BrANCH 2012: Uses and Abuses of African Americans in the 19th Century

The first BrANCH session I attended was “Exploration, Experiment, and Display: Uses and Abuses of African Americans in the Nineteenth Century.”

(Three caveats: I sat halfway back in a large tiered classroom and had a hard time hearing the two presenters at some points. The Powerpoints were also a bit hard to read due to the color contrast. Finally, reconstructing my notes is sometimes an exercise in futility, so please forgive any mistakes.)

First up was Andrea Livesey’s presentation, “Considering the Evidence for Slave Breeding: Exploitation in the Memory of Ex-Slaves.” Livesey is a Ph.D. candidate at the Univ. of Liverpool. Her dissertation research is an analysis of WPA slave narratives in LA and TX, comparing the original and edited interviews. The WPA narratives were heavily edited to remove controversial subjects, include slave breeding, the focus of her talk today.

Livesey identified several references to slave breeding in the WPA narratives: Forced marriage/sex; slave men used as studs; forced female sex with master or overseer to produce children; temporary relationships of parents; selling/chasing away of bad breeders; rewards for breeding; selective breeding; comparison to livestock; profiting from sale of children; master anger over birth control, incl. abortion (chewing cotton roots was a form of birth control?!?); and a preference for female slaves. 21% of Livesey’s sample (171 interviews) mention breeding.

Livesey assumed pre-study that breeding was more common in rural than urban settings, but her research showed similar rates of mention. One explanation was that urban slave breeding was caused by emphasis on family units with smaller slave holdings.

Two final thoughts: Influence of one interviewer (V. Davis?) in using directed questions to uncover slave breeding, which other interviewers didn’t do; and interviewees’ avg. age at emancipation was 13.

The second presentation was by Emily Trafford, another Liverpool Ph.D. student in the early stages of her research. Her paper was entitled “The Display of African Americans in Traveling Exhibits, World’s Fairs, and Freak Shows.”

She started by providing the context of the exhibition of “freaks” in the 19th-century. She identified two types of characters: the savage African, whose depiction emphasized the uncivilized African vs. the civilized white American; and I missed the second character, but it may have been the minstrel character, which emphasized Africans’ childlike mind and presentation.

Trafford then gave two specific examples. The first was “What Is It?” a P.T. Barnum creation. The man playing the character was William Henry Johnson from NJ, who was developmentally disabled but still exercised some control over his character’s construction and profited from it. The second was Zip the Pinhead, who eventually evolved into a minstrel character. (Note: Zip Coon was a Jacksonian-era minstrel character.) She then discussed other examples, including one from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, the Old Plantation exhibit. This exhibit depicted African Americans in plantation setting and incorporated minstrelsy. Trafford connected it to the Lost Cause memory of slavery.

The third presenter, Stephen Kenny, did not attend, so the audience asked questions next.

For Trafford: Were there recollections of African American audiences visiting the exhibits? She said it was difficult to gauge. There were “colored” days, so African Americans attended. African Americans also objected to being relegated to Negro buildings or the entertainment district.

For Trafford: Has she looked at newspapers from cities in which the fairs/exhibits met? She hasn’t but plans to.

Catherine Clinton asked a couple of tough historiographical questions. The one I caught was to Livesey and how her research fit with Daina Berry’s and Paul Escott’s. I didn’t hear a clear answer.

For Livesey: Was infanticide part of slave resistance to breeding? She hasn’t found any cases of infanticide.

For Trafford: One audience member noted the relation of “What Is It” to white fairground geeks and suggested that the phenomenon surpassed race; Someone also noted the connection to Zippy the Pinhead comic character in U.S. comics in 1970s-1980s and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics mascot, which was called WhatIzIt (Wow! What a connection!) Trafford responded that “What Is It” originagted in the 1860s in response to Darwinian evolution. P.T. Barnum wanted audiences to determine “What Is It” was instead of giving them information on the nature of his character.

For Trafford: Is the larger argument about bodies’ displays about eugenics? She thinks that the nostalgic view of slavery produced by the Lost Cause was important, as was the evolutionary argument that African Americans could have returned to savage state w/o slavery. (I found this discussion interesting given the sentiments expressed by two Arkansas Republicans.)

For Trafford: Can she determine if organizers intended the deliberate dissemination of racial views via the exhibits? She stated that scientific congresses and fair organization records provided some context for understanding motivation, plus the organizers’ realization that the racist tropes were popular with audiences.

For Trafford: One audience member emphasized paying attention to change over time to provide framework for the exhibit images. This member also observed that there exist positive African American presentations at fairs, indicating their desire to be represented and acknowledged and a larger African American context to fairs than just “freaks.”

Steven Deyle asked Livesey if the WPA narratives indicated where interviewees were living at the time of the interviews, as well as for the slaves referred to in the narratives. He also asked if there are other sources available to complement the narratives. Livesey said that her sample database addresses these questions and that she is looking at book-length slave narratives as well as WPA narratives.

For Livesey: Did slave women use demands to breed to negotiate concessions from their owners? She isn’t looking at that subject b/c of lack of sample references.

For Livesey: Someone asked in what ways African Americans were complicit in their own breeding/exhibitions? I didn’t hear a clear answer.

For Trafford: There were catalogs of circus sideshow canvases, including one called “Hit a Coon,” which was a canvas with the face cut out to be filled by a real African American who would have objects thrown at him/her.

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