“I kneel to de buzzard,
An’ I bow to the crow;
An eb’ry time I weel about
I jump jis so.”
—from “Jump Jim Crow” (1828)
Readers of this magazine hardly need to be told that antiracism in America has become a secular religion, but lest there be any doubt about the aspirations of its acolytes, Benjamin P. Bowser, the editor of a recent tome entitled Racism and Anti-Racism in World Perspective, assures us that a revivified liberalism, free of the racist assumptions of its “classical” origins, must become a
secular religion [that] will create an effective blueprint for creating an anti-racist future where individual and group rights and freedoms can be balanced and maintained through a global and truly well-informed democratic process.
Bowser’s dream is already our nightmare. When I hear words like “truly well-informed democratic process” I feel the urge to reach for my Smith & Wesson. Think rehab for racists. Think racial identity caucuses in every workplace. Think propranolol therapy to reduce your unconscious racial biases. Forget separation of Church and state. The United States is now one vast diocese under the authority of the archbishop of antiracism. Yes, the Church of Antiracism has its hierophants, its clergy, its numberless drone-armies of proselytizers, its dogmas, its catechism, its rites of antiracist initiation, its sacraments, its inquisitors, and its shrines.
One of those shrines is the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, situated on the campus of Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. To be sure, the Jim Crow Museum is small potatoes compared with high-tech, multimillion-dollar cubist shrines like the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles (or its franchise in Jerusalem, built upon a former Muslim burial ground). While it uses video technology to enhance its message, the Jim Crow Museum is mostly a traditional, low-tech affair with lots of display cases crowded with relics of the Jim Crow era: images of mammies, pickaninnies, and sambos; fluffy white teddy bears with T-shirts that read “I love dead niggers”; black children portrayed as “alligator bait”; replicas of lynching trees; life-sized figurines in KKK regalia; signs enforcing segregation statutes . . . You get the picture. For the visitor who might have managed somehow to escape the last 50 years of antiracist indoctrination doled out daily by our schools and mass media, there are tastefully displayed plaques that explain how harmful racial stereotypes are, and how they contribute to what antiracist catechists like to call “internalized racist oppression,” which is when you are infected with the racist virus but don’t know it. So insidious is this virus that even racial minorities can become carriers against their will.
The curator, or sacristan-in-chief, of the Jim Crow Museum is Dr. David Pilgrim, the vice president of diversity and inclusion at Ferris State. In interviews, the aptly named Pilgrim shares his conversion experience, which happened when he was no more than 13 years old and living in Mobile, Alabama. One fateful day he “bought his first racist object.” Curiously, he doesn’t remember what it was nor why he bought it, but “he hated it and threw it on the ground and smashed it.” Later, though, he became a collector of such objects. Pilgrim, I should add, is black—or at least as black as Archbishop Obama. He notes in an NPR interview with reporter Amy Robinson that there are hundreds of collectors of racist objects in America. Many of them are racists themselves. Some collect the objects as investments. Others, mostly African-American, collect the objects with the purpose of destroying them. Still others, like Pilgrim, collect for the sake of preservation. During a lifetime of avid collecting, he has amassed over 9,000 such objects, which are the core of the Jim Crow Museum collection. Critics have suggested that collecting objects such as the Greedy Little Nigger Boy money box (a child’s toy) and placing them on public display is perpetuating the problem. They assume (naively!) that the racist affliction is part of our “sordid past” (as one of the respondents in the comments section of the aforementioned NPR story stated), and that the vile objects associated with it should be relegated to the garbage heap. Of course, they have missed the point entirely. They fail to see just how deeply and invisibly infected we all are. Indeed, those who appear to be healthy, and proclaim their health most vociferously, are the most acutely infected. While they may appear to be in remission, the sickness is eating away at them, silently. “We’re not a shrine to racism,” Pilgrim ingenuously insists, “any more than a hospital is a shrine to disease.” But where would hospitals be without disease?
Any anthropologist can tell you that sacred objects are fundamentally ambivalent. They are dangerous; they must be handled with infinite care and used only with the prescribed rituals. Yet they have the power to heal. Pilgrim and his associates insist that their healing mission is purely pedagogical, that their intention is “not to traumatize but to teach.” Nonetheless, a little shock therapy can’t hurt, can it? In fact, it may facilitate the cure. If racism were merely a case of poor reasoning, then pedagogy would suffice. But racism is a mental disease, so sterner measures must be employed. Thus at the heart of the Jim Crow Museum is a very special room. Here the unwary visitor must confront the horror of the lynching tree. The tree is a replica, of course. But to stimulate your imagination, a video montage provides footage of blacks being flogged, lynched, and incinerated. Amy Robinson reports that visitors leave the violence room visibly “shaken.” One Rowena Hamel emerges all “choked up.” It seems that she lived through the Jim Crow days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where everyone was white and such horrible things never occurred: “I can’t believe,” she says, “that I am 84 years old and didn’t realize it . . . How could I have not seen this? I must have been blind to it.” She was blind, but now she can see!
Dr. Pilgrim is in the paradox business. His antiracist shrine is perforce a shrine to racism. Removed from their original context and placed in immaculate, climate-controlled chambers behind spotless glass, diffusely lit, all those mammies and pickaninnies and gollywogs become, like it or not, sacral objects with an aesthetic aura that works its own spell. For some, like Rowena Hamel, a desirable conversion experience may occur. For others, the objects may produce a secret thrill. After all, if racism is as virally pervasive as the antiracist propagandists would have us believe, then just about anyone who strolls through the Jim Crow Museum must experience either a soupçon of racial malice or a pang of guilt—or, perhaps, both. And both may be equally pleasurable. On a website dedicated to racially hateful toys (most of which are also on display at the Jim Crow Museum) one anonymous comment declares: “Toys such as the ‘Greedy Nigger Boy’ (I feel guilty just typing those words) are so clearly vehicles for spreading hate that you have to expand your definition of what a toy is.” Forgive my cynicism, but I suspect that whatever fleeting sense of guilt or shame this writer feels at merely typing the word nigger can hardly be more than what behavioral scientists call an “automatic affective response.” Equally clear, though, is that he or she takes furtive pleasure in typing the words I feel guilty.
Again, my inner cynic tells me that the Jim Crow Museum is designed to produce similarly fleeting affective responses, though the duration may vary according to the credulity of the individual. Yet the museum also offers a transcendent vision of racial harmony to reassure the guilty sinner with a promise of blessedness. After visiting the museum’s exhibits, visitors are invited into the Learning Center to “dialog” [sic] about their experience. The Learning Center is in fact a kind of New Age sanctuary, featuring a diorama called “Cloud of Witnesses,” which depicts the disembodied heads of a multiracial host of civil-rights martyrs floating in the clouds above an alluring vista of lakes and a homey cottage in the distance. In the foreground a group of pilgrims—of various ages and races, all with their backs turned to the viewer—appear to be drawn toward the cozily lit cottage. Red tints in the painting suggest that the hour is either sunrise or sunset. The cottage on the lake suggests an idyllic American homestead, beckoning out of a future where true believers in a society free of racial hatred will gather round the “family” table and, rather than pray, share their experiences—victims and victimizers in a circle of multicultural harmony. The floating heads of the martyrs are all helpfully labeled, so there can be no mistake about their significance. All but one were victims of white killers (usually the KKK). The exception is Malcolm X, whose head floats prominently beside Martin Luther King’s on the far right end of the diorama. Can Malcolm X, who spent most of his adult life espousing racial nationalism and spewing venomous racial hatred, be credibly depicted as a martyr to the civil-rights cause? He was, of course, gunned down by henchmen associated with the Nation of Islam. Revisionists like Manning Marable would have it that X was assassinated because he had moved, in the final year of his life, toward a more conciliatory, segregationist position. However, the evidence strongly suggests that X was the victim of a personal vendetta. Moreover, the claim that he was moving toward a segregationist position is based upon questionable readings of his final speeches.
But it is I who am being naive now, for religious iconography has little to do with establishing historical truth. More importantly, “Cloud of Witnesses,” so obviously a parody of sacred Christian art, reminds us why all secular religion is a contradiction in terms. At its heart there is a hollow place, the place where the genuinely sacred resides, or should. It is true that great art can offer transcendence (though the further removed it is from the sacred, the more it approaches mere solipsism), but “Cloud of Witnesses” is not great art but sentimental dreck.
So, if the Jim Crow Museum fails to deliver on its promise of transcendence, what purpose does it serve? Whatever Dr. Pilgrim may believe (or, at least, state publicly), the real purpose of his antiracist shrine is to reassert African-Americans’ select claim to victim status. In a nation awash in sacrificial claimants, the competition is tough these days. The rest of us must be reminded, endlessly, relentlessly, that however persecuted we may feel, that whatever bona fides we may display before the judgment of a world grown weary of sympathy, our claims are trumpery. It is not for us to enter the Isles of the Blessed, unless we are prepared to “kneel to the buzzard” and “jump jis so.”