Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Tale of Two Festivals: Profiting off Terror and Breaking Boundaries

This weekend, I went to a rural wheat threshing festival in my hometown. It is an event I have attended almost as many years as I've been alive. It has a lot of charm. The simple tin-roof buildings sit vacant most of the year to suddenly come bustling to life with apple butter and funnel cakes for one beautiful weekend. Men dressed in overalls beam proudly as they show off their meticulously-maintained antique tractors. The sounds of roaring engines and laughing children mingle together. People pop up portable tables and fill them with handmade crafts, secondhand clothes, and a collection of toys, posters, and memorabilia that are at once absurd, kitschy, and exciting. You never know what you might find.

The draw for me, though, the thing that has kept me coming back even after I've moved away from home and into an urban area, is the people. I see people that I grew up with and family members. We share food and stories. It is a connecting zone. It's just a bonus that my daughter gets to run around over dusty fairgrounds, riding in toy trains and World Fair-era merry-go-rounds.

Some of the best traits of rural living are captured in this small town festival: the friendly greetings, the eclectic collection of handmade goods, the wide open fields in beautiful fall weather, and the ethic of hard work underscoring it all.

That hard work is so prevalent that, at one point, my daughter literally crawled onto the ground and fell asleep in the grass.

Unfortunately, this festival also represents some of the worst aspects of small town living: a narrow-mindedness that can be blindingly cruel. I wrote a long time ago, when I first started this blog, about the sale of racist figurines at one of the booths at this festival, but what we saw this year was even more disturbing. (Warning: I'm going to post some pictures of racist memorabilia that many will find offensive and disturbing.) 

Among these tents of knick knacks, homemade soaps, and plastic bracelets was one shaded on three sides by dark green tarps. Inside, the tables were covered with glass-enclosed cases, the middle rows filled with knives of various sizes. Along the outside tables, there were an assortment of historic buttons, coins, and signs, including several reminders of the most racist parts of human history. 

KKK membership badges, slave shackles, a "Keep Out" sign with a swastika, and a segregated railroad restroom sign all adorned the inside of this family-friendly festival booth. 

I know the arguments against my outrage. Yes, these are real pieces of American history. No, I do not want to erase or deny the veracity of that history. That's why the presence of these exact same pieces in, say, a museum exhibit would not bother me. After much reflection, I think there are two things that made them so problematic in this venue. 

Profiting off Terror

First of all, someone is profiting from these pieces of American history. The fact that someone's flesh and blood were once in those shackles makes them more valuable. The fact that the KKK badge was once held by someone who terrorized and murdered human beings now earns its peddler cold hard cash. Of course, I can only speculate to the familial history of the person selling these wares, but I feel fairly confident in saying that the person making the money is not someone who identifies with the members of these oppressed groups. He is profiting off of his white privilege and the history of genocide, terrorism, and bloodshed that made it possible. That's sickening. 

I have never seen anyone actually purchase one of these things, and--as far as I can tell--the cases usually stay pretty full. Perhaps that means that the good people of this small town have no stomach for such disgusting paraphernalia. At the very least, it probably means they don't want to shell out the better part of a week's paycheck for trinkets of terror that they can't really do anything with. The knives in the middle cases are likely drawing the attention of hunters as they have practical application. 

But what does it mean that so many people can walk into this tent, see these items, and continue to casually browse the rest of the selection? It requires a dangerous cognitive dissonance to tell ourselves that just because we aren't buying those things means that we aren't helping the man who's selling them. 

Creating Boundaries

This was the only booth I saw with such blatantly racist messages. Elsewhere, though, there were displays of a conservative ethos that's clearly tied up with the deep political divide in America. 

One booth had dozens of Second Amendment signs. Row after row of metal placards quipped things like "Never Mind the Dog, Beware of Owner" with a cartoon gun staring down the center. "What Part of 'Shall Not' Do You Not Understand?" another read. Absurdly, there was a handwritten sign clipped to the front of this entire tent with "SeLF DeFeNSE" scrawled on it. Another booth had raffle tickets for guns. 

Surrounded by knives, guns, and a firm statement of "self defense," those tokens of historic terrorism take on a decidedly contemporary feeling. With the Trayvon Martin case still weighing heavily on my mind and the stories of all the times the same "stand your ground" defense has not been working for shooters of color, the meaning is disturbing.

The attendance at this event is almost entirely white. There are a handful of people of color scattered amongst the crowds, and my husband and daughter are among them. The casual acceptance of KKK buttons and slave shackles, though, does cast some pretty deep boundaries. How are people of color supposed to feel welcome in this environment? 

An Urban Perspective

I've been re-reading the words I just wrote and putting myself into the shoes of my potential readers. 

I know that I will have several very progressive (and likely urban) friends who will read the description of what was in those booths with horror. How, some of them might wonder, can I even think of bringing my family to such a backwards place? 

At the same time, some of my friends from this small town will be reading with horror as well. How, they are probably thinking, can you misrepresent us so badly? We don't even know the man who sold those things (they likely travel around the country to these different events) and the festival is about so much more than that. We're not racist, and we love your family. 

My response is somewhere in the center of these two reactions. I know that most of the people at this event harbor no ill will toward my family, and many of them I personally know and love. Getting the chance to see them, share the day with them, fellowship in this idyllic place carved out of the land is a beautiful thing. But those images sear into my mind. There's a very real chance that the people selling those things would hurt my family if they could, and the presence of these tokens seems like a banner designed to remind us of that. 

Underpinning all of this is the fact that we left the festival in the early afternoon and returned to our home in the city. There was another festival going on a few miles from our house. Several blocks of the city streets were closed for a dance festival. After many professional displays of dancing from a plethora of cultures, age groups, and styles, we were all invited to dance together. 

Filling the stage at the front and the streets around us were young and old faces of many colors smiling and laughing together (sure, they played "Blurred Lines" twice, so it wasn't exactly a perfect sea of human equality). There were booths set up along the streets selling handmade crafts and local restaurants' food. I tried to imagine, for a minute, what would happen if the man selling the KKK buttons had tried to set up shop here. I don't suspect he would have felt very welcome. 

And he shouldn't. He shouldn't feel welcome as the profiter of hate. At the end of the day, I want to be among people who stand up against that display, and that is why I can't ever imagine taking my family to live out of the city. 

While my country family often worries aloud for my safety as they watch the images of urban violence fill the news, I can't figure out how to get across to them the fact that the real fears for the safety of my family that keep me up at night rest not in the shadowed city alley mugger but in the sly smile of an overall-clad flea market booth proprietor.

Update: After I wrote this, I sent a message to the association that organizes the event to voice my dismay at seeing these things. They responded that they do police what they sell, but that these sneaked past them and promised to fix it for future events. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that someone is profiting off of these pieces of terror, but it does mean that it won't have to be such a terrible reflection on my hometown and this quaint festival.


  1. Interesting and sad. My hometown is a rural town in California, but I think a big difference is that California is very diverse and I can't see something like being okay here. (btw not sure I've commented before, but enjoy your blog very much).

  2. As an antique collector, I find this disturbing. While I agree that it would be acceptable for those things to be displayed in a museum or other historical setting, selling them to private collectors is bothersome. Why do people collect antiques (or anything)? Usually to display them. Are people really going to purchase these items and then display them in their homes? That would be pretty horrible.

  3. "And I think one element of that is in recognizing that the 'sly smile'
    of the man in the booth is simply a less sophisticated version of the
    professional smile of the 535 who thrive on keep us focused on the
    conflicts that they will not be able to resolve while they keep the 'money machine' working well for themselves and their elite supporters."

    I think you're absolutely right, and this line particularly stuck with me. There is a lot of political power (on all sides of the political spectrum) in assuring that people focus on their differences rather than their similarities.

  4. Sadly, I imagine that's exactly what some people are doing. That's not a home I'd feel comfortable visiting.

  5. Thanks for reading! I do think that this town's lack of diversity (in many senses of the word--not just racial) allows for a kind of insulation from just how damaging some of these images are. I truly believe that most of the people there are good and loving, though. Hopefully we can make sure those more positive aspects of the community get showcased instead of the negative.

  6. May I ask, would you be opposed to a museum buying such an item from someone who owned it, or to someone who owned it selling it to a museum?

  7. That's an excellent question.

    My gut instinct is to say that--since the thing that makes these artifacts valuable is their authenticity, and their authenticity is wrapped up in pain, suffering, and murder--profiting from these artifacts is profiting from the systems that created them.

    Your question made me wonder how museums handle this. Admittedly, I haven't done extensive research into it, but a quick search didn't turn up much. I did find this older New York Times article about a slave ship exhibit that many places wouldn't exhibit because the pieces did not meet their ethical guidelines (they'd been collected by a treasure hunter.)

  8. On a hunch, I wonder if we need to elucidate the very concept of "making a profit" when we speak in terms of making a profit "off slavery". I.e., what does it mean to make a profit "off" something? I.e. (perhaps), what does it mean so -speak- of making a profit "off" something? (Sorry, my Wittgenstein sensibilities are showing.)

    To illustrate, one might be a historian or a novelist who came across a treasure trove of information or artifacts from that period that came into being only as a result of slavery. Even perhaps as an instrument to slavery. To write a treatise or novel based on one's access to this knowledge is, in a real sense, to make a profit from slavery. By saying this I mean simply: to use the phrase "to make a profit from" is as legitimate here (where I presume we have no qualms), as it is was when the phrase was used above.

    Actually, the phrase Martha used was "profiting off slavery". But does anything turn on the difference in preposition ("off" vs. "from")? And what would this be?

    I might possibly be going far from the intent of your original post, Michelle. I don't intend to draw you into a discussion you did not intend, and might have no interest in. But I know you have a professional interest in rhetoric, and so perhaps I am meandering through an intersection of our interests. (I find grammatical reflection and rephrasing near-indispensable in trying to understand the world.)

    turns on the prepos(where

    This might be far from what we may have qualms about, but my point in saying that this you profit from

  9. While it may be a deviation from my original intent (which was mostly just "hey, this was frustrating!"), I am really interested in this conversation.

    Do you think that the rhetorical difference between off and from has to do with agency? If you're profiting "off" slavery, does that make it more of a by-product (almost like we consider a parasite feeding "off" its host). The person profiting has no agency in the act.

    Profiting "from" slavery seems to indicate a more intentional, agent-filled act. Does that seem right to you?

    I asked your question on my Facebook page because I was curious how other people would respond, and most people seem to be on the other side of it from me (saying that it's fine to sell the items). One person said that saying it was wrong to sell them felt like reparations to her, and that made her uncomfortable.

    That was really interesting to me. I think that making a decision on moral grounds not to make a profit on artifacts created out of slavery (and marketed as such--those shackles could easily have been labeled "19th century handcuffs" but were called "antique slave shackles") is very different from giving money to try to right past wrongs.

    This conversation has made me wonder where the lines are drawn, though. You mention writing a novel based on knowledge from the era, and I think we've seen similar questions about authenticity and profit when it comes to the white publishers of slave narratives.

    I know that doesn't really add anything definitive to this conversation, but I think these are really tough questions. I know that the thought of finding a trunk full of slave artifacts in an attic and then selling them for profit makes my moral compass spin, but I don't know if I can make that stick with any articulate expression.

    At any rate, thanks for asking the question! :)

  10. Thank you for your interesting followup :) I think once questions have definitive answers, they are perhaps no longer interesting. I like your phrase "makes my moral compass spin." A lot of what is most important to me in life seems only to be expressible through metaphors. Articulation is hard, and I struggle with navigating the world through metaphor.

    Thank you for taking seriously the distinction between "off" and "from". And my that, I mean acknowledging that they are distinct words, and wondering about the rhetorical difference.

    The word "rhetoric" itself is, for me, a kind of catch basin for a lot of notions, and the escarpments in my mind may be different than yours. I hope I don't abuse the word to much to speak of the rhetoric of my own internal reflection. Like you, "off" suggests one thing to me, and "from" suggests another. But unless I provide them with technical definitions (for my own coded use), these words are no more helpful to me than "spinning moral compass".

    Which is not to say they are unhelpful words as (so to speak) metaphors. But I do not know how to articulate my thoughts with these words outside of the context of what Wittgenstein calls 'language games'. I like hearing you speak of your own sense of "off" and "from". And I am struggling at the limits of my own articulation here, but I have the sense of meaning as something that (for me) is in the process of being begotten from this exchange.

    As for selling a trunk of slave artifacts making your moral compass spin, the idea of forgoing profit gives me a warm fuzzy, which I don't mean in a dismissive sense. It suggests something. But I do get a sense of moral culpability from such profit. I liken it to someone finding a trove of gold in a sunken spanish ship, gold plundered (for the purposes of this example) from the population of people native to the New World some centuries ago. I suspect that the passage of time eventually dissolves such concerns, but that YMMV.

    But I am not much interested in the moral issue her per se, but more in the rhetorical issues it provokes. :)