Bodies in Bondage: Slavery and Entertainment in the Civil War Era

By Brittany Ulman

It is well-known that, under slavery, African Americans faced harsh living conditions.  But, as slaves, they also endured the mental abuse associated with society viewing them as other to a white norm.  Because of dehumanizing racist views, they were even sometimes classified as “freaks” and put on display, like Saartjie Baartman was in Britain.  In fact, P.T. Barnum’s first human exhibit was a slave named Joice Heth.  Through slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass, modern America is shown the connections between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of freaks in the Civil War era; both groups were never viewed as normal or even fully human.

Slaves suffered appalling conditions; they were dehumanized as the “inferior” race and thus viewed as not deserving of the unalienable rights established in the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, they were considered property and had no say  as to what happened to them or their families. Similarly, freaks often were involuntarily placed in circuses and side shows to act as entertainment for others who were considered “normal.”  For those within the “supreme” race, slaves and freaks alike were simply “bodies, without the humanity social structures confer upon more ordinary people” (Thomson 57).  As long as these “unordinary heathens” could be used in some “useful” way, their masters rarely considered the people underneath the “abnormal” surface.  Because slaves and freaks were viewed as inhuman, the “superior” race did not believe that they experienced emotions like other humans would, but were either unaware or did not care what was happening to them.  In freak shows, “ exoticized disabled people and people of color functioned as physical opposites of the idealized American” (Thomson 65).

Because of the interesting anomalies that their bodies represented, slaves and freaks were often used as entertainment for their owners which resulted in their masters’ monetary profit. Douglass mentions in his narrative that slave-owners enjoyed spending Sundays watching their slaves box or wrestle, both for their own enjoyment and so the slaves did not participate in more “civilized” activities (Douglass 372). During these matches, slave-owners watched their slaves beat each other as if they were voluntarily participating in the sport. It was the common misperception that because of slaves’ differences in appearance, they were not fully human, but may be the missing link between humans and animals; this arose from the idea that African Americans were barbaric animals and not civilized human beings. Because society was so interested in discovering this connection between man and beast, they were willing to view African Americans as a combination of man and animal–a combination that favored animalistic characteristics. Some even classified African Americans as monsters due to their uncivilized similarities to animals.  This connection to monsters refers back to the original meaning of the word which shares a root word with “demonstrate”–a term that can be translated as “to show” (Thomson 56).    So because of this, like many others who were not considered “normal,” millions of African Americans in the Civil War era were subjected to the harsh realities of what it meant to be diverse.

Outside of the required strenuous physical labor, slaves also faced the possibility of being slashed by a whip, chased by bloodhounds, or branded like cattle—sometimes just for their owners’ pleasure (Jacobs 244). Masters used this treatment as a way to prove their “normalcy” and superiority over their slaves by showing that they possessed the power and the slaves did not. Spectators at freak shows also often either ogled at the performers or would need to physically touch them in some way, whether that be by poking them with a stick or pinching their skin, to further prove these “freaks” deviation from the accepted norm.

Sometimes, Africans and African Americans were forced to be both slaves and freaks, put on display for others’ entertainment, much like Saartjie Baartman in Britain.  In 1810, a young African woman’s father and husband were slaughtered by a European army, and she was kidnapped and dragged to Britain to act as entertainment for the masses (Elkins).  Simply because of the size of her posterior and skin color, Baartman was displayed in front of hundreds of passers-by and could be poked with a stick (Frith).  Even after her death in 1815, Baartman could not be left in peace as her body was subjected to Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier’s sexualized dissection, which was later put on display at the Museum of Man in Paris (Elkins, Frith).  Not until years later was Baartman allowed to finally rest in peace, as she was given an appropriate burial like she originally deserved.  Even in her death, Baartman could not achieve peace like others, but a death filled with entertainment for humans much like animal dissections are used as some sort of entertainment.

Instances such as these gave those in Civil War America the justification they so desperately sought for their heinous actions towards “different” individuals. For white Americans, Baartman’s mistreatment represented slavery’s potential. Since freaks and slaves alike were not considered whole human beings, their owners viewed enslavement as permission to use their “property” as they saw fit

Americans even went onto having their own Saartjie Baartman in 1935 with P.T. Barnum’s purchase of Joice Heth (Thomson 59). Heth, a blind and crippled African American elderly woman, was put on display in Philadelphia as a representation of what America should strive not to be physically. Heth was also used as an example for “proper” women to reference in order to “sharpen the distinction between the ideal Englishwoman and her physical and cultural opposite” (Thomson 56).  While this display of Heth and her “freakish” body warned American society about what is “abnormal,” it also stripped Heth of any ounce of humanity that she held. Because she was put on display as a “freak” of nature, Heth became solely what her body represented and not the person that she truly was. Much of slavery can be connected to masters’ infatuation with the “abnormal” characteristics of the slave’s body.  In an explanation of what the freak show presents to its consumers, Thomson states that society’s obsession with physicality “descended from a tradition of reading the extraordinary body that can be traced back to the earliest human representation” (56).  Therefore, slaves and freaks were used as entertainment for their masters based on the way in which their bodies deviated from the “norm.”  Furthermore, as with the death of Baartman, Heth was also publicly dissected by David L. Rogers following her death in 1836 (Thomson 60). Even in death, Heth was nothing more than an interesting “abnormality” to the white American public. Her life was not of enough importance to give her an appropriate burial, let alone life, because of the entertainment that her body provided.

As history progressed, African Americans witnessed exactly what it meant to be different. For Booker T. Washington, staying at a hotel for a night after their coach breaking down was an arduous task, one which resulted in sleeping under an elevated sidewalk in the midst of winter (566). Instances like this occurred despite millions of slaves and freaks involuntarily sacrificing blood, sweat, happiness, and a livelihood to their masters.  And despite surrendering all of those things, many African Americans and people with disabilities still faced discrimination.  Throughout the decades, “abnormal” people constantly asked, “Your country? How came it yours?” (DuBois 758). Slaves as young as six were forced to see themselves as not deserving of the same life and opportunities as the white children they played with. Girls as young as ten were subjected to being put on display due to their “larger than life” entertainment value.  A difference in appearance segregated a world and generated generations of resentment. This animosity has dwindled over the years, but it unfortunately has never completely faded. Its presence is forever felt in actions, words, and movements—the concept of “freakishness” will continue to exist within those who fail to see difference does not signify inequality.

 

Works Cited:

Douglass, Frederick.  “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.”  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Vol. 1. 3rd ed.  New

York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  326-393. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B.  “The Souls of Black Folk.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  687-760.

Print.

Elkins, Caroline.  “A Life Exposed.”  New York Times.  New York Times, 14 Jan. 2007.  Web.

12 Feb. 2016.

Frith, Susan.  “Searching for Sara Baartman.”  John Hopkins Magazine.  John Hopkins

University, June 2009.  Web.  12 Feb. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet.  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”  The Norton Anthology of African

American Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

221-261.  Print.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland.  Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American

Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.  Print.

Washington, Booker T.  “Up From Slavery.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  548-572.

Print.

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