It is sad irony that in the same month that The New York Times began its much lauded 1619 Project, a small tent selling anti-black memorabilia was set up at the Caledonia County Fair. The Times stated aim of the Project is to “reframe the country’s history, understand 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.” The legacy The Times seeks to disclose, reveals itself in small insidious ways across the country, even in the Northeast Kingdom.
The dolls, with exaggerated red lips and big white eyes, represent a direct line of anti-black imagery that began shortly after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the Constitutional guarantee of equality for the African American. This creation of racist paraphernalia coincided with the creation of the Jim Crow laws of segregation. The dolls, particularly the Sambo and the Mammy, undermined the humanity of the African American, and the massive production and distribution of the dolls normalized the idea that black Americans, freed or not, were comical, stupid, and incapable of embracing the fullness of the democracy whose economy was built on their slave labor.
Pushing back against seemingly small icons of racism is the next step toward creating a truly pluralistic nation. I say “seemingly” because it is generally white people who minimize the damage of racist imagery and iconography. It is white people who jeer at what has been coined “political correctness.” It is white people who argue against the prohibition of racist expressions.
Thanks to Sawyer Castle, a local high school student, the Kingdom has an opportunity to make a clear statement about where it stands on racial stereotyping. Shocked at the display of black caricatures at the fair, she posted her concerns online. Her shock suggests that, in fact, we have created a space where racist imagery is rare. That is a good thing. How we respond to her concern will be the next measure of our commitment to dismantling racial injustice.
This is the next level of the work toward racial equality. It is time to shift the focus from questioning whether individuals are racist to examining systems that function and are supported by racial biases. No one has suggested that the person running the stall is racist nor has it been suggested that anyone who purchased the dolls is racist. This is an example of the ways in which racism is woven throughout our culture. People can assume an immunity to the power of a subliminal view that black Americans can be mocked with impunity, to say it is just a doll, to question its power to hurt, but they should not choose such an inoculation. Those dolls helped dehumanize the African Americans and enforce segregation. Yes, they can hurt. Images targeting descendants of the enslaved people who built our country demeans all of us. It is every citizen’s job work toward a “more perfect union.”
Sawyer did her job. Let’s do ours.
Julie Hansen is director of Thaddeus Stevens School in Lyndon Center.