Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Dear Dr. David Pilgrim: If racism makes you so mad, why did you marry a white woman? I have nothing against interracial relationships, but why be a hypocrite? You are the typical black man; you hate "da evil white man", but love his woman. Why b*tch and moan about racism when you're sleeping with "the enemy"? Racism couldn't be that bad. Your entire museum and "fight against racism" is a joke.
-- Angela M., Michigan
The Jim Crow Museum is founded on the belief that objects of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance. This is a hard-edged, in-your-face approach to racism reduction and, truth be told, it produces strong reactions. Most of the letters that I receive applaud our work, but I also receive letters that criticize our mission and strategy. That is to be expected. I am not allergic to criticism. But ad homimen attacks are distasteful and the ones in your email are especially repugnant to me because they demean my two great loves: my family and my life's work, the Jim Crow Museum. The husband in me resists responding to your message, but my "teacher's voice" whispers that somewhere, perhaps too deeply buried, is a teachable moment.
That being said, I know where I wish for this response to end, but I am not sure where to begin. So, let me start from somewhere close to the beginning.
As a child in an all-Black elementary school I was taught to repeat the words of Booker T. Washington, "I let no man drag me so low as to make me hate him." I would stand with thirty other black, brown, red, and yellow faces -- all socially and quasi-legally Blacks -- and repeat those words. Consequently, Washington's words have always been with me.
Since my elementary school days, there have been and continue to be people whose actions disappointed, frustrated, and angered me, but I did not hate them, with one noteworthy exception. Years ago I bought a postcard that showed a Black man, naked to the waist, being publicly beaten in front a crowd of Whites. I do not have the words to describe how that image ripped me and the loathing -- maybe even hatred -- that I felt toward the man, not because he was White, but because of the whip. If what I felt was hatred then I was wrong to do that to my soul. I say this so that you may know that I do not "hate 'da white man.'" I do not want to belabor this point, but if you are interested in a fuller explanation of the impact that this episode had on my racial journey please read my short essay, Brothers. I hasten to add that I do not believe that Whites are evil or the enemy; racism is the enemy. I pray you see the difference. The Civil Rights Movement, in its various incarnations, has been from the start an interracial movement. This was true in the 1850s, true in 1950s, and it is true today. To refer to Whites as the enemy spits on the graves of Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two Whites who along with James Chaney, a Black man, were abducted, tortured and killed by Klansmen for helping register black voters in 1964, during what was called Freedom Summer. Have we forgotten James Reeb, a White Unitarian minister, who while fighting for civil rights in 1965 was beaten to death by White supremacists? Today there are scores of Whites who work side-by-side with peoples of color to combat racism. If they fight at my side how are they my enemies?
The belief that "da white man" is evil is a racist belief. Like any sane and thoughtful African American who knows the history of racism in this country, I have been angered, but anger is not hatred. Anger, for Civil Rights era Blacks like me, was a necessary step on the journey -- but anger is not and cannot be the destination. Do not, therefore, confuse my passionate fight against racism as anger against or hatred for Whites.
When I was a child the worst name you could call a person was hypocrite; this is no less true today. It meant then as it does now someone who says one thing publicly but practices another thing privately. If I were a Black separatist publicly spouting anti-Whites rhetoric who met White women on the "low-low" to satisfy sexual urges, then labeling me a hypocrite would fit. To the contrary, my marriage is public and I am, thankfully, not a Black separatist; I am a radical integrationist. Nationalists of all hues and stripes give me pause, if not angst. They are prone to close-minded dogmatism and fruitless we-they thinking. I am in the "lineage" of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, and the thousands of "nameless" people who fought to create a country where integration is real. I am an American and I am not going anywhere. As Dr. O.C. Nix, my history teacher at Jarvis Christian College said, more times than I can count, "The Italians can go back to Italy, and the Germans can go back to Germany, and the English can go back to England, but we are not leaving because this is our home -- and we will be treated fairly, or die trying." Let me say again: I am a radical integrationist who believes that segregation is wrong, racism is evil, and the United States belongs to us, all of us. This is what I say publicly: it is not anti-Whites rhetoric; no, it is the dream of my ancestors.
I do not "love his woman;" I do, however, love the woman who is my wife. White women, like any women -- Black, Brown, Red, and so on -- do not belong to men. Women are free, thankfully, to love or not love. In 1967 the United States Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia declared laws that forbade Blacks and Whites from marrying to be unconstitutional. Those so-called anti-miscegenation laws had been a foundation stone for the Jim Crow racial hierarchy. These laws were based on the racist assumptions that Blacks were inherently inferior to Whites in all important ways and that interracial marriages would lead to the debasement of American culture. These laws were found to be unjust and immoral. Are we still living in the 1950s? I pray we aren't.
At the outset of your e-mail message you wrote, "If racism makes you so mad, why did you marry a white woman?" With this you seem to say, though I may be misreading you, that until racism is no longer a problem Blacks (especially Black men who oppose racism) should not marry Whites. While your question, as stated, is a non sequitur, it is also, and I am trying to be gentle here, just silly. Why should the fact that some Whites are racist mean that no Black person should marry a White person? It's kind of like saying, "Since the air contains contaminant particles, I should not breathe -- or that I must breathe a certain way." While, obviously, I'm continuing to breathe, I can also work toward improving the quality of our air.
There is nothing hypocritical about being a civil rights or human rights advocate and being in an interracial couple. You said you, "have nothing against interracial relationships," but seem to argue that a Black man in an interracial marriage forfeits the right to fight against racism. That does not make sense to me. Indeed, one could argue that interracial couples and their children have a deep investment in fighting racism. Think of the person you love most in this world; you do not love that person any deeper than I love my family -- and I am committed to building a society where my family, the Blacks and the Whites, are treated with dignity and respect -- and can get a decent job. Please do not confuse a pro-assimilation civil rights advocate -- of which I am one -- with a pro-segregation Black Nationalist -- which I am not. Although both types oppose White racism, the differences between the two are big.
Racism is, unfortunately, still a problem in the United States, which is, of course, why it needs to be opposed. And, by the way, I hold the unpopular view that Blacks can be racist. As a sociologist and as a frequent participant in diversity conferences, I understand the argument that because African Americans do not hold a proportionate share of society's power, prestige, and property they can not collectively act on anti-Whites sentiments, ergo, they cannot be racist. I understand the argument, but there is not a single proponent of that idea who would also deny that there are Blacks who hate whites with a pure hatred and would hurt Whites if they got the chance. While we can debate whether African Americans can theoretically be racist, there is no debate that Blacks can hold prejudiced views against Whites, discriminate when they can against Whites, and most definitely hate Whites. Nevertheless, I recognize -- for all those screaming that I am an Uncle Tom -- that White racism is a bigger and more significant problem precisely because a disproportionate amount of social goods -- especially economic, social, political, and media-based power -- are controlled by Whites, the so-called dominant group.
There is anger in your letter that is unmistakable. I wish I lived in a country where racism made people equally angry -- angry enough to look at the ways that some groups are penalized for their skin color; angry enough to dialogue about the institutional patterns that stack the economic, social, educational, and political decks against peoples of color -- and poor Whites. I wish racism made all of us as angry as we can get over paying taxes, fighting unpopular wars, Black men marrying White women, or whatever it is that gets us steamed; angry enough to move toward the passionate pursuit of solutions. I am an ardent advocate for civil rights and human rights; please do not confuse that with anti-Whites anger or hatred. This fight against racism is more than a "b*tch and moan," it is an authentic attempt to improve this country.
You wrote, "Your entire museum and 'fight against racism' is a joke." The Jim Crow Museum is a powerful tool for fighting racism no matter who founded it. As John Thorp, the museum's director (he is White, by the way) reminds us, the images in the museum "force a person to take a stand for or against the equality of all human beings." This is no joke -- nor is taking a stand against inequality a joke. I have seen hundreds of people in that small room thinking and talking about race relations in meaningful ways. There will come a day in this country (undoubtedly several hundred years from now) when skin color will have the same social significance as shoe size, and the Jim Crow Museum will be one part -- admittedly a small part -- of ushering us toward that day.
Each week I receive mail that can be described as hate mail. I say this neither bragging nor complaining: just stating facts. It is a cost of doing business. Unlike your note, most of those letters include a racial slur in the salutation and then deteriorate, if that is possible. I have often wondered how many ways someone can call me a "race-baiting Red Nigger." I keep these letters in a file in case one of the authors decides to act out his or her hatred in a more personal way. I believe the people who write these letters are White supremacists, though I may be wrong -- the Internet is full of ghosts.
What I am trying to say is that I do not know you. I do not know if you are a White man, Black woman, Brown man, White woman, or someone else. I do not know which side you were on during the Civil Rights Movement or if you were alive then. I know nothing of your education, politics, or marital status (the sociologist in me is curious). I know nothing about you but the words you sent, and that is good because it made it easier for me to address the words.
I am sorry for the long response but I believe that fully attending to your charges is consistent with the fight against racial injustice.
Peace to you.
August 2007 response by
Jim Crow Museum