Ugly Truth Decor is All the Rage

Making the Unspeakable, Unforgettable

Juliette Alvey / 2.1.23

There is a new exhibit at the Minneapolis library this February called TESTIFY, which is from the Diane and Alan Page Collection. Alan Page, the former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and NFL Hall of Famer, and his daughter Georgi (the director of the exhibit) hope that by sharing this collection of historical items from slavery to today they might be able to shed light on our country’s past to better understand our present and future.

When I heard Justice Page and his daughter interviewed on the radio about this, I thought it sounded interesting and beneficial to see these items at an exhibit. But the part of the story that baffled me was the origin of the collection. Originally it did not start out as a historical exhibit for educational purposes, but rather as their own home decor.

This collection was started by Justice Page’s late wife, Diane, who was of Norwegian descent. Little by little, she built up a collection of antiques and artifacts of the uncomfortable history of slavery, segregation, and civil rights in our country. Before their collecting began, their house was decorated in a modern, sparse style, with very empty walls. One day a friend was visiting their home and asked Justice Page, who is an African American, how his children were going to know their own history. This spurred the idea to start collecting and decorating with these artifacts. Their house slowly began to transition into a completely different style. No longer sparse, the walls began to fill up with items such as signs that say “Colored” from a bus station in Montgomery, AL, a branding tool from the time of marking slaves as personal property, a Rosa Parks cookie jar, little KKK figurines, and the like.

The children were not pleased.

The daughter, Georgi, when interviewed, said she did not like that all of these items were showing up constantly in their house. She said, “I was done with that conversation, but apparently that conversation wasn’t done with me.”

I am no interior designer, but I always thought the purpose of home decor was to feel more comfortable and to be reminded of happy times (hence us filling our walls with smiling pictures of ourselves). But the Page family did the opposite.

I wonder if the kids’ reaction to this decor had to do with the question of how much bearing these historical items actually had on their everyday lives. Yes, learn our own history, but have it staring you in the face every time you look up? We might believe that we have no involvement in a trauma of the past and that it doesn’t affect us, but like Georgi said, the past might not be done with us.

My grandfather was in the Navy during World War II. While he was away during the war, his entire family died in his childhood home from carbon monoxide poisoning. His parents, sister, and grandparents all tragically died in one night. I cannot imagine the effect that must have had on him coming back from the war to an empty house. When I learned this from my dad (because my grandpa never once mentioned it to me) I understood why my grandpa was always so burdened by worry. Consequently, my dad carries that burden as well. And not surprisingly, I also tend to worry! When I had my first baby, every horror story I heard about dangers to babies was, in my mind, an immediate threat to my own child. If it was possible, I was worried about it. So you can see how trauma of the past, even if not directly happening to you, has bearing on our lives.

When learning about ugly truths of the past, it is difficult to admit that these are not just interesting facts that we can learn from, but that they actually shape who we are in the present. These are not just stories but fellow human beings we are talking about.

So I see the benefit of facing ugly truths and recognizing that they have bearing on our lives, but still … decorating your walls with torture devices?

As I contemplate all of this, I look up at my own decor and see a whole wall full of torture and execution devices. Although softened by beautiful designs, my wall of crosses is literally that — a symbol of trauma and suffering.

Just like the items in the TESTIFY exhibit, the cross makes us uncomfortable. It is an embarrassing moment in history. And also like the exhibit, many people may feel like Georgi. How does one man dying a horrible death affect my everyday life? We may know the story and some may think they are done with that conversation and write it off, but that conversation is not finished with us.

More than any trauma of the past, the cross has immediate bearing on our lives because the man who hung on the cross was unlike any other human in history. He was fully man and fully God. He had the shared experience of being a fellow human being, but he also had the authority to punish humans for every evil ever done in history. He did not count that authority as something to be grasped (Phil 2:6), but as something to be given up. The punishment that he could have dished out to the world he instead took on himself. Typically, when we look at history we see perpetrators and victims, the good guys and the bad guys. Jesus on the cross makes it possible to look at history and, rather than placing blame on groups of people, to see as he did (and does). That is, to see the brokenness of all people and the need for punishment and redemption.

The cross is the one event that changes all other events in history. It covers every other evil and removes its grip and control on our lives. These terrible and embarrassing truths hold no power over us through Christ. Because of the cross, we can confront the ugly truths without fear because it’s not up to us to dish out the punishments or make it right — that has already been done.

That being said, I am glad that the Page family has moved these items to an exhibit and can enjoy sparse (and maybe even white as snow?) walls again.

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