Friday, 13 October 2017


Presenting a particularly woke feature for Public Domain Review, English professor Ross Bullen shows us how carnival barkers of the past too could conjure up a rather indirect but in no way allegorical nor subtle forum for airing racial tensions and expounding on ideas of white supremacy—pointedly in late nineteenth century America just two decades after its civil war.
Circus impresario PT Barnum’s latest acquisition was about to go on display and the public was abuzz with excitement, only that what was billed as a sacred white elephant (which Barnum’s agents had procured at a high price from the Burmese monarch and Barnum himself tried to curb the audience’s expectations) didn’t prove to be white enough with one critic even calling the creature more like a “mulatto.” A figurative meaning was already attached to owning a white elephant as both a blessing and a curse as the prestige of it was also burdensome and impractical but the stock usage of white elephant swaps, the adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure or as a commentary on costly to maintain projects (but unable to dispense with) and under-utilised infrastructure really became cemented in common-parlance after this episode. Despite Barnum’s reputation as one to pass along hoaxes and the fraudulent as authentic, this genuine curiosity couldn’t keep his spectators enthralled and precipitated a broadening culture war with elephant bleaching and racist soap advertising campaigns, and those who did come to behold the sacred white elephant were met with the reflection of their perhaps unformulated, unarticulated ideas about identity and the other turned back on them.