Lecture by Philip Kadish, PhD Candidate in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Delivered April 17, 2012 at the Congress of Curious Peoples, a conference of scholars of sideshows and popular entertainments. Held at the Coney Island Museum, Coney Island, Brookyln. Introduction by Aaron Beebe, curator of the Coney Island Museum.
In 1860, showman P.T. Barnum began displaying an 18 year old African-American man named William Henry Johnson as the "What Is It?", a supposed missing-link species between apes and humans. Like other Microcephalic performers (persons with unusually small and often sloped skulls), Johnson was used to create a "disabled race" that embodied the ideas of the era's white supremacist racial science, and justified racist policies, practices, and institutions. This is a entertaining presentation of this material, with lots of great images and humor along with great pathos.