Editorial: A Teachable Moment

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Race remains a third rail topic in America, and Black History Month in February presents an opportunity to stride forward purposefully, or to misstep. Sometimes the line between the two isn’t very wide.

Witness an exchange between two prominent local historians: Dr. Georgette L. Grier-Key, who is executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society, which keeps alive the legacy of one of Sag Harbor’s tradition African-American neighborhoods, and Liz Burns, director of Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton Village.

At issue is a display to “celebrate” Black History Month at the Southampton library: a display case filled with 15 dolls collected over the years by local resident Sam Johnson. Hearing Oprah Winfrey encourage African-American men and women to collect black memorabilia, he began a collection of rag dolls, some very old, that include examples of blatant racism. His goal, he says, is to “make my collection art instead of hate … to erase the negativity of the collection, to take all the pain away.”

But Dr. Grier-Key strongly objected. In an email to Ms. Burns, also published this week as a Letter to the Editor, she called the display insensitive, decrying it as using “symbols of hate” that “instill psychological harm and inferiority.” She called for more context of “the ramifications of these images” in order to avoid “doing the community a great harm,” adding, “The public deserves more.”

Ms. Burns replied that the library does not view the rag dolls as symbols of hate, but instead called it “a teachable moment,” suggesting that library officials hope “the collection will educate viewers about one part of our nation’s history.” Good and bad, she noted, the library is about sharing history. It wasn’t a satisfactory response to Ms. Grier-Key, who noted that the painful history of African-American men and women is not treated with respect by the display.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Mr. Johnson’s display has been at the library — in fact, it’s the eighth. He’s aware of the “politically incorrect” nature of some of the dolls he’s collected, but he’s proud of the collection and sees it as the seed for a museum one day.

It’s a rare controversy with no real villains — and it is a teachable moment, certainly.

“Celebrating Black History” (as the sign on the library’s display says) with this particular collection, and with no real context or explanation, is a problematic way to mark Black History Month, at best. Caricature, in the best possible sense, can be treated as art, and even as a loving attempt to pay tribute to its subject. But it’s an enormous mistake to simply throw provocative images up as a “celebration” without a reasonable conversation about the complexities involved.

Back in September 2018, The Nation explored the collection of a Connecticut woman, Deborah Neff, who has more than 200 similar dolls. It noted that most of them were made by African-American women, and some men, and called the collection “something of extraordinary cultural significance.” So much of early African-American art and craft has been lost over the years, the article noted.

In fact, the dolls are “survivors, rare expressions of an unquenchable spirit. All of this makes them uneasy and yet ideal objects for how we think about who and what we are in this country,” the article said, noting that no high-profile museum had been willing to display them. One museum director in New York admitted to fears of “pushback.”

Mr. Johnson’s collection appears to be a mix of such true works of African-American folk art and, potentially, some items made for far less laudable reasons: racist dolls that were bought and sold by white people with no regard for the pain they caused.

There is a teachable moment right there: separating out the truly valuable works in his possession, highlighting them and, perhaps, discussing them in light of the other, more distasteful versions nearby. Why is one such a treasure, while the other belongs only in the back corners of historical relevance? It’s a provocative conversation — but not one that comes from throwing them all together in a case, throwing a “Black History Month” sign on it and walking away.

Rogers Memorial Library’s intentions were pure, but there’s clearly room for reconsideration of how successful this “tribute” really was. The good news: Black History Month is only half over, and there’s plenty of opportunity in the future to correct this misstep and take a purposeful step toward something positive.

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