Kevin Young is a historian of hoaxes.

Kevin Young is a historian of hoaxes.

Kevin Young is a writer, professor, poetry editor of the New Yorker and a historian of hoaxes.

His latest book, “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News” takes a deep look at the mistruths and misdirections that have shaped our national identity. The book covers everything from spiritualism to Rachel Dolezal, from forged manuscripts to fake news. And with each bit of bunk, Young examines how both the fools and the foolers speak to a fundamental truth about our nation.

Guests

  • Kevin Young Director, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; poetry editor, The New Yorker, author, "Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News;" @Deardarkness

Read An Excerpt Of "Bunk" By Kevin Young

“History is bunk,” Henry Ford would offer. From one angle, he was right inasmuch as Barnum and others used bunk to connect the audience to a history—usually a grand, American one—that it desperately wished were true. Barnum’s brilliance was to understand that wish to see America great again, yet again. But Barnum, the Prince of Humbug, also remained deeply connected to an assembly line of assumptions, crafting an image of the black body symbolically and literally disassembled before the audience’s eyes.

The term bunk was itself born of conflict and race, coined in 1820 from the floor of the Sixteenth Congress when a North Carolina representative continued to filibuster for the Missouri Compromise that made Missouri a slave state: though the question had been called, he said he had to give speech for or to Buncombe, his home county. “Buncombe” got changed to bunkum, then shortened to bunk, giving name to that species of fakery, unnecessary flattery, and politicking phoniness that barely believes what it says. Or worse, comes to believe its bunk never stunk.

For Barnum, naming provided much of the power of a show: he knew using exotic terminology and quoting invented experts promised his audience a world they might not otherwise get to see. His early touring exhibitions and popular American Museum gave audience members a sense of traveling without leaving their assumptions, of touring without being tourists. This is one of the hoax’s chief gambits. Above all Barnum offered reassurance: even as he let the audience glimpse freaks and curiosities beyond category, visitors got to leave whole, entertained while offered proof of their being higher up on the scale of humanity.

It would be in the notorious exhibition he called “What is It?” that Barnum would dress a black man in animal hides that proved a symbolic dress—meaning both a woman’s garment and slang for castration. Just months after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1860, intrigued visitors would enter to find the answer to the exhibit’s question: a black man they were invited to see as a, or as the, so-called missing link in evolution. The New York Mercury’s description of the Prince of Wales’s visit to the show provides one measure of the figure, “whose humiliating likeness to mankind has led certain muddled philosophers to insinuate that he is an idiotic negro. Only a single glance from the bright and very intelligent eyes of the creature is necessary to disprove this absurd guess, while it adds to our bewilderment when we would trace a brute genealogy for him.” It is an indication of how the century’s views on race didn’t free up but only hardened, the Negro gone from handmaid to inhuman in a genealogy of brutishness— Heth could be many things, a curiosity, a machine, almost an animal, but she wasn’t quite an It.

With the emphasis purposefully not on the “is” but the “It,” Barnum advertised the man he called “What is It?” as a nondescript. The term was actually taken from the newly formed field of natural history, used by the likes of Charles Willson Peale in his groundbreaking museum that, at the end of the eighteenth century, helped legitimate and invent museums as institutions, transforming them from private cabinets of curiosities to veritable public entities. As seen in the first gift to Peale’s museum, the fish labeled “A curious Non-descript Fish . . . termed by those who caught it a paddlefish,” nondescript in Peale’s day meant a specimen as yet unclassified in terms of exact species—not one that sat outside known species altogether, unclassifiable.

The continuum between Peale’s Museum and Barnum’s American Museum was quite literal: Barnum would purchase and scatter Peale’s exhibitions by the middle of the nineteenth century. Soon Peale’s devotion to science and “rational amusement” and Enlightenment ideals—he had fought prominently in the American Revolution—became dispersed too, with Barnum not so much highlighting science as conscripting or cannibalizing it. The American Museum, at least till it burned down for the second and final time, would be shaped by Barnum until, despite its entertainments, it more resembled the deterministic, racialist “Museums of Man” of the day.

Now, I’ve seen pictures of “What is It?,” and the performer, William Henry Johnson, looks very much like a person. In no way does he resemble his depictions in the papers of the time or in the advertisements for Barnum’s American Museum, hunched over as the requisite cannibal or fitting his billing as “The Monkey-Man,” an indistinct racial grotesque in an artificial jungle landscape. This is true even of photographs by the famed Mathew Brady and others in which Johnson’s hair has been cut into tufts at the crown of his head to emphasize his head’s shape, suggesting he was microcephalic. Later photographs would seem to question this, helping us understand how even the photograph, that allegedly reliable document, is shaped, framed, constrained.

That Barnum, twenty-five years after his Heth beginnings, months after Darwin’s revolutionary theory, and on the eve of the Civil War, would draw a direct line between blackness and the “Missing Link,” between primitivism and primates, still shocks—though it might not surprise. At first blush at least, such ideas of skull size and savagery couldn’t be more different from Peale’s stated mission “to show the progress of arts and science, from the savage state to the civilized man; displaying the habits and customs of all nations.” Barnum sought to display “What is It?” as a specimen of inferiority in order to stoke American and white superiority; he further suggested these were one and the same. With the exception of Heth’s hoax and her “afterlife” in the surgical theater and Bowery theatre, no exhibition retained the troubling power of this iteration of Barnum’s bunk.

Kevin Young, excerpt from Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Copyright © 2017 by Kevin Young. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

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