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Race, Race Relations, and Racism: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum

February 24, 2010

On Tuesday, as part of the Race & Ethnicity conference at GRCC, David Pilgrim with the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University spoke to an audience of 75 people about racism in the US.

Dr. Pilgrim talks about racism by using the artifacts that they have at the Jim Crow Museum. The museum consists of objects and historical examples of media that promote racism and White Supremacy.

The first example he shows the audience is an ad by General Electric selling a stove using a black boy with a piece of chicken in his hand. Another example is a small bank with a black image and the words Greedy Nigger Boy. An additional example was a still picture from the Bugs Bunny cartoon, where a Black man is shown in the cartoon with stereotypical features, particularly disproportionately large lips.

The museum, Dr. Pilgrim said, uses these tactics in order to get people to honestly talk about race and racism. He encourages people to go to ebay or other online auction sites and enter race-baiting terms and you will find that there are a tremendous amount of items for sale. Many of the items being sold use both old and contemporary racist images. He gives the example of a t-shirt that came out on CafePress as a result of the Don Imus statement directed at the Rutgers women’s basketball team. I went to CafePress and typed in Nappy Headed Ho and there were pages of items for sale.

Another example that Dr. Pilgrim gave was from when Obama was Senator and he called a news reporter sweetie, which led to items online calling Obama a pimp. The speaker then went on to ask how many people in the audience have been to a Pimp & Ho Party? Lots of people raised their hands. Then he asked, from whom did people learn pimp behavior from? One person yelled out Snoop Doggy Dogg. Dr. Pilgrim said that most of us have a clear association with the word pimp to that of a Black man.

Sticking to the discussion about racist representation as it relates to President Obama, Dr.Pilgrim say that some of the criticism of Obama is often framed in racialized language. He gives a list of anti-Black male caricatures over the past 200 years that are still used today, such as Tom, Brute, Sambo, Buck, Coon, Savage, Nat and Magic Negro. He then talks about how these caricatures are manifested today – in the news, movies, video games and music videos.

He then looks at examples of images using President Obama that continue these caricatures. One has Obama shining Sarah Palin’s shoes. He also shows a Tea Party sign of Obama bowing to the Saudi King sucking his jewels. In another image Obama was presented as a buffoon. A website called Chimpout.com has Obama as a thug.

Other examples with the President are a cartoon of Obama eating chicken, which is an image in the film Birth of a Nation. One image was a poster a woman had that said, “The Zoo has an African and the White House has a Lyin’ African.” Another sign Dr. Pilgrim shows the audience says, “Obama’s Plan = White Slavery.” This fits in with what Glen Beck said on his TV show last year, which was that Obama has a deep-seated hatred of White people and White culture.

The same kind of analysis was presented about traditional Anti-Black female caricatures like Mammy and Aunt Jemima. Dr. Pilgrim then looked at these caricatures as it relates to Michele Obama. One example was a T-shirt comparing Cindy McCain and Michele Obama, called Beauty and the Beast. There was another image of the First Lady as a Hoochee-Mama. Another image was a tote bag you could buy with a picture of Michele Obama and the phrase, “We’re planting melons in the White House garden.” In fact, Dr. Pilgrim said if you Google Michele Obama the first image was of Michele as a chimp.

At this point Dr. Pilgrim asks the audience if they thought that since the election of President Obama has the country moved into a post-racial society. His response to the question was to tell a story about a recent visit he had to a gun show at the Deltaplex in Grand Rapids. He asked one vendor if he could buy the most popular paper shooting target the guy sold. The man showed him this one called the “Official Running Nigger target.”

At the very end of his talk, Dr. Pilgrim stressed that these kinds of racist images were “not only a black thing.” He showed the audience a Halloween costume called Kung Fool that was sold at WalMart. He also had an image of Hillary Clinton as a man, standing at a men’s urinal. Then there was a whole series of Anti-immigrant images. Dr. Pilgrim even said there is a Border Patrol video game where Mexicans are presented as violent nationalists, drug smugglers and breeders.

By way of concluding, Dr. Pilgrim just wanted to reiterate that the purpose of looking at these images and the purpose of the Jim Crow Museum was to try to get Americans to have open and honest discussion about how pervasive racism still is in this country.

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