Monday, March 4, 2019

Lost Memories, Lost Episodes, and What We Gain From Context

I had Sesame Street blankets on my bed through junior high.

It wasn't like I insisted on having them.  It was just that I never really envisioned not having them.  The concept of changing my sheets to anything else never occurred to me, and the faded characters were so incredibly familiar that having sheets with any other design would have felt as weird as sleeping in a different bed entirely every night.

By the way, I Googled those sheets for this article, and discovered that the design is now considered "vintage."  You can find my old sheets on eBay for anywhere from seventeen to thirty-five dollars.  The moment I saw Bert and Ernie on their little tandem bike, the memories came flooding back.


...or did they?

Here's some back story about Sesame Street.  Sesame Street has been around since 1969; it's poised for its 50th season, boasting over 4,000 episodes, 189 Emmies, and 11 Grammies.  Also, according to Wikipedia, 95% of American children have seen the show before the age of 3.

The funny thing about Sesame Street, though, is that most of us cannot name a single fucking episode.

The simple fact of the matter is that there's a thing called "childhood amnesia," and we all have it.  It's part of normal brain development; you don't remember being a baby, or probably even being a toddler.  Memory before the age of five is, at best, single snapshots that are memories of memories and not much more; it might be more accurate to call them "mythologies" than "memories."


I know that I loved Sesame Street.  I still remember the theme song.  I think I remember one episode that had a song about not wasting water.  (Lyrics: "Don't waste the water, water, water" to the tune of a dripping faucet.)  I also think I might remember one that involved a back tooth reminding the person brushing it "Don't skip me!"  But I don't know.  A talking tooth demanding attention sounds more like a fever dream than a childhood memory.

And most people agree that childhood amnesia is absolutely terrifying, if you really think about it.  The idea of losing our memories, our sense of self, or of having false memories implanted into us, is the kind of stuff we make horror films about.  (For example, Before I Go To Sleep, Inception, The Island, Memento, Shutter Island, The Bourne Identity, The Number 23, and, perhaps scariest of all, 50 First Dates.)

And the subject of childhood amnesia is especially frightening, because as children, we lack the context to really understand everything happening to and around us.  Kids get scared of all sorts of shit.  Kids also stumble into scary situations that only make sense later in life.  Childhood amnesia bears an implication of potential trauma, the idea that we have always had a dark monster lurking, locked away in our own brains, and we never even knew.


So Sesame Street.

It might delight you to know that, if you were a toddler in 1976 and you saw an episode of Sesame Street that scared the shit out of you, that isn't a false memory, but a real one.

Because in 1976 there was an episode of Sesame Street that aired once and was never seen again.

Episode 0847, called both "The Lost Episode" and "The Banned Episode," aired on February 10th.  There's no clips of it available online, though we've been reassured that the footage wasn't destroyed and is archived... somewhere.  There are periodic suggestions that the episode might play someday, but as it stands, it never has been, nor has there has ever been any news confirmed about an eventual release date.

We do have stills, though, and a basic plot.  The Wicked Witch of the West (played by Margaret Hamilton of the original Wizard of Oz) flies over Sesame Street and loses her broom.  It's found by David and Big Bird, who refuse to return it to her because they're worried she'll do evil magic with it.  The Witch loses her shit and proceeds to terrorize Sesame Street with various threats, including turning Big Bird into a feather duster (that's racist?) and David into a basketball (that's racist).  She trashes Mr. Hooper's store by making it rain indoors and filling it up with brooms.  Eventually, she gets her broom back from Big Bird by tricking him into thinking she's nice, and flies away.  (Although it ends on a sort-of cliffhanger where she drops her broom a second time.)  The end.


It doesn't sound scary, perhaps, but again, children have vastly different concepts of what "scary" really means.  (It's worth pointing out that, when I was a kid, I was scared by the following: sewing machines, my fingernails melting off, and the pollution monster from Fern Gully.)  The idea of a thunderstorm indoors is actually ridiculously terrifying if you're a kid; thunderstorms are scary enough when they're outside.  And the idea of being transformed into an inanimate object, one without a face... well, yeah, I can see how that might scare children.

Incidentally, it was reported that the Witch was literally supposed to "teach children about fear."  So, yeah, they were definitely angling for a "scary" episode.

As typically happens when this sort of thing airs, enraged parents wrote into the show, saying it had made their kids upset.  Kids cried, kids had nightmares, and PBS never showed the episode again, leading to a strange cult following from people like me who really, really want to see the "lost episode."

Google search it all you want.  
You won't find it.
Side note: don't Google "Sesame Street" memes, or click that link.

This wasn't the first time Sesame Street overstepped, either.  While the show has had plenty of controversial and serious episodes dealing with very real issues, the "scary" episode wasn't the only one that had to be pulled.  In 1992, episode 2985 was quietly thrown out without ever being aired because the producers decided kids didn't get it.  Titled "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce," it was supposed to reassure children whose parents were splitting up that they were still loved and it wasn't their fault.  Apparently, it missed the mark and tested poorly, so they scrapped it, not wanting to confuse children who might already be troubled.

I don't want to sound like I'm being overly critical of Sesame Street, here.  Sesame Street has been so successful in a very large part because of its willingness to tackle serious issues in an age-appropriate way.  This includes the iconic episode wherein characters discussed another character's death (the actor had actually died and their tears were real), and the inclusion of HIV-positive puppets in South Africa and Arab puppets in Israel.  Few shows have tackled as many real-world issues, or done it as gracefully, as Sesame Street, although I do want to give a shout-out to Mr. Rogers, who also did a Wicked Witch episode that was never banned, as well as an episode about divorce.  (The witch episodes were nearly concurrent, being released in 1975 and 1976, within one year of each other.)


What did Mr. Rogers do differently?

In the Mr. Rogers segment, he introduces us to Margaret Hamilton, and she actually puts on her witch outfit on screen.  The children understand that it's merely "make-believe."  If there's one failing of Sesame Street, perhaps it's that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality.  When a giant elephant puppet tells you that your parents might break up, it's unclear to what extent that's true.  Mr. Rogers never bullshitted kids; his puppets were, by design, "make-believe" and not part of his actual real-life house.  The actress who portrayed the witch explained how her skin wasn't actually green and that it was only paint that wiped off.  "Sometimes, Mister Rogers, I'm a little unhappy because lots of children are quite scared by [the witch], and that always makes me feel a little sad," said Hamilton.


The thing about kids is, their brains are little sponges, and they absorb a lot of stuff.  But they don't always understand it.  Yes, Cookie Monster is supposed to be a metaphor for drug addiction.  But do kids really get that?  I sure as shit didn't.

Child psychology is a complex subject and has grown a lot since the '70s, so we can't fault Sesame Street too much for their famously controversial witch episode.  But if there's anything we should take away from it, it's not that children should not be exposed to things that are scary, sad, or uncomfortable.  It's that they should be given age-appropriate context.  That's what Mr. Rogers did in his show; he soothingly explained things that were scary, sad, or uncomfortable in a way that helped give children the context they lack due to their lack of life experience.

Childhood amnesia is scary to us, as adults, precisely because of what it represents: The Great Unknown.  Lack of information is terrifying; the monsters we can't see are almost always scarier than the ones we can, which is why The Blair Witch Project was actually a fantastically scary and unsettling movie.  (Had they shown the witch, it would have ceased to be scary to everyone except for toddlers, who probably would have been terrified, especially if it turned out Margaret Hamilton was the Blair Witch all along.)

As adults, we sometimes get little jolts of memory from those lost years of our lives, and without the surrounding circumstances to understand it, those jolts are often unsettling.  For example, my memory of an anthropomorphic, lonely tooth.  Now imagine you're three years old and that uncanny sense is your constant state.

 Fortunately unlike kids us adults are sooooo smart and good at remembering stuff.

It's no wonder kids are constantly having meltdowns.  They're small, and the world is big, and everything is moving loudly and quickly around them without any rhyme or reason.

The solution?  We need to be more like Mr. Rogers.  His show was calm, slow, soft, and comforting.  It explained what was happening, and why, with saint-like patience.  And no kid, to my knowledge, has ever been confused or traumatized by Mr. Rogers.  His message of unconditional love is timeless.

Sesame Street isn't worse than Mr. Rogers.  It's simply different.  It's more political and more focused on current affairs.  There's a place for both.

Also, Sesame Street did an Avengers parody and I have to give them credit for that. 
They're even mean to Hawkeye around the 3:30 mark.

That being said, though, if I had to go back in time and choose new sheets for my bed... well, I don't know if they made Mr. Rogers sheets, but I would have opted for those.  Because as an adult, I feel that the thing that best prepared me for my adult life was context.  I was offered, like all children, a feast of information; the stuff that stuck with me was the stuff that was explained.  It's no coincidence that the favorite question of children under five is "why?"  They don't merely want information; they want to know what it's good for, and how it relates to their place in the world.

One of the lessons we, as adults, can learn from this is that things lacking context are scary.  It's easy to forget, as adults, that we have our blind spots.  We don't always know the "why" of things, even when we think we do.  Adulthood is a lot like living in the Sesame Street universe, where reality and the perception of reality mix together seamlessly.  But often, the things that upset, scare, or anger us lack a greater context, and so it's important to handle our Sesame Street lives in a Mr. Rogers manner: by calmly, quietly seeking out more information and coming to an understanding that lets us live our lives in the best way possible.

Children's programming often stumbles into shockingly profound and poetically beautiful philosophies, and I'd like to quote Captain Planet here, who stated that there are two things that make bad things worse: ignorance, and fear.


Whoops, wrong clip.  (That's from episode 11, season 3, and if you think it's fake, think again; here's the full climax.  In my opinion, though, this is an amazing example of how to educate kids directly on serious issues.)

My point is, we don't stop being scared just because we grow up.  We just get scared of different things.  And Sesame Street's scary episode may not have done what it intended to, but in a way, it did fulfill its mission.  It taught us about fear.  Contrasted with the Mr. Rogers episode that feature the Wicked Witch, it showed us what the remedy for fear is: knowledge.

As Captain Planet once told us, "Protect yourself and others with knowledge. Remember, the power is yours."

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Only Direct Sales Success Story I'll Ever Post

In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Four years later, Sarah Breedlove was born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana.  She was the sixth child in her family, but she was special because she was the first one to be born free.  That didn't afford her as many opportunities as you might think; her parents died (probably from cholera) when she was 7, and she went to live with one of her sisters, working as a domestic servant.  She received only three months of formal education, in the form of Sunday school literacy lessons.


I first learned about Sarah Breedlove from a plaque at the National Auto Museum in Reno.  You might be puzzled as to how she ended up there, or why.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Sarah Breedlove married at 14, had a child at 18, and was widowed at 20.  Being a single black woman with a two-year-old put her in... not such a great position.  She worked as a laundress, earning somewhere between $1 and $1.50 a day, and scraping by in order to ensure her daughter got a proper education.  Meanwhile, she joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she sang in the choir; through the church, she made contact with various community leaders and members of the National Association of Colored Women, where she herself was able to continue her own education.

 You go, girl!
Also this phrase has its own interesting history, here.
But this post isn't about that.  
Let's get back to Sarah...

You probably think this is where her story turns around, but you're wrong.  At the age of 35, she was still working as a laundress and cook, barely scraping by; she was widowed a second time, and, thanks to the stress she was putting on her body, began losing her hair.

This actually wasn't uncommon for Black women of the time.  Products to make naturally thick, kinky hair soft and luxurious usually contained sulfur and lye.  Combine the harsh products with a lack of access to warm, clean water for bathing and cramped working spaces filled with bacteria and lice, and you end up with dandruff and hair loss.

 This is not the first or the last time you will see this meme on my blog.

In an interview with the New York Times, she described staring down at her hands in the washboard and realizing her situation was unsustainable.  ("I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’")

In desperate need of money and searching for a solution to her hair loss, Sarah discovered Annie Turnbo’s "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.  She not only began using the product, but joined Turnbo's team of direct sales agents.  Turnbo herself was a Black woman and her team was mostly Black women; Turno had a background in chemistry.  Sarah had two older brothers who were barbers and had an interest in the perming and straightening technology of the time, most of which was extremely damaging to Black women's hair.

Sarah moved to Denver in 1905, seeing a business opportunity: the dry air in the Rockies was notoriously awful for hair and she could sell more products there.  Or, alternatively... create her own.

 
This is the look of a woman who isn't fucking around.

Investing $1.25 into her own formula, Sarah Breedlove married a third time, changing her name to Madam C.J. Walker.  (C.J. Walker, her third husband, was an ad man she'd met in St. Louis.)  Her formula contained sulphur and petroleum jelly, a mixture that had been around for ages; sulfur has natural antibiotic and antiviral properties, and keratin (the stuff your hair is made of) is extremely high in sulfur.  Sulfur powder for hair growth is sold even today; the petroleum jelly acted as a pomade and moisturizer.

Armed with business experience from her Turnbo sales career, and backed by a husband who knew a thing or two about marketing, Madam Walker's business exploded.  


Awkwardly similar name to Turnbo's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" but okay.

By 1908 her door-to-door and mail-order business was doing well enough for her to open a brick-and-mortar hair parlor and establish Leila College in Pittsburgh, where she trained other women.  Calling herself a "beauty culturalist," Madam Walker developed what she called "The Walker System" for promoting thick, healthy hair.  She expanded her product line to include pomades and hot combs for straightening.  (Hot combs were not, contrary to popular belief, invented by Walker; she did, however, improve the design, creating a hot comb with wider teeth that was more effective than other iron combs of the time.)

Wait a goddamn minute.
Why wasn't she featured in my dandruff-and-toothpaste article?!

In 1910 she incorporated her business, and invested $10,000 of her own money, making herself the sole shareholder of the new Walker Manufacturing Company, headquartered in Indianapolis.  It included a factory, a beauty school, and several salons.  Her marriage fell apart, but not her business; she was unstoppable, hyper-aware of brand awareness, her face on every one of her products, and her team of direct sales agents (numbering anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 women) wearing recognizable Madam Walker uniforms: a starched white shirt, a respectable black skirt, and a black satchel filled with hair care products.

The only direct sales team I will ever support.
Side note to everyone: don't join MLMs.

In 1917, Walker began organizing her sales agents into state and local clubs. The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (predecessor to the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America).  In the same way, she organized the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. "I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself," Walker said in 1914. "I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race."


 Here's our homegirl smashing the patriarchy.
She is likely the richest person in this picture, 
and you just know at least a few of those guys are FURIOUS about it.

She didn't merely talk the talk; she walked the walk.  (She didn't call herself Walker for nothin'.) (When she dumped her third husband, she kept the name, since that was what was on all of her products; she considered it "her" name as she had been the one to make it famous with her business.)

As an activist and philanthropist, she donated $1,000 to establish a YMCA in Indianapolis as well as to the Tuskagee Institute's scholarship program, personally covering the tuition of six students here. She was a member of the executive committee for the NAACP's New York Chapter and marched in the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, donating $5,000 in 1919 to the anti-lynching fund.  (That's about $73,574.14, nowadays.)

 
She got a 32-cent stamp.  Lol.

On the subject of social justice and activism, she said, "This is the greatest country under the sun.  But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible."

Walker’s sales exceeded $500,000 in the final year of her life and she owned properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Sher personally bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, churches, and educational institutions; her will directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.  Her main home was the famous Villa Lewaro, a 34-room mansion in New York which is today a protected historical landmark.

I could write a whole post about Villa Lewaro because it is DOPE.
Google some pictures; you will not be disappointed.
It's an architectural masterpiece.

Often dubbed the "first female self-made millionaire," Walker's personal estate was worth about $600,000 at the time of her death in 1919.  Adjusted for inflation, that's worth about $8.8 million nowadays.  Walker was the wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time, and is to date considered one of the most successful women of color in America.  


"There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she said of her empire. "And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard."

Her rags-to-riches story is the most American dream story I can think of... and I learned about it in an auto museum. 

Here's the plaque!
 
Apparently, Madam Walker really liked driving around Harlem.  I like to imagine her waving stacks of bills at shocked white men, cackling and shaking out her head of luxurious hair. 


This is why we need Black History Month.  For people like Madam C.J. Walker, who teach and inspire us, who leave remarkable legacies that would fade from our history if we did not repeat them.  And they are worth repeating, because people like Madam Walker did what we should all strive for: she built herself up and then used her power to build up others.  She grew more than simply hair; she grew her community, and demonstrated a grace and dignity that all of us should try ourselves to emulate.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Lewis and Clark (and York)

When I was a kid I was in a lot of school musicals.  I still remember some of the songs.  I remember being one of four kids in a nativity musical and singing a song called "If I Were a King."  (I was raised Catholic.)  I tried to look up some of the musicals so I could reference them in this blog post, but as someone born in the 1980s, I couldn't find many of them.  The suggestions for middle schoolers nowadays include a Shrek musical, which is way past my time, and I can only Google middle school plays for so long before I start to worry that I'm on some sort of list.

If you'd like to be on a list, too, then check this out!  This is a video of some random middle schoolers singing the opening song from "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."


This is a play I remember performing in, and I was able to remember some of the songs, too.  ("Oh my name's Napoleon Bonaparte / And have I got a deal for you. / I'm in danger of being blown apart / So I make this appeal to you!")  (God, these Shrek kids of today are missing out...)

As I mentioned, I was born in the 1980s, when we learned a version of history that often left out important people.  For example, I don't really recall either York or Sacajawea in "The Adventures of Lewis and Clark."  Then again, I was probably like ten years old.  I remember there was a dog.  Maybe the dog was supposed to be Sacajawea.

Pow-wow?  More like bow-wow.

Okay, I went and looked it up, because I have no memory of York or Sacajawea in this play, only Lewis, Clark, and a talking dog.  I'm probably on some more lists now.  Turns out, Sacajawea was in the play.  Also, the dog's name in the play is Scannon, a hilarious historical error.  (The dog's real name was Seaman.)  The dog has its own song in the musical, called "It's Ruff," which is more than we can say for York, although I was glad that York was mentioned at all.

You've probably heard of Sacajawea, but who the hell is this York guy I keep mentioning?  I'll let the musical, The Adventures of Lewis and Clark, explain.  This is actual dialogue from the Lewis and Clark play, glossing over York's slavery using the dog:

YORK: I’m certain that I am the slave who made the trip. They call me York.
SCANNON: Ruff! Ruff! I am the dog, Scannon. Could you tell?
ALL: Yep! He’s the dog all right! No doubt about it!

This post is about York, the second Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition that history forgets.  Sacajawea got her own $1 coin but York got nothing.  Hell, the dog got more statues than York did; Wikipedia mentions at least 14 statues for the dog and only 4 for York.

Not pictured: York.

York (named most commonly "York William Clark," though it should be noted that this was only because William Clark was the man who owned him) was born in 1770 in Virginia, on a modest plantation called Mulberry Hill, one of several estates held by the Clark family.  He was born the same year as William Clark and the two grew up side-by-side, as playmates, except one was a goddamn slave and the other was William Clark.

When Clark's father died, he willed York to William.  They were 14 at the time.  Following Clark's death, the family moved to Kentucky; despite being an able-bodied man, York was trained not as a laborer, but as William Clark's personal manservant.  And when President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis to explore his newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase, Lewis appointed Clark as second-in-command, and Clark dragged York along.  ("Is it cool if I bring my dog?"  "Sure, I'm bringing my slave, so why not?")

Their party was described as being made up of "nine young men" from Kentucky who were old army buddies, what Jefferson called the "Corps of Discovery."  The actual Corps included a total of about thirty people but it failed to include many of the civilian guides and volunteers.  And by volunteers, I mean the wives, slaves, and other disenfranchised people who agreed to go on the trip.

And Lewis's dog.  Can't forget the dog.
Look at him, sharing his spotlight with Sacajewea.
Good boy! 

The Lewis and Clark expedition began in 1804, when York was about 34 years old.  Records indicate he was married, but his wife was left behind in Louisville. Clark's journals mention him frequently, calling him a "servant." A roster from Camp Dubois in the spring of that year lists "2 of us & york," as sharing one tent, indicating that Lewis, Clark, and York operated as one unit in terms of sleeping and boat arrangements within the Corps.

As the only Black member of the party, he faced a degree of racial discrimination, including an incident within the first month where one of the men threw sand at York, which according to Clark’s journal, resulted in him “nearly loseing [sic] an eye.”  (Note: Clark had been homeschooled and his spelling was atrocious.  He famously spelled "Sioux" twenty-six different ways in his own writings.)

But as the trip progressed, York became an invaluable member of the team.  He helped with all of the various tasks, including the preparation of the captains' food, putting up the captains' tents, and being involved with scouting and hunting trips.  (From Clark's journal: “Derected My Servent York with me to kill a Buffalow.”)  That last item is fairly significant, since in his home state, York, as a slave, would have been prohibited from using firearms.  On the expedition he experienced a remarkable degree of freedom.


Clark's journals reveal that York knew how to swim (unlike many of the corpsmen, and especially unusual for a Black man of that time period), enjoyed messing with the Indians (York was a practical joker and told several tribes he was a tame bear who ate children), and was allowed to ride on horseback.  He was famously caring of the other members of the party when they got ill, staying by Sergeant Floyd's side when he died of appendicitis.  (Floyd was the only member of the party to actually die during the entire two and a half year expedition.)  He seemed to care deeply for others; during a flash flood in Missouri, he was separated from Clark, and Clark wrote of the incident: "I found my servent in serch of us greatly agitated, for our wellfar.”

Working alongside the other members of the party, he soon began to enjoy the same sort of privileges that they did, including having several locations named after him (a tributary named York's Dry Creek and the York 8 Islands), and being given a vote of where to spend the winter in 1805-1806.  (A record of the vote shows that only the men of the Corps were given a vote, with two exceptions: York and Sacajawea.)

His relations with the various Native tribes was mixed.

Lewis wrote of Sacajewea's tribe: “[T]o the Indians, every article about us appeared to excite astonishment in ther minds; the appearance of the men, their arms, the canoes, our manner of working them. the black man york and the sagacity of my dog were equally objects of admiration.”

 That fucking dog, man.
Note how York and Seaman are posed in this statue...

The Arikara, Mandans, and Hidatsas all seemed to like York, saying he had "big medicine."  (York was famously skilled in cooking and field medicine.)  Apocryphal tales abound of York sleeping with many Native women with the blessings of their husbands, although there is no historical evidence for this and the tales of a Native man having a cuckold fetish with a Black man really feels like it might just be titillating gossip.  (Clark's journal never mentions any of York's sexual exploits.)

It's worth noting, though, that York was generally not "respected" so much as he was "entertaining."  Clark asked him to dance for the Natives, and allowed them to rub sand on him in an attempt to "rub off" the black.  Not all tribes viewed York favorably; the Nez Pearce found him to be threatening, his dark skin reminiscent of war paint to them.


In any case, York's presence seemed to be more useful than detrimental, and the expedition was considered an overwhelming success despite all of the STDs and mercury poisoning.  They returned to St. Louis in September of 1806 after two and a half years exploring, and one publication wrote, "Even the negro York, who was the body servant of Clark, despite his ebony complexion, was looked upon with decided partiality, and received his share of adulation."

 A statue of York in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
He was renowned for his hunting skills.

After nearly three years of living with more rights than he'd ever known, York found it hard to re-adjust to life as Clark's manservant.  He requested his freedom for "services rendered."  (The other men on the expedition received a hefty cash bonus and 230 acres of land for their trouble.)  Clark refused.  Two years after the expedition, Clark had moved to St. Louis to continue work as the "chief Indian agent" for the Upper Louisiana Territory, but York's wife was in Kentucky, and he hadn't seen her in years. Clark wrote, "If any attempt is made by york to run off, or refuse to provorm his duty as a Slave, I wish him Sent to New Orleans and Sold, or hired out to Some Severe master untill he thinks better of Such Conduct."  Another letter states, "York is insolent and Sulky, I gave him a Severe trouncing the other Day and he has much mended Sence."

 Nothing like a Severe trouncing to increase morale!

After years of tension between the two, Clark hired York out to a cruel man named Young as a day laborer.  York is not mentioned his any of Clark's writings after 1809; his nephew mentions him in an 1811 letter, saying that his contract work expired but that he could re-negotiate it.  During this period, York's wife's family moved to Mississippi, and presumably, they never saw each other again.

The next time history speaks of York is in 1832.  According to Clark, sometime around 1815 or 1816, more than a decade after the expedition, Clark freed York, giving him with six horses and a wagon to operate a freight service between Nashville, Tennessee, and Richmond, Kentucky.  However, York's business did not perform well.  Two of the horses died and the others all got sick, possibly poisoned.  York was a freed Black man living in the south, his family and friends estranged, his heyday over.  By many accounts he became a heavy drinker, eventually succumbing to cholera and dying sometime between 1825 and 1832.

No pictures exist of York; the statues of him are pure conjecture.  My personal favorite is the one above, a bronze statue on the campus of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon.  Shown, as usual, with his rifle and a fresh kill, this statue is among the least detailed, choosing not to focus on York's face, but instead on his back.


Lash marks inscribe one of William Clark's maps of the Louisiana Territory that York helped explore during the course of an 8,000 mile, two-and-a-half year journey.  Lewis and Clark were hailed as heroes and years later would get commemorative stamps, coins, and middle school musicals.  And York?  York has less statues than the dog.

In 2001, York was post-humously granted the rank of honorary sergeant in the Corps of Discovery by President Clinton.  A small gesture, but a necessary one.  York may never get as much credit as he's due, but this, at least, is a start.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Barnum's Forgotten Performers

For the remainder of February, this blog will be celebrating Black History Month by profiling some lesser-known figures in history who I think are worth a few hundred words (or more, but let's see how quickly my fingers get tired).

Today's post is going to focus on the Black performers of P.T. Barnum's famous sideshow: Christine and Millie, George and Willie, William (aka "Zip"), Ella (aka "Madame Abomah"), and, of course, Joice, none of whom made it into the movie.

If you love musicals as much as I do, you already know what movie I'm talking about.  The Greatest Showman was a visually appealing, light-hearted, and entertaining film.  It was colorful, fun, and poppy.


It was also wildly inaccurate.  And some critics went so far as to call it vapid, pandering, and "godawful."   Others acknowledge that while it's a "feel-good" musical, it "blithely ignores" the more problematic elements of Barnum's sideshow.  I sure hope you didn't actually click either of those links, because spoiler alert, a lot of movie critics bitched about the same things I'm about to.
 
Aside from borrowing real people's names, the movie had little basis in reality.  It favorably portrayed P.T. Barnum, going so far as to showing him saving his business partner from a burning building and being faithful to his wife, both things that never happened.  P.T. Barnum was, at his core, a ruthless businessman who was more than happy to engage in less-than-legal practices to make money.  Show business demanded it and he was all too happy to acquiesce.

Like whoever the fuck produced this movie.

Throughout the course of the film, his critics frequently declared Barnum to be a liar and a humbug without explaining why, since over the course of the movie, we never see him lie to anyone aside from the greedy bankers.  In real life, one of his most famous attractions was the Fiji Mermaid, a monstrous humbug of fake taxidermy made by sewing an ape onto a fish.  The Fiji Mermaid is never shown or talked about in the movie, even though it seems imminent at one point, when one of Barnum's adorable daughters suggests he put one in the museum, and another daughter scoffs that mermaids aren't real.

Barnum's "FeeJee Mermaid" was total nightmare fuel.

But this post isn't about Barnum.  It's about the performers in his show that didn't make it into the movie.

One of the things I noticed in the movie was what I considered a remarkable degree of whitewashing.  Putting aside the fact that none of the dark-skinned characters had any speaking parts, the movie decided to plow ahead with addressing the racial tensions at the time by having a black trapeze artist and Barnum's business partner fall in love.

The movie introduces a pair of trapeze artists who are supposed to be brother and sister despite looking nothing alike.  The woman, a character named Anne Wheeler, states that "the audience won't like us."  (Why are they even applying for the show at all if they think society's racial tensions will prevent them from succeeding?  I don't know, either.)

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

I mentioned my complaints to a friend, Joe, who is Black.  Joe reassured me that this was an accurate representation, and that the brother and sister were dark-skinned and light-skinned, respectively.  I had heard someone else say that, too, but when I actually researched it, I discovered that the first "trapeze" artist was Jules Leotard (yes, of the famous leotard you see gymnasts wear!) and that literally all of Barnum's trapeze artists (then called "aerialists") were white.

 c. 1896
The Silbons were among the first aerialists of Barnum's Circus.

There was no Anne Wheeler at all.  She was a complete and total fabrication designed to touch on the issue of race within the movie with butterfly-light wings.

As light as the skin of the actress they chose to be their representative "Black" character...

For the rest of the movie, we watch the supposed tension of a supposed mixed-race couple trying to find their place in the world, while P.T. Barnum cheerfully dances around, often with a drink in hand, which is baffling considering that the real P.T. Barnum was pro-temperance and went on a lecture tour denouncing the evils of alcohol.

Then again, Barnum was a notorious hypocrite, as well.
For example, he was a loudspoken abolitionist later in life.
I'll explain how that's hypocritical in the moment.

The Greatest Showman was to the real P.T. Barnum as Oliver and Company was to Oliver Twist.  Mind you, again,  I liked the movie.  It was everything to me that La La Land promised to be and wasn't.

But I couldn't help but notice the racism in not addressing P.T. Barnum's racism.  Glossing over Barnum's prejudice (and his willingness to exploit racial tension to create an "edgier" show) is hugely problematic.  Yes, his show was integrated, but make no mistake: that wasn't because he was a great guy who loved everyone equally.  It was because doing so made his show more shocking, and people came to him to be shocked.  Barnum did not care for Black people, no more than he cared for any of his employees.  His "freaks" were nothing more than property to him.  Literally.

JOICE HETH

Barnum started his career as a showman at the age of 25, when he'd recently gone bankrupt.  He decided to turn things around by buying Joice Heth, an ancient woman, from failed showman R.W. Lindsay, for $1,000.  Joice Heth's precise date of birth is unknown, but at the time Barnum purchased her, she was probably in her seventies or eighties.  Blind, toothless, partially paralyzed, and sickly, she looked ancient, and Barnum created a character out of her: she had been, according to Barnum, George Washington's nurse-maid, and was 161 years old. 


He showed off a bill of sale to "prove" her age.  And Joice went along with it.  In part, because she had to.

Barnum wrote:  "I soon got Joyce [sic] into training, and from a devil of a termagant, converted into a most docile creature, as willing to do my bidding as the slave of the lamp was to obey Aladdin. I soon discovered her weak point. . . .WHISKEY. Her old master of course, would indulge an old bed-ridden creature no such luxury, and for a drop of it, I found I could mould her to anything.”

She was described as friendly and talkative to her fans, and part of her act included telling stories about George (including the famous cherry tree incident), while another part involved singing hymns.

When ticket sales slowed, Barnum "leaked" a rumor that she was an automaton, then encouraged people to come his museum to see her, touch her, and prove to themselves that she was, in fact, alive.


She passed within one year of her purchase by Barnum, and Barnum, always eager to leap on any sort of opportunity, went ahead and sold tickets to a public autopsy for 50 cents each.  On February 25, 1836, Heth’s corpse was cut open in a saloon in front of 1,500 spectators.

Nowadays, Joice Heth's Wikipedia contains only three paragraphs, and primary sources on her life are scant.  (The Lost Museum has a Joice Heth exhibit, mostly made up of reviews.  Only two pictures of her remain today.)  But it was Joice who launched Barnum's career and dug him out of poverty; using Heth, Barnum earned about $1,500 a week for her shows.

WILLIAM JOHNSON

You've probably never heard of William Johnson.  Or rather, you have, but not by his name.  Billed as the "What-Is-It?" and later as "Zip the Pin-Head," William Johnson was the first of the "pin-head" movement of freaks.  "Pin-head" was the term coined by Barnum to describe people with microcephaly, the most famous one being Schlitzie, who you might remember from Revenge of the Freaks.

But William Johnson did not appear to have true microcephalism.  His head was a weird shape but it was emphasized dramatically by his haircut, which was styled in a little pointed tuft, a 'do later pin-heads would also adopt.  Barnum "recruited" William for the Circus in 1860, giving him $100 a week to perform and $1 a day of "hush money."


What were they hushing, you ask?

Well, William's act involved being placed in a cage and wearing a furry suit and screaming at people.  He would only screech grunt, no speaking, and cavort about like an animal or a madman.  Also called the "Monkey Man," his later stage name, What-Is-It, was coined by Charles Dickens, who asked that question to Barnum when he saw the "act."

 I like to believe he was asking what the hell the act was, not what William was.
William was not noticeably disabled out of his costume.

Despite the humiliation of it, William appeared to have enjoyed himself at the circus.  He played a fiddle (badly... and then charged people to make him stop).  He teased the audience by flinging their coins back at them (encouraging them to throw more into his cage, which he collected for himself), and by shooting off a prop pistol to scare them.  He liked the stage and performed into his eighties; he acted as a sort of grandfather figure to other freaks, and never passed up an opportunity for a bit of lime light.  Famously, he attended the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, offering himself as "evidence" of a missing link.  This was probably merely a publicity stunt, because his famous last words were, "We fooled 'em an awful long time, didn't we?"


He is credited with saving a drowning girl off of Coney Island in 1925, an act that might have been his demise, as he caught bronchitis and died in the spring of 1926.  Described as fun-loving, surprisingly clever, and a real showman, William might have been as successful as Barnum if not for his deformity and his skin color.  His funeral was attended by hundreds and at the time he was one of the oldest freaks in Barnum's entourage.


MILLIE AND CHRISTINE MCCOY

Millie and Christine were a pair of conjoined twins who made periodic appearances at Barnum's Circus between 1855 and 1875.


Born to slavery in 1851, the girls were exhibited at the North Carolina State Fair at the age of two, and passed hands for large sums of money at least four times before they came to Barnum.  Their original owner, a man named McKay, sold them to Pervis, who sold them to Brower, who sold them to Joseph Smith, all within two years.  While on display in New Orleans, they were kidnapped by a swindler who went on to display them across the globe.  This was in 1855, during which time they appeared at Barnum's Circus.  (Take note of this.  It's important later.)

Fortunately, they swapped hands yet again.  A man named Professor Millar bought them in 1855 and was able to track down Mr. Smith to "return" them in 1857, after a tour of Canada and Europe.


To give credit where credit is due, Joseph Smith seemed to have a good relationship with the family.  He went with Millie's and Christine's mother to get them in Europe after Professor Millar contacted them, and brought them home; he and his wife, Mary, tutored them in various arts before they went back on tour.  They were well-educated and reportedly knew five languages.  Their true love, though, was song; Millie was a contralto and Christine was a soprano, and the two could harmonize well, leading to their moniker "The Two-Headed Nightingale."  If that sounds familiar, it's probably because one of their contemporaries, Jenny Lind, was an opera singer called the "Swedish Nightingale," and went on a tour of America with Barnum in the 1850s.  Their "nightingale" title was almost certainly a reference to Lind, who Barnum was incredibly fond of.

Bills that espoused talent over freakishness tended to white-wash the performers to draw larger crowds.
Much like The Greatest Showman.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the girls, who, like William, were necessarily enterprising.  At the age of 17, they wrote a brief autobiography (22 pages) that was sold at their appearances for a quarter, from which they kept all the profits.  They returned to Barnum's Circus and went on various tours, retiring in their thirties and moving back onto the farm on which they were born, which their family was actually able to purchase thanks to their success.  They remained close to the Smiths and took care of Mrs. Smith after her husband died.  Between their emancipation and their retirement, they had amassed a quarter of a million dollars.

It's worth noting they were not merely successful business women and talented singers, but that they were philanthropists, making sizeable donations toward Black churches and schools.  One of their common outlooks on their condition was, "God decreed, and [we] agreed."

WILLIE AND GEORGE MUSE

Remember how I mentioned that Millie and Christine, who were born in 1851 and kidnapped in 1855, showed up at Barnum's Circus?  Well, this wasn't by accident.  In fact, Barnum's circus had a bit of reputation for kidnapping performers.  Black performers were the easiest to exploit because, before 1863, they were property in southern states, and many would prefer to live as Barnum's (underpaid) indentured servants than as slaves.  What's more, a lot of the "freaks" had mental disabilities, which allowed Barnum to easily exploit them without their knowledge.

Millie, Christine, William, and Joice had no known mental impairments (unless you count Joice's age and alcoholism).  But the same cannot be said for Willie and George.  A pair of albino twins, they are featured in The Greatest Showman as background characters without speaking lines, probably to hide their tragic backstory from the playful, carefree central plot of the movie.

In 1899, someone kidnapped two mentally handicapped boys who were working in a cotton field by offering them candy.  Classic, I know.

In fairness, I should mention that the actual kidnapper was not P.T. Barnum himself, who at that time was already dead. Willie and George were kept by a showman named Al G. Barnes (shown in a photo below), who owned his own show, which was later bought out by Barnum's.  But Barnum historically didn't really give a shit where the "performers" came from; they could be from Mars, for all Barnum cared, so long as they earned the show money.

Speaking of which...Willie and George, ages 6 and 9 at the time of their kidnapping, were billed as "Eko and Iko: Ambassadors from Mars" by Barnum's Circus (then called Ringling Bros).  Their family found them in 1927, when the circus came to their home town of Roanoke, Virginia, by which time they had been "in the business" for almost three decades and knew no other life.

 c. 1927, shortly after reuniting

Their mother hired an attorney and attempted to sue the circus for the exploitation of her children, as well as their backpay, which was being kept by the circus, who handled all financial matters for the brothers.  The lawyer was able to finagle a settlement, but who knows how much the brothers might have had.  During their time with Ringling, they were estimated to have made a half a million dollars for the circus.

In any case, after their mother's lengthy legal battle, they earned enough to buy a house for their mother and eventually retire.  George passed in 1972, and Willie lived to be 108, passing away in 2001.


Their story has long been a part of Roanoke's history.  Their story was the subject of national best-selling book, Truevine, published in 2016.

Honorable Mention:
ELLA WILLIAMSON

Although she joined up with Barnum's Circus after he passed in the 1890s, I would be remiss if I didn't include here Ella Williamson. 

Born a free woman (within a year of the Emancipation Proclamation), Ella has giantism.  She worked during the day as a nanny, but was billed as a bloodthirsty Amazonian woman by various managers.


 Pay close attention to the wording of this poster...

Standing at 6'10" or so, everyone insisted she was 7'6" (Barnum and his associates always exaggerated), and with the stage-name "Madame Abomah," she toured the world, eventually ending up at Barnum's in the 1920s, where she inexplicably disappeared from history in 1925.

Known for her elegant clothes, good posture, and lady-like mannerisms, Ella Williamson, as far as I can determine, never worked directly with Barnum himself, but his circus and his family certainly profited from her performances, which included such songs as "All Coons Look Alike to Me."

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

The Greatest Showman was universally agreed to be a feel-good film that maintained its feel-goodiness by turning a blind eye to some of the more uncomfortable topics of the day.  And I get it.  Feel-good movies have a place in our society.  But they should never take a place so big that it obscures problematic or shameful parts of our past.  It's only through the examination of this past that we can grow and learn from it as a society, and ensure it does not repeat itself.

P.T. Barnum got a movie.  But why not Millie and Christine, or Willie and George?  Why not Ella, or William?  Why not any of the people under P.T. who have equally fascinating stories?

Good news: Willie and George might have a movie in the works.  Based on the book Truevine that tells the tale of their kidnapping, exploitation, and life after Mrs. Muse's legal battle for their rights, this is one tale that doesn't shy from the intense racial tension that our country has battled with for centuries.  And while it might not necessarily be a "feel-good" tale, it's one I, at least, am very much looking forward to.

 Their names-- their real names-- deserve to be known, just as widely as Barnum's.