Archive for Sunday, April 25, 2004

Museum features works reflecting racial stereotypes

April 25, 2004


— It all started for David Pilgrim with the "mammy" salt shaker.

It was toward the end of the Civil Rights era in the early 1970s. Pilgrim, now a 45-year-old sociology professor at Ferris State University, was about 13 when he came across the dispenser at a flea market in his native Alabama.

For years in the United States, particularly in the South, it was common to find salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars and other kitchen and household items made to resemble a "mammy" -- a stereotypical image of a black heavyset, kerchief- and apron-wearing housekeeper and nurse maid.

Pilgrim doesn't remember his exact frame of mind when he impulsively bought the salt shaker. But he vividly remembers what he ended up doing with it: He smashed it to pieces.

He took much better care of the 4,000 or so other related items he acquired over the years in the name of education. All are now housed at Ferris State's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which Pilgrim has helped put together in the past seven years. (The term "Jim Crow" originated with a character created in black face by a white performer named Daddy Rice in the early 1800s. It later was used as a stereotypical image of blacks and, by the late 1800s, was associated with racist and segregationist laws.)

The museum's mission is to help people understand historical and contemporary racist expressions and to serve as a resource for civil rights and human rights organizations.

"As you consider how they use these materials, it's a powerful, powerful teaching library in terms of tolerance and understanding for others," David Eisler, Ferris State's president, says.

Pilgrim gave the museum his entire collection of racist figurines, T-shirts, comic books, ash trays, souvenirs, movie posters and other related items. As its curator, he now receives a small budget from the university to expand the collection.

"The same way we use sex to sell items today, we used to use race," Pilgrim says. "A disproportionate number of items in here are advertising pieces or had their origins in advertising."

The room's display cases are filled with startling, offensive anti-black words and images: drawings of watermelon-devouring black children and bug-eyed, ever-grinning grown-ups; black men portrayed in cartoons or photos as either thugs or lazy, inarticulate and easily frightened; women depicted as either mammies or lascivious Jezebels.

There are materials from the Ku Klux Klan, but they aren't given prominence over any other items because the museum focuses on "everyday racist items," said Pilgrim, who considers the museum to be a learning laboratory.

He says he has no problem finding new items to add to the collection at swap meets, art galleries and online auction spots such as eBay. Many of the items are still being made, and being passed off as originals, by companies and individuals.

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