Aunt Jemima syrup. A vision of true advertising Americana that we all grew up with: that iconic vision of the happy to be a housemaid Black woman. Well, she is kind of Brown now, but Google the historic images of Aunt Jemima from decades ago and she definitely was a stereotypical caricature: a dark, smiling Black woman with a kerchief on her head and an apron round her waist.
Only recently did I begin to look at my bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup with eyebrows raised. The Metro Detroit AFL-CIO Civil Rights Committee recently sponsored a 300 mile round trip excursion to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. On this campus is housed Michigan’s newest museum; The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The motto of this museum “Using Objects of Intolerance to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice”. Over 9,000 pieces that depict African-Americans and many other minorities in stereotypical ways and, in some cases, glorifying violence against them, are housed and on display at the museum. One whole display is devoted to Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (the nice Black white rice guy). A modern artist has a painting hanging across from this display as a political counter statement; it is Uncle Ben holding that steaming bowl of white rice, with spoon in hand. And if you look real close he is giving you the finger!
The objects displayed range from the ordinary, such as simple ashtrays and fishing lures, to the grotesque-a full size lynching tree with photographs of actual lynching victims hanging from tree limbs. These objects are steeped in racism so intense that it makes visitors cringe. Some leave angry and offended. David Pilgrim, the founder of the museum and who is African American, makes no apologies for the provocative exhibits. The goal is to get people to think deeply and to be exposed to the blatant racism that the more explicit images convey; but also to better understand the subtler forms of racism in our entertainment and advertising.
Some of the objects in the museum are a century old and some were made as recently as this year. One display is made up of President Obama “souvenirs”. A T-shirt reads “Any White Guy 2012”. Another shirt says “Obama ’08” accompanied by a cartoon monkey holding a banana. A mouse pad shows robe-wearing Ku Klux Klan members chasing an ape-eared Obama caricature with the words “Run Obama Run”. These are not even the worst items on display.
I am sad to say that in my home state of Michigan, in the city of Port Huron, there is a company that produced “I’d Rather Celebrate James Earl Ray Day” bumper stickers – a reference to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murderer. That was as recently as 2014.
With the recent developments in the news, we are all trying to digest where our country is heading with regard to healing our racial tensions. Racism is so very ingrained in our culture and our collective psyches that it is hard to know where to start to begin that healing process. I say start with a visit to the Jim Crow Museum. And then take another look at that bottle of syrup.
Photo: Dr. David Pilgrim handles artifacts at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. Video still. | AP