Race and White Tops: African Americans, Australians, Arabs, Hindus, and Gilded Age and Progressive Era Circuses

AHA Session 246
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom B (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Janet M. Davis, University of Texas at Austin
Janet M. Davis, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

The circus is one of the richest sources of historical material in American  archives, and has a vibrant community of enthusiasts who chronicle and preserve its records, but academic scholars of cultural history have only recently begun to mine those archives for insights into American culture, politics, race, gender construction, religion, transnationalism, and a host of other dimensions not directly related to circus performance and management itself. This panel brings together a collection of scholars who are using the tools of cultural history to shed new light on the circus’ importance in constructing identity both in America and transnationally.

Dr. Sakina Hughes of the University of Southern Indiana will offer a paper chronicling how African American Progressive Era circus performers shaped the perception of black culture at home and abroad and created collaborations with Indigenous peoples, while also repeating civilizationist thinking that stressed their own sophistication in comparison to Indigenous peoples. Hughes finds these black circus performers to be important forerunners of the explosion of cultural creativity that occurred during the New Negro moment.

Dr. Gillian Arrighi of the University of Newcastle, Australia, continues the theme of how circuses allowed American culture to travel overseas in her paper about American circuses that brought their shows and their technical and business innovations with them on tours of Australia. In addition to their dazzling talent and technical innovations such as electric lighting, U.S. circuses found ready audiences in Australia, Arrighi shows, because they recycled American frontier narratives in a country that also was a settler society with its own racial frontier. The popularity of American circuses in Australia helped to mitigate Great Britain’s long history of cultural influence in its former colony, and contributed a complex legacy to Australian popular culture.

Finally, Dr. Jacob Dorman of the University of Kansas discusses how the circus was one of the primary vehicles for disseminating ideas of the Orient during the nineteenth century, and examines the portrayals of Zulus, Hindus, and Arabs in particular. He argues that the circus and its related art forms may not have been authentic, but they did allow African Americans who portrayed Orientals to escape the narrow confines of Gilded Age and Progressive Era racism, which was epitomized by the circus’ racist portrayals of Africans. Such performances allowed blacks to identify as Orientals and with Muslims, sustaining and augmenting African American conjuring traditions while helping to inspire twentieth century Black Muslim movements.

The chair and commentator, Dr. Janet Davis of the University of Texas, is the author of two exemplary books on the circus that have related the circus to broad themes in American culture, including the construction of gender and race.

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