Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Dear Dr. Pilgrim,
I found the Museums website by accident but I am very glad that I did. I listen to what amounts to a radio play on the internet call Welcome to Night Vale. The show has a strong sense of social justice and one of the topics of much debate is how various characters are represented in works like fan art or discussions of the characters as the shows producers make it a point of being ambiguous with regaurds to some characters attributes like race or sexual orientation.
The main character, Cecil Palmer, is a white voice actor and much of the fan art when the show starts featured the character Cecil as a white male. As time has gone on, various versions of Cecil have sprung up including a Native American Cecil, an Asian American Cecil, and a Black Cecil. Cecil is meant to be ambiguous but debate has raged that Cecil must be white. He "sounds" white. His name is "white". Another character that is meant to be the exact same, physically, as Cecil is played by a black voice actor and yet people say that he sounds just as white as the original voice actor. All of this felt very "off" to me. I am not entirely new to social justice but I also have been far more active on the LGBT side of the movement and, being white, there is a certain amount of fear and guilt that I have that I'll just get it wrong.
The argument that Cecil is a white name feels, in my gut, like a bad reason to assume someone is white. Except if someone is named Yuko, I would probably assume they were of Japanese ancestry. If they had a family name Nguyen I'd assume they probably had Thai or Vietnamese ancestry. All of that was just to say I was looking for reasons behind these kinds of assumptions, the "white is default" sorts of assumptions, when I came across the Museums website.
I read all of the Caricatures the same day I found the site and it was the first time I've ever had it laid out so starkly just how terrible, well, a lot American history has been. I've only been more ashamed on the days when we would cover the Trail of Tears in history class with my Native American friends sitting next to me.
The examples you provide helped me though. I've seen a few of the old movies, I saw the Mae West one mentioned in the Mammy page, and some of the Our Gangs and could see the racism there. But the more modern ones, ones I hadn't thought about that had similar caricatures that just saddened me. As a writer, especially one that likes to think of himself as a progressive liberal, I know that I have a ton of privilege I have to check all of the time and it helps to have these relics and examples to show exactly how terrible it is and how pervasive the stereotypes are. I want to create characters of color and having some sign posts to help me recognize when I might be engaging in one of those stereotypes is just the starting point.
Thank you for putting this online and putting up with all of the assholes (reading through the Question of the Month it looks like you get a lot of them) and honestly just being able to stand the psychic pain of so many reminders of hate and using them to make a difference.
-- July 10, 2014
Posted July 16, 2014