Using racist images to combat racism and encourage resistance.

Author:Von Blum, Paul
Position:Book review
 
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Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice by David Pilgrim (foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), ISBN: 978-1-62963-114-1, pp.208. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2015.

For many years, in my UCLA classes and in presentations throughout the United States and the world on African American art, I have started with several examples of egregiously racist images from popular culture. From the thousands available, I often select such repulsive examples as "Darkie

Toothpaste," "Nigger Head Golf Tees," and minstrel-like items from the Coon Chicken Inn, a fried chicken restaurant chain in the Pacific Northwest from the 1920s through the late 1940s. These grotesque racist caricatures are the visual foundation for my long-standing argument that African American art, in substantial part, constitutes an effective body of resistance to the dominant narrative of American history that conceals or understates the political and human implications of slavery and its progeny.

For my student and other audiences, I regularly recommend the Jim Crow Museum of Racism Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. This remarkable museum is the largest publicly accessible collection of racist artifacts. It consists primarily of memorabilia from the segregation era from the South, although many of the objects were distributed and widely available throughout the entire country. The chief objective of the museum is to highlight these objects to foster dialogues and understanding of historical and contemporary racism in America. It is an invaluable resource for scholars, journalists, and activists.

Understanding Jim Crow represents the Museum in book form. This is especially useful for readers who are unlikely to make a trip to Michigan to see the collection in person, however valuable such an experience would be. The volume contains several outstanding components, making it a splendid contribution to African American Studies and many cognate fields. Like the Museum itself, the book should attract multiple audiences, from academic specialists to lawpersons.

At the outset, the author, David Pilgrim, chronicles the personal story that was the genesis of the museum he founded. He grew up in the Deep South as that region began to transform from its overt segregation to its more benign but still institutionally racist environment. Chapter One is intriguingly titled "The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects."...

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