Most people today would hear the
question, “Have you seen the movie The Greatest Showman?” and think of a
heartfelt movie of triumph in the face of adversity. The movie even received an
eighty-six percent audience rating on rotten tomatoes. The movie introduces its main
character as the previous P.T. Barnum and follows his journey of creating the first
ever circus. He starts off as a poor man living with his wife and kids when he
unfortunately losses his job. Sympathy for his character is immediately built
especially with today’s economy grabbing the audience’s sympathy and they are rooting
for him and his circus to succeed. He gathers up what he calls in the movie as
“a collection of oddities” or his “freak show,” and he exploits them for their
uniqueness. Some of the members of his circus included beautiful actresses such
as Zendaya and Keala Settle who are taken advantage of by P.T. Barnum in the
movie as well as the others. Barnum’s family
moves into an opulent mansion as he starts to make money off of his shows and
the members of the circus feel empowered and happy to be apart of it. Barnum’s
greed overpowers his moral code and he begins to mistreat the “freaks” that
gave him the power and fame in the first place and they band together against
him. P.T. Barnum eventually makes his reparations with the crew and everyone
lives happily ever after, right? Wrong.
The truth of P.T. Barnum is much deeper and
darker than this movie ever attempts to expose. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington reveals the horrific details of the
first “circus.” Zendaya, in today’s society, is a fashion and beauty icon. Not
only is she a beautiful model but is highly respected in her discipline of
acting as well. She represents the opposite of P.T. Barnum’s motives that are seen
in history. One of the atrocities that Washington details in her book is about
a slave named Joice Heth. Barnum purchases her from her previous owner R.W.
Lindsay and decides to display her and make money off the ticket purchases.
Washington lists the reasons he chose her, “Her eyes were gone, the legacy of
some unknown ailment, she was toothless, and her uncut horny nails curved like
talons.” To compare the icon that is Zendaya who not only a model in looks but
whose character in the movie is not a slave with the reality of Joice Heth is
disrespectful to the oppression she faced under Barnum’s ownership. Not only
were none of the characters in the movies slaves, but Zendaya was the only
Black actor that held a main role in the circus. As Washington mentions in the
book, the Barnum that we see in history exploited slaves who had disabilities
as a result from injuries they received from previous owners and most of her
ailments were a results of others brutalities that he paraded around. From the
description above of Joice, not many would picture Zendaya to fill such an
important and powerful role. The Greatest Showman gives a fictional narrative
to the sad story of Joice Heth’s abuse and oppression. In Medical Apartheid,
Washington mentions that even after Joice passed away, Barnum once again
stripped her humanity in a large viewing of her autopsy in an attempt to prove
outrageous claims he made about her age and false medical diagnoses. It’s a
shame that the public remains largely uninformed about the true history of P.T
Barnum and his exploitative actions. How can one truly know about the sad truth
when authentic histories in the media and cinema are directing society to avoid
the harsh reality. Barnum, as stated by Washington, focused on the exploitation
of black bodies and fueled the racist atmosphere of the time. It’s important
for Hollywood and the actors taking part in these movies to think of the real
people that these narratives affected. Joice was never given a voice throughout
her struggles and Zendaya’s voice lacked the overwhelming strength and courage
that Joice and many other victims deserved. Instead of remembering Zendaya’s
beautiful face when thinking of P.T. Barnum, remember Heth’s beautiful courage
in the face of so much abuse.
The definition of notice is “ the fact of observing or paying attention to something.”While reading “The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages: Inventions/Reinventions” by Geraldine Heng, I’ve used this ability to absorb all she has to offer in this powerful text. While reading this work, one can immediately grasp the many historical instances of race profiling from the 1200’s. Jews and muslims were to be set apart apart from Christians by dress, or Jews were to wear badges to be able to be identified amongst a crowd of people. Her definition of race pertains to the lasting impacts our “pre modern” acts of racism have left on today’s society without ignoring the events of the past. The events that occurred in a time where no definition of race was present doesn’t exclude them from pertaining to the definition that we have today. They were “legal” acts of violence and could be considered a form of terrorism by more modern standards. Heng talks about how race merges with a kind of hierarchy system that includes class, gender, and sexuality. It is no longer epidermal, it morphed into a bigger monster that is even harder to unravel and beat down.
Race has become a type of, as Heng puts it, “empty vacuum” that can change figure in every instance engulfing other ways of categorizing people and raising the white privilege pedestal influenced by all ranges of past pressures and occasions in history. There is no singular point in time where the origin of race emerged and that contributes to it’s successful succession through time. One instance in recent history, the 9/11 attacks of the twin towers of New York City, Muslims were further alienated as an inferior “race” following this day. This shows the development of an ethnoracial categorization, one made out of ignorance and fear. This category can be compared to others present in today’s society such as “Middle Easterners” and “Arabs.” These labels simply group very different people into one large group that continues to culturalize race and its definition. Muslims reside in a range of, in Heng’s terms, “ethno-races” and national origins that after the 9/11 attacks, have been put together into one people. In the 1200’s “pre modern” times, Muslims were ostracized and grouped with the Jews. This formed the foundation of where we validated them being a homogeneous group once more after the attacks. Heng argues that people must recognize the medieval past and that it will always exist as a basis for modern acts of racism, even though the vocabulary didn’t exist.
A quote from Dionne Brand, written down in Professor Beth McCoy’s notes reads, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” Although many would think in the previous analysis that a lot was noticed during this close read, most would neglect to notice what Heng has noticed as well. The key to gaining the most from any interaction you have with a text, is you must notice each other. Although the ability to meet Geraldine Heng as a student reader of her work is slim to none, one must notice her notice on a deeper level. What stood out was this quote, “Current masks of race are now overwhelmingly cultural.” The obvious meaning of this is where race and culture mesh and force otherwise unlikely people into a single inferior group. While coming back to this quote in my notes I “noticed” the word mask in a different light than previously before. After gaining all of Heng’s knowledge by the end of this paper the word mask spoke volumes. It embodied everything in the paper in one single word. This interwoven beast called race that we as people have created is all based on each other’s “masks.” Superficial characteristics have shaped the entire dynamic of race as we know it today. All people are born the same with the same innocence, ready to start life, and then you are given your “mask.” One that decides how you will be treated and viewed before you’ve had the chance to create your own. Black is damned, white is saved. Black as cowards and white as brave, the hero. Until we learn to delve beneath the mask made of skin color, culture, sexuality, and experience and realize underneath we are all the same, history will continue to repeat itself.