Race/RelatedBy Logan Jaffe
New York Times
October 6th, 2016
The salt and pepper shakers that you see above sat in my grandmother’s kitchen for decades. For much of my life, I saw them as I’d see anything in her home: her wind chimes on the porch; her garden shoes by the door; and those colorful pepper shakers on the kitchen table.
I didn’t think even twice about holding them up to my cheeks in an impromptu selfie photo shoot with my sister over Thanksgiving in 2010.
Now I cringe at that memory. My sister and me, white women, 18 and 21 at the time, smiling, making funny faces and posing with objects that contained significance we did not understand.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see that those salt and pepper shakers were mammies, a racial caricature created to perpetuate the narrative of black women’s servitude to whites.
I didn’t see that in my hands, there was physical proof that, for much of this country’s history, many white people did not simply see black and brown people as inferior; the white world that I come from also created mechanisms and characters – from Jim Crow to Aunt Jemima – to maintain that narrative of inferiority.
When I recounted the experience to Dr. David Pilgrim, the founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, he said many people have their own stories and experiences with racist objects.
More than you’d think.
CONTRIBUTE: If you own or have encountered a racist object, we want to hear from you.
Which is why he considers his museum, which houses about 12,000 objects in a winding hallway of the basement of the Ferris State University library in Big Rapids, Michigan, as much a “storytelling facility” as it is a contextual, educational and painful anti-shrine to the pervasiveness of American racism by way of everyday physical objects.
“Everyone who walks in that door,” he told me when we met at the museum, “they’re not just coming to the objects. They’re bringing themselves and their racial luggage – and in some cases, baggage – to the objects.”
Dr. Pilgrim, who is multiracial but identifies as black, acknowledged that many people feel disgust, pain and outrage when they visit the museum or see these items. He said that’s understandable. Especially for African-Americans – especially now at a time of increased racial tension – the playful portrayals of racism and racist violence often conjure up horrific real-life experiences.
Still, Dr. Pilgrim said, the items have value because they force us to not only confront the ubiquity of racism – from government policy to kitchen tables – but also to talk about the many ways that’s experienced, or not experienced by some of us, often for many years or an entire lifetime.
Objects are also tangible representations of stories. They are one of the many ways that narratives about race and ethnicity are expressed, told and understood.
“These objects were made by everyday Americans making money,” Dr. Pilgrim said. And, he added, they had a purpose: “The millions and millions and millions of everyday objects that belittled African-Americans were made to support the racial hierarchy in the United States.”
Take, for example, the objects Pilgrim’s collected that depict black men as targets. They’re from decades-old carnival games as well as modern-day shooting ranges.
What do they communicate about black men?
“The implication is that they don’t experience pain in the same way,” Dr. Pilgrim said. “Then that justifies physical punishment against them.”
For decades now, at least since the Civil Rights era, there has been an effort by many black families and luminaries (Oprah Winfrey included) to collect these objects, too. But hardly for nostalgia’s sake.
As the late Civil Rights leader and activist Julian Bond wrote in a 1996 collector’s price guide of black memorabilia: “They speak of triumph and overcoming, and inform us that despite what others thought and believed, we were never what these figurines and objects suggest. We see them as sentinels guarding the past, doorkeepers who prevent our ever returning to it, harsh – if even sometimes beautiful – preservers of the history we have overthrown.”
Dr. Pilgrim also stresses that while these blatantly racist objects aren’t as common as they once were, the narratives they embodied still linger, alive.
“I think there’s a narrative that has always existed in this country, and that is the narrative that blacks and whites are just different,” Dr. Pilgrim said. “And not only are they different, but different in ways that one is superior to the other. And that when they share the same space that conflict is inevitable. I think that narrative still exists in this culture. And I think it’s still reflected in our movies, in our books, and in our politics, certainly.”
WATCH: Dr. Pilgrim explains why he studies racist objects.
Of course, many other groups – Native Americans, Asian Americans, Mexican Americans, poor whites, Jews, women and gay people, to name a few – have also been, and continue to be, targets of commodified hate.
But the number of objects that dehumanize African-Americans far outnumber those of any other group; Mammies, Piccaninnies, Sambos, Sapphires, Jezebels, Toms, Coons were an industry.
Today, I’m acknowledging my role in that industry. While I have not personally bought these objects or promoted their ideals, I have benefitted from the comfort of not seeing them at all – of not having to.
I’m bringing my experience with these objects out into the open, shame included, because Dr. Pilgrim has convinced me that they not only carry with them both pain and responsibility, but also that there’s value in talking about them – their origin stories, their significance, and how different people interpret their messages.
Plus, as a mediamaker embedded at the New York Times’ Race/Related in partnership with POV, I’m tasked with creating work that reflects how race is experienced today. And in my mind there’s no good way to do that alone.
So, we’re asking you, Race/Related readers, to help us shape an interactive project about offensive objects.
– Because the way race is experienced today can’t be tackled without a thorough and thoughtful examination of the way it’s been experienced in the past.
– Because I’m not convinced the work I create on my own for this subject will be better or more meaningful than the work we can create together.
So here’s the deal.
We’re asking for the stories of people who have encountered these items. If you’re someone who has experience with or a story to tell about these objects, and if you’re interested in using them to understand their origins and impact, then we want to hear from you.
Our goal is to come back to you with more information about these objects and we’ll also try to create some of the meaningful conversations that Dr. Pilgrim also aims to inspire.
SHARE: Have you seen a racist object? Tell us about your experience.
To be crystal clear, our intent is not to promote or champion these items. If you use these objects to promote hate and intolerance, this project is not for you.
Our aim is to create a respectful, engaging and thought-provoking space to talk about personal stories and facilitate honest, constructive discussions.
For me, that process has already started. I’m still not sure what to do with my grandmother’s mammy salt and pepper shakers. But maybe as this project develops, there will be answers to that question, and many more.