David Pilgrim was 12 years old when he bought his first racist object at a flea market: a saltshaker in the shape of a mammy. As a young black boy growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he’d seen similar knickknacks in the homes of friends and neighbors, and he instinctively hated them. As soon as he handed over his money, he threw his purchase to the ground and shattered it into pieces.
Pilgrim’s story brings to mind the young biblical Abraham, smashing idols in his father’s shop. But that mammy was the only racist icon Pilgrim ever destroyed. Today he owns thousands of them: cereal boxes, statuettes, whites only signs, and postcards of black men being whipped and hung. The public will soon be able to see his entire collection and more at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, which opens April 26 at Ferris State University in Michigan, where Pilgrim spent years as a sociology professor.
The museum is divided into sections, each reflecting a different distorted vision of black people in America. One features Uncle Toms: cheerful, servile black men such as Uncle Ben or the chef on the Cream of Wheat box. Another showcases “brutes”: muscular ogres who lurk in dark alleys and ravish white women. Most of the objects predate civil rights, but a section is devoted to modern racism: It includes dozens of caricatures of President Barack Obama as a monkey, a terrorist, and a watermelon-eating “coon.”
Pilgrim spoke with me about his lifelong hobby and what he hopes Americans will see as they wander through his disturbing hall of mirrors.
Jennie Rothenberg Gritz: What made you throw that mammy saltshaker on the ground all those years ago?
David Pilgrim: It would be great if I had a deep, philosophical answer, but on a gut level, I just didn’t like it. In those days, a lot of people, including blacks, had those sorts of objects in their homes, and I hated them. Clearly, they didn’t see them as negative in the same way I did. In any case, I haven’t intentionally broken one since.
Gritz: What made you start collecting objects like those to keep instead of destroy?
Pilgrim: I went to a historically black college, Jarvis Christian College in Texas, and in addition to teaching the usual math and science, our professors would tell us stories of Jim Crow. One day, one of my professors came into the classroom with a chauffeur’s cap. He set the hat down and asked what historical significance it had.
Now, the obvious answer was that blacks were denied many opportunities, and chauffeuring was one of the few jobs open to them. But that was not the right answer. He told us that a lot of professional, middle-class blacks in those days always traveled with a chauffeur’s hat. The reason: If they were driving a nice new car through a small southern town, they didn’t want police officers, or any other whites, to know the car belonged to them.
I remember that story so vividly. No object has any meaning other than what we assign to it. But that was an incredible meaning to assign to an object that, on the surface, had little to do with racism.
Gritz: How about the more obviously racist objects, like ashtrays in the shape of black men with giant mouths? What was the intention behind those things?
Pilgrim: You know, when I was younger, I always thought of propaganda as grainy old films or brochures. But an ashtray can be propaganda. In a deliberate way, it can help shape perceptions about a group of people. It can support everyday practices and official policies against those people. If you didn’t want black people to vote, to live in your neighborhood, or to marry outside of their own race, these objects became a way to shape those attitudes. That’s why even an ashtray can have a lot of cultural utility.
Gritz: Were some of these objects created as kitsch?
Pilgrim: I think that played a part. These objects reflect our attitudes as well as shaping them. I’ll give you an analogy. I now collect objects relating to other groups, like women. Sexualized women are often used even when a product has nothing to do with women—even when you really have to stretch to figure out what a naked woman has to do with it.
In the same way, they used to use blacks to sell objects. If an object were black, like licorice or shoe polish, then it was very easy to use a very dark-skinned person to sell it. But it was also the case that if you were trying to sell happiness or nostalgia, you might put a black mammy or a Tom image on your product. So you see these images on a lot of breakfast-food labels, a lot of kitchen items.
Gritz: You’ve said that Americans would rather talk about slavery than Jim Crow. Why?
Pilgrim: The most obvious reason is that there are no former slaves walking amongst us. Some of the people who lived during the Jim Crow period are still alive. That’s the first answer.
But the other answer is that, for a lot of Americans, it’s easier to admit that slavery existed. They have a really sanitized vision of slavery anyhow. But whatever it was, it’s over. Jim Crow, in many ways, is not over. The laws are gone, but the repercussions are still around. Looking at these images begs the question: How far are we from this now?
Gritz: How far are we from the days of Buckwheat and Aunt Jemima?
Pilgrim: If you go to places like Myrtle Beach and New Orleans, you’ll find some of the old caricatures of black males as hypersexual bucks or lazy, ne’er-do-well coons. But those have morphed now into depictions of West Indian blacks. They have oversized genitalia; they’re portrayed as lazy; but they have dreadlocks now and wear colors associated with Jamaica.
And there was that idea of black women as Jezebels—it was used to rationalize why white men had sex with black women during slavery instead of recognizing that they might have been raped. Now you see a caricature of these ghetto women who crank out 18 babies.
It’s also interesting to see new versions of the brute caricature—the African American male who is a savage, a menace to society. That caricature did not exist much during the slavery period because people didn’t want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There were more depictions of blacks as passive, docile mammies and Toms. The idea of the threatening black started during Reconstruction, but it really came forward when urban blacks started being portrayed as gangster types.
Gritz: It’s still not uncommon to see objects like the mammy saltshaker you threw to the ground. How do you communicate to people that these objects are demeaning, even if they’re connected with a genuine sense of nostalgia?
Pilgrim: That’s the real purpose of this museum. We want to take someone who sees the Aunt Jemima label as a nostalgic thing, a picture that reminds them of good times, and introduce that person to someone who sees it as a vestige of slavery or segregation. We want to do the thing we as Americans seem to not want to do—which is talk. As crazy as that sounds, it actually works.
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