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Early African Entertainments Abroad
From the Hottentot Venus to Africa’s First Olympians
Bernth Lindfors

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture
Thomas Spear, Neil Kodesh, Tejumola Olaniyan, Michael G. Schatzberg, and James H. Sweet, Series Editors

“This book will surprise you and may shock you. Its fascinating case studies reveal how Africans and people of color were exhibited as freaks, or became genuine entertainers enjoying their craft, in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and America. It is also a serious study showing how ‘racial science’ was popularized to justify to the European and American masses the conquest and subjugation of Africa and Africans.”
—Neil Parsons, author of Clicko: The Wild Dancing Bushman

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries African and pseudo-African performers were displayed as curiosities throughout Europe and America. Appearing in circuses, ethnographic exhibitions, and traveling shows, these individuals and troupes drew large crowds. As Bernth Lindfors shows, the showmen, impresarios, and even scientists who brought supposedly representative inhabitants of the “Dark Continent” to a gaping public often selected the performers for their sensational impact. Spotlighting and exaggerating physical, mental, or cultural differences, the resulting displays reinforced pernicious racial stereotypes and left a disturbing legacy.

Using period illustrations and texts, Early African Entertainments Abroad illuminates the mindset of the era’s largely white audiences as they viewed wax models of Africans with tails and watched athletic competitions showcasing hungry cannibals. White spectators were thus assured of their racial superiority. And blacks were made to appear less than fully human precisely at the time when abolitionists were fighting to end slavery and establish equality.


Bernth Lindfors is a professor emeritus of English and African literatures at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of a number of books on African literature and folklore, including Early Soyinka and Early Achebe.





“Highly recommended, undergraduates though faculty; general readers.”

“A poignant affirmative history of early African entertainments in Europe and the United States and an important contribution to studies of African performative agency at a time in which it was severely constrained both corporeally and discursively.”
—Tejumola Olaniyan, series editor

“Lindfors’s deliberately thin theorizing of the archives shows that Africans were present and alive as capable humans even during the most clamorous European denials of such.”
—Adélékè Adéèkó, Ohio State University



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November 2014
LC: 2014007282 DT
262 pp.   6 x 9
56 b/w illus.  

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Paper $29.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-30164-4
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