Beth Macys bestselling book tells the story of two African American brethren with albinism “whos” kidnapped and forced to perform in a 1920 s circus. What can their storey educate us about intolerance in the US today?
In October 1927, the circus came to Roanoke, Virginia. It was a enormous occasion. There were four locomotives, 100 railcars, 1,600 people, five hoops, six stages, elephants and high-wire acts. Among the entertainments arriving in township were two albino African-American guys called George and Willie Muse, far-famed across the United States as Eko and Iko, the sheepheaded cannibals from Ecuador. But the Muse brethren werent from Ecuador: on that day, as their teach pulled up, George and Willie were coming home.
Ringling Brother circus sloped its tents on Roanoke fairgrounds where, a year before, thousands had attended a Ku Klux Klan rally, its leaders swearing then that their organisation was simply to keep the states under control of white-hot native Protestants. The 13 th amendment to the American constitution abolished bondage in 1865, but in the 1920 s the south was at the high levels of Jim Crow segregation laws. There was scarcely a white man in countries of the south who did not honestly regard release as international crimes and its practical nullification as a imperative, wrote African American sociologist WEB Du Bois.
That duty was fulfilled thanks to a racist criminal justice system( Roanokes chief prosecutor at the time, for instance, was founder of the citys KKK chapter) and to a sharecropping system called Reconstruction that continued pitch-black tenant farmers, many former slaves, in debt and beholden to their landlords. As a result, supposedly liberated African Americans were poor, in fact disenfranchised, often uneducated, and much more likely than white people to be in jail. The answer was slavery by another name.
Eko and Iko were, writes Roanoke-based columnist Beth Macy in her brand-new journal about the brothers amazing lives, perfect freakshow behaves to charm lily-white punters jaded by the usual fare of bearded maidens, tattooed humanities, monstrous and dwarves. Circusgoers were used to seeing pitch-black servicemen posing as wild mortals in cages, where they are able to pretend to subsist on raw meat and fragment the heads off chickens and serpents. Eko and Iko offered something different, if no less racist. They were unique, writes Macy. They were good musicians. And they dressed in finery with red-faced sashes and tuxedos the outfit topped off by that explosive, anachronistic whisker. They were far more interesting than they were grotesque.