Video by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune
Walking through and beholding the memorabilia of the “Forgotten Images” exhibit– the traveling “museum” that displays African-American artifacts– evokes a strange sensation of mixed feelings.
On the one hand, there’s the Ku Klux Klan uniform, hovering above the tables like a deflated white phantom– now lifeless, but still menacing. On the other, there are cheerful salt-and-pepper shakers in the form of black children eating watermelon.
Whereas the KKK outfit is a blatant symbol of lynchings– summoning images of violence against blacks and other minorities in the South, the seemingly harmless ceramic shakers present a more complicated side of African-American history. They are remnants of a period when defenders of slavery perpetuated an image of black people as being unfit for freedom. As historian John Hope Franklin indicated in his book From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, the pervasive stereotypes portrayed them as docile, tractable and happy– childlike and dependent upon the master.
As evidenced by Forgotten Images, these innocent-looking figurines, by dehumanizing blacks, were essentially forms of propaganda that paved the way for bigots to discriminate against, humiliate and violently attack people of color.
Signal Hill residents David and Sharon McLucas are the collectors who have amassed the collection featured in the exhibit. He began with music– collecting old vinyl records. She started with pictorial images that she hung on her walls.
Together, they focused their attention on pre-Civil War and Reconstruction-era memorabilia and began shopping for items around the country, eventually extending their avocation into 20th Century realia.
Sharon, who said it’s very important for young people to understand the trials and tribulations of the struggles that came before them, began using her collected items as educational tools years ago. Her daughter’s friends would visit their home, and Sharon would give them a history lesson, making a game of it by quizzing the children upon their return– telling them they couldn’t come back unless they’d remembered what she had taught them.
Her daughter, Sheba Gillis, has joined David and Sharon in conducting tours of the exhibit. She said initially she didn’t comprehend the significance of her mother’s and stepfather’s collection.
“I’d ask, ‘Why do y’all keep buying all that junk?’” she said.
After time, the meaning and importance did sink in, even to the point that she herself felt compelled to educate others about the history that her parents deemed so necessary. She earned a masters degree in secondary education, and she is now an after-school administrator and incorporates the artifacts into her program.
“The kids don’t know. They have no clue,” Gillis said. “I bring in stuff to show them because it’s different when you see it right in front of you. If you can see it and touch it, it makes it real.”
But David says not everyone is receptive to the often disturbing images, some of which include alligators preying on young black children, exaggerated ruby-red lips and African-Americans behaving as savages right out of the jungle. “A man [attending the exhibit] asked me, ‘Why is your exhibit so negative?’ A lot of black people have no idea of how highly marketed we were,” he said. “It was embedded into the society, a part of everyday life. Even today, there are echoes that come to the surface of what went on then.”
David points out that, in addition to being an educational forum, the exhibit is a tribute to those who suffered and sacrificed so much so that future generations could have better lives. “It’s been said before, but we’re standing on the shoulders of so many giants who went through so many trials. They couldn’t vote. They couldn’t get into restaurants. Their lives were in danger because of Jim Crow laws,” he said. “What your great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother went through so we can be better off today.”
What drives Sharon’s passion to share the exhibit with youth is that they likely will not have exposure to such items in their history classes.
“They don’t learn this in the classroom,” Sharon said. “They can’t see and touch and ask questions, and that’s very important. They don’t know that they need to talk to their grandparents, to find out who their grandparents are, to compile their genealogy.”
She added that she is particularly concerned about the generation that is currently 17 to 24 years old, at– or close to– voting age.
“When you get to the Civil Rights [section of the exhibit], it shows you the sacrifice, the marching, the unification of a people– not only black and white and Latino,” Sharon said. “That particular age group today doesn’t vote. Why they don’t vote, I don’t understand. I’m going to have to really look at it and study it. But they need to know that that’s a right that was earned off the sweat and tears of other people, and, unless they voice and vote, change will never happen.”
Forgotten Images will be on display at the Expo Arts Center, 4321 Atlantic Ave., on: Friday, Feb. 2 from 6pm to 10pm, and on Saturday, Feb. 3 from 11am to 5pm. For more information, visit forgotten-images.com.
[Ed. note: Sharon McLucas is an ad-sales representative for the Signal Tribune.]