Revisionist History and Slavery as Entertainment at The Black America Show

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The Black America Show: Nate Salsbury’s Wild West Show for the Old South of slavery days

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(02-23-2018)  An NYT headline called the Black America Show an exhibit of the “Fun-Loving Darky of Old Slavery Days.” I kid you not. So began revisionist history and nostalgia for the Old South. You may have heard of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. It toured the northeast and Europe, starting in the 1880s, where it provided an odd, romanticized idea of the American West. Nate Salsbury wanted to do something similar for the Old South. The show’s full title was “Black America: A Gigantic Exhibition of Negro Life and Character“.  Yep, there was a mock plantation in a Brooklyn park  in 1895!

Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland

I’m reading Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, by Kurt Anderson. He gives an inventory of all the ways (white) Americans have been more prone than Europeans to believe in big dreams, in get-rich-quick schemes, the supernatural, cure-alls, conspiracy theories, UFO sightings and other “alternative facts” from the beginning of white colonization up to the Trump presidency and America’s current “post-factual” society. It’s fascinating, and it confirms that I’m right when I argue with my American husband that UFO sightings are really mostly an American thing.

Nostalgia for the Old South

I’m not even halfway, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the book, but what I read last night about the Black America Show had me gobsmacked at first, and then it explained a lot. Anderson discusses the insane nostalgia of Southern whites for the plantation lifestyle before the Civil War, how the South never accepted that they lost, or if they did, it was by referring to the attempted secession as “The Lost Cause”. And they didn’t waste much time rewriting history.

Happy Slave stereotypes

Salsbury claimed that the idea was to show, “with a fidelity of detail, […] the better side of the colored man and woman of the South. […] It will show the labors that the negroes of slavery days engaged in, and the happy, careless life that they lived in their cabins after work hours were over.”  The park included 150 slave cabins where people could watch live vignettes as they walked by, like “a fat black mammy, with a red handkerchief on her head, [who] sits outside one of the little cabins, knitting,” as one New York Times journalist reported; and a cotton field where genuine “Southern Colored People” — none of your Northern colored people or whites in blackface — played at being happy-go-lucky, singing slaves. They also worked an “old-timey” cotton gin and gave tobacco-rolling demonstrations.

Really.

There were no white people in the show. Not a one. No overseers with whips, no owners, not even around the partial plantation house replica. That’s how happy the black slaves apparently were; they didn’t even need white oppressors! They certainly started revisionist history of the Old South off with a bang.

Promoting Black Culture

Salsbury also wanted to show that African-Americans could do other things — other than be slaves, I suppose. Included in the program was a section “Showing the Afro-American in all his phases, from the simplicity of the southern field hand (especially the phenomenal melody of his voice), to his evolution as the northern aspirant of professional musical honors.” Besides much singing and dancing, the visitors could also watch black jugglers, tight-rope walkers and contortionists. The Buffalo Soldiers also showed off their horse-riding skills. So it was a mix between an open-air museum, a circus, a concert and a talent show.

Revisionist History

In Fantasyland, Anderson brings up the Black America Show as an early example of rewriting Southern slave history. Kate Kelly makes the same point, but adds that the wildly fictitious care-free life of the slaves after their work was done probably led to some fervent fact-checking, which may have helped to bring attention to the actual reality of the South’s “peculiar institution”. David Fiske gives Salsbury the benefit of the doubt, sort of, because he claimed to want the show to be educational, historical, and expose Northern folks to the rich culture and skills of Southern blacks and thus bring understanding. It was his marketing spiel, anyway.

The show was successful for two seasons, starting in Brooklyn’s Ambrose Park, then touring Boston; Manhattan; Washington, DC; and Philadelphia. Salsbury apparently did pay his employees well and no doubt more than a few of them stayed in New York and continued in music or show business afterward — the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing about a decade later. However, I’m pretty sure that Black America — and a few similar shows that sprung up after Salsbury’s show ended — played a significant role in the early days of revisionist history in relation to the enslavement of black people in popular American culture and  in history education.

(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Salsbury’s Slavery Spectacular!”, 02-23-2018)

Sources:

  • Andersen, Kurt. Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire; A 500-Year History. New York, Penguin Random House, 2017.
  • Fiske, David. The Plantation in Brooklyn: Nate Salsbury’s Black America Show. The New York History Blog, January 7, 2014. –   http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/01/07/the-plantation-in-brooklyn-nate-salsburys-black-america-show
  • Kelly, Kate. Black America: An 1895 Stage Extravaganza for the North.  (America Comes Alive)!  https://americacomesalive.com/2015/02/20/black-america-an-1895-stage-extravaganza-for-the-north
  • Roberts, Sam. When  There Was a Mock Plantation in Brooklyn. The New York Times: City Room, January 9, 2014. –  https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/09/when-there-was-a-mock-plantation-in-brooklyn

Header image: https://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2014/01/07/the-plantation-in-brooklyn-nate-salsburys-black-america-show/

7 thoughts on “Revisionist History and Slavery as Entertainment at The Black America Show

  1. Again I have to nibble on your seemingly blanket rejection of “conspiracy theories”. A person should be much more specific when talking about this.
    For example obviously Hitler and those around him conspired to attack neighboring countries. We can not say that the policies that they carried out were not a conspiracy just because they occupied positions in government institutions when carring them out. Also the Bush administration went to war based on obviously false information that was presented to the public. A person would have to be a complete fool to believe that they actually believed the information that they were disemmenatng. But their defence to the charge that they conspired to wage a war of aggression is that it was all a big mistake. They were allowed to get away with it.
    Then the release of documents by wikileaks that play a role in the so called Russians hacked our election scandel showed that there was a conspiracy to prevent Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic Nomination. NO ONE has ever disputed the authenticity of those hacked emails.
    So what just these three examples show is that there are plenty of conspiracies at all levels of society. So people should by all means believe in conspiracy theories. They need to reject the ones that are stupid but there are plenty that are REAL. In fact it is only in America that there is some attmept made to be little those who promote conspiracy theories. Here in Europe people are arrested all the time for conspiracy. The people here actually believe that the CIA conspired with Chilean generals to overthrow Allende and many other governments to boot.
    In America they make a big deal about Russians hacking the election becuase one of Putins cooks was aledgedly involved in some sort of twitter or facebook campaign while the fact that the democratic party leadership tried to rig its own playing field is forgotten about. It was the Russians because Rubles were used to pay the bills as if the CIA could not do that to give a false impression of who was doing what. It was the Russians because they aledegedly spent some millions or even tens of millions trying to influence Americans in a campiagn in which special intrest groups in the USA spent billions. IN which the enormous election influence of the Israeli lobby, an aledegedly foreign organization, never gets questioned by the MSM.

    1. I agree to a certain extent, Kurt. I stand corrected. I do think that George Bush went to war in Iraq based on incomplete information. I’m not sure he was a ware of that, but Powell was, and he caved and went in front of the UN to say that the CIA had proof that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Considering that Dick Cheney had been on the board of a company that stood to gain massive contracts during the rebuilding is more than a little suspicious. And yes, the DNC behaved disgracefully and shot itself in the foot by preventy Bernie Sanders from winning the primary. Although I’m still not entirely sure he would have won from Trump. But who knows, and the democratic process should have been allowed to play out. The Russians did definitely meddle in the elections as well, though. Seventeen separate American intelligence agencies claimed that before the election and we now have cold, hard proof. But yes, I should be careful with blanket rejections of conspiracy theories. The difference though, between many American conspiracy theroies and those in Europe is that if there turns out to be no evidence of one in Europe, it generally fizzles out rather quickly, whereas in America the fact that there is no evidence is then used as evidence that information is being held back, etc. and conspiracy theroies that are based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever can go on for years, decades, centuries. I’m thinking of the American conspiracy theory that there’s a Jewish bankers’ plan to take over the world, or that Obama isn’t an American and that he’s a secret muslim, etc.

  2. I would like to come back to this subject at a later date. In the mean time I would like to provide a link to another web site. It might seem off topic.
    Even if it is off topic it is about a KEY difference between the insane life of the USA and the less insane life of Europe. I am speaking about the treatment of unions for working people.
    https://louisproyect.org/2018/02/28/mark-janus-vs-afscme-and-the-need-for-a-real-trade-union-movement/

    1. Oh, where to begin if you’re going to compare America’s insanity with Europe! I’m not going to read the article right now, becuse I didn’t sleep last night and I’m so tired I’m practically seeing cross-eyed, but yeah, unions are very different in America than in Europe, and they’re treated differently. Which is probably why they behave differently. Chicken or egg? I’ll let you know if I come across the answer in one of my historical reading rummages.

  3. After I posted I realized that some additional foundational background would be important for future disscussions about conspiracies. Here are some links to the sites of a number of proffesors of economics. Additional reading at these sites could bring you too up to an unrecognized PHD economics level as well
    http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2018/02/a-comfortable-betrayal.html#more-11219
    http://moslereconomics.com/mandatory-readings/the-innocent-fraud-of-the-trade-deficit-whos-funding-whom/
    http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=38091

  4. Thanks for referencing my article about the Black America Show. I expanded the article into a very short e-book, Slavery on Stage: Black Stereotypes and Opportunities in Nate Salsbury’s “Black America” Show (available on iTunes and from smashwords.com).. In the e-book, I explain more about African-American Billy McClain’s major role in developing and managing the show.
    https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/362832

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