Interview of David Pilgrim ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is David Pilgrim. He is a professor, orator, and human rights activist. He is best known as the founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum­, a ten thousand piece collection of racist artifacts located at Ferris State University, which uses objects of intolerance to teach about race, race relations, and racism. He is the author of Understanding Jim Crow. His most recent book is Watermelons, Nooses, and Straight Razors: Stories from the Jim Crow Museum

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program again.

DP: Well thank you for having me. I am freezing here in Michigan, but I have very much looked forward to this conversation all day.

DJ: Well thank you so much. I have, too. So, I was wondering if we could start with, for people who didn’t hear the first interview, what is Jim Crow, and what is the Jim Crow Museum – like, fifteen minutes on this. What is the Jim Crow Museum and what is the importance of having a collection of these racist artifacts?

DP: Well, Jim Crow – the popular version of the story is that Thomas Rice, an unsuccessful white actor, either saw an elderly African-American or a young one, in either case one who had problems with walking. He saw that person and heard them singing a little ditty, and saw them with their physical condition, trying to dance. He in turn took what he saw, embellished it, and created this blackface character, which appeared on many American stages and quite frankly made him very wealthy. He even traveled to Europe. Of course, him having the Jim Crow persona onstage meant that there would be imitators. It wasn’t very long – what he started, what he did in the late 1820’s, early 1830’s; within five or six years there were enough performers that the minstrel show had become the first real form of mass entertainment in the U.S.

Now having said all of that, I’m not sure how much of that is folklore and how much of it’s true. I spent way too much of my time in old newspapers, and certainly he did not coin the term “Jim Crow.” What he did do was to popularize not just the song, but the image of the ragged-dressed, buffoonish African-American, or at that time, “Negro,” or, forgive my language, a “nigger” on the stage. And it wasn’t very long before “Jim Crow” became a slur against African-Americans.

I used to say that it was by the 1880’s that “Jim Crow” had become not just a name of a stage performer, but a synonym for the racial hierarchy that existed in this country. And after that first book was written, I found a reference from Frederick Douglass, which was in the 1830’s, where he refers – he’s very upset about being forced to sit in what he called the “Jim Crow car.” I don’t know how common that was. I don’t know if it caught on, but much sooner than most writers have claimed, at least one African-American was calling a kind of segregation, in this case travels on a train, “Jim Crow.”

So what is it we do? Well, the U.S. has a lot of African-American studies museums. What we have not had was a museum that focused primarily, though not exclusively, on racism. So years and years and years ago I started collecting. I think most people that have followed my story know that I broke the first piece that I purchased. It was a mammy-type piece that I purchased down in Mobile, which is where I was living as an eleven, twelve, thirteen-year-old. I don’t remember the second piece or the third piece or the fourth piece, but I remember always having – I think early on I was just fascinated with almost the repulsiveness of the pieces. And keep in mind that – I mean, I grew up in an all-black, all-brown section of Mobile near Pritchard, Alabama, and so the stuff that I saw, a lot of it was in the homes of black and brown people. And so I just started collecting and spent an entire life collecting. And I have to be honest with you, for most of my life I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. It wasn’t probably until I got to graduate school that I had a vague idea of creating some type of learning facility. I don’t think I would have been as bold as to claim that I wanted to exhibit at that point. But I wanted a place where people could look at the objects, and we could talk about the objects, which is actually what has happened today.

So right now, we have – you know, we’re receiving, because of the attention we’ve gotten on the Internet, we’re receiving hundreds of pieces each year. So now, instead of ten or eleven thousand pieces, we’re probably up over fifteen thousand. And at some point, I’m going to have to make a decision, which seems weird, given that fact that I spent so much of my life wishing I had more money so that I could buy some of this material. But we may be getting to the point where I may actually have to say no to us receiving in-kind donations.

People come to the museum from all over the world. We’ve had people come from Australia, from Queensland, looking at us as a template for a museum they wanted to build that dealt with aboriginalia, which was the term they used. That was really, really flattering. But most of the people that come are individuals or couples or small groups that are traveling through Michigan. We’re in the metropolis of Big Rapids. I joke that people ask me “Where’s Big Rapids?” I say “Well, you know, I think we’re about 1050 miles north of Miami.” And if they don’t laugh, I know they’re not really paying attention to me.

But we have people come from all over. I truly believe we’re having really good conversations about race relations and racism. The approach we use more often than not is a visual thinking strategies approach. This might strike your listeners as odd, because visual thinking strategies are typically used by people working with elementary school students. But for us it works really well. It’s not rocket science. We bring in people, we position them in front of objects, and we ask them “What is it you see?” And so one person looking at the kitchen with the hundreds of “mammy” type, you know, Aunt Jemima, Dinah, syrup and all these pieces – one person sees a kind of nostalgia, and I don’t mean this to be facetious. It brings back good memories of times that they spent with their grandparents, or with their parents. And then someone else sees the vestiges of slavery and segregation. I think that’s the value of the museum, is that people who see objects very, very differently are put in situations where they have to interact with each other. For me, it’s difficult, because I like visual thinking strategies as a concept, but the activist in me just wants to start screaming “You know damned well that’s not what you see.” And just lose my mind.

But I don’t. (laughing) At least not at the front end of the discussions.

So that’s what we do. I just want to add one little thing, which is that we are vaguely a collection of racist and segregation-based memorabilia or objects. But, beginning in 2012, we moved into the larger facility. We added a couple of sections. One is on civil rights. One is on African-American achievements. One is on African-American artists using their art to deconstruct racial imagery. For years, I fought against adding those sections, because, just to cut to the chase, we’re not an African-American studies museum, or a general studies museum with a focus on racism. We’re a racism museum. But I had enough thoughtful people talk to me, and explain to me, that racism is not just what it does. Or, if you’re going to tell the story of racism, you should not just tell the story of what it does. You should talk about how people respond to, resist, and overcome. And it’s kind of interesting that I have started, I don’t know when this started, probably with our most recent election. I started talking of the museum as a space of resiliency.

Now, I could have always done that. But it just seems more relevant, or more important, to tell that story now.

Let’s all take a break. I’m sorry for that hour and a half answer.

DJ: No no no, it’s perfect. I loved your answer. And also, I – you don’t need my approval, certainly, but I just want to say that I think that given your material, and given the way you present it, that the – you called it the visual learning strategies, is that what it’s called?

DP: Well, you can. We called it “visual learning strategies.” I do it on the web also so in that case it’s virtual. But yeah, visual learning strategies, yes.

DJ: I think that given the strength of the material you have, that that’s absolutely brilliant that you do it that way. Because the material – I’m holding Watermelons, Nooses and Straight Razors as we’re speaking, and the material is just so strong.

DP: Yeah.

DJ: And the hatred of black people by white people, and by the culture at large, is just so evident. It’s like, you don’t have to say a word, because every single quote and every single postcard makes it clear for you. And it’s just – I just want to grab a couple, like, random things. I’ll open to page 37, and here’s a line by H.L. Mencken, who was a very well-respected journalist.

DP: Very.

DJ: “The vast majority of people of their race are but two or three inches removed from gorillas. It will be a sheer impossibility for a long, long while to interest them in anything above pork chops and bootleg gin.”

Or Carl Sandburg, a very well-respected person. “Why do I always think of niggers and buck-and-wing dancing whenever I see watermelon?”

And those are, not visual obviously, but we have images to go along with all of those. I guess it’s a long-winded way of – this makes me think of a line by Andrea Dworkin, where she is talking about how women just don’t realize how much men in patriarchy hate them as a class. And I’m thinking, as I look at your books, as I read your books, as a white person, this is the thing that just overwhelms me, is like “My God, how much they are hated.” That’s one thing that hits me so hard. And the other thing that really hits me is a line that’s said by a friend of mine – and I’m going to shut up for a minute and you can take this anywhere you want.

DP: No, go on. I’m enjoying it.

DJ: There’s a line that an environmentalist friend says about why there is so much timber industry propaganda in the Pacific Northwest. He said “A lie is very expensive to maintain, but a truth you can just say. Lies, you’ve got to repeat them constantly.” And when I read your books I just keep thinking about how this lie that Africans are inferior just has to be pounded in, because it is a lie. And so – okay. I’m done now.

DP: First of all, the problem with talking with me, and my colleagues tell me this, is that I think and talk in footnotes. So I leave the record conversation and we call it my “there goes a squirrel” moment kind of thing. So I’ll give you an example of that. When you gave that quote about pork chops. Immediately where my brain went was that I probably spent a month debating whether or not to write a chapter on pork chops and black people, or fried chicken and black people. And eventually this, I didn’t write either one. And it’s pretty clear, in part because, with the watermelon, the chapter on watermelon, I could talk about the racializing of food. Where it becomes a shorthand way of saying that a people, you know, that they are dumb and lazy and lack ambition and whatever else. But before I did, started the research, I did not know that that was the time when the pork chop was actively competing as a racist symbol of African-American laziness again, lack of ambition and the like. So again, I have to try not to go down and get in the weeds all the time.

I do want to share with you a weird story, if it’s okay. I’m often asked: “Why do this?” And I certainly have other interests. I like eating, I like cooking, I like some sports, I like some entertainment. I like walking. I mean, I have other interests. And so I, some of my friends, they’re not meaning to be nasty or critical. They just, you know, say “Why do this?” I’ve gotten it a lot in a lifetime. So, late one night, I’m up and I’m reading these newspapers in these various archives on the Internet now. It’s amazing. I can pull up newspapers from the 1700’s, the 1800’s. And there’s a Motown commercial. I don’t know if it’s the 25th anniversary, or the 30th. Whatever. It was actually an infomercial. So it showed that it was the night Michael Jackson, who’s given credit for being the first person to do moonwalking, he wasn’t. But he does that, and the crowd goes crazy, and I’m in bed, and I look at the crowd and they’re disproportionately peoples of color. And you can’t judge folks’ socioeconomic status by looking at their clothes, but these were well-dressed people. Quite frankly, these were folk who looked like they’re part of what E. Franklin Frazier referred to as the “black bourgeoisie” years ago, right? And they’re all dancing and they’re all having fun, and I am not joking when I say this. That was a moment when I asked myself: “What the hell am I doing? Why don’t I just dance? Why am I not dancing?”

And then it went away. And I told that story a couple of times, and I think that, whether I dance or not, whether I eat, drink and be merry or not, new racist objects are still going to be made. Old images are going to morph into the present. When there’s a race-based incident in the U.S. there is a two-dimensional or a three-dimensional object created within a week. That’s going to happen whether I dance or not. And so the question is not: “Can I figure out a way to not just ignore this material weight the way many people do?” But can I do something different with it? Can I find a way to get people to look at this and in a more nuanced way, understand what we’ve been as a nation and what we are? And I don’t want to get super political here, but I will tell you this. Up until the last year and a half, or two years, when I travel the country, I would almost always include a statement that said “I believe that despite significant institutional systemic problems, structural problems, despite that, I believe that we are more democratic and more egalitarian than we have been as a nation.”

And I stopped saying that about sixteen months ago or so. Because, I tell you, I grew up in Alabama while George Wallace was the governor. And if I close my eyes, it’s like I just woke up again in Pritchard, Alabama; Mobile, Alabama with George Wallace the governor. I’m not trying to engage in hyperbole. I’m not saying the US has not made great changes. What I am saying is that progress is not linear. It is not. If you’re an activist, you’ve got to be vigilant. You gotta keep the train moving in that direction. I don’t remember the exact quote, but somebody said, I think it may have been in the Letter From Birmingham Jail, where Dr. King was talking about time. And folks saying to him “Just wait. Why are you taking such an urgent posture? Why don’t you just slow down a little maybe?” And you know, he’s talking about how people waited for 300 years, or 400 years. But he said something, you know, not to be a philosopher, I just think it’s profound. What he said is that time is neutral. And if we accept that, which, I don’t know what it would be to not accept that, it just seems so self-evident. If time is neutral, then what’s not neutral are the behaviors, the actions. The decisions made by people.

So whether I dance or not, or teach or not, these are challenges that exist, and so I just have to find a different time to dance.

DJ: Well, for what it’s worth, I am grateful that you dance in the way that you do.

DP: Why thank you! You know what? I think we have a kindred connection. I think a lot about what activism is. I came out of the Ohio State; they want me to say the Ohio State; where, if you were, if they saw that you were going to be an activist it was almost a little disappointment, if you understand what I mean. If you were in sociology, the idea was that we were supposed to do objective research and other folks could do whatever they wanted with that research, but we weren’t supposed to actually, and actively, try to change the nation and the world. Which made no freaking sense at all, because sociology as a field, you know, came from people that were trying to fix Chicago, trying to fix Boston, New York. So we had an activist tradition. Now, on the flip side of all that, I can’t count the number of my activist friends, my mentors, colleagues, friends and mentees, who are now burnt out. They just burn out. You have a pretty good idea what burnout looks like.

I have to have enough hope to keep doing the work, and I think that I will always have that. Because I just see so many people coming into the museum, and it’s not like a Saul on the road to Damascus kind of thing. I don’t even know if that happens. But there are people that come in there and they see something. And it’s often, in my mind, something very small. But they see something and it just, I’m trying not to use a cliché, and they keep popping into my head, so I’ll just say “when the light comes on.”

And they want to learn more, and they want to know more. And so as long as that keeps happening, you know, I think I can be hopeful.

DJ: Well, I think there’s that, and also, honestly, if you broke your first piece of Jim Crow memorabilia when you were eleven, twelve or thirteen?

DP: Yeah.

DJ: You have found your calling. You know?

It’s like, for me, I don’t really worry about burnout. Yes, I get very despairing, but I don’t worry about burnout because I am doing the things – the stuff I am writing is what I was born to do.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And it feels to me – I don’t know you, but from what you said, if you were doing this stuff when you were eleven, twelve, thirteen; it’s like, man, I can’t see you ever burning out.

A quick example. I was a high jumper in college, and my roommate on away track trips was a shot putter. And we used to just laugh because my legs were really strong. I was built for high jumping. But I couldn’t even pick up a shot put with one hand, much less throw it. So, I was doing what I was born to do physically that way. And he was doing what he was born to do.

And once again, I don’t know you. And I’m sorry to psychologize you, but it sounds to me like you are doing what you were born to do, or what you were put in the world to do. It sounds like you’re – am I wrong?

DP: No, I don’t think so, and I appreciate that. I don’t want to get too metaphysical here, but I do think that we go through what we go through in part so we can know what we know. Without, you know, some family drama, I would not have been raised down South. And I just happened to be raised down there right at the end, and by that I mean the bitter end, of Jim Crow. And so, you know, I got to be a part of the desegregation, which is what it was called. And the fights, and the brick throwing and all of that. So I got to see those things. And I do believe that that shaped me.

As a sociologist, I wouldn’t say I was born that way, but I’ve certainly been, you know there’s some soft determinism here; I’ve certainly been shaped. And I think it’s my work. It’s just the last couple of years that have been really, just frustrating is all.

Of course … we have a Facebook page and we just put up a story. Because we try to be contemporary. We put up a story about some – and I apologize. But it’s some designer, they had a little black kid and they made a reference to a “monkey” something on there. One of the people who works here put the story out. And almost immediately someone wrote in, in effect, that if you want to see real monkeys, you should look at so-and-so and some of her relatives. And so we sort of debated whether or not to take it down. And I was for leaving it up, because first of all, it shows the work that has to be done. I don’t think it’s an accident that that’s actually one of the chapters in the book. I learned a lot – I mean, I knew already before doing research that calling African-Americans monkeys and baboons and whatever was a slur. I just learned more about it than I had learned about it. The same thing with some of the other pieces. So I agree that, I think that at this point in my life I have enough will to make it to the end. And there certainly won’t be a shortage of work to do.

DJ: So I’m thinking … I’m loving everything you’re saying, and I would love to talk about the despair of the last couple of years, but there’s something else you said earlier, if you don’t mind, that I would like to go back to.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And that … as I’m reading your book, I’ve kept – and I’ve wondered this my whole life. What’s the deal with watermelon?

DP: (Laughs)

DJ: And then you have this line in there; this made me laugh out loud. “Black people represent 13% of the U.S. population, yet account for 11% of the watermelon consumption.” So it’s like: It’s not even true. And so it’s like … you had this great line earlier in the conversation today about … I don’t remember what you said, but … politicization of food? Was it?

DP: Yeah, the racializing of food.

DJ:The racializing of food. So can you talk about – I know it when I see it, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.

DP: Yeah. Well, obviously a watermelon has no inherent meaning. It can be a fruit, a vegetable, it can be just something that’s laying in a field that has no meaning at all. I think the best evidence suggests that although blacks and whites and browns and reds and yellows were all eating watermelon in this country, the negative association with black people and watermelons probably started after reconstruction. And that was one of the points I wanted to make, because after reconstruction you have; first of all you have a lot of angry white people in the U.S., especially in the South. And not just the deep South, but the South. And you’re not able to tell folks what to do. You have the creation of the Klan. We’d had Klan-like groups before that, but there’s these people wanting to re-enslave blacks. And there’s folks not sure. You talk about massive social change. Imagine going from a culture where people were enslaved to one where they’re not enslaved. And you do it in a short period of time. That is massive social change, and I don’t think it would be surprising if there were many whites who thought the world was coming to an end.

And so you got all this going on, and what you see, you see some black person eating a watermelon, or doing any of the things that free people do. Well, you get pissed off. And I think it was more just that it caught on, just as a symbol of, and one of the authors I read about, he talked about, you know, freedom food. And it just became a way to flip that, to make it something negative. And then it caught on, I think in part because you eat watermelons with your hands, because it’s kind of a, I don’t say a dirty fruit but it’s hard to eat it and be clean, depending on how you’re eating it. You can eat it sitting under a shady tree. It was almost perfect as propaganda to suggest that black people were lazy and didn’t want to work anymore. And once it caught on – and that was not the case, by the way, early on, as I said. Even the early years of the minstrel shows, that wasn’t true, and it wasn’t true during enslavement. We place that idea, we projected it backwards, in kind of a retrospective interpretation kind of way. So there are a lot of people today, where you ask them “When did the negative association of African-Americans with watermelon start?” They’ll go “Oh, that was during the first years of slavery.” Well, that’s probably not true. But it’s depicted that way in paintings. In prints, in cards. In songs, in jokes. In whatever.

But I picked that watermelon just to make the point that a racist society creates racist objects and racializes other objects. And so if you can racialize food, you can pretty much racialize anything. And that’s what happened. And by the way, watermelon is actually a good food. If there’s such thing as a bad food, I’m not sure. It’s a good food. And I also wanted to talk about how people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and James Baldwin – of course, everything tortured Baldwin, but you know how you have these civil rights, human rights, black power, whatever – and they wouldn’t be caught dead eating a watermelon in front of white people. I mean, that’s how strong, to this day, if you talk to African-Americans you’ll find some of them will say “No, I’m not comfortable eating watermelon in the presence of white people.” How insidious – how successful was that? Racializing this – well, I guess some people’d call it a fruit, some people call it a vegetable, but racializing it. So if you can racialize a watermelon, and not only can do it but did do it, then that gives us some clues as to how high your mountain was.

DJ: I’m going to mirror back to you, because I want to make sure I’m understanding. So part of the point is that if you can take an object that has nothing to do with race whatsoever, it is simply like you said, a melon in a field, and then turn that into a sign for racial inferiority and racial subjugation, then if you can do that, that is a signifier of how profound the underlying contempt is.

DP: You said it better than I did. That is exactly the case.

DJ: This is extraordinary. And, again, this is what your work does. This is what I want to say to readers, that is what your work is just so brilliant at.

DP: I appreciate that. You know, I’ll give you another example of that. You know, I only used a few examples in the book, but there are instances where black and brown and sympathetic white protesters show up after some racial incident. And they are confronted by racial slurs, and threats, but they’re also often confronted by people holding watermelons. And again, it becomes a way – so whether this person is being called a monkey, being called a nigger, being threatened with a noose, whatever, the watermelon becomes – it’s like part of that puzzle. It’s a way of summarily dismissing someone, in some group. So in Bensonhurst, when a young Al Sharpton shows up with 300 people to protest Yusef Hawkins’ killing and they march through a neighborhood, they are met with racial taunts, but also they are met with people holding watermelons over their heads. When you look at a lot of the attempt to do school busing, the buses that carried black children were pelted with watermelons. So, yeah, I mean it’s just amazing because, I guess you could say that nothing, if you’re a sociologist you could say that no person, place or thing has any inherent meaning, I think we could definitely agree that the watermelon in and of itself is not inherently racist.

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left and I’m thinking –

DP: That was way too quick.

DJ: I know! So actually what I’m thinking is I would like to ask you about straight razors in a second, but I would love it if we could schedule another interview to talk about the last few years, to talk about the disappointment and all that, because that’s huge. Is that okay?

DP: Okay. I would like to do that. I would like to say that one of the reasons I wanted to do this book was because toward the end of the research for Understanding Jim Crow, I started just finding stuff. And I found two stories that I just had never seen in any book. One of them was about, and you know it’s very ghoulish. It was about the use of black people’s skin as leather, you know, to make leather products. You know, boots and shoes and purses and razor strops. And I started thinking about the so-called black criminal with the straight razor being the symbol of that criminality, and then I started thinking, okay but what happened to the people who were lynched, what happened – it’s one thing to say that they’re souvenirs, but I found dozens of examples in the New York Times and the St. Louis Post and whatever, where people in just a matter-of-fact way would talk about wearing shoes made from the skin of a black person. And I thought to myself: You can’t really understand what Jim Crow was unless you really understand that this is a major American newspaper. One of dozens, that as late as the nineteen-teens are running stories – and by the way, the stories weren’t about that. They were just mentioned in passing.

DJ: They’re value-neutral stories.

DP: Yeah! They were value-neutral. And then the other story that kind of struck me was – and I don’t know why this surprised me, Derrick, because I spent so much of my time looking at minstrel shows and reading old minstrel scripts and listening to old music, I don’t know why it never occurred to me that someone would wear blackface makeup, you know, grease paint or whatever, and go out and commit crimes. And I think – I’m not even sure of this, but I think when I was at college, an undergrad at Jarvis Christian College, I believe one of the professors talked about Ida B Wells claiming that there were black men being lynched for crimes committed by whites in blackface.

And you know how something gets stuck in the back of your brain? I didn’t think about it for years and years and years, and then once I was able to research many newspapers, including ones that were not very big newspapers, I ran into story after story after story after story. And I’m not suggesting that this was the dominant thing that was happening. What I am suggesting was that it did happen, and that I did find dozens of examples. And so I wanted to write a book that had a couple of things that people just – that you just didn’t find someplace else. I also wanted to do a little research on Pritchard and Mobile, the cities that produced me, and I began the book talking about, you know, listening to old black men talking about lynchings, not even knowing that from where I was sitting, surrounding this store where we sat, that there was a tree where, in the years before me, where multiple black people were lynched. And so just trying to understand these ugly stories, and trying to, like I said, find some things where I could continue learning, and I think I did that. So I wanted to share that information with other people.

DJ: As you’re talking here, and, again, as I read your books, there’s a line that keeps coming back to me, which is by Milan Kundera, which is: “The struggle against oppression is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

DP: Yes. I love that.

DJ: And it seems, again, that that’s one of the incredibly, the invaluable gifts that you provide to the world, is in this. Because I also didn’t know about the pork chops. And also, of course, anybody who knows anything about the U.S. judicial system knows about black criminality, the whole trope of that. But I had never heard of, the straight razor thing never meant anything to me. I’d never heard of that until I’d read your book.

DP: Okay.

DJ: And if we don’t know it, we can’t fight it.

DP: Well, I want to tell you how much I appreciate you having me on here to talk about these topics. I think that first book, Understanding Jim Crow was easier to be write. I think I could be more detached. I think the Watermelons book was more difficult because the material in it was more painful. I’m not trying to be melodramatic. I’m just being honest. It was really, really unpleasant to read through the stuff that’s necessary to read through in order to write what you have to write. So I want to tell you how grateful I am that you gave me an opportunity to come out here and share some of my ideas.

DJ: Well thanks you for saying that. And so far as taking on this material, something that has been said about me, is that in my work I have to read – my work contains a lot of atrocities. And as I’m doing the research for it, I’m often just sobbing as I read this or that thing. And then once I’m done sobbing, I see where this goes in the book. And I just want to say, I know this for myself, and I’m suspecting it for you too, that this is – not everyone is capable of looking at these materials and not looking away, but instead looking at them and metabolizing them and then turning them back into a gift for the community. And that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about you is your, and I’m saying this as somebody who does this myself, that you have this tremendous capacity for staring at the horror without it destroying you, and then presenting that to people. As you’ve said about the people at the museum, presenting that to people in ways that they can then take into bite-sized, you know, you sort of took the hit for the team, of looking at it. And of course you and I don’t actually take the hit for the team, because we’re just looking at the atrocities. This is how I don’t feel so bad when I’m looking at the work, is that I feel bad for looking at it, but I’m not the person that actually had this done to me.

DP: Right, right.

DJ: And so my sacrifice is trivial compared to theirs.

DP: Right, right. I know, I agree.

DJ: So we have two or three minutes left. What do you want for listeners to take away from this interview? What do you want them to know about racism in the United States and its history and what we can do to change that several-hundred-year legacy?

DP: I don’t think we can change anything until we accept that what we have experienced has been almost inevitable. That when we set up a society where every major societal institution, the family, religion, the government, the military, the mass media, all of it; was based on ideas that you and I, and I think most people, or many people today would call white supremacist ideas. The things that followed were inevitable. And the way to change this, if it can be changed, is to find a way that we can separate emotion from the critique. And I don’t think we’ll ever have a true reconciliation commission in this country. Although I would love to see a plaque, at least, for the 4000 African-Americans that were lynched. I don’t think we’ll ever have that, and I know that when most people talk about the need for sustained dialog, they’re not talking about it in exactly the same way that I’m talking about it. But that’s what we need. When I stop believing that words matter, I’ll shut up. And I’m not at that point yet.

So the other thing that I want to focus on is that whether we’re talking about African-Americans dealing with racism or women dealing with sexism or the LGBT community with injustice against them, we cannot do these things alone. We have to have allies. We have to figure out a way to work together to become less territorial. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that, to be honest with you.

So I hope people read the book, that they learn some facts that they didn’t know before, and that more than that, they have a deeper understanding of the gulf that existed in this country. And if they have that, then they’ll have a better appreciation of when we do make progress, and what’s necessary for us to make progress.

DJ: Well thank you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been David Pilgrim. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on February 4th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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