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Pick Museum’s “Hateful Things” exhibit explores racism in America through objects

February 9, 2021

When Joe Flynn first heard about the “Hateful Things” traveling exhibition from Ferris State University, he immediately thought that it would be an interesting exhibit for the Pick Museum of Anthropology at NIU.

During the two years that it took to finalize an agreement, he learned more about the exhibit and became more excited about it. However, nothing prepared him for the emotions he felt as he helped unbox the artifacts when they arrived.

“As we started to unpack these artifacts, a soul crushing feeling came over me,” says Flynn, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, and associate director of the NIU Center for Black Studies. “Holding them and looking at them just left you struggling with the question of, ‘Why did they do this to us?’”

Indeed, the 39 items in the exhibit force viewers to confront more than a century of negative iconography that shaped the way that people perceived and interacted with Black people from the end of the Civil War and into the 21st Century.

The exhibit, which opened to the public Feb. 9 runs through April 9, is sponsored by the NIU Center for Black Studies, the Friends of the NIU Libraries and the Pick Museum. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, groups of up to 10 people can schedule 45-minute viewing sessions through Eventbrite from the Current Exhibits page on the museum website.  Viewings are available 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays. Tickets are free. Visitors must wear a mask while in the museum and must consent to a symptom check.

In addition to items from popular and commercial culture, the exhibit also contains images of violence against African Americans as well as the Civil Rights struggle for racial equality. It lifts objects from their original purposes to serve as reminders of America’s racist past and challenges present-day images of racial stereotyping with the aim of stimulating the scholarly examination of historical and contemporary expressions of racism, as well as promoting racial understanding and healing.

“We are excited to co-sponsor such a thought-provoking exhibit,” Anne Edwards, director of the NIU Center for Black Studies said at the Feb. 2 VIP opening of the exhibit. “We hope to create dialogue around the exhibit and hope that dialogue leads to learning.”

NIU President Dr. Lisa Freeman, who was among those on hand for the event, called the exhibition an opportunity for enlightenment and dialogue. “This sets the context for the work our university community is doing to dismantle systems and structures that are racist or foment insecurity,” she said. “The objects, images and narratives showcase hate, ignorance and pain. But they also call upon us to look hard and look differently at our society, our community and our own hearts to see where we need change.”

The exhibition includes images that have been a familiar part of American lives for more than 100 years like Aunt Jemima of pancake mix fame and Uncle Rastus from Cream of Wheat, but it places them in a perspective that helps visitors understand how those stereotypical images reinforced negative beliefs about Black people for decades.

Some of the most disturbing images, to Flynn, were those that taught racism to children, whether through paper masks that distort the features of Black people, to a game where a black child serves as the primary target in a game where participants got points for hitting spots on the  board with a ball with the bullseye represented by the child’s nose. Also startling to him was his first glimpse of a metal sign for the Coon Chicken Inn (a small chain of fast food restaurants in the West from the 1920s to the 1950s) and a metal silhouette of a running black youth that was sold for target practice through the mid-1960s.

The mundane, socially acceptable nature of many of the items (in their original context) is ultimately what is so disturbing, Flynn said.

“When we are talking about racism, we are not simply talking about people being treated poorly, but rather an entire social system that supported the representation and treatment of a certain group of people in wholly, grossly negative ways,” Flynn explains in a Facebook Live tour of the exhibit featured on the Pick Museum’s Facebook Page. “The implicit biases that people hold come from somewhere. This is especially true in parts of the country that did not have significant Black populations. So, if you consistently see negative or stereotypical images of a group of people, repeatedly over a period of years, that can become the way you see those people,” he said. “And once people are dehumanized you can do almost anything to them.”

Calling out those notions and reminding current generations can be painful, but it is an important part of moving forward, said NIU’s Chief Diversity Office, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Vernese Edghill-Walden.

“Our collective past must be understood, acknowledge and reconciled for our healing as a nation, country, city and even as a campus for us to move forward,” Edgehill-Walden said at the opening. “This exhibit, I believe, can help us on that journey towards healing.”