Column: Staring history in the face

KARL GROSSMAN

The exhibit now at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead is a chilling and disturbing presentation on racism toward African-Americans.  “Hidden and Forbidden: Art and Objects of Intolerance, Evolving Depictions of Blacks in America,” begins with a section on “Slavery” and ends with “Black Movements in America.”

The story of racism is not just history — in the U.S. or on Long Island.

ERASE Racism has in recent years been a leading group documenting and challenging racism here. The mission of Long Island’s chapter is “to expose forms of racial discrimination and advocate for laws and policies that help eliminate racial disparities, particularly in the areas of housing, community development, public education and health.”  Currently on its website — eraseracismny.org — is a map depicting in colors how the racial and ethnic make-up of most Long Island communities differ sharply.

Most are overwhelmingly white. And then there are the areas where African-Americans and Latinos are concentrated. In Suffolk County these include North Amityville, Wyandanch, Brentwood, Central Islip, Gordon Heights and Riverhead.

A caption for the chart reads: “Despite a 35 percent increase of people of color on Long Island from 2000 to 2010, levels of segregation remain extremely high, according to ERASE Racism’s new demographic analysis.” That analysis concludes: “Long Island is one of the most racially segregated regions in the country.”

ERASE Racism says that on Long Island “even the most affluent black and Hispanic homeowners are segregated into majority black and Hispanic communities with high concentrations of poverty.” It finds that a key is “steering” by real estate agents — agents who “would not show, sell, or rent” minorities “homes in mostly white areas” even when “they could, in fact, have afforded those homes.” This steering is illegal.

There are some who say with Barack Obama the president of the United States, we live in a “post-racial time.” That, unfortunately, isn’t true.
The exhibition at the Historical Society’s section on slavery includes ledger books listing the sale of slaves. “American economic foundations were built on free labor of enslaved Africans,” notes the program for the exhibit. Next is a section on “Jim Crow,” about restrictions designed to “instill the inferiority” of blacks to whites and establish “segregated and separate facilities” for blacks that “were often neglected, deplorable and inferior.”

Then there is a section titled “Characterizations.” The program speaks of the portrayal of blacks in “popular culture” as “cannibalistic savages, hypersexual deviants, childlike buffoons, obedient servants, self-loathing victims, and menaces to society.” Hideous artifacts are displayed.

“Homegrown Terrorists: the Ku Klux Klan” is a section on the hate group that includes a KKK robe and a newspaper article about a KKK leader speaking in Quogue.

“Exploits” is a section on black “caricatures” being used in the names of products and advertising of them —“Uncle Tom, the Picaninny, Mammy Coon, Tragic Mulatto.”

Then there’s “Black Movements in America” and how, “as a result of public discourse, civil disobedience” and, notably, the civil rights movement, change came through “laws, policies and practices.”

The exhibit was curated by Georgette Grier-Key, director and chief curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, Hofstra University’s Oral History Programming Director David Byer-Tyre, and Kathryn Curran, executive director of the Suffolk Historical Society.

It will be running through June 1. Dr. Grier-Key says the exhibit offers “a conceptual framework of images and objects that are often hidden because of fear and perceived perception” and that it is through “historical retrospect that this part of American history is viewed, shared, taught, learned and spoken.”

There is a quote featured on the cover of the program by Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

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