Zulus, Hindus, Arabs, and Ethnological Imposture and Inspiration in Gilded Age and Progressive Era Circus, Magic, and Religion.

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 2:10 PM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Jacob S. Dorman, University of Kansas
From at least the early nineteenth century, American circuses capitalized on portrayals of the Orient as an exotic land. Whether in circus parades featuring turbaned brown-skinned riders on top of elephants and camels, elaborate spectacles featuring Oriental themes, or the exhibition of Arab athletes from Syria and North Africa, the American circus, as the most popular form of entertainment in the twentieth century, played a large role in teaching Americans and audiences around the world what the Orient was. As circuses acquired ethnological aspirations in the 1890s, circuses not only taught romantic myths about the Orient, but also displayed Muslim prayer and devotional practices such as prayer and whirling dervishes. These circus traditions diffused into circus sideshows and related entertainments, including magic shows, vaudeville theaters, world’s fair midways, and “cooch” shows. Predictably, however, circus displays of Oriental otherness were often fraudulent; for example, sometimes Jews and Syrian Christian portrayed Muslims, and most Arab athletes were likely trained athletes and soldiers from cosmopolitan cities, not “Bedouins” as they were often billed. African American circus workers were also often able to earn extra pay by dressing as Arabs, Bedouins, Hindus, and Moors in the circus. Some Black and white Americans even became Hindu magicians, practicing a distinct genre of “Hindu magic” for audiences in the two decades before the First World War. In light of the fact that circus portrayals of Africans, including Zulus, were almost always demeaning, these acts of ethnological imposture actually helped African Americans to escape the narrow confines of Gilded Age racism and to identify with colonized people of color around the world. They also helped to inspire Mardi Gras traditions and alternative religious faiths of the Great Migration era, and played an important part in sustaining conjuring and inspiring twentieth century Black Muslims.
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