Interactive exhibit demonstrates the effect 'stuff' can have on racial representation

When you step into Neal Lester’s Discovery Hall office on the ASU Tempe campus, you’ll never forget it.

You’ll see things like a box of Obama Waffles mix. A Sambo game dartboard. Plenty of “Mammy” figurines, a couple of golliwogs and racially diverse nativity scenes. That’s just a small sampling.

Lester’s office from floor to ceiling is covered in American memorabilia — the good, the bad and the unpretty. And that’s the exact effect he’s going for.

“I was actually an accidental collector of these artifacts. My spouse and I were house shopping for our first home in 1989 as a new assistant professor at the University of Alabama,” said Lester, professor of English and director of Arizona State University's Project Humanities. "A white Realtor took us to ‘professional’ neighborhoods, which translated to predominantly white neighborhoods.”

Lester noticed in many of the homes there were family pictures on mantels mixed in with Aunt Jemima cookie jars and Mammy salt and pepper shakers. Lester said this eventually became a distraction because whether the real estate agent and homeowners knew it or not, these artifacts were blatantly racist misrepresentations and exaggerations of Black people.

“Since then, I have continued to collect these items that stereotype and deny Black folks full humanity,” Lester said. “These artifacts are now an effective teaching and learning tools for me and for anyone who experiences my ‘colored museum.’”

On Oct. 20, Lester moved his traveling museum outdoors and demonstrated these pieces as teaching tools in a Project Humanities presentation called “Beyond Books: 'The Stuff’ of Racial Representation.”

Hundreds of Lester’s artifacts were placed on 22 6-foot tables on the Student Services lawn in front of Discovery Hall, where Project Humanities is officed. The collection includes figurines, posters, Jim Crow and slave quarters signage, a life-size African American Santa Claus that sings “Feliz Navidad,” posters of Christian iconography and memorabilia from the segregationist period.

“This was a moment not to be taken lightly,” said Rachel Sondgeroth, coordinator for Project Humanities. “Normally the only time you have the opportunity to see Dr. Lester’s collection is if he personally invites you into his office or if you attend one of his many workshops on privilege and bias. Today, everybody gets to see it.”

Lester said he thought very critically about the title of the presentation because systemic racism and inequity aren’t relegated to books, pamphlets or brochures.

“It’s everywhere if you look hard hard enough beneath the surface hard,” said Lester, who also penned an essay on the subject.

As proof, he picked up a generic pandemic face mask box featuring a young white woman and held it up for everyone to see.

“This box isn’t necessarily overtly racist, but somebody in the corporation marketing made a decision — consciously or unconsciously — that a white female would be representing this product,” Lester said. “Why would she be selected at the exclusion of others? Somebody is being left out. She is also young and attractive. But is she the only one who needs or wears a mask?”

For this Vital Voices show-and-tell series of Project Humanities programming, attendees were also encouraged to bring their own justice-lessons artifacts, sharing when and where they got theirs and how they and others view these items.

Tracy Perkins, an assistant professor in the School of Social Transformation, was one of about 50 people in attendance who brought an item to discuss — a Mammy wooden keychain holder. She said she and her partner have multiracial backgrounds, and that he collects Black Americana. Because he is Black, he is more comfortable with the idea. She says she is not.

“Sometimes I have the need to explain these objects when we have visitors, sometimes not,” Perkins said. “It depends on how well the person knows me.”

Angela Girón, program director of the Master of Liberal Studies program and a clinical assistant professor at ASU since 2009, brought a handful of items. But the one that garnered the most attention was a doll she received from her brother in 1965 while he was stationed in Vietnam. She held up the 12-inch doll, a slender-figured brunette with long hair, sporting a silk tunic with slits along both sides and a non la (conical) hat.

“Just by her physicality, she looks like a working gal on Tu Do Street,” Giron said, referring to the famous Saigon street known for its sleazy bars, drug trafficking and sex workers during the Vietnam War. Today, it has been renamed Dong Khoi, for “uprising.”

Most of the articles Lester presented were considered insensitive and a racist relic of the not-so-distant past. Some of the items were more offensive than others — like the plastic Native American Halloween costume Alycia de Mesa found on one of the tables.

“This is very painful to look at and take in because on Halloween, everybody’s looking for that thrill of ‘what can I be outside of my own identity for a night?’” said de Mesa, an associate director of Project Humanities, who is multiracial with Indigenous ancestry. “From First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the U.S., down into Mexico, this was not only outlawed, but people were killed for wearing this. So, there’s a context here that modern people don’t quite understand.”

The need for more understanding is why Kenneth Eangleheart Sr. brought his 9-year-old daughter, Skye, to the event.

“I’ve attended several Project Humanities lectures and activities, and this presentation held a particular interest for me,” said Eangleheart, who is an aide in the Gilbert Unified School District. “I’m interested in history, and as an African American I wanted to see how we’ve been depicted by society. These images and stereotypes still exist, and I want to know how it will affect (Skye’s) future.”

Skye, who is a fourth grader at San Tan Elementary in Gilbert, said she also received something valuable.

“I learned that it’s OK to be yourself and be proud of the color that you are,” Skye said.

Eric Atuhahene, a digital culture major in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at ASU, said he came to the presentation out of curiosity and extra credit for a class.

“Growing up and seeing white people in almost every form of advertising was to say the least very weird,” said Atuhahene, who is Black. “I wondered, why isn’t there a Black man on a cereal box? Or why were there only white boys on Rice Krispy treats?”

Throughout the two-hour event, curious students, faculty and staff wandered through the exhibition, snapping pictures and recording what they saw — many, according to Lester, intrigued because they hadn’t seen such an exhibition with such different aspects of U.S. and global social justice: sexism, racism, ableism, colorism, religiosity, ageism, linguicism and body positivity.

Lester was hopeful there was a takeaway for everyone.

Atuhahene’s was this: “You have to pay attention to stereotypes and that representation really does matter.”

For a mini virtual tour of Lester’s office, watch this short video.

Top photo: Professor Neal Lester leads a discussion on "Beyond Books: 'The Stuff' of Racial Representation," at a Project Humanities event Oct. 20 on the Tempe campus. He uses a "Mammy" doll to introduce the topic. The doll was an American historical stereotype originating from the South, depicting Black women who work in a white family and nurse the family's children.

Marshall Terrill
marshall.terrill@asu.edu