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David Pilgrim

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David Pilgrim is a professor, orator, and human rights activist. He is best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum—a ten-thousand-piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University, which uses objects of intolerance to teach about race, race relations, and racism.

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Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum
Author: David Pilgrim • Foreword by Debby Irving
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-62963-437-1
Published: 11/2017
Format: Paperback
Size: 10x8
Page count: 272
Subjects: History-US / African American Studies
$24.95

All groups tell stories, but some groups have the power to impose their stories on others, to label others, stigmatize others, paint others as undesirables—and to have these stories presented as scientific fact, God's will, or wholesome entertainment. Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors examines the origins and significance of several longstanding antiblack stories and the caricatures and stereotypes that support them. Here readers will find representations of the lazy, childlike Sambo, the watermelon-obsessed pickaninny, the buffoonish minstrel, the subhuman savage, the loyal and contented mammy and Tom, and the menacing, razor-toting coon and brute.

Malcolm X and James Baldwin both refused to eat watermelon in front of white people. They were aware of the jokes and other stories about African Americans stealing watermelons, fighting over watermelons, even being transformed into watermelons. Did racial stories influence the actions of white fraternities and sororities who dressed in blackface and mocked black culture, or employees who hung nooses in their workplaces? What stories did the people who refer to Serena Williams and other dark-skinned athletes as apes or baboons hear? Is it possible that a white South Carolina police officer who shot a fleeing black man had never heard stories about scary black men with straight razors or other weapons? Antiblack stories still matter.

Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors uses images from the Jim Crow Museum, the nation's largest publicly accessible collection of racist objects. These images are evidence of the social injustice that Martin Luther King Jr. referred to as "a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be exposed to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” Each chapter concludes with a story from the author's journey, challenging the integrity of racial narratives.

Praise:

"As the title implies, the book isn’t merely an exercise in shock value. It lays out the philosophy behind Pilgrim’s work as a scholar and an activist: that only by acknowledging these artifacts and their persistence in American culture can we honestly confront our not-so-distant past.”
—Dave Gilson, Mother Jones on Understanding Jim Crow

"Undergirding David Pilgrim’s effort is his powerful belief that we, as a society, heal better when we stare down the evils that have walked among us, together.”
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

“This heavily illustrated book is a memoir of the author’s decades-long drive to collect racist books, illustrations, and knickknacks in order to help Americans confront, understand, and move past racism.”
—Jan Gardner, Boston Globe, on Understanding Jim Crow

“It is Pilgrim’s thoughtful and passionately told story that makes the book more than just another, albeit unique, history of U.S. racism.”
—Bill Berkowitz, truth-out.org, on Understanding Jim Crow

“An amazing, wonderful, and important book whose objects and images may offend some readers. Highly recommended for all public and academic levels/libraries.”
—F.W. Gleach, CHOICE, on Understanding Jim Crow

“This is a horrifying but important book that should be widely read to gain an accurate view of the long history of racism in the U.S.”
—Barbara H. Chasin, Socialism and Democracy, on Understanding Jim Crow

“This book allows us to see, even feel the racism of just a generation or two ago—and Pilgrim shows that elements of it continue, even today. See it! Read it! Feel it! Then help us all transcend it!”
—James W Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me

“To justify the exclusion of and violence toward African Americans after the Civil War, pop culture churned out objects, images, songs, and stories designed to reinforce widespread beliefs about white supremacy and black inferiority. Pilgrim has pulled together examples of such so-called black memorabilia, and he clearly explains the meaning and purpose behind them.”
—Lisa Hix, Collectors Weekly, on Understanding Jim Crow

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Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice
Author: David Pilgrim • Foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Publisher: PM Press
ISBN: 978-1-62963-114-1
Published: 12/2015
Format: Paperback
Size: 8x10
Page count: 208
Subjects: History-US/African American Studies
$21.95

For many people, especially those who came of age after landmark civil rights legislation was passed, it is difficult to understand what it was like to be an African American living under Jim Crow segregation in the United States. Most young Americans have little or no knowledge about restrictive covenants, literacy tests, poll taxes, lynchings, and other oppressive features of the Jim Crow racial hierarchy. Even those who have some familiarity with the period may initially view racist segregation and injustices as mere relics of a distant, shameful past. A proper understanding of race relations in this country must include a solid knowledge of Jim Crow—how it emerged, what it was like, how it ended, and its impact on the culture.

Understanding Jim Crow introduces readers to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a collection of more than ten thousand contemptible collectibles that are used to engage visitors in intense and intelligent discussions about race, race relations, and racism. The items are offensive. They were meant to be offensive. The items in the Jim Crow Museum served to dehumanize blacks and legitimized patterns of prejudice, discrimination, and segregation.

Using racist objects as teaching tools seems counterintuitive—and, quite frankly, needlessly risky. Many Americans are already apprehensive discussing race relations, especially in settings where their ideas are challenged. The museum and this book exist to help overcome our collective trepidation and reluctance to talk about race.

Fully illustrated, and with context provided by the museum’s founder and director David Pilgrim, Understanding Jim Crow is both a grisly tour through America’s past and an auspicious starting point for racial understanding and healing.

Praise:

For decades the author has been on a Pilgrimage to bring out from our dank closets the racial skeletons of our past. His is a crucial mission, because he forces us to realize that race relations grew worse in the first several decades of the twentieth century— something many Americans never knew or now want to suppress. This book allows us to see, even feel the racism of just a generation or two ago—and Pilgrim shows that elements of it continue, even today. See it! Read it! Feel it! Then help us all transcend it!”
—James W. Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me and coeditor of The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader

“One of the most important contributions to the study of American history that I have ever experienced.”
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African American Research

“This was a horrific time in our history, but it needs to be taught and seen and heard. This is very well done, very well done.”
—Malaak Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz

“The museum’s contents are only a small part of the damaging effects of the Jim Crow laws that were found all across America, including bright and sunny California. This history is not only an important part of understanding where America was but, in an age of states making it harder and harder for citizens to vote, it is relevant to note that we have been here before.”
—Henry Rollins, host of the History Channel’s 10 Things You Don’t Know About

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Latest Blog Entries

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Interviews & Mentions


water

Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors - An Interview with David Pilgrim
By Zach Roberts
Visu.News
November 1st, 2017

PThe rise of white supremacy after Trump was never originally intended to be something that Visu.News considered one of the pillars of our coverage – but after Charlottesville that all changed. That’s why when I came across this kickstarter project from PM Press and David Pilgrim, I reached out to them for an interview.

Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum is a  272-page, full-color book that confronts and tells the stories that make up American history’s racism. It’s appropriate that the man writing this book is David Pilgrim, he’s the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. He also previously wrote the book, Understanding Jim Crow.

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water

Challenge Racist Narratives with Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors
By David Pilgrim
BoingBoing
October 25th, 2017

Pre-order Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors through Kickstarter to help cover the expensive printing costs of this 272-page, full-color, story-based book and increase accessibility by charging an affordable list price. Donations are tax deductible. Books will ship before the holidays. Check out the Kickstarter HERE.

I spent more than three decades collecting Ku Klux Klan robes, segregation signs, and thousands—literally thousands—of everyday objects that depicted African Americans as obedient servants, childlike buffoons, exotic savages, hypersexual deviants, and, most consequentially, menacing predators. I collected these objects because I believed—no, I knew—that objects, even hateful ones, could be used as teaching tools. In the mid-1990s, I donated the objects to Ferris State University; later, I used the collection to found the Jim Crow Museum. Today the Jim Crow Museum is the nation’s largest collection of publicly accessible racist objects in the United States. Our tagline doubles as our vision: “using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice.”


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understanding

Remembering Jim Crow in the Age of Trump: An Analysis of the Rhetorical Functions of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
By Christopher A. House
Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric
Volume 7, Issue 1

The first one hundred days of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, controversial policies and executive orders sparked national protests and dialogue on race, racism and institutional racism. It has also stimulated conversation on the role and place of racist iconography and artifacts in the nation at a time when racial attacks and tensions are mounting. Using the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (JCM) at Ferris State University as a case-study, this paper analyzes one way that racist images and artifacts are being used to create a more honest record of public memory that centers matters of race and culture within broader American cultural and historical memory of the Jim Crow period and in creating rhetorical spaces of dialogue that inspire social change. JCM is examined here as a counter-museum and open resource to the public that encourages visitor participation and dialogic analysis through a moral lens that challenges dominant discourses from the Trump administration and sites of public memory that employ either symbolic annihilation or trivialization/deflection as their main rhetorical strategies in depicting the legacy of America’s racial past. Key Words: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, African Americans, racist artifacts, Donald Trump, David Pilgrim, rubbish theory, Repetition and difference theory.

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understanding

An Interview with Dr. David Pilgrim
By Megan Hayes
Appalachian Magazine
April 10th, 2017

"Dr. David Pilgrim is a public speaker and leading expert on issues relating to multiculturalism, diversity and race relations. Pilgrim, a Ferris State University distinguished teacher who holds a PhD from the Ohio State University, is an applied sociologist who believes racism can be objectively studied and creatively assailed. He is perhaps best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum, a 5,000-piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University that uses objects of intolerance to teach tolerance."

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understanding

Understanding Jim Crow: A Review
By P. Nicole King
Journal of Southern History
Volume 83, Number 1,
February 2017

"...The book is organized, clear, and engaging, with many high-quality color images from the museum’s collection, making it an important and affordable book for teaching the history of racism and aspects of social justice to undergraduate students in many fields."

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understanding

Understanding Jim Crow: A Review
By Barbara H. Chasin
Socialism and Democracy
October 21st, 2016

This is a horrifying but important book that should be widely read to gain an accurate view of the long history of racism in the US. The Museum challenges its visitors to ask what they can do to fight racism. There is a “Death of de jure Jim Crow” area paying tribute to the “wonderful accomplishments” and heroism of many African Americans. These must be a welcome relief from the “mammies,” “coons,” and “Sambos” the exhibit-goer will have been bombarded with.

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understanding

Racist Objects: A Painful Past Still Present
By Logan Jaffe
New York Times
October 6th, 2016

But aren’t you just stirring up more racism and hate?

We know this is a difficult and painful subject. If you use these objects to promote hate, this project is not for you. Our intention is not to promote or champion the existence of these objects. Our goal is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to facilitate honest, meaningful discussions about race and prejudice.

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understanding

Racist Memorabilia Teaches Awareness at Jim Crow Museum
By Konnie LeMay
Indian Country Today

10/8/16

Dr. David Pilgrim is the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. Pilgrim, who has collected racially-charged items most of his adult life, believes cartoon and stereotypical  images of Aunt Jemima, Jim Crow, Chief Wahoo and the Redskins all rob the dignity and identity of the races portrayed.

Though Pilgrim uses the items as teaching tools, he admits his disgust for the objects and a relief in moving them to the museum in 2012. “I hated my collection most of my life. I hated having it in my home and I was glad to get it out of my home.”

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understanding

Understanding Jim Crow: A Reviewl
By F.W. Bleach
CHOICE
June 2016


Sociologist Pilgrim (Ferris State Univ.) takes on some of the most potentially offensive objects from US history in order to, as the subtitle indicates, "teach tolerance and promote social justice."  Richly illustrated in full color, this is not a book that most people would want to leave lying around for acquaintances to stumble across.  The objects, from the collections of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia assembled by Pilgrim at Ferris State University, were produced over the past 150 years to appeal to racist attitudes, and thus depict African Americans in grotesquely stereotypical ways.  But Pilgrim's narrative takes these objects and the histories behind them as things to be remembered and learned from.  He draws on lived experience and social theory, but whether writing about "Visual Thinking Strategies" (a pedagogical tool), the auction of a Klan robe, the history of Jim Crow, or the stereotypes themselves (like "flawed women" and "dangerous men"), the writing is conversational and straightforward.  Pilgrim draws the reader along in considering these difficult objects and histories with as little inflammation as possible.  An amazing, wonderful, and important book whose objects and images may offend some readers.

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understanding

Understanding Jim Crow: A Reviewl
Foreword Reviews
Spring 2016

Jim Crow was more than a series of “Whites Only” sings. It was a way of life that approximated a racial caste system. Jim Crow laws and etiquette were aided by millions of material objects that portrayed blacks as laughable, detestable inferiors. The coon caricature, for example, described black men as lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, physically ugly idiots. This distorted representation of black men found its way onto postcards, sheet music, children’s games, and many other material objects. The coon and other stereotypical images buttressed the view that blacks were unfit to attend racially integrated schools, live in safe neighborhoods, work in responsible jobs, vote, and hold public office. With little effort I can hear the voices of my black elders—parents, neighbors, teachers—demanding, almost pleading, “Don’t be a coon, be a man.” Living under Jim Crow meant battling shame.

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understanding

These Racist Collectibles Will Make Your Skin Crawl
By Dave Gilson
Mother Jones Magazine
March/April 2016

DAVID PILGRIM bought his first piece of racist memorabilia in the early 1970s, when he was a youngster in Mobile, Alabama. It was a set of salt and pepper shakers meant to caricature African Americans. "I purchased it and broke it" on purpose, recalls Pilgrim, who is black. Yet over the next few decades, he amassed a sizable collection of what he calls "contemptible collectibles"—once-common household objects and products that mock and stereotype black people.

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understandingWhat good can come of racist memorabilia?
Q (CBC)
February 5th, 2016

David Pilgrim bought his first racist artifact when he was 12, and swiftly broke it in front of the vendor. But now the professor, museum founder and self-described "garbage collector" thinks there's a better way to destroy bigotry.
His Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia features roughly fourteen thousand items — selected both for how shockingly racist and ordinary they are. Postcards, magazine ads, collector plates, and even cocktail mixers showcase America's deep-seated racism under segregation.

Today Pilgrim joins guest host Gill Deacon to discuss the power of displaying racist objects as a group, why people struggle with how contemporary they are, and how he's using the "contemptible collectibles" to promote social justice.
His new book about the project is called Understanding Jim Crow

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understandingDr. David Pilgrim on Understanding Jim Crow
By Marc Steiner
The Marc Steiner Show
February 4th, 2016

We have a conversation with Dr. David Pilgrim. He is a professor, orator, and human rights activist best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum — a ten-thousand-piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University, which uses objects of intolerance to teach about race, race relations, and racism.We speak to him about his book Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice.

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understandingUsing Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance
By Bill Berkowitz
Truthout
January 9th, 2016

Understanding Jim Crow contains images of racist book covers, cereal and soapboxes, dishes, endless sets of postcards, greeting cards, records, minstrel joke books and sheet music, and other examples of racist memorabilia. However, it is Pilgrim's thoughtful and passionately told story that makes the book more than just another, albeit unique, history of US racism. Essentially, the book is about Pilgrim's dedication to turning garbage collecting into tools for teaching about racism.
As a graduate student at Ohio State University, Pilgrim started buying items he could afford, paying a couple of bucks for "a postcard that showed a terrified black man being eaten by an alligator," and "for a matchbook that showed a Sambo-like character with oversized genitalia." By the time he joined the sociology faculty at Ferris State University, his collection - still housed at his home - contained more than a thousand items, some of which he brought to public appearances, mainly at local high schools.

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understandingDiscovery: "Understanding Jim Crow" by David Pilgrim
By Jan Gardner
Boston Globe
December 5th, 2015

“I am a garbage collector — racist garbage” are David Pilgrim’s opening words in Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice (PM). This heavily illustrated book is a memoir of his decades-long drive to collect racist books, illustrations, and knickknacks in order to help Americans confront, understand, and move past racism. Pilgrim’s collection is the foundation of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., where he is a sociology professor. In one chilling chapter, he describes the mixed emotions he felt as he bid at an auction on a Ku Klux Klan robe.

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understanding“President Obama has been a cottage industry for racist imagery and racist memorabilia”: Why understanding the history of Jim Crow is still essential
By Scott Timberg
Salon.com
November 19th, 2015

The language and images are hard to take – a black man with enormous lips eating a watermelon. Black women in exaggerated sexual poses. Broken English and racial slurs. They’re all important parts of “Understanding Jim Crow,” a new book subtitled “Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice.” Whether the book inspires tolerance or social justice, it certainly makes the existence of virulent racism hard to deny.

The book’s author, professor and activist David Pilgrim, began collecting racist items as a child, and now presents them at the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan.

“There was nothing understated about Jim Crow during that long, blistering century between the end of Reconstruction and the seminal legal victories of the American civil rights movement,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the book’s foreword. “Racist imagery essentializing blacks as inferior beings was as exaggerated as it was ubiquitous. The onslaught was constant.”

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understandingHow America Bought and Sold Racism, and Why It Still Matters
By Lisa Hix
Collectors Weekly
November 10th, 2015

"Today, very few white Americans openly celebrate the horrors of black enslavement—most refuse to recognize the brutal nature of the institution or actively seek to distance themselves from it. “The modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages,” writes Dr. David Pilgrim, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and a sociology professor at Ferris State University and the author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, who has spent his life studying the artifacts that have perpetuated racist stereotypes..."

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written and read by David Pilgrim


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