CONFRONTING RACIST OBJECTS

The following New York Times arcticle addresses the collecting of racist memorabilia, those who collect these items , how they come to terms with the history behind each object, and the lessons learned in understanding the demeaning racist stereotypes and lies that these objects created through the years, the effects of which are still with us in 21ST Century United States.

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Confronting Racist Objects

Millions of racist objects sit in the homes of everyday Americans. We asked for your experiences with these objects and received hundreds of responses. Some of you told us about your family heirlooms. Some described antique finds, and many of you simply wanted to know what should be done with racist objects. What is their place today, when racial tensions and racial attacks are on the rise? Here are some of your stories about reconciling, reclaiming and reinterpreting racist objects.

THE COLLECTOR: “We are not that.”

Harriet Michel’s Harlem brownstone is full of objects that depict African-Americans as subhuman caricatures. “We as a family and we as a people have moved so far beyond that,” she said. “But it’s still a reminder of how we were seen and depicted and not to forget that lesson.”

One of the first pieces she collected was a lawn ornament of a black child sitting on a stump, fishing. She named it Rastus and reclaimed it as “the guardian angel” of her house. Her children explore their own complicated bond with Rastus in the video above.

But an identical object also sits in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. David Pilgrim, the founder and director, prefers to call racist lawn ornaments like Rastus “lawn warts” that have historically indicated and marked “white” spaces, whether that was the owner’s intent or not. He said that the Michels’ reclamation of the statue effectively “takes a piece that was meant to be harmful and takes the harm out of it.”

Readers share stories about their own collections:

Femi Folami, 62, Miami, African-American

“I began purchasing racist iconography and objects at age 16, and created a mission for myself that I called ‘Liberating Jemima.’ My mother supported two children after my dad died by being a maid in the homes of others. I felt that by buying mammy items [like the one photographed here] and giving them an honored place in my home, that I was indeed liberating them from the clutches of their ‘owners’ (usually white people) and bringing them home to rest in a household that would hold them in high esteem.”

Jane Sprague, 46, Long Beach, N.Y., White

“My father has for years proudly displayed a small statue that depicts a racist exaggeration of an African-American man holding a lantern on the side porch of my parents’ farmhouse in upstate New York. My father is a virulent racist, and his racism disfigured my own perceptions of race growing up. When he passes, we’ll either melt down that statue [displayed here in a photograph by my mother] or bury it with him.”

Dr. Wilfredo Lukban, 51, Fountainville, Pa., Chinese-Filipino

“I am a 51-year-old Asian-American male who happens to be a physician, and married to my husband. About a year ago in an antique shop near the Delaware shore, I found sheet music from 1950 that depicts a young Asian man, presumably Chinese, carrying a mustached presumably Western man in hunting garb who is riding the rickshaw and enjoying a cigar while fanning himself with a paper fan. So I said to my husband, ‘I am going to buy this! It is just so deliciously racist, I love it framed!’”

 

THE ACTIVIST: “They think we’re just historical.”

Racist objects are not a thing of the past, and they are not limited to depictions of African-Americans. Robert Roche, an American Indian of the Chiricahua Apache tribe, has fought for decades to change the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot, which appears on the baseball team’s uniforms, and promotional items of all kinds. As Mr. Roche argues in the video above, the logo not only insults and mocks his race and spirituality, but also perpetuates the narrative that American Indians are no longer an active, living part of society, but are ignorant, savage characters assigned to the past. He’s seen it firsthand when speaking to classrooms: “Children see this cartoon character and they think we’re not even here anymore,” Mr. Roche said.

David Pilgrim at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia notes that American Indians, Mexican-Americans, Jews, women and poor whites have all been portrayed in racist objects, and the Cleveland Indians’ logo shows that racist objects continue to be manufactured, like bumper stickers that depict President Obama as a monkey and T-shirts with derogatory images of Mexicans in support of President-elect Donald J. Trump’s vow to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. “If there’s a race-based incident, there will be imagery created surrounding it, but there will also be objects created for the imagery,” Dr. Pilgrim said.

Here are a few readers’ experiences with contemporary racist objects:

Deborah Chantson, 34, Torrance, Calif., South African-Chinese-Canadian

“When I was living in Burlington, Ontario, in 2012, I was shopping and came across a sushi set that horrified me. In the checkout line, I noticed a Caucasian man was about to buy it. I asked him not to. He asked, ‘Why? It’s not cute and funny?’ I personally spoke to the president of the chain of stores selling this item [captured here in a photo from the company, which says it is no longer for sale], and my friend spoke to the president of the company manufacturing the item, neither of whom could see the offense in it.”

Eli Rosenblatt, 32, Washington, Jewish American

“When I was studying abroad in Poland in 2004, I encountered numerous ‘Zydki’ figurines – small statues and trinkets that depict Jews, often with coins or diamonds in their hands. I bought this one in Krakow to show my family and friends back home. Some years later, my 2-year-old daughter broke it by separating the head from its body. I keep it, maybe, as a certain kind of security I feel as a Jewish person in the U.S. If I was ever a victim of anti-Semitic attitudes or if my own personal pain was attached to the object, I would have gotten rid of it.”

Mariana Vaca, 23, San Diego, Mexican-American

“Memín Pinguín was one of my favorite toys as a kid. He was black, plastic, wore a red baseball cap and always had his pants down, ready to have an inflammable stick inserted so he would look like he was pooping. He was one of the first toys I always wanted to buy whenever I went to visit my family in Guadalajara, Mexico, since I couldn’t get him in the U.S. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to feel differently. I have kept this object and have in fact purchased more for my friends. I think it’s important to see how a seemingly harmless toy can affect the way we see people who are not like us.”

 

THE SELLER: “It’s weird to me, but it sells.”

Caitlin Sevier, 22, manages her parents’ auction house in Waxahachie, Tex. The family buys hundreds of antiques every week from estate sales and other antique markets, and sells them in a live auction every other Thursday. Ms. Sevier wrote to us to say she constantly finds racist objects when sorting through the lots. At first, finding this stuff was shocking, she said; now she’s deeply conflicted about whether her family should be reselling it. “I tell everyone to do their own thinking,” said Dr. Pilgrim, of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. “But, you know, I wish more people – in respectful, civil ways – would challenge not just the presence of these pieces but what the pieces represent, and ask the question of their neighbors: Why?”

Here are some of your decisions about what to do with such objects:

Eddie Chambers, 56, Austin, Tex., Black

“I’m an artist and a professor in art and art history at the University of Texas at Austin. I keep this paper fan in my office, face side down, as that features a grotesque caricature of a black man, for a restaurant called Piccaninny. I feel sick when I look at it. I’ve never shown it to my students. There’s a risk of re-brutalizing the people on whom these artifacts are based. I don’t think we’re fully equipped as a society to rehabilitate some of these things. I’d advise someone who feels conflicted about having these things to destroy it. Get rid of it. Or put it in a box and put it in the garage never to be seen again.”

Irene Hoffman, 52, Santa Barbara, Calif., White

“I have this two-piece citrus squeezer in the shape of a Chinaman. It was given to me by my grandmother-in-law, a warm, open person with a working-class East End British accent and a kind heart, with tendencies to refer to people who looked different to what she considered the British norm as ‘foreigners’ and ‘those people,’ etc. I have kept this object as a memory of her, but I hide it in a cupboard, because I don’t want to offend my downstairs neighbor, who was born in China and is a recent immigrant to the U.S.A.”

Lauren Downing Peters, 29, Brooklyn, White

“This vaudeville-era poster of a man in blackface hung in my parents’ living room. We never thought of it as racist – the man in blackface was my grandfather. My parents recently moved out of their house, and it was only when I presented the idea of hanging the poster in our own home to my husband that he looked at me in horror and said we could never do that. I’m ashamed I’ve been so willing to dissociate the family history in this object from the history of racism. Part of me was sad and conflicted about it never seeing the light of day again, but I’ve decided to donate it to the Jim Crow Museum where it can be contextualized, and people can learn from it.”

Continuing the Conversation

Do you have questions about racist objects? We will be hosting a live chat next week with Dr. Pilgrim and some of our contributors. Bookmark this page to join us.

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