To Levitate an Elephant

Racial divides had recently reared their presence across the the nation, with poignancy, in ways planners of the 2020 Convention seem to have been blithely unconscious and unaware, and struggled to reconcile. But promoting the endangered African beast as a symbol of American nationalism: yet the adoption of the elephant as a symbol of America, it bears remembering, derives from the purchasing and forced migration of elephants as circus animals from Africa or Burma and Malaysia, that recapitulated the movement of chattel slavery, in purchasing the giant beasts introduced into American soil in the mid-nineteenth century–as if in counterpoint to the official decline of the transatlantic slave trade.

New York Historical Society

If George Washington paid to see an exhibited elephant in 1796 to the joining of circus masters P.T. Barnum and James Bailey in 1881 promoted elephants in their shows, before zoos; circus troupes with ties to elephant traders competed over who had the largest and most elephants, fraudulently promote elephants as “the first born on American soil”: yet the elephant provided a sensitive substitute for debates on racial identity, and indeed enslavement, in the period after Reconstruction. Despite an official end to importing slaves in 1807, illegal slave traders continued after the official end of slavery in 1860, bringing profitable slave cargoes to the United States as late as 1859 or 1860, shipping 12.5 million Africans who were enslaved, 10.7 million to the Americas during the Atlantic Slave Trade, and some 3,873,600 enslaved in the United States.

The enterprising nineteenth century elephant traders transported quadrupeds transatlantically as middlebrow pleasures suggested an odd continuation of the “legal” trade of bodies from tropical areas that intersected with the the inclusion of mixed race categories in the U.S. Census from 1850, when the mulatto was first counted as a category of the national population; the adoption of the animal as a partisan icon paralleled the debates on the skin color among imported elephants that rehearsed and parallels the increased attention to skin-color as a signifier of ethnic and racial identity, far from an indeterminate sign of party. At a bound the same time, the stuffed elephant was exhibited at the East India Company’s Pavilion on India in the Crystal Palace, sparking a curiosity in the global exhibition of elephants that would be repeated by P.T. Barnum’s exhibition of the stuffed skin of the African Grey,, Jumbo, purchasing the pachyderm in 1882 who had lived for twenty years in London’s zoo and the Jardin des Plantes in Paris: killed by a train, whose taxidermied body of the elephant, treasured as the largest in captivity, would tour for two years, as Barnum arranged for the arrival of Toung Taloung whose distinctive color quickly curried questions of the beast’s relation to the African Grey, by promises of greater cultivation matching the lighter pigmentation of his hide.

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While rather demure in comparison to the new vitality of an elephant of raised trunk, the most recent previous shift in how the party icon bore its star occurred as the upward-pointing stars along the elephant’s emblem turned down, transforming an icon that long signified robust unity since the post-Civil War. Indeed, the elevation of the elephant purged it of the weighty racial baggage with which the pachyderm was weighted as it was adopted as a party emblem in 1884, when Thomas Nast presented the “white” or albino “Sacred Elephant” P.T. Barnum exhibited widely in America at the end of Reconstruction as the basis to purify the party that its rider might arrive at the White House. The celebrated elephant Barnum called a “sacred animal . . . as white as God makes ’em” was taken by Nast to be an emblem of the party’s purity, and increased the currency of the elephant as display of party principles.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant,” 1884

But the image of the “sacred” elephant at the end of Reconstruction was far more freighted with its vaunted purity in relation to the African elephants that Barnum had taken to include prominently in his circus. The ways that the albino elephant who arrived in America with Barnum’s circus provided a broad debate about authenticity migrated into Republican Party politics at the time Nash effectively re-introduced the animal as a proud symbol of the party’s faithfulness to ideals at a time when purity was increasingly tied to interpreting the moral valuation of skin color as a sign of racial ancestry, removed from any actual elephant.

Was not the adoption of this outsized steed carrying a throne. dressed in faux circus garb as if awaiting for its valiant mount, showcased as an odd emblem of partisan valor, able to confer sacrality onto the mount it would be able to transport to the White House as an enslaved beast? Was there a sense that image of the elephant had a clear memory of its earlier connotations?

The racialization of the elephant was no doubt far from Republican’s mind in the summer of 2020. The searing inequalities of health services for Americans were laid bare by Covid-19, heightened beside a backdrop of excessive police violence, had revealed dramatically higher death rates and different fates of African-Americans, far beyond the reduced life expectancy of six years in 1999, which declined to three and half by 2013. These health inequalities attributed to uneven health conditions from cancer screening to birth care amplified a call for social justice across partisan divides. Such differences in life expectancy are as easily naturalized as the greater likelihood that blacks were targets of police violence, suggest the centrality of race in America in ways that the Convention continued to deny in celebrating their unity beneath the symbolic icon of a roaring elephant, in trying to create coherence within a fragmented Republican Party by the August 2020 Convention, in an attempt to continue to use the electoral victory of 2016 as its template–far from the beast itself, as the image of the red elephant seemed a sign of partisan identity removed from life.

The rollicking circus beast’s lifting its trunk to the heavens seemed to exult in claims as the “Party of Lincoln” was an odd symbolic locus of a highly partisan flag-waving convention. Republicans had elevated the new emblem of an elephant, oblivious that the partisan icon was hardly arbitrary, lying far deeper in the nation’s racism than any delegates might admit,–strikingly oblivious to the connotations elephants quickly gained in the 1880s, vaunted memory aside. Lack of memory of the place of elephants in racial ideologies seemed an unintentional blindness in a summer where police violence led to a national reckoning in social justice movements, and a reassessment of the history of environmental racism and unequal health care and services across America and of a judicial system both stacked against African Americans and increasingly ready to wrongfully convict them for crimes they did not commit–for murder, sexual assault, and drugs–that raises questions of the impartiality of judges or the jury system in America, as well as of police officers–and the movement to overturn wrongful convictions that has dramatically grown since 1998, and again since 2008.

The Republican convention had already deployed a rhetoric of escalating danger concealed glaring inequalities, evident in thhe stubborn persistence of a difference in life expectancy for blacks of three whole years. The centrality of race in America was masked by the argument that cast instruction about structural racism as “decades of left-wing indoctrination responsible for “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that summer: was not Trump’s subsequent promotion in late September of “patriotic education” would demote by curricular fiat learning about segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial violence like lynching, lest they destroy the “beautiful vision” of the founding fathers and “miracle of American history” for high school and middle school students in his call to design a “pro-American history” in the “1776 Commission” and to rebuff what he interpreted as a history affirming “that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country”–a charge that perhaps misunderstood the claims of history rarely affirms inherent identities, but rather shows the nature of processing meaning, far from asserting any ethnicity, race or people is “inherently racist or evil” but seeks to investigate the historically constructed nature of race and racial purity, or how any “race or ethnicity” is historically created, and contingent. The relation of the elephant to the debates on the purity of race and whiteness that emerged at the end of Reconstruction when the elephant was first adopted as a partisan emblem, was, in fact, a clearly white elephant, or had the purity of the Sacred Elephant that P.T. Barnum, that great American showman, bought at great expense from Burma.

The Arrival of Albino Elephant Toung Taloung in New York, 1884

The elephant displayed to American audiences just after Reconstruction is an odd precedent for the red elephant that was unveiled amidst the theater of the 2020 Republican Convention bears eery symbolism, which seemed so removed from race. The charged symbolism of the 2020 Convention had already ignored how embedded the new mascot of Republican unity was from the display of circus elephants tantamount to popular science theaters on locating racial difference and identity in skin pigmentation by popularizing racial sciences. The glaring if unspoken contradiction was masked at the 2020 Republican Convention by the energy of an animated elephant, emblazoned with a victory sign of five stars and all red, as if the partisan emblem was not only a partisan icon of identity but a validation of the 2020 nominee.

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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political iconography, popular entertainment, Republican Convention

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