Brutality on Display

Throughout my life, my mother has often said to me that she “won’t allow someone to cry alone in her presence.” With such a role model in my life, it’s no surprise that I grew up being a person who is acutely sensitive to the pain of those around him. It is very easy for me to see a person in pain and have an immediate and gut-wrenching reaction to it. This made reading Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright and The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes difficult for me, but a valuable experience. I had always thought of Jim Crow as a terrible thing, but I had trouble understanding how emotionally terrifying it truly was. The narratives of life in the Jim Crow South, living in fear of violence for the smallest slight or none at all, affected me very deeply.

Sarah in “Long Black Song” and her tragic tale affected me gravely.[1] In the story, Sarah is watching her child at home while her husband is in town selling cotton, when a traveling salesman visits her house and eventually rapes her. I had studied Jim Crow before, and I understood how rape was used by Whites in the South, both as a tool against African American women and as an excuse for killing African American men. I had never before been able to truly understand this, however, until Richard Wright’s story engendered an emotional connection within me. This story allowed me to feel true anger and outrage over what had been allowed to occur in the nation I call home.

Art from the "Hateful Things" traveling exhibit from the Jim Crow Museum

The only other time that I was confronted with the pain and terror of living in the Jim Crow South, was on a visit during my undergrad at Central Michigan University to the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. Professor David Pilgrim, Ph.D. founded the museum and curates it today. Dr. Pilgrim is an African American man who grew up in Mobile, Alabama and has collected racist memorabilia since he was a young man. Dr. Pilgrim explains in an essay on the museum’s website that he has collected racist memorabilia because of how deeply he hates it and he decided to found the Jim Crow Museum in an effort to “use objects of intolerance to teach tolerance.”[2] The collection at the Museum is extensive and often as troubling as the stories by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

One thing that I have never been able to understand, and most likely never will, is the desire to collect such objects. I have read Dr. Pilgrim’s essay and I can recite why he collects such hateful things, but I don’t think I will ever be able to see an object that elicits such negative emotions within me and desire to own them. I am just thankful that there are such people out there like Dr. Pilgrim, because using these objects to teach tolerance and assure such terrible things as Jim Crow never return is far more important than avoiding the pain of revisiting such topics.


[1] Richard Wright, Uncle Tom’s Children, (HarperCollins: Pymble, Australia) 2009

[2] Dr. David Pilgrim, “Why I Collect Racist Objects”,

2 thoughts on “Brutality on Display

  1. Keith – I agree with you that I have a hard time justifying keeping these objects around… I know that as museum professionals in the future we will undoubtedly have to keep items in a collection that we do not care for but these items seem to take “not caring for” to a whole new and potentially extremely offensive level. We must preserve our cultural history by the objects we choose to keep. It is always extremely political when we make decisions of whose story to tell or even when value is placed on an exhibited item by the institution that is housing it. If we as a museum exhibit an item but then in the label explain that we see it to be bad – is that right for an institution to do? More and more we realize that there is no unbiased voice of the museum – everything is political to some extent but to fully balance the content of the object the museum would have to put its own voice out there as completely biased to one side – does that go against museum ethics?

  2. There was an exhibition I read about awhile back called “Controversy”, that displayed objects like a KKK robe and an electric chair, but with almost no interpretation of the objects. The whole idea was about letting visitors think for themselves. I didn’t see it myself so I don’t know how well it worked, but I wonder if that sort of mechanism would work in other exhibitions, like one featuring objects from the Jim Crow museum.

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