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Why We Are Displaying "Hateful Things" at the Mark Twain House

03/26/2012 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2012
  • Craig Hotchkiss Education Program Manager at the Mark Twain House and Museum

"I have a goal to create a room that when people come into that room, it changes the way they talk about race." -- Dr. David Pilgrim: Curator, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan

For more than eighty years, The Mark Twain House and Museum has fulfilled its primary mission to promote the life and legacy of Mark Twain by actively serving as a catalyst for serious public discourse on the most enduring American issues concerning race relations, politics, and social justice.

It is in this spirit that we have made our 2012 theme "Race, Rage, and Redemption" and are hosting a very provocative exhibition called "Hateful Things" from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. It features several dozen artifacts from popular culture that graphically illustrate the racist stereotypes that have permeated our society from Emancipation to the present day.

We also are presenting a companion exhibition, "A Sound Heart & a Deformed Conscience," which utilizes artifacts and images from our own collection to chronicle the evolving racial attitudes of Mark Twain over the course of his life from 1835-1910.

You may not be aware that Mark Twain was raised as a racist in the slave state of Missouri, but as he matured he made tremendous progress in his views on race and dedicated much of his adult life to challenging all Americans to confront our lingering bigotry and racial repression after the Civil War. It may surprise some to learn that Mark Twain, a man often remembered merely as a clever humorist, felt so deeply about the chronic issue of racial intolerance in our nation that he said late in life, in his Autobiography: "All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie. It does not exist. It is in no man's heart; but it unconsciously, and by moss-grown inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men's lips."

Mark Twain tried to start us talking about race by writing such books as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but he knew that our discussion would have to go on long after his death, and that our tendency would be to try to ignore it, or pay it mere lip service. In the stifling climate of "political correctness" today, we have nearly succeeded in removing any constructive dialog on the subject from the institutional forums where it should be regularly featured.

Therefore, we join the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in seeking to "create a room" in which people begin to "change the way they talk about race," even if it means just starting to talk about it -- again!

The "Race, Rage and Redemption" exhibits open March 29 and run through September 3. Films, lectures and plays explore the exhibits' themes. For a full listing, go to www.marktwainhouse.org.

Craig Hotchkiss has been the Education Program Manager at the Mark Twain House & Museum for five years, prior to which he taught high school history for 32 years. He holds three advanced degrees in Educational Psychology, World History, and American Studies.