Carnivalesque Pluralism: Jews and Arabs Fighting White Supremacy on the Midway of the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893
Jacob S. Dorman, University of Nevada
March 8, 2022
Sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program
Historians have generally interpreted the Midway of the 1893 World's
Columbian Exhibition in Chicago as a "human zoo" that implicitly argued in
favor of Social Darwinism and what would come to be called the "White Man's
Burden" to colonize "less civilized" non-White peoples after the Wars of
1898. While this is a fairly accurate description of the midway at the St.
Louis World's Fair of 1904, it is a poor description of the 1893 Midway,
where the plurality of exhibitors were Muslims or Jews and whose lead
impresario, the Jewish future congressman Sol Bloom, explicitly denied the
salience of Social Darwinism and sought to demonstrate the superiority of even
a second-rate band or an Arabian sword-swallower to the industrial detritus and
Calvinism displayed in the staid "White City" of the main fairgrounds.
While racist Social Darwinist interpretations of the 1893 fair can be found,
they were relatively rare. Much more common was the pleasurable disorientation
and the leveling of social hierarchies created by immersion in a fake Oriental
city. Also notable were expressions of pluralism, thanks in part to the efforts
of another Jewish fair planner, Franz Boas. When considered more closely we can
see the 1893 fair not as a Social Darwinist zoo or as an argument for
imperialism but as a challenge to White Protestant supremacy and as one of the
incubators of twentieth century American multiculturalism.
Jacob S. Dorman is an Associate Professor of History at the University of
Nevada, Reno, where he teaches courses on Gilded Age, African American, and
U.S. cultural histories. He is the author of the multiple-prize-winning
histories Chosen People: The Rise of American Black Israelite Religions (Oxford
2013), and The Princess and the Prophet: Magic, Race, and Black Muslims in
America (Beacon 2020). Dorman is the author of many scholarly articles and
Please contact Shaul Magid with any questions.