I saw this and sarcastically said to myself, “Oh no! Not ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.’”
Top articles covered: the 146 years of “greatness”; the mistreatment, abuse and murder of exotic animals, which led to battles with animal-rights groups; and the too-little, too-late attempt to hire its first African-American ringmaster.
However, none of the articles identified how P.T. Barnum’s rise to fame in the 19th century should be credited to his exploitation of African Americans.
Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid revealed that in 1835 in New York City, Barnum debuted Joice Heth, an African-American slave woman, at his first show, which was titled, “Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World.” Barnum claimed that Heth was a 161-year-old blind woman who had nursed George Washington.
This blind, sickly woman racked up massive coins for Barnum. When she died the following year, Barnum immediately paid a surgeon to publicly dissect Heth among 1,500 spectators.
This was without her consent.
He turned her autopsy procedure into a spectacle, profiting by charging 50 cents a person.
Years after Heth’s death, the demand for “Negro freaks” soared. Barnum shows now included conjoined twins and people who suffered from elephantiasis, vitiligo, blindness and other anomalies, all of whom were black. Barnum was not only creating entertainment for white racists but was also perpetuating the idea of the medical racial inferiority of black people. This prejudice was already deeply ingrained as part of the medical scene, especially in the South.
Not only did Barnum exploit black people who had birth defects, but some of his “acts” were surgically impaired to fit falsified life stories. By desecrating black bodies for grotesque amusement, he opened the door for racist physicians and scientists to experiment on and torture black people all over the world.
Barnum perpetuated the idea of black people as freaks, hypersexual beasts and illiterates by publicly displaying crippled, physically disabled and half-naked images of them for his circus acts.
Barnum was no different from the doctors who were involved in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment; no different from Thomas Jefferson, who injected his slaves with smallpox; and no different from the hundreds of poor black people whom Johns Hopkins Hospital exploited for immoral experimentation. I grew up in a neighborhood an arm’s length away from Johns Hopkins, and I have family and friends who were made mentally, financially and intellectually inferior from undergoing unethical procedures.
P.T. Barnum, and other idiotic racists, believed that black people were (and still are) naturally illiterate, experimental animals; disease-ridden, lazy, cursed children of Ham; and people who could withstand more pain than whites. These false ideas about black people justified the enslavement, medical torture and murder of black people in this country.
If the gatekeepers of white supremacy could drop bombs on every impoverished black neighborhood in the U.S., they would. But they can’t because we live in a society where money matters, and black dollars hold more value than black lives. Black people will continue to be subjected to crummy health care, along with other racist ideas and policies, to ensure their degradation. This will only come to a stop if people view and treat one another as human beings.
Ever since slavery was “abolished,” America has continued to replace one form of slavery with another, systematically keeping a majority of the black population padlocked to poverty, prisons, health defects and graveyards. We continually blame the black struggle in America on black people, and not on the system that has enslaved, murdered and oppressed black people, and continues to do so.
The ending of the Barnum reign is even more peculiar because President Donald Trump believes that the country needs someone like Barnum.
In January 2016, Trump appeared on Meet the Press. Chuck Todd asked Trump, “What’s any of those do you consider a compliment?” referring to the names people had call him. Trump responded, “P.T. Barnum.” His explanation followed: “We need P.T. Barnum, a little bit, because we have to build up the image of our country.”
From the beginning, this system has beaten down “ugly” black people to “build up the image of our country,” which is synonymous with building up white supremacy and maintaining black inferiority.
I say with great delight, I am ecstatic that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is coming to a close after its 146-year run.
So long to the worst show on earth.
Kondwani Fidel is a writer, speaker and spoken-word poet who holds a B.A. in English from Virginia State University. His work has been featured on Business Insider, the Huffington Post and elsewhere. He has lectured and shared poetry at countless universities, conferences and literary events around the country. Fidel is the author of Raw Wounds. He is from and currently lives in Baltimore. Follow Fidel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at BookingKondwaniFidel@gmail.com.