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The Muses Talk Back

The story of two abducted brothers takes us to the origins of black celebrity in America.

“1922 With Barnes” / Courtesy of the collection of Josh Meltzer

Black celebrity began at the freak show. When Phillis Wheatley appeared before the great men of Massachusetts in 1772, it was not as the first African-American woman poet but as a vexing human oddity—“an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa” who could write. The supposedly high-minded owners who submitted her to examination were not so different from the showman P. T. Barnum, who in 1835 launched his career with the purchase of an elderly, paralytic slave woman named Joice Heth. Barnum exhibited Heth as George Washington’s 161-year-old “mammy,” using her black body to catapult him from dry goods salesman to global entertainment icon. She was the first in a long chain of “African entertainments”—Zip the Pinhead, the Duck-Billed Ubangis, the pygmy Ota Benga—on whose backs Barnum and his successors rode to glory. They were the sacrificial lambs of modern entertainment, and they have been, as individuals, almost entirely forgotten.

Little, Brown, 432 pp., $28.00

George and Willie Muse, sideshow performers for dime museums and circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, were known for most of their lives as “Eko and Iko,” often trailing sobriquets like “Darwin’s Missing Links” or “Ambassadors from Mars.” Done up in tuxedos and wearing their blond hair in tangled dreads, they traveled across America being ogled, silent but for the music they played in accompaniment. Hype men told the journalists and rubes in the sideshow tent that they had been found in the Amazon or had crashed their spaceship in the Mojave desert. The prosaic truth was that they were albino black brothers from Truevine, Virginia, abducted sometime around 1899 by a six-fingered ticket-seller named James Herman “Candy” Shelton. At least if the family is to be believed. One of the story’s many lacunae concerns whether George and Willie were initially kidnapped, or contracted out by their mother Harriet, who lost track of the boys after Shelton absconded with them at the end of the circus season. Whatever the case, Shelton told the brothers that Harriet, an illiterate laundress, was dead; in fact, she would spend more than thirteen years seeking their return, and a lifetime fighting Ringling Bros. for back pay and fair treatment. The surprise is, she won.

Beth Macy’s Truevine is a moving attempt to reconstruct this David and Goliath story, a chronicle of the Muses’ unlikely victory in a game that was doubly rigged against them. It is a tale of two circuses, Ringling’s and Jim Crow’s, turning on the axis between segregation’s invisible subjugation and the spectacular exploitation that was, for the Muses as for so many black performers, the only way out of it. The pattern is one we know well, a struggle between nonwhite entertainers and their would-be handlers that is ongoing. Whether it’s Eddie Huang and ABC, Colin Kaepernick and the NFL, or Leslie Jones and the trolls of Twitter, the mistreatment of people of color in entertainment has increasingly become an explicit interest of popular culture. At such a moment, there is a certain clarity in returning to the stark beginnings of representational injustice. If even “Eko and Iko” can be given back their stories, there might be hope for us all.

Macy, a white journalist, undertakes her vindication of the Muses in a spirit of something like penitence. She is a longtime features writer for the Roanoke Times, an old Virginia daily that, as she is at pains to tell us, not only mocked the Muses’ story of George and Willie’s kidnapping, but for many decades generally abused the region’s black population. There is also a thread of personal redemption: In the first chapter, Macy admits to having once written an article on teen pregnancy that, despite her best intentions, became viral fodder for racist talk radio. Restoring the Muses’ voices is framed as a form of atonement.

This is a serious challenge. Eko and Iko, like most of the African and pseudo-African circus attractions of the so-called Zulu ticket, had to maintain a silence conducive to the illusion that they were authentic savages, barely capable of human speech. George and Willie left few recollections in their own words, and their surviving relatives have maintained a stubborn privacy. Macy spent more than a decade proving to the Muse brothers’ niece Nancy Saunders that she wasn’t “one more candy peddler,” or “just another white person stirring up shit.”

You can hardly blame her for her caution. The contemporary press treated George and Willie atrociously, legitimizing their captivity by regurgitating all the “ballyhoo” (wild, improvised performer biographies) that the high carnies could cook up. When the Muses were reunited in 1927, most papers entirely omitted Harriet’s successful lawsuit against Ringling Brothers, in which she won a large settlement and guarantee of regular fair pay for her sons. (She eventually used the money to purchase a house, where the brothers lived comfortably until their deaths.) Journalists preferred to run interference for the circus. When the brothers went back to “The Greatest Show on Earth” after their victory in court, The New Yorker came up with a “fun” explanation for their actions—at home, “the fried chicken had soon given out.”

Macy is admirably undaunted by the family’s privacy and her predecessors’ distortions. Her sense of duty to George and Willie is best expressed in a quote from a historian friend, which serves as the principle of her narrative: “If we only wrote the histories of the people who left detailed records we would only get to know about the really privileged people. You have to piece together your evidence with empathy and conjecture.” So much of this evidence is irreparably marred that a difficult question occurs: Can we discover the authentic voices of the exploited behind, or within, the propaganda of their exploiters?

A recent spate of histories have answered “yes.” Along with an overview of African Entertainments Abroad by Bernth Lindfors in 2014, the last few years have seen biographies of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully in 2010; of Franz “Clicko” Taibosh, the “Dancing Bushman,” by Neil Parsons in 2010; and of Ota Benga, the Bronx Zoo pygmy, by Pamela Newkirk in 2015. Many of these books are the first legitimate biographies of these performers, who left few if any reflections in their own words—fruit of a recent conviction that the stories of the men and women behind the masks of racist art and entertainment, however scant their traces, are worth recovering and even reinventing.

It is a project that artists have been at for decades. In his satirical novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Ishmael Reed invents a spiritual germ called “Jes Grew” to account for black culture’s transformative influence on twentieth-century America. It is a virus of reappropriation, taking racist depictions of black culture and “infecting” them (often comically) with the very stories they were devised to suppress. (A good example of “Jes Grew” art might be Joe Overstreet’s “The New Jemima,” a 1964 painting in which the headkerchiefed waffle icon appears as a revolutionary with an automatic weapon.) More recently, the scholar Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit To Kill (2008) tracked the ways that artists from Richard Pryor to Kara Walker have conjured similar reversals, using black humor to make the muzzled specters of the racist imagination—the mammy, the minstrel, the African savage with a bone through his nose—speak. Even museum artifacts are joining the chorus: The title poem of Robin Coste Lewis’s National Book Award–winning Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015) uses prosody alone to turn a centuries-long catalogue of museum objects depicting black women—often as decorative elements in furniture—into an elegiac restitution of erased interiorities.

It is this kind of restitution that Macy is after in Truevine, a book which, in spite of the paucity of available information, aims to reattach Eko and Iko to the “true vine” of their roots as George and Willie Muse. Warm, personable, and empathetically speculative, it centers on experiences that shed light on the brothers’ inner lives: a trip to England on the RMS Majestic, the first reunion with their mother, a shared love of animals and music.

The Muse brothers are pictured with other Barnum and Bailey circus performers.
Circus World Museum

Where the record is silent, Macy draws on the better-known biographies of the Muses’ fellow performers to give us a sense of the worlds George and Willie moved in, and how they might have felt. Jack Earle, Ringling’s “Texas Giant,” reflected at length on his status as a sideshow attraction in paintings, photographs, and poems. The Ubangis, a group of Congolese women with artificially extended lips, were hard-driving negotiators who constantly tortured an effigy of their manager. (They retired to a lavish ranch in their home country.) But Truevine contains little direct testimony about how the Muse brothers saw themselves as performers, as black men who passed for Martians, as pawns on the game board of American entertainment.

You can’t fault a writer for not discovering what isn’t there to be known. But it’s hard to escape the sense that some of the time Macy spends developing the Muse brothers’ scant personal history might have been better spent on a subject she assiduously avoids: the attraction of their stage personae as sideshow freaks. The omission is understandable. As a white person writing about an African-American family, a “normal” person writing about human oddities, and a journalist working with mistrustful sources, Macy faces a number of hurdles—and is clearly aware of them. Before beginning the narrative proper, she quotes the critic Leslie Fiedler: “Nobody can write about Freaks without somehow exploiting them for his own ends.” Keen to avoid the worst of this voyeurism, Macy chooses to focus on the backstage drama between the conniving manager, the courageous mother, and the largely passive (but ultimately victorious) George and Willie Muse.

But what about the other drama, the one between Eko and Iko and their savage-hungry audience? Truevine all but takes for granted that albino black men in early-twentieth-century America were titillating, without much delving into why that might have been. The book’s most glaring flaw is its unwillingness to make a study of the sideshow’s spectators, consumers for whom racial drag, along with other category-confounding paradoxes, were essential components of circus fun. Audiences were drawn to the “fearsome pleasure” involved in muddling the “natural” order that governed their worlds—the mixture of attraction and threat that Eric Lott’s Love & Theft, a book on blackface minstrelsy, calls the “mystery of color.” A similar dynamic must have been at play in the case of the “white savages,” whose allure was in the supposed incongruity between their African features and unpigmented skin.

It was a fascination born of colonialism and its attendant anxieties, of a guilty xenophobia evident in Eko and Iko’s outlandish honorifics. Dubbed “Ethiopian Monkey Men,” “Sheep-Headed Cannibals from Ecuador,” and “Ministers from Dahomey” they were usually cast as hailing from empires’ anxious outer limits. Dahomey, a powerful kingdom in what is now Benin, was conquered by France in 1892; in the aftermath, Dahomeans were exhibited in an artificial village at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Ethiopia had even more remote, insurrectionary connotations. Twice invaded by Italy, it was for most of the twentieth century Africa’s one holdout against European control. Ersatz natives of these and other regions, Eko and Iko were like captured barbarians in a Roman triumph—a model toward which the pioneers of the circus clearly aspired. After the United Kingdom deposed the Zulu monarch Cetewayo, P. T. Barnum offered Queen Victoria $100,000 to exhibit him abroad. He was refused, but the performers of “Zulu ticket” would fill the same need. Their bodies, made nonthreatening by comedy and “science,” were used to pacify an audience unsettled by the unknown; an unknown that their civilizations were swiftly wiping from the map.

The irony of Eko and Iko—imaginary castaways from Mars or the borderlands of the West—was that the captivity and estrangement they play-acted was not so far from their reality. Like the Dahomeans of Chicago’s Midway, they were the subjugated natives of a conquered territory: African-Americans from a “Redeemed” post-Reconstruction South that, as much as any distant colony, had been seized from its inhabitants by force. It’s hard to say whether this ever occurred to George and Willie Muse; if, from behind their sideshow masks, they ever found a way to sneak it out the sides of their mouths. What’s certain is that others picked up the realm of racial fantasy within which they were imprisoned and made it their own, no longer a degrading sideshow but a big top of otherworldly possibility.

Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz musician famous for his extraterrestrial aspirations, appears in his 1974 film Space is the Place as an envoy from another world: a freak in an eyeball-shaped ship with funny clothes, “a mid-size solar Arkestra” and a plan for the salvation of the black race. After reading Macy’s book, it is hard not to view Ra, born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, or the androgynous android Cindi Mayweather, born Janelle Monáe Robinson in 1985 in Kansas City, as inheritors of Truevine, Virginia’s “Ambassadors from Mars.”

To some people—perhaps including Truevine’s author—placing freak shows at the origin of this tradition might seem distasteful. But this is how black performance began in America—as a farce fertile with possibilities, a sideshow of captives that “Jes Grew” into the Greatest Show on Earth.