Ubangi woman with show girl on Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus 1931.

Savage Sideshow:

Exhibiting Africans As Freaks

by John Strausbaugh


The most famous example of this eroticized freakishness is Sarah Baartman, who first appeared in London in 1810 billed as the "Hottentot Venus." Hottentot is an invented European name for a South African nomadic people who call themselves the Khoikhoi. They probably got the Hottentot nickname, derived from the Dutch for "stutterer," because of their clicking language. The Khoikhoi had repeated and usually violent encounters with Europeans from as early as the 1480s on, as the Cape of Good Hope became a busy midway stop for trade voyages to and from Portugal, Holland, England and the Orient. No less an adventurer than Vasco de Gama battled with the herdsmen, and was wounded by them. As the Dutch settled the Cape and spread outward, the Khoikhoi were pushed off their ancestral lands, with many murdered, and others taken as laborers or, like Baartman, as domestic servants.

Baartman caught the Europeans' attention because of her striking symptoms of steatopygia, an extreme enlargement of the buttocks. In European eyes this made her an anatomical oddity and yet "a most correct and perfect Specimen of [her] race," as she would be advertised. In other words, she wasn't a freak within her own people--they were all freaks. Baartman went to London voluntarily as a paid performer, but it's clear that she was never happy or comfortable being gawked at. Like Jayne Mansfield's huge hooters, her giant booty became the talismanic focus of much sleazy eroticism--early London audiences, who were mostly male, were even allowed to touch it. This ended after a legal challenge from an Abolitionist group. Baartman moved to Paris in 1814, where her display was less sideshow, more serious ethnology, but it doesn't seem to have been much less degrading. By the time of her death in 1816 she had sunk into drug addiction and part-time prostitution.

As the final indignity, her body was carved up in autopsy, and her skeleton, brain and genitals were put on display at the Paris Musee de l'Homme--where they remained until 2002, when Thabo Mbeki's South African government finally convinced the French to send her home. Speaking at her gravesite, the characteristically outspoken President Mbeki said, "It was not the lonely African woman in Europe, alienated from her identity and her motherland, who was the barbarian, but those who treated her with barbaric brutality."

"Authentic" Pygmy villages and actual troupes of Zulu warriors remained in such high demand into the first few decades of the 20th Century that showmen sometimes ran out of real Africans to exhibit. They turned to African American ringers, some of whom made excellent livings impersonating their wild and savage cousins. One of the most successful impostors was Bata Kindai Amgoza ibn LoBagola, celebrated vaudeville performer, university lecturer, soldier of fortune, friend to the crowned heads of Europe, and author of the memoir 'An African Savage's Own Story,' published by Knopf in 1929. LoBagola claimed to be a Black Jew from the "African Bush," but he was really from Baltimore, where he was born Joseph Howard Lee. Despite his impoverished start and lack of education, despite skeptics continually questioning his authenticity, despite a series of scandalous arrests and prison time related to homosexual activities, Lee/LoBagola maintained a long and colorful career as a faux African. His homosexuality, rather than his false identity, was his undoing; he spent his last thirteen years in Attica, convicted of sodomy, and died in prison in 1947.

Often it wasn't just the faux-exotic performers but the impresarios who presented them who went by invented personae. The Victorian showman Guillermo Antonio Farini, aka The Great Farini, began his career as a tightrope walker in the late 1850s, went on to found the famous trapeze artists the Flying Farinis (including the stupefyingly agile Madamoiselle Lulu, who was actually his adopted son in drag) and invent the Human Cannonball act. Starting in the 1870s Farini presented widely celebrated African-themed variety show/freak show/circus extravaganzas featuring performers ranging from Zulu warriors to Pongo the gorilla. Farini's real name was William Leonard Hunt; he was born in Lockport, New York, and raised in Ontario. He later claimed that when he ran away to join the circus he changed his identity so as not to bring shame and embarrassment to his straightlaced family. But no doubt the nice sound of Flying Farinis, as opposed to, say, the Highwire Hunts, had something to do with it as well.

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, "[l]iving 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."

Along with the savages and foreigners, the Columbian Exposition put another subset of humanity on display: women. In a nod to the Suffrage movement, which was by then half a century old (and still a quarter-century away from achieving its goal), the Exposition featured a Women's Building. The activities there, organized by a board of respected society ladies, included the expected displays of "feminine" arts and crafts like embroidery and jewelry-making. But there was also a lecture hall for a series of addresses on topics like "The Evolution of the Business Woman" and "The Progress of Society Dependent on the Emancipation of Woman." There was one on "The Organized Efforts of Colored Women in the South to Improve Their Condition," and three accomplished Black women--Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper and Frances Jackson Coppin--spoke on "The Intellectual Progress and Present Status of the Colored Women of the United States Since the Emancipation Proclamation."

Williams had graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and the School of Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., and was married to a prominent Black lawyer in Chicago. Cooper, who had been born a slave, was an Oberlin graduate and the principal of a Black high school in D.C. Coppin was also an Oberlin grad and principal of what would later be known as Cheyney State College. After hearing their remarks, Frederick Douglass declared his joy at witnessing "refined, educated colored ladies addressing--and addressing successfully--one of the most intelligent white audiences" he'd ever seen. It gave him hope that one day "this great country of ours will be possessed by a composite nation of the grandest possible character, made up of all races, kindreds, tongues, and peoples."

These three speakers hardly fit the common stereotypes of Black Americans, as seen in the Puck cartoon--and were in fact not presented as typical representatives of either their race or their gender. They were, rather, exemplars of the levels of civilization Blacks (and women) might achieve, given proper guidance and support. So the Exposition could truly claim to present the entire Darwinian ladder of civilization, from savages who were little more than animals to Irish and Germans and even Black women who seemed not so many rungs below Whites.

As soon as the Columbian Exposition ended, the Barnum & Bailey Circus hired a number of the exotic peoples who'd been on view there and put them on the road as the Great Ethnological Congress--continuing the genius for wedding science and show biz that had marked Barnum's career (he'd died in 1891), and which took museum curators a century to understand and imitate.

Article by John Strausbaugh, from his book 'Black Like You: Blackface in American Popular Culture,' published by Penguin-Tarcher.

Lindfors, Bernth (ed.), Africans on Stage, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999
Hennop, Jan, "Mbeki Calls 19th Century Europeans 'Barbarians' at 'Hottentot Venus' Funeral," Agence France Presse, August 9, 2002
Behling, Laura L., "Reification and Resistance," Women's Studies in Communication, September 2002
Buzard, James and Joseph Childers, "Victorian Ethnographies," Victorian Studies Volume 41, Number 3, 1998 x

This page last updated March 19, 2005.

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