‘Two Strange Lumps of Humanity’: Highlights from Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922

The October release of Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes an autobiography by conjoined twins, instructions on how to stage a successful minstrel show, and a collection of racist illustrations depicting African Americans in the South.


 

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History and Medical Description of the Two-headed Girl (1869)

 

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We are, indeed, a strange people, justly regarded both by scientific and ordinary eyes as the greatest natural curiosities the world has ever had sent upon its surface.

Millie and Christina were born into slavery in North Carolina in 1852. In addition to the “two-headed girl,” they were referred to as the Carolina twins, the United African twins, and the two-headed nightingale. They write in their autobiography about having been bought and sold several times while still in their infancy:

…we became separated from our parents, and after a few more transfers in the way of ownership, became the property of Mr. Jos. P. Smith, who gave for us, two strange lumps of humanity, the sum of $30,000. He, with a goodness of heart…ascertained where our parents were…purchased them, and all our little brothers and sisters, thus bringing a long separated family together…

However, their reunion was short-lived:

A speculator, one of those “smart” men, ever ready to take undue advantage of his fellow man, came to Mr. Smith at New Orleans, and made a proposition to become our exhibitor. This man had a persuasive address, spoke as one having authority, and great influence with the “press and public,” so the consequences were Mr. Smith hired the fellow to exhibit us, rather to “put us properly before the public.”

The girls describe being exhibited throughout much of the country before escaping to the north and gaining passage to England where they were granted an audience with the Queen.

When we arrived, the pomp and circumstance of the surroundings dazzled our young eyes, and we wondered what was to be done with us. But we can say that “Victoria was a woman,” for she talked tenderly to us, and to our mother, and when we left we bore away abundant tokens of her good feeling and queenly liberality. A great many artists boast of having been before the Queen. Perhaps they have, and employed great diplomacy to get there. But with us the case was different. Poor little monstrosities, and black babies at that; we were sent for, and that without any influence at court to gain for us a Royal summons.

In addition to their personal narrative, they include a thorough physical description of their bodies which serves to authenticate their claim of being conjoined twins.


 

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The Amateur Negro Minstrel's Guide (1880)

By Ed. James

 

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James’ guide contains “full instructions for everything appertaining to the business” of minstrelsy. It includes programs, jokes, and illustrations as well as descriptions of how the performers should dress and the proper application of blackface:

The costumes…should be as follows: black dress or frock coat, black pantaloons and white vest, wigs should be those of the close-cropped darkey [sic] school; the face, ears, neck and hands, except the palm, covered with prepared burnt cork, which comes for the purpose and does not injure the skin – all other materials sometimes used, such as lamp-black, soot charcoal, etc., are deleterious, and should be avoided. Apply the cork by mixing with water as much as may be required for use, and rubbing it on with the hands. It can be washed off with soap and water, or removed with a greasy rag.

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James also includes casting directions:

In the wide range of characters represented on the legitimate stage, considerable artistic taste and judgment has to be used, but in getting up the physiognomy for the gay and festive darky very little art is requisite. If a performer happens to be blessed with a good share of mouth…an application of the lipstick about half or three-quarters of an inch all around the natural part of the lips will extend that feature to a size quite remarkable, and make the face look all mouth when opened to its full extent. Such a mouth is often a good stock in trade, as a large nose is with our stage clowns…

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He goes on to suggest how actors can learn their subjects’ mannerisms:

This is easier to acquire than any other “lingo,” and, when acquired, is not easily got rid of in conversation off the boards. Listening to any old nig will form a first-rate text-book, besides being the best authority to imitate.

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James even includes examples of stump speeches to perform, such as this one titled, On Patriotism:

Feller offis-seekers: Dis am a grate country, full ob stobes and Baltymore repeaters, ob which I is chief. All we want am a offis, an’ we doesn’t be werry tic’lar wedder dat offis be de mare, gubnor, or alldemen at large – all we want am offis an’ nothin’ to do but say: “Good mornin’, Mr. Controlall,” den got our check cashed. We go in for de biggest kind ob liberty – liberty to do nothin’ as much as we like, an’ get well paid for it. Our lub of country is ‘bov eberyting, ‘ecpt trade dollars, and we nebber tire ob countin’ them for ourselbs! We belieb ‘plicity in de ‘Merican eagle, an’ double eagles, too. We stand by de constitution when all ober hundred dollar bills, and will fight pretty hard afore gibin’ it up. Our potatarism knows no bound less den $20,000 a year. We belieb in universal suffrin, dat all men am free an’ equal, ‘cept Chinese washermen, ‘cause dey hab no vote. We lub de Irisher, Scotty, Englisher, Dutchy Greesers, Frenchy and half Spanish, when dey wote as we say dey shall. We guv up hangin’ de nigger ‘cause ob his good ‘Merican vote!


 

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Kemble's Coons (1897)

By Edward W. Kemble

This collection of drawings, many with short captions, exemplifies the casual racism of the period.

 

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For more information about Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact readexmarketing@readex.com.


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