Posted on 07/31/2008

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Savage Sideshow: Exhibiting Africans As Freaks

Savage Sideshow:  Exhibiting Africans As Freaks
The midways of the turn-of-the-century World's Fairs--like the ones in Chicago in 1893 (also known as the Columbian Exposition), San Francisco in 1894 and Buffalo in 1901--were lined with ethnological displays of foreign and exotic cultures. The Chicago Exposition's displays were organized in part by the great anthropologist Franz Boas, mentor of Zora Neale Hurston.

Strolling fair-goers could take in recreated Eskimo and Dahomeyan villages, "living exhibits of Turks and Arabs, a 'Singhalese Lady,' 'Javanese sweethearts,' Penobscot Indians and their dwellings, and various other 'tribes' of people including Germans and Irish." Note that exhibiting European "foreigners" side by side with more "exotic" peoples was quite common at the time. Their skins may have been lighter than most Africans', but the Irish, Scots, Germans, Poles, Jews, Italians et al. were not yet considered as White as the purest, Whitest of White folks, the Anglos. An evolutionary progress was implied by how the cultures were lined up along the midway, starting with the most "savage" of them, the Dahomeyans and Native Americans, and culminating with the Irish and Germans, who most closely resembled--without quite achieving--the glory of American civilization.

In fact, before 1900 anthropologists rarely if ever used the word "cultures" in the plural; there was only Culture, which was more or less synonymous with Civilization, which of course was White. One of the goals of Victorian anthropology was to figure out how all those other cultures stacked up below the White folks.

Americans, at least those who wrote for the papers, got the message that the Africans were as far as humans could possibly be from White civilization. The Buffalo Express noted that the African villagers were "as black as the ace of spades, black as ebony, black as dulled tar, black as charcoal, black as cinders, black as crows, black as anything that will convey to the mind absolute undiluted sunless, moonless, starless blackness." A writer in The New York Times declared, "Nothing else I have seen conveys such an impression of wild savagery... the Indians are conventional citizens beside them." Still, the writer went on, "they did not impress one as wicked or vicious any more than an animal is wicked or vicious."

White Americans were amused to see how Black American fair-goers reacted to the Africans on display, and had much sport comparing their clothing and deportment to those of the "savages." The humor magazine Puck celebrated the Chicago Exposition with a two-page cartoon by Frederick Burr Opper, "Darkies' Day at the Fair." It shows Africans and African Americans parading together, eating watermelon together and so on, indistinguishable but for their clothes, with an accompanying poem made up of verses like:

But a Georgia coon, named Major Moon,
Resolved to mar the day,
Because to lead the whole affair
He had not had his way.
Five hundred water-melons ripe,
(The Darky's theme and dream,)
He laid on ice so cool and nice
To aid him in his scheme.

As to how the 'savages' felt about being gawked at, the women of the Dahomeyan exhibit in Chicago provide a humorous clue. Fair-goers who saw them joyfully singing and chanting assumed that they were expressing how delighted they were to be in America and how amazed they were by the technological wonders at the fair. In fact, when their songs were translated, they were more along the lines of, "We have come from a far country to a land where all men are White. If you will come to our country we will take pleasure in cutting your White throats."

'Black Like You: Blackface in American Popular Culture' by John Strausbaugh