Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors – An Interview with David Pilgrim

This is the first in a monthly series where we feature a crowdfunded project. The projects will be ones that fit our goals for this website.

The 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.

Pilgrims book is a grim yet fascinating retelling of many of the stories that make up American racist history. Illustrated by artifacts from the Jim Crow Museum it lays out an alternative narrative of American history through pamphlets, trading cards and figurines. For a nation that has pretty much from day one been obsessed with memorabilia a history of being black in America told though objects is more important than you can believe.

Watermelons does an incredible job of exploring how through advertising (Aunt Jemima), movies (Gone With the Wind) and tourism (racist postcards) racist portrayals of black Americans were not only mainstreamed but pictured as “culture” or “heritage.”

In the time of Trump, Charlottesville and monuments Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors might just be the most important book that you could read to wrap your head around why America is the way it is in 2017. I highly recommend that you kick in and get this book from PM Press… in fact please support the kickstarter to get a copy, and then when it hits bookstores buy one for your racist Uncle.

Why do you think it is that white people have a hard time grasping why things like black face and the Sambo characters are so deeply offensive?

It is my belief—certainly my hope—that most white people living in this country consider caricatured images of black people to be insulting and offensive. I know that many of the white visitors to the Jim Crow Museum are repulsed by racist depictions of African Americans. Nevertheless, one cannot go more than a day or two without reading newspaper accounts of white fraternities and sororities dressing in blackface, people wearing Sambo-like costumes during Halloween, or politicians and entertainers creating or sharing racist memes via email or Facebook.

Out of so many of the objects, musical records, lawn statues that you discuss for some reason it’s the postcards and trade cards that I don’t understand. Is this just an earlier version of the modern “internet meme?”

A racist society produces racist objects, and it racializes other objects. Postcards and trade cards are illustrative, neither has intrinsic meaning—but either or both can be used as vehicles for expressing racist ideas. When I was much younger I thought of propaganda as leaflets with short slogans and bad cartoons or old grainy black-and-white film telling me that someone was evil, but today I know that any object can serve as propaganda, including toys, ashtrays, games, detergent boxes—or postcards and trade cards. Racist postcards and trade cards were common ways that white Americans were taught to view black people as Lesser Others. Yes, memes can—and often do—serve a similar function today.

On page five you describe how the body of E.C. Deloach was found hanging upside down after the SCLC had marches in Prichard, “The mayor, V.O. Capps, said, “As far as we know, there are no racial overtones.” I can’t help but to think of Donald Trumps words after Charlottesville and about the NFL players kneeling. Do you think that Trump would learn from a visit to the Jim Crow museum? Is there a story that you would tell him from the book?

He does not need my money or the things my money can buy, but I would pay for President Trump to visit the Jim Crow Museum. We would walk through the museum—slowly. In each section I would ask him a simple question, “What is it that you see?” This is standard practice in the museum. We want to know what visitors see—and what ideas and beliefs about racism they bring into the facility. We also want them to hear the words of others…to hear others answer the same question.

I would show the President many objects, including objects that were made after the Jim Crow period. We would look at and discuss objects that defame and belittle President Obama: t-shirts that portray him as a monkey, a mousepad that shows him as a Rastus-like Uncle Tom, and shooting targets with the former president’s face in the middle. I would also show him one of the ink pens that President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, creating the most comprehensive civil rights law in this country’s history. This is the good work that a president can do. I would share with President Trump a story about one of his predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, who allowed the movie, The Birth of a Nation, to be shown in the White House, which, of course, represented his tacit approval of the racial messages in the movie. And, I wouldn’t be much of an activist if I did not show him the section on George Wallace, the Alabama governor of my youth, who gained and retained political power by appealing to White anxieties and prejudices.

Beyond the racist Obama meme’s, and t-shirts that are pretty much directly racist tropes from the watermelon to the monkey what are some of the more subtle things that you’ve seen reappear over the last decade? Or new ones for that matter?

The best conversations that we have in the museum involve pieces that are not so obviously racist. I am thinking here of the book, Little Black Sambo. In 2003 I had the opportunity to “debate” Christopher Bing, an awarding-winning illustrator on NPR. Bing had recently reintroduced Little Black Sambo. He explained his nostalgic connection with the book. As a child he sat, listening intently, admiringly, as his grandfather read the story. He imagined himself as Little Black Sambo, a clever little boy who outwitted ferocious tigers. He said, “The book (story) to me means love.” He published his version of Little Black Sambo hoping to introduce a new generation of children, of all races, to the little black boy whom he admired. He dedicated the book to his grandfather. Bing explained that his version does not include the crude drawings done by Bannerman or the nasty caricatures found in later pirated editions: ink black skin, red or pink lips, wild darting eyes, and matted or wild hair. Little Black Sambo helped engender the bonding of Bing and his grandfather, but for African American children it was another instance of them being told that they were ugly and different. I told Melissa Block, the show’s host, that we should tell new stories instead of trying to sanitize old racist ones to make them more digestible to a new generation. I have no illusion that I persuaded Bing (or Block) to see the book through my eyes; nor did he convince me that the story of Little Black Sambo—even a “cleaned up” version—could divorce itself from its history.

In your dedication you say “I believe a better America is possible,” after all the things that you document in the museum and what’s on the news… how do you still believe that? Personally, I’m not sure.

Because of my work with the Jim Crow Museum, I often receive invitations to speak on college campuses. I almost always told the audiences, “We, the United States, are today more democratic and more egalitarian than we have ever been.” I don’t say that anymore. How could I continue to make that claim while listening to racist rhetoric—from the highest seats of power to folks friended on Facebook—that is reminiscent of what I heard in the 1960s in Alabama. So, I am not as hopeful as I was even two years ago, but I need to hold on to as much hope as I can.

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