Letters to the Jim Crow Museum
Spreading your Message + question
To whom it may concern:
I am writing this email to express how deeply your museum has touched me. I had not previously heard of it and stumbled across your website a few days ago while reading the anti-racism blog Stuff White People Do. I have spent many hours since exploring it and reading the various articles.
As a white person with some formal education regarding racism and its centrality to the history of the United States, I think I have a relatively good grasp on what racism is and how to talk about it, as well as the related concept of white privilege. Yet I was still shocked and dismayed by some of the racist things documented on your site. I was reading the "questions of the month" and by the titles of the posts, thought that maybe some of the more horrific items might have been debunked. I read the articles and was saddened that this wasn't the case.
I had seen the "alligator bait" photo previously, but never knew that there really are documented instances of African American children being used for that purpose! That someone would make leather out of a deceased human being is just sickening. But I was most horrified by the African Dodger game - I had never heard of it before. The game itself was degrading and violent enough, but I was most saddened to learn just how widespread and "acceptable" this game was across America. What kind of person thinks that throwing a baseball at the face of another human being because of their skin color is an amusing pastime? Of course the awful answer to that question is: a large percentage of white Americans up to the early 20th century. Perhaps even including my grandparents and great grandparents.
I think that this is why your museum and research is so important. We must never forget the horrors of Jim Crow, pretend that they are distant memories, or that racism is not still alive and well in America - and in my opinion, getting worse.
I believe that there is a paradoxical effect arising from white privilege and the past few decades' progress in civil rights. As open racism has become less and less acceptable, a significant and growing percentage of white people have come to believe that racism consists merely of conscious, bigoted views held by an individual about people of another race. Whether or not it's true that most white people are no longer consciously racist (a dubious proposition at best, based on my experience), the idea that racism is a systemic, institutional problem for society, and central to the founding of the United States itself, is simply dismissed - if it is ever encountered at all.
In my view, this process accounts for the depressingly common view among white people today that people of color who point out contemporary racism or white privilege are just hypersensitive - or worse, racist themselves. I can attest that many of my white peers feel threatened or accused when asked to consider how racism really works. To them, racism is a personal act, like calling someone the "N word". They think that the fact that they don't use it, or that they have black friends, or since overt racist violence is now roundly condemned by society, means that there is no need to learn about institutional racism or white privilege. They think that pointing any of it out is just an attempt to induce "white guilt," or racist against white people.
I admit that before I was educated about these things, I thought along similar lines. I grew up in central Missouri in the mid-1980s, where the schools were quite integrated. I had many African American friends from elementary to high school and recall no negative feelings about African Americans. While I do remember a handful of racist incidents involving other people, as a child I generally thought that racism was a distant American memory. I am sure now that African American peers of my generation would have told a very different story, had I asked. But I don't remember ever doing that - racism was a very bad, but individual thing. and I honestly wondered as a kid how people could believe such nonsense, not to mention that I had a lot of compassion for the people who had to endure it - in the past.
When I was a sophomore in high school, my family moved to Colorado. It was a big adjustment racially. My new school had less than 10 African American kids out of a student population of more than 1,500. My much larger, old high school in Missouri was nearly 20% African American. I remember being puzzled by the change, and it took some getting used to. One might think that, Missouri being a "border state", there would be less racism, not more in Colorado.
I am now better educated, having had a few classes in college, done a lot of reading on my own, and thanks to your museum. Once one learns the true history/reality of racism, and to accept and recognize white privilege, its as though a veil has been lifted and racism's pervasiveness can be seen.
Sadly, for reasons I previously explained, I really do think I'm in the minority among white people. Museums like yours can help shock people out of their complacency. When I see racism, I do try to point it out to my fellow whites, but what really needs to happen is white people listening to the stories and pain of people of color and learning how racism is more than just simple bigotry.
I do have a few questions that occurred to me as I browsed your site. I have always identified as white and my family is very pale. However, a few years ago we discovered, via some genealogical work, that we have an African American ancestor from the 1850s. I am a direct descendant of someone identified as mulatto on some official church records. This discovery delighted us. We joked that it explains the nearly universal occurrence of curly hair on my dad's side of the family, myself included.
As I read the articles on your site, I thought about this person and their relationship to my family. My father's branch of the family is from Tennessee and other southern states, and this discovery was a complete surprise. I doubt that it was an accident for this knowledge was hidden for so long. In the Old South, finding out something like this could bring shame or fear of violent death, as you know.
Do you have information or stories regarding how people of mixed race managed to "pass"? As I thought about it, I realized it couldn't have been as simple as simply declaring "I'm white now," one morning as you walked out the door. I mean, I imagine their immediate families knew, and they were probably mostly assigned their race at birth via the "one drop" rule.
But how did they manage to keep it secret? People must have gone to their graves knowing things they never told their children or friends. How could you suddenly start "passing" one day if you had so many people in your community who knew your secret? At what stage of one's life did people decide to start "passing"? Were there cases of people being found out? What were the consequences if discovered, beyond the "Tragic Mulatto" stereotype - which incidentally I learned about via your website? What steps were necessary to accomplish it? Did people simply relocate to a new town? What if they had families? How did they fit into African American and white society? Are there any latter-day groups of "white" descendants of mixed-race people from long-dead generations?
I am increasingly fascinated by these questions, especially because in my ancestor's case, it was successfully hidden for more than a century and a half! I am going to be doing some more digging to try to answer some of these questions on my own, but i thought I would throw them out there.
This email is probably too long, but I hope you see that it comes from deep within my heart. By writing it, I also wanted to share my own journey of discovery. Ultimately I think simple human respect and empathy for others of all races go a long way toward defeating racism, but education is no less important, and for that I think your museum is absolutely vital. Thank you for moving me so deeply, even if the reality of Jim Crow and racism is ugly, painful and still with us in so many ways.
Matthew Foster-- January 2 2014
Posted January 6, 2014