Race relations in America have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow laws and “No Natives or Dogs” signs on Alaska storefronts. At least, we like to think they have. After all, Native corporations in this state are now some of the most successful home grown businesses we have. And no one in their right mind would hang a sign on their business excluding any particular race or creed no matter what they might be thinking privately. It’s just not done.
But the fact that private thought and public action may be two very different things means that racism has maybe not so much gone away as been driven underground. And in some places in American, maybe not so underground. In some places, it still rears its ugly head under the guise of nostalgia – souvenirs of a time long past.
I’m not referring to anything so obvious as the Confederate flag. I’m referring to lawn jockeys and pickanniny babies with dark brown skin, big red lips and white eyes. As hard as it may be for some of us to believe, those objects not only still exist, they are sold in many of America’s southern states with tongue not so firmly in cheek.
I know this because friends of mine returned from a business trip to South Carolina recently describing a little brown ceramic pickanniny baby, painted just as described above, with a big piece of watermelon in its hands. These friends tell me that the words,” Charleston, South Carolina” are firmly pasted on the baby’s butt with the words “Made in Taiwan” firmly pasted on the bottom of the little statue. When they questioned the seller, they were told these were “nostalgia” items. One can only wonder whose nostalgia.
On that same trip, these friends found a sign on a stick that had once been a menu in a restaurant. The cardboard on the stick was in the shape of a black face with red lips and white eyes. Does anyone else see a pattern developing here? The restaurant was called the Coon Chicken Restaurant and one of the items it sold was the Coon Baby Special. This menu, a horrifying reminder of a horrifying part of our country’s past, is now sold as a souvenir.
But perhaps most disturbing to me was driving through a place called Longport, New Jersey, just down beach from Atlantic City. Atlantic City is on Absecon Island and Longport is a bedroom community anchoring one end of that island. My sister lives in Margate, another little bedroom community on the island. As we headed to her house one night, she turned down a street and told me I was about to see something that would make my mouth fall open. She was very right.
We passed a house that had a freshly painted lawn jockey on it. There it sat, not directly on the lawn but actually raised up on a pedestal so that it would have greater visibility – as though the new paint job was not enough to make it stand out in a glaringly offensive way.
All the way back to her house I kept repeating, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe anyone would have a lawn jockey on their lawn.”
And then it occurred to me that for so long as people can, with apparent impunity, sell pickanniny babies eating watermelon, and other people can raise their lawn jockey on to a pedestal, the better to be seen by all who pass, then maybe racism isn’t just in our past. Maybe it’s everywhere around us but has just been driven underground by political correctness.
On the one hand, I’m glad political correctness exists if it causes overt racism to be driven underground so that its victims don’t have to be bombarded with those sights on a daily basis. I can’t even begin to imagine how enervating that would be. But on the other hand, if political correctness is driving racism underground without actually rooting it out, then I’d say we have a problem. Not just African Americans or Native Americans, but all Americans.
Because for every lawn jockey still astride a lawn and for every brown baby statue with watermelon sold as nostalgia, our humanity as a nation is diminished. As my mother used to say, you can’t throw mud without having some of it stick to you.