The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America are two compelling tales of racial and class prejudice, the exploitation of black people, and the as well as the influence of the capitalist mass media in shaping opinion. Through a skillful use of depiction, both Davis and Reiss recover and retell the stories of Barnum, Heth, and Douglass from host primary sources. Reiss’s text is a result of newspaper accounts, court records, letters, drawings, pamphlets, and diaries. Both scholars capitalized on the use of autobiographies, one from Barnum and the other from Frederick Douglass.
In piecing together the history and story told by the different primary sources used, Davis and Reiss paints a picture of people looking at history, at the black body, at social class, at slavery, at performance, at religion, at death, and at themselves. Simultaneously, they divulge how a deep obsession with race penetrated different facets of American life, stretching from public memory to a mutilated religion that was spread from ear to ear. In the Davis text, she writes,
“The slave is actually conscious of the fact that freedom is not a fact, it is not a given, but rather something to be fought for; it can exist only through a process of struggle. The slavemaster, on the other hand, experiences his freedom as inalienable and this as a fact: he is not aware that he too has been enslaved by his own system. “ (p. 52)
This truth is extremely evident in the story of the delivered by Reiss. Barnum's public exploitation of a slave woman, whom had been nursemaid to George Washington, corresponded with the beginning of organized opposition to slavery. This particular exert from Davis’s text is in conversation with Reiss’s text because it speaks of a master being enslaved by his own system. Without Joice Heth, P.T. Barnum wouldn’t have his fame, or his riches. He was slave to her appearance, to the stories she told the...