The Klansman seemed to have Mona Lisa eyes—wherever I moved, his gaze seemed to follow me. It had this looming presence that filled the room. Even when I tried to avoid looking at it by studying other artwork, all I could think about was it. My mind was playing tricks on me.
Throughout the exhibit, other Klansmen mannequins were standing around. At some point, I noticed that they were all wearing LGBT rainbow socks with Birkenstocks and each one had a happy-face decal on its gown. An attendant caught me staring at the socks and explained that it was a juxtaposition of extremist views. Ku Klux Klan equals hate and violence; hippies equal love and peace. Get it?
I did, but it didn’t make me feel any better. I stayed as far away from them as possible because they freaked me out. I was thinking of all the fear they brought up in me, a person who has never been called the n-word or had to drink from a “Coloreds Only” fountain or live through de facto segregation and who finally chose to vote for the first time nearly a decade after I could because I took for granted that I could.
And I thought about the black people who were bold enough to register to vote and, because of that, woke up in the middle of the night with deranged, hooded men in bedsheets burning crosses in their yards. I thought of the people who were terrorized and lynched with no one to complain to because the terrorists in the yard were the officials who were causing the problem. I thought about death and tragedy and how black Americans must have a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the end of the exhibit—in an adjacent building—I turned into a room and freaked all the way out. There were 20 white-hooded mannequins. As I took them all in, it was as though a wall went up in front of me. Some part of my brain responsible for self-preservation got me the hell out of there and back into the lobby.
The attendant looked alarmed. Apparently I was the first person to have this reaction. I guess they don’t get a lot of black Americans here, because I couldn’t imagine any black American not responding this way.
He started explaining the history of the KKK to me, as if I, a black American—with a daddy from Mississippi and a granddaddy who left Georgia at 16 with nothing because he was tired and scared of white folks—hadn’t heard the stories all my life. I cut him off, explaining in so many words that the KKK meant black people died. Oh, and the museum should put up a “trigger warning” so black people, particularly Americans, don’t freak out in here.
He nodded and said he got it. But he didn’t. When I asked where the ladies’ room was, he pointed back into the room with all those hooded mannequins and said it was on the other side. I told him I’d hold it instead.
Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.