The White African American Body: A Cultural and Literary Explorationby Charles D. Martin
Blacks with white skin. Since colonial times, showmen have exhibited the bodies of African Americans with white or gradually whitening skin in taverns, dime museums, and circus sideshows. The term "white Negro" has served to describe an individual born with albinism as well as those who have vitiligo, a disorder that robs the skin of its pigment in… See more details below
Blacks with white skin. Since colonial times, showmen have exhibited the bodies of African Americans with white or gradually whitening skin in taverns, dime museums, and circus sideshows. The term "white Negro" has served to describe an individual born with albinism as well as those who have vitiligo, a disorder that robs the skin of its pigment in ever-growing patches. In The White African American Body, Charles D. Martin examines the proliferation of the image of the white Negro in American popular culture, from the late eighteenth century to the present day.
This enigmatic figure highlights the folly of the belief in immutable racial differences. If skin is a race marker, what does it mean for blacks literally to be white? What does this say not only about blacks but also about whites? Scientists have probed this mystery, philosophers have pondered its meaning, and artists have profited from the sale of images of these puzzling figures.
Lavishly illustratedwith many rarely seen photographsThe White African American Body shows how the white Negro occupied, and still occupies, the precarious position between white and black, and how this figure remains resilient in American culture.
- Rutgers University Press
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Excerpt from The White African-American Body: A Cultural and Literary Exploration by Charles D. Martin
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Here I present to you the body of the white Negro. White skin on an African body. Spotted Child. Leopard Boy Piebald Girl. Albino Family. Negro Turning White. Hybrid. Enigma. Transgressor of boundaries.
For more than two hundred years, natural philosophers, scientists, and showmen have exhibited the bodies of African Americans with white or gradually whitening skin in taverns, dime museums, and circus sideshows. The term white Negro has served to describe individuals born with albinism as well as those who have vitiligo, a disorder that robs the skin of its pigment in ever-growing patches.1 Founding Fathers, laborers, and Irish immigrants, among many others, gathered to witness the spectacle of whiteness on skin that the audience expected to be black. To a great extent, it seems inconceivable from our jaded, early-twenty-first-century perspective that, for so long, the white Negro body presented a fantasy of racial transformation, a belief that, under the right conditions, black skin could turn white and the African American could become indistinguishable from the European. But the white Negro spectacle did induce dreams of change, and those yearnings died hard, lasting well into the twentieth century, infiltrating the culture and the literature.
Witness the exhibition. Staged before millions, for the pleasure of philosophers and princes, literati, and statesmen.
I find it hard to clear my voice of the inflection of a barker who narrates theunveiling of another sport of nature. We encounter the white Negro, and we react viscerally to the complete and universal whiteness of the Albino Family, the growing white patches of the Leopard Boy. At first, even for a moment, if we are willing to admit it, we marvel as we do at others with radical bodily difference-the legless and armless wonders, the two-headed women, the hermaphrodites. Leslie Fiedler has observed, "Nobody can write about freaks without somehow exploiting them for his own ends."2 He admitted that he could not. And I have discovered, in spite of my best efforts during the course of this book's creation, that neither can I exonerate myself completely. In these chapters, I have become exhibitor. As I present these images and arguments at conferences and in consultation with colleagues, I have noticed in the faces of my audience a mixture of fascination and embarrassment. In spite of ourselves, even as we try to avert our gaze from the racial spectacle, the patches of white skin still draw.
Scholars have tried to explain the appeal of those with anomalous bodies: dwarfs and giants, human skeletons and Siamese twins, bearded women and wild men of Borneo. Fiedler finds the source in our own intense "psychic need," an impulse developed in childhood to discover the limits of the self in the extreme conditions of others. The freak's body "challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth."3 The challenge presented by the display of the anomalous body helps constitute the normality of the audience. For my argument, I will add to Fiedler's list the boundary between black and white, which I believe the figure of the "white Negro" both embodies and frustrates. The blurring of racial categories presented by the white Negro compels the audience to define racial difference further and map its boundaries. The preternatural whiteness calls attention to the pigmentation of the audience and creates a self-conscious need to delineate the difference between the shade of the exhibit and that of the viewer.
Susan Stewart identifies the freak show as "an inverse display of perfection" which consequently establishes an ideal. "To know an age's typical freaks," she argues, "is, in fact, to know its points of standardization." In this statement, she implies the artifice of what she calls "a freak of culture": as our standards for the average shift, so do our standards that make up the margins. 4 Although we must acknowledge the reality of the physical body on exhibit-the bearded lady does have facial hair, the Siamese twins are conjoined, the Leopard Boy has vitiligo-the status of the disabled body is a social construction.5 Robert Bogdan contends that the presentation on the stage is what marks a freak. "Showmen," he writes, "fabricated freaks' backgrounds, the nature of their conditions, the circumstances of their current lives, and other personal characteristics."6 The presenters concocted "true life histories" and dressed them to exoticize or aggrandize their physical condition. In a way, the white Negro is a sham, a P. T. Barnum humbug. Like other so-called freaks, the figure exists in our imaginations, the lack of pigment calling for a designation, its own nomenclature. But the audience's fascination, our inability to turn away, is not fabricated. We react to the black-white body because it fathoms a need.
Bogdan also argues for the volition of the exhibit, that these people with possibly unusual physical traits chose to exhibit themselves and in the process found community with others on the margins of show business, yet his prose betrays the central problem of agency in the presentation. Even though he sees a kind of liberation in the carnival display, he does admit that those on exhibit did not author their histories, choose their costumes or backdrop, or even speak for themselves on most occasions. The carnival talker served as the mediating voice, offering ballyhoo and blather. The nineteenthcentury white Negro suffered the same silence. The Leopard Child did not speak. Diaries, if they existed, do not survive. Only the voice of Henry Moss, the most famous of the eighteenth-century white Negroes, echoes through the accounts of his self-promoted displays in Philadelphia.
In her landmark study Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson repositions the discussion of anomalous bodies on display from a focus upon the effect on the audience to that on the exhibit, those that she terms "extraordinary bodies" in order to reclaim for people with disabilities an exalted position lost during the decades of silent display and clinical observation. In spite of her intention to reclaim the freak, the body that deviates, the extraordinary, she does not neglect the exhibition's benefit to the audience. According to Thomson, the extraordinary body helps constitute what she terms the "normate," the so-called average body of the citizen she identifies as white, male, and able-bodied. In the process of this constitution, though, the disabled body is estranged, stigmatized as a freak by virtue of its physical difference from the normate, which in turn "legitimates the status quo, naturalizes attributions of inherent inferiority and superiority, and obscures the socially constructed quality of both categories."
Thomson creates a simple binary: freak and normate. The disabled body plays a distinct role in the creation of the American self by violating the principles of "self-government, self-determination, autonomy, and progress." In other words, such a body is not self-reliant. The freak show exhibit instead "mocks the notion of the body as compliant instrument of the limitless will and appears in the cultural imagination as ungovernable, recalcitrant, flaunting its difference as if to refute the fantasy of sameness implicit in the notion of equality."7 It is important to note that at this point in time the bodies of African American men and women, as well as the bodies of women defined as "white," qualified as disabled under this rubric since they were deemed incompetent to perform the rites of citizenship. Mikhail Bakhtin as well includes among "traditional representations of the grotesque body" in these satiric processions the extraordinary bodies of "negroes and moors (a grotesque deviation from the bodily norm)."8 Like giants and dwarfs and bearded women, the blind and the halt and the lame, people with dark skin defy and define the average, their bodies marked simultaneously as excessive and insufficient.
For her argument, Thomson proposes a narrative of regression. The extraordinary bodies of the people with congenital disabilities began, in a distant era, as revered and feared figures pregnant with portent, living examples of God's grace and wrath, yet always functioning "as icons upon which people discharged their anxieties, convictions, and fantasies." In the era of festivals and fairs, the disabled body became a wonder, an esteem that did not last under the eventual imposition of scientific scrutiny. "The once marvelous body that was taken as a map of human fate," she writes, "now began to be seen as an aberrant body that marked the borders between the normal and the pathological."9 To support this narrative, she embraces Bakhtin's concept of the carnivalesque-the disorderly body as a challenge to religious and secular authority and hierarchy-as a means essentially to resacralize the extraordinary body and imbue it again with the ability to provoke awe and turn the world upside down.
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