Monday, October 31, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


This is a little note about a little matter which can still jangle in the consciousness of people my age.

Recently I watched on Youtube a good half-hour documentary in which David Pilgrim, an African-American, showed us around a  “Jim Crow Museum” he has created somewhere in the American South. His exhibits consist of authentic images and cartoons and advertising posters and toys, popular from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, which caricatured blacks as inferior, comic, grotesque or bogeymen. Nigger minstrels, little black Sambos, coons, shuffling buffoons. Soap advertisements which promised to turn blacks white. Moneyboxes with mechanical hands that placed kiddies’ coins into the grotesque mouth of a grotesque caricatured Negro face. Public signs warning “niggers” not to trespass. Plus photographs of lynchings, photographs of public signs declaring “For Whites Only” or “For Coloureds Only”.

Pilgrim’s museum does have a display on the Ku Klux Klan, but as Pilgrim explained, he does not wish to emphasise extremist white supremacist groups. Such an emphasis could lead some white visitors to believe that segregation was supported and reinforced only by an extremist fringe; whereas the whole point of his museum is to show the everyday acceptance, by the white population, of images that promoted racial prejudice and a sense of natural superiority over black people.

He also explained (and showed) that a tour of his museum always ends in a room, its walls decorated with images of civil rights activists (black and white), where visitors can sit down and discuss the impact of what they have seen.

It seemed to me a model of educational enlightenment.

While I was watching, however, a few things jangled in my mind.

When I was a kid, I can remember that a few children I knew had cuddly-toy golliwogs. One kid had one of those gross caricature moneyboxes, but even then (the late 1950s), these were regarded in New Zealand as being in very poor taste and we never had such articles in our house.

So watching David Pilgrim’s exposition, I could feel myself to be insulated from his concerns. Gross racial caricatures happened in America. They did not happen here.

But then I remembered a song and a phrase.

At primary school we sometimes sang “Old Zip Coon” (it has the same tune as “Turkey in the Straw”). To us (and I am fairly sure to our teachers), the name meant nothing. It was simply a song about a man with a funny name. “There was a man with a double chin / Who had great skill on the violin / He played in time and he played in tune / But he couldn’t play anything but Old Zip Coon”. I may be wrong, but I believe the insulting racist term “coon” was not widely used in this country. Only much, much later did I learn that the song was from old “nigger minstrel” shows in which white men performed in blackface. The song was intended to ridicule black men who presumed to dress fashionably and act as dandies. Ouch!

Then there was the phrase.

Because we heard it used jocularly on American TV shows in the early 1960s, we would sometimes say “Get your cotton-picking hands off my stuff” and the like. Again ouch! In this case, however, our mother explained why we shouldn’t use the phrase and we stopped doing so.

We were raised to think of racial prejudice as a great evil. But even so, we sometimes echoed innocently what was grossly bigoted.

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