By Phyllis Wilson Moore
Southern Literary Review
July 24th, 2019
Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum (PM Press, 2018), by sociologist, author, and lecturer Dr. David Pilgrim, is a ground-breaking scholarly work. In it he highlights and explores the impact that racist artifacts and demeaning images have on the maligned race as well as on the rest of us.
These detailed 256 pages contain full-color images from the nation’s largest accessible public collection of racist objects. Most of them will be familiar to the reader and perhaps even collected by some.
Housed in a museum founded and curated by Pilgrim at Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, the collection serves as a teaching tool and resource for both students and scholars. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., visited it as he filmed his recent documentary on Reconstruction.
Each of the eight chapters concludes with Pilgrim’s clarifying explanation of why and how the selected artifacts relate to America’s racial history and how they were used to frighten, dehumanize, and demean black people.
Written in an almost conversational style, the book is both easy and difficult to read. The skillful writing makes it easy but is offset by the glaring horrors revealed chapter by chapter.
It was not surprising to find a reference to Ota Benga, an adult African pygmy brought to the United States at the turn of the century. This intelligent, non-English-speaking Congolese man was exhibited in a cage with orangutans in the New York Zoological Park’s Monkey House. Dubbed a monkey-boy, the sign above the cage referred to him as the “missing link” in the evolutionary chain. When Black Christians protested, the exhibit closed. Unable to return to his home in Africa, and with no peers here, Benga eventually committed suicide in Virginia.
Pilgrim notes the monkey-ape image is prevalent yet today as evidenced by poster likenesses of the Obamas and demeaning references to athletes, including tennis legend Serena Williams.
Pilgrim examines selected films, including Goodbye Uncle Tom, a so-called documentary filmed by Italian producers in Haiti (1971). Their stated intent was to depict enslavement in the United States accurately. Most of what it depicts, in my opinion, is exploited Haitians. It borders on pornography.
As Pilgrim points out, when caricatures and stereotypes exist, persecution is often not far behind. Witness the landed gentry’s depiction of the Irish peasants as drunken bogtrotters in ragged clothes; the West Virginia farmer, who loses his land to coal and gas corporations, depicted as an ignorant hillbilly with his coon dog, musket, and moonshine; the German Jewish citizens depicted as depraved money lenders by the Nazi; the Native Americans depicted as savages by founders of our nation. Each group was labeled, ridiculed and degraded. Their very cultures were threatened.
Reading this work, I flashed-back to the days of televised Civil Rights Era riots. Lawlessness and violence were captured in living color: raging dogs; police wielding batons; water hoses; blocked school doors. Murders happened—off camera. It was a major turning point for our nation, a trial by fire.
Born and raised during the Jim Crow and Civil Right Eras, I have lived smack-dab on, or right below, the Mason Dixon Line my entire life. My long-term home, West Virginia, was a segregated state when I moved here. I saw integration up close and personal. This text serves to help each of us examine our own past, as well as the country’s. It plainly illuminates dark corners and raises awareness of the importance of sensitivity, listening, empathy, and truth-telling.