Lewis museum's 'Hateful Things' exhibit of Jim Crow-era artifacts is provocative – and relevant

Prepare to be appalled by the artifacts on view in the “Hateful Things” exhibit. Who wouldn’t be?

It may be that you’re offended by the metal bank from the 1920s of an African man with stereotypical facial features and his hand outstretched. Feed the bank coins, and the man’s eyes roll back. Or perhaps you will feel bruised by the “running gun” target from the 1980s. The silhouette depicts a naked black man with an Afro hairstyle and monstrous lips. What’s worse, the target is pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes.

Possibly, what will enrage you the most is the prevalence of one particularly vile racial slur.

But chances are that when you come face to face with the more than three dozen artifacts from the Jim Crow era being displayed for the next month at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, you’ll feel something. Regardless of your age, racial background, gender, personal history or politics, it’s unlikely that you can spend any time in this provocative show and remain unmoved.

“When this exhibit first went on our schedule about a year ago, we knew it would resonate with our visitors,” said Jackie Copeland, the Lewis’ director of education and visitor services. “But I don’t think we knew how relevant the exhibit would be given our current political climate. We had no idea it would be so prescient.”

In just the past three weeks, Ron DeSantis, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida, was pilloried after making a comment that his critics claim had racist overtones. DeSantis warned Sunshine State voters not to "monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.” His Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, is African-American.

And a cartoon of Serena Williams that ran in an Australian newspaper portraying the African-American tennis star as squat, overweight and with exaggerated lips was widely condemned as a racist caricature. The cartoonist, Mike Knight, has said he was attempting to chastise Williams for poor sportsmanship by showing her jumping up and down on a tennis racket, not mock her racial heritage.

“For many of the people who will view this exhibit, those images are not in the past,” said Nathan Connolly, an associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University who specializes in the Jim Crow era. “There’s an ongoing struggle in America over black representation. That struggle has not ended.”

“Hateful Things” is a traveling exhibit that originated at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich. The show demonstrates how ubiquitous and overt racism was in the U.S. before the civil rights movement. Offensive stereotypes were prevalent in cigar advertisements and on boxes of pancake mix. They were incorporated into nursery rhymes and calendars. Racism was everyday, ordinary and accepted.

It’s no coincidence, Connolly said, that many collectors of Jim Crow-era ephemera are black.

“In our society, there’s a broad sense of denial about how the nature of discrimination and how pervasive it was,” he said. “So it’s important to have physical evidence about the treatment of black people in America.”

Though most artifacts in “Hateful Things” target African-Americans, the show demonstrates how easily prejudice can spread by casually linking groups that don’t obviously share similar cultural backgrounds. A wooden sign from the 1950s bluntly identifies three groups of visitors it doesn’t want: “No [n-word], no Jews, no dogs.” A restrictive covenant signed in Baltimore on Jan. 13, 1926, specified that homes could not be sold, leased, rented to or occupied by “any Negro or Chinese.” Other artifacts in the exhibit include unflattering depictions of women and Native Americans.

Given the potential of “Hateful Things” to wound or anger much of its potential audience, it seems significant that visitors haven’t been avoiding the show. Far from it.

“It’s been very interesting,” said Wanda Q. Draper, the Lewis’ executive director.

“We haven’t gotten any pushback, at least not yet. More than 100 people came to the show’s opening, and they stayed for a long time. People were lined up to look at the exhibits, and they read every word of the text panels. Some of the older people had tears in their eyes. The room was absolutely silent. It reminded me of a chess tournament.”

It can be difficult to know in advance which potentially inflammatory exhibits will be controversial, and which will not.

Last September, Baltimore artist Stephen Towns removed six paintings from a wall at Goucher College after a female security guard complained that they offended her. (Both the security guard and Towns are African-American.) The paintings portrayed former slaves executed during the aftermath of the Nat Turner rebellion. Each victim is dressed in contemporary clothing and grasps a noose tightening around his or her neck. In place of the paintings, Towns left six blue, taped rectangles indicating where the artworks had hung and a statement of explanation.

Around the same time, an exhibit of satirical Ku Klux Klan robes by Baltimore artist Paul Rucker was closed to the public by officials at Pennsylvania’s York College. The robes take aim at oppressors of all races. A few of the life-sized mannequins in the “Rewind” exhibit have black arms and legs, and some robes are fashioned from traditional African Kente cloth. “Rewind” was scheduled to open just a few weeks after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent. As a precaution, York officials limited attendance at the exhibit to students, staff and alumni.

Both incidents made newspaper headlines and ignited conversations on social media about racial sensitivities, censorship and free speech.

Brian J. Carter, president of the Association of African American Museums, said institutions can prepare visitors to view potentially disturbing materials by paying careful attention to the space where the artifacts will be exhibited, by researching the offensive artifacts or artworks and putting them in context, and by creating accompanying programs to address the issues the shows raise.

For example, an ashtray, menus and tin sign in “Hateful Things” taken from a former restaurant chain called The Coon Chicken Inn may evoke a different response when viewed in a museum than they would displayed in a shopping mall. A text panel in ‘Hateful Things” explains that the restaurant chain was active in the western U.S. from the late 1920s through the 1950s, and adds that images from it were used by filmmaker Spike Lee in his 2000 film “Bamboozled.”

Visitors to the Lewis who need a break from “Hateful Things” can also duck into the next gallery to view a companion exhibit, “Reclaiming Racist Stereotypes” in which four contemporary African-American artists explore, satirize and reposition bigoted Jim Crow-era cliches. For instance, Sanford Biggers’ “Cheshire Smile” transforms the exaggerated lips on the metal bank into an image that playfully evokes both Lewis Carroll’s famously cool “cat” — slang for an African-American man — and a slice of watermelon.

“This is the work of museums and particularly the work of African-American museums,” Carter said.

“We try to present accurate historic information and bring about conversations that may be jarring and difficult but that we need to have in the current political climate. My 70-year-old father is still waking up to see images like the ones in the show today and so am I and so is my son. As a society, we need this exhibit. This is what museums are supposed to do.”

If you go

“Hateful Things” runs through Oct. 14 at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, 830 E. Pratt St. $6-$8. For details, call 443-263-1800 or visit lewismuseum.org.

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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