is not forgetting it. America remains a nation residentially segregated by race. Our churches, temples, and synagogues are, in the main, racially divided. Old patterns of racial segregation have returned to many public schools. Race matters. Racial stereotypes, sometimes yelled, sometimes whispered, are common. Overt racism has morphed into institutional racism, symbolic racism, and everyday racialism. Attitudes and beliefs about race inform many of our decisions, big and small. "Let's stop talking about it," is a plea for comfort -- a comfort denied to blacks and other minorities. The way to move forward is to confront the historical and the contemporary expressions of racism, and to do so in a setting where attitudes, values, and behaviors are critiqued.

Lest we think these racist attitudes have all died:

In the early 1990s I attended an academic conference in New Orleans. I searched local stores for racist objects. There were not many. Ten years later I returned to New Orleans. I found anti-black objects in many stores. This is disappointing but not surprising. Brutally racist items are readily available through Internet auction houses, most notably, eBay. Indeed, practically every item housed in the Jim Crow Museum is being sold on some Internet site. Old racist items are being reproduced and new items are being created.


I will end with a story. One of my daughters plays on an elite soccer team, meaning her practices are never done on time. One day I sat in the van with my other daughter waiting for practice to end. Nearby several white boys were clowning in front of two girls. They were all teenagers. One of the boys wore a blackfaced mask and he mocked the mannerisms of "street blacks." He turned toward us and I immediately looked at my daughter. She had lowered her head and covered her face. If you have a child then you know what I felt. If your skin is dark then you know why I do what I do.

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