The language and images are hard to take – a black man with enormous lips eating a watermelon. Black women in exaggerated sexual poses. Broken English and racial slurs. They’re all important parts of “Understanding Jim Crow,” a new book subtitled “Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice.” Whether the book inspires tolerance or social justice, it certainly makes the existence of virulent racism hard to deny.
“There was nothing understated about Jim Crow during that long, blistering century between the end of Reconstruction and the seminal legal victories of the American civil rights movement,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the book’s foreword. “Racist imagery essentializing blacks as inferior beings was as exaggerated as it was ubiquitous. The onslaught was constant.”
We spoke to Pilgrim from his university office; the interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
I probably don’t have to tell you that these images are pretty disturbing. Why is it important that people see them?
I don’t remember who it was that said an image is worth 1,000 words. But what we’ve discovered is that when people come to our facility, and are confronted with the visual evidence of Jim Crow, it changes the discussion.
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