Revisiting ‘Rage, Race & Redemption' at the Twain House

A photograph of Mark Twain with his friend, John T. Lewis, a freeborn tenant farmer fictionalized in “Pudd'nhead Wilson” and used as a model for Jim in “Huckleberry Finn.”

Do you think the folks at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford have mastery over a Ouija board?

They certainly seem prescient; given that upcoming shows at any major museum are often planned and curated years in advance, the concept of "Rage, Race & Redemption," the recently opened and ongoing exhibit at the Twain House, could not be more timely.

First of all, it wasn't that long ago that Some Professional Academic earned support from Other Professional Academics by starting a campaign to rewrite Twain's masterful "Huckleberry Finn" with gentler, politically correct vocabulary.

More immediately, the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin, allegedly by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman, and the subsequent reactions of law enforcement, have caused a national uproar and sparked outrage and high levels of racial tension.

Whichever side you might come down on in these delicate issues, the material on display at "Race, Rage & Redemption" will cause viewers to think - not just about specific or timely topics but about the nature of humanity and culture and how we as individuals process our private thoughts and beliefs.

The presentation is bipartite.

Half of the room is devoted to "Hateful Things," a collection of about 40 objects from Ferris State University's Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. The remainder is taken up by "A Sound Heart & A Deformed Conscience," a survey of artifacts from the Twain House's archives that testify to Twain's own beliefs on race and race relations - and how they evolved from his boyhood in the slave-owning south to his role as a champion of black education and the social integration of African Americans as equals into the American community.

The layout of the exhibit is such that, while you can freely roam, you see "Hateful Things" first.

I purposefully chose not to read too much advance press about the exhibit and supposed I'd see graphic, push-button photographs - lynchings, slave living conditions, Ku Klux Klan activity and the victims of Civil Rights violence.

And while there are a few such images - a picture of a hanged effigy orchestrated as a warning by the Klan, along with an actual photograph of a person of color who was lynched for having had the audacity to vote - the gradual and ultimately searing effectiveness of "Hateful Things" is in the blanket and carefree mundanity of the objects on display.

There are dozens of seemingly innocuous items from popular culture - full-page newspaper ads, sheet music, dry goods boxes, 45 records, magazine cartoons - that appeared and were routinely accepted with presumed good cheer (or at least indifference) in everyday society from pre-Civil War days to disturbingly recent times.

A supreme example is "Jungletown World Series," a 1949 full-page display ad by a machinery company that parodied a famous image of Jackie Robinson, the courageous baseball star who broke the Major League color barrier, as a chimp.

There are "cute" household items of grotesque caricature - ash trays, children's dolls, cutting boards, a coin bank - that, cumulatively, begin to scream in your brain as you assimilate the casual pervasiveness of such things.

Among political and campaign items, there's a 1926 "racial restrictive covenant" signed by residents in a Baltimore neighborhood agreeing not to let Jews, blacks or other "undesirables" move in.

There is a representative ax handle of the type handed out in the '60s by supporters of former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, all of which were autographed by the candidate, as a reminder of the sort of force that would be employed should one support integration.

In even more modern times, campaign paraphernalia, readily available on eBay, show support for George W. Bush or voicing protest against Barack Obama, in sickening terms. One, in fact, has been produced just in time for the 2012 presidential election.

I took a deep breath and moved to the section devoted to Twain, "A Sound Heart & A Deformed Conscience." It presents a solid case - to anyone who might still think otherwise - that the author evolved from the accepted societal degradation of blacks during his youth to profound activism, through fiction, essays and good works, in the cause of desegregation.

There are plenty of excerpts from Twain's works where his own words eloquently describe his personal journey through the attitudes and mores of race. He writes about two African Americans in his life, John T. Lewis and an "Uncle Dan'l," men for whom he had great affection, and who served as models for not just Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" but also blacks of character, grace and courage in works like "Pudd'nhead Wilson."

One wall includes a time-line "devoted to Twain's evolution as a thinker and a writer," which shows several samples from 1870 through 2006 to indicate across the board views on discrimination: from Congo Reform and his immortal "War Prayer" to satires on treatment of Chinese immigrants and even support of anti-vivisectionist causes.

A chilling piece is an 1858 Missouri "price list" for slaves - asking price for a 22-year-old woman with two children is $1,025 - accompanied by actual ankle irons utilized at auctions, and a photograph of a group of slaves awaiting relocation. Included is this quote from Twain's autobiography:

"I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting a shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I've ever seen."

Another wall is devoted to modern African American writers and artists, each attesting to Twain's contributions to race relations. Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Pryor and Toni Morrison are all represented with quotes - including one of the most intriguing N-word comments I've ever seen, from Chris Rock:

"We took this word and made it into poetry ... in the wrong hands it can hurt ... if you give it to the right scientist (Dave Chappelle, Ice Cube, Eddie Murphy) ... what they did ... what NWA and Richard Pryor did, it's art, it's Mark Twain."

Depending on one's Twain scholarship, the material in "Heart & Conscience" can be enlightening and reassuring - or there might be an aspect to it where it can a bit defensive. This is the Twain House & Museum, though, so it's expected that such an exhibition would want to go to every length to explain the author's early-life prejudices and point out the expansive nature of his eventual beliefs and efforts.

In any scenario, though, "Rage, Race & Redemption" is a dramatically effective installation that serves as a cautionary reminder from another substantial American writer, William Fauklner: "The past isn't dead and buried. It isn't even past."

Promotional poster for “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s film about the post-Civil War South and the dawn of the Ku Klux Klan
Promotional poster for “Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s film about the post-Civil War South and the dawn of the Ku Klux Klan

IF YOU GO

What: "Race, Rage & Redemption"

Where: The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford.

When: Now through Labor Day, with several tangential programs, films, readings, discussions and events taking place throughout the run.

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mon, Wed.-Sat., noon-5:30 p.m. Sun.

How much: $6 (exhibit only)

For more information: (860) 247-0998, marktwainhouse.org.

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