Q&A With Jason Black, Black Scorpion

Image courtesy of Jason Black

In my last post I spoke of my meeting with Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum and my trip to Coney Island.  In our discussion, Dr. Birnbaum mentioned Jason Black.  I contacted him, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me.

A link to his Sound Cloud page is available here, and his webpage is Black For President.

Mr. Black told me, “I am the Black Scorpion. I do participate in freak show/sideshow performances. Mostly what I do is to teach humans about other humans through humor with heart.
The world I’ve grown up in is one that can be, at times, hard headed and difficult to communicate with, because of preconceived notions or thoughts, if you will, as to who someone with different “fill in the blank; i.e.: color of skin, body type, number of fingers, walking ability, height, sex, sexuality, birth place…etc” is suppose to be- their place in the world and how they should act.
What I do on stage is magic, not because of illusions or tricks but because of soul. I try to change preconceived negatives into positives and at times fail miserably when agendas have already put blinders along someone’s path through our world.”

Courtesy of Jason Black

What influenced your decisions to become a performer? Harpo Marx, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor to name a few…

What are some of the best experiences you’ve had as a performer? Usually if a crowd is attentive it will be a fairly good experience.

Do you have any specific examples of shows that have gone really well or just terribly bad because of the way people are trained to think?
No examples I can recall. I’ve had folks walk out because of jokes.
How do you think things would be different for you as a performer if you lived in the late 1800s-early 1900s?  What impacts those differences in perceptions?
I probably would have made more money, owned a show and my act would have been slightly different because I would have to change some of the topical humor or I may have been chased by an angry mob of villagers with pitchforks and torches into a barn only to be silently killed by my creator.
 
Also, have you had any negative feedback from people who don’t think you should “exploit” yourself and your disability?
 I think when folks see my act the word “exploit” doesn’t really cross their minds, though I could be wrong. My act is more of a surreal comedy show in the vein of Andy Kaufman and Harpo Marx. Negative feedback I’ve received has always been of the political nature, usually geriatric white men upset over something I’ve said. I mostly teach about and share experiences of life with ectrodactyly. But really all performers are exploiting themselves. If anything I exploit my quick wit, charm and comedic timing. 
 
Have you studied the sideshows of the past, and who is your favorite performer from the past?  Why?
No I stay away from learning too much about past performers of sideshow, don’t want to be influenced. Also that is the same reason I do not watch South Park. I study more of the comedic genre of the past, simply love the playwright George S. Kaufman.
 
Dr. Birnbaum did mention that in the past born-differents were seen as almost taking part in pornography, but now many of those people are seen as the rock-stars of the industry. What do you think about that? It depends on what point in the past you are referring to, remember the winners write the history books so when the freak show fell out of favor of course it was either written off or erased.

Photo courtesy of Jason Black.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t any, but do you know of any people who have cognitive/developmental disabilities who are performing still in the United States or other parts of the world?

Yes Mike Tyson. I say that without sarcasm. Link to his cognitive/developmental report.  Link to his Broadway show.

What are your thoughts on the past performers with microcephaly (pinheads)?
No thoughts. As a child I did have a sitter who had microcephaly. 

Coney Island, USA

Coney Island, USA Museum and Sideshow Building

After a week of culture and exploring New York, and a wonderful morning at the Transit Museum, I headed over to Brooklyn and all the way to the end-of-the-line: Coney Island.  I arrived early to get a Nathan’s hot dog and to wander around the board walk area.  Then I walked over to the Coney Island Museum where I was to meet Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum to discuss the display and performance of people with disabilities in sideshows.  This blog is a segue into a new series of blogs on exploitation, sideshow history, disability history, and more.

Dr. Birnbaum is on the Board of Coney Island USA and also a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities.  Additionally, he is a Pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens) of which he is the founder, director, and physician.  His specialty is treatment of HIV+ youth, and he provides medical care for HIV+ and at-risk children, including LGBT youth.  More information about this fascinating work is available at HEAT’s website, http://www.heatprogram.org.  Dr. Birnbaum has also studied Sideshow Performers, Congenital Malformations, Disabilities and the Medical Community.  This is what we met to talk about on a Thursday in May at the Coney Island Museum.

Coney Island Beach, 1938

Coney Island of today is very different from that of the late 1800s and pre-War era of the twentieth century.  Luna Park and Dreamland are no longer visited daily by the masses, and the beach was empty while I was there, which is a stark contrast to the images of Coney Island from the past.  However, there are still some organizations and small businesses that continue to share the history of this fascinating place and preserve that history for future generations.

One of the biggest attractions in the past at Coney Island, and in circuses and traveling exhibits throughout the world, was the sideshow.  Many times, children with seemingly strange differences were taken from their families to travel the world to be gawked at by tourist paying a nickel to see the strange and unknown.

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only sideshows in the country.  Their website proclaims, “SIDESHOWS BY THE SEASHORE is the last permanently housed place in the USA where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities! “  More information is available at: http://www.coneyisland.com/sideshow.shtml.  Dr. Birnbaum, as mentioned above, has studies sideshow, disability, and medicine, so he was a great source to speak with regarding my research.

When we arrived, they had just wrapped up their annual “Congress of Curious Peoples” (I am currently taking donations so that I can attend next year!), and Dr. Birnbaum told me about the 2012 Inductees into the Sideshow Hall of Fame and his nomination of Seal-o the Sealboy in the Born Different category.  This is the kind of information I was looking for in my research as opposed to the self-inflicted “freaks” that dominate shows today!

Dr. Birnbaum and I discussed many aspects of sideshows and people with disabilities, and he told me about several people he knows who do participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues.  One example is Matt Fraser, a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, who is a disability rights activist who uses his disability in his act.  He uses the disability to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned not to.

He explained to me that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed to be taking place in something equal to pornography.  Today, however, many in this population see it as a rock’n’roll career.

Zip

I’m interested in the “born different” people from the past, but most especially those with cognitive developmental delays, medically called those with mental retardation.  This will be spoken about much more in my research to come.  I have come across several examples of this such as Zip and Pip, and Schlitzy, who were referred to as “pinheads”, and Zip the “What is it?” who may or may not have had microcephaly.

My next blog will feature a Q&A with one of the Coney island Performers, Black Scorpion.  The website describes him as, “a human oddity known for his bizarre & surreal stage performances, from future Austin, Texas. He is unlike any other performer, for he was not born of our time like you or I. When you see him perform you will understand how nature’s beauty takes shape in many different forms. Witness his attempts to change preconceived negatives into a positives throughout space & time.”  You can read more about him at: http://www.coneyisland.com/per.blackscorpion.shtml

two-headed deer souvenir

The museum has a bar and a great giftshop (also available online at: http://shop.coneyisland.com/) with Coney Island beer as a specialty and incredible one-off art such as my pink and green two-headed deer.

I encourage you to become a member of Coney Island USA to help build this area of New York back to a semblance of what it used to be.  The Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, and the wonderful folks at Coney Island, USA (the non-profit arts organization) are doing great things at this historic site, and they can do much more with your donation.  For obvious reasons, I would love to be able to be a “Sideshow Professa,” and who wouldn’t?

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What’s the story with this dissertation?

Starting on Monday, I will begin a series of posts about my dissertation and research trip to New York City… but first….

What is the story with this dissertation that I’m writing?  I have a feeling that my blog posts are about to start reflecting a lot more about my research and dissertation in the coming months.  I don’t presume that any of you have taken the time to read my proposal or bibliography, and looking back at past posts, it doesn’t seem that I ever explicitly stated my intents.  So please allow me take a moment to explain…

I am currently researching and writing my dissertation, which is titled, “Serving Under-served Communities in Museums and Historical Organizations: Creating Meaningful Public Programming.

One of the most simple ways to explain this is to share my abstract, “Throughout history there have been many populations that have been discriminated against or ignored by institutions and organizations of all types.  The same is true of museums, and some might argue that those problems still exist today.   Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act it seems that museums and historic organizations are still behind in reaching out to and welcoming people with learning or developmental disabilities.  This dissertation will explore past and current relationships and attempts at inclusion of people with developmental or cognitive disabilities, and possible alternatives and programming developed specifically for secondary education students who are in special education classrooms at museums and historical organizations.  This dissertation will also include a model for museums to use in developing programming and welcoming under-served populations into organizations.”

The park where it all began…

I can pinpoint the exact moment that this idea first popped into my head.  In April of 2011, I was attending the National Council on Public History conference in Pensacola, Florida.  Each day we walked through a park, and on one of the last days, my fellow student Rebecca and I were strolling back to the hotel through this park.  A group of adults from an assisted living program were having a gathering at the gazebo.  As we walked by, I realized that I had not really ever seen programs for children with special needs at museums.  I immediately got excited and started spouting out ideas to a confused and excited Rebecca.

Looking back to my own experiences in education departments at museums and historical sites and organizations, I realized that there is a severe lack of opportunities for people with special needs or learning disabilities and in many cases the complete nonexistence of programming for this group of people. Through this process, I will create programs for special education students that help them also see the world as an interconnected, diverse place where all are welcomed to interact and engage with the various communities in existence.

I will present information about how museums react to learning disabled visitors, as well as sensitivity and awareness to issues regarding these visitors, especially at the secondary level.  Lastly, I will present a model for museums to use to develop specific programming and exhibits for people with learning disabilities.

Coney Island Sideshows and Museum

The historical context for this dissertation is found in information about institutions such as the Mutter Museum of Medical Curiosities in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and at the Sideshows of Coney Island, New York and other places around the world.   By looking at the past treatment of people with disabilities by museums and exhibits in the not-so-distant past, where they were essentially treated as exhibits instead of valued visitors, I will investigate the history of these exhibits and offer alternatives to this previous relationship.

The Main Questions that I will address are:

  • —  How people with disabilities, predominantly students in special education classrooms, can be better served by professionals in the public history field, principally through educational programs in museums and historical organizations.
  • —  The past relationship between museums and people with disabilities
  • —  The history of special education
  • —  The history of museums as collections of curiosities
  • —  Why students in special education classes are not taken on more educational field trips
  • —  What the obstacles and challenges are to taking students on field trips, and why field trips to museums or cultural organizations would be beneficial as field trip sites.
  • —  Explore user-friendly tactics for students, teachers, aides, and museum professionals and staff members.

There are several outcomes that I hope to gain from my research and dissertation.  First, through historical context I hope to understand how the past informs the present, especially in relation to the way museums view people with disabilities.  I also want to create a model for cultural organizations.  Once this new model is established and in use, a new audience will be able to visit museums, which benefits the visitors and the museum for obvious reasons.  The field trips that will result from the programs will provide new opportunities for special education students and teachers.  And lastly, the dissertation will provide guidelines and best practices for sensitivity, awareness, and welcoming new groups to the museum or cultural organization.

This dissertation will also carry over into the future in many ways.  I know that within the writing year I will not be able to do everything, so I will have future research problems and questions.   I will also need to continue to raise awareness and work on marketing the model to both museums and teachers.  Eventually I would like to publish my dissertation either as a manuscript or as separate articles.  I’ve also gained a pretty strong interest in freakshows and sideshow, and I would love to write a scholarly article or book about that topic as well.  Ideally, this process will lead to consulting and working with cultural organizations to implement programs.

If you or someone you know has experience with special education in museums, please comment below or pass along this survey for special education teachers!

Over the coming weeks, I will be starting to post information about my recent research trip to New York City and other information as it develops.  Please join me on this adventure and share your thoughts, ideas, or comments with me!

Doctoral CANDIDATE Updates

Again, you may have noticed I have not been posting as much lately.  There are several excuses I could throw at you, but instead I will give you some quick updates!

– I spent most of the past month working on my dissertation proposal and online doctoral portfolio for review by my dissertation committee.  I defended them both on Friday, April 27th, and I passed!  I’m now officially a doctoral candidate and can start the long, arduous task of writing my dissertation.  Luckily, I’m really passionate and excited about my topic, so it should be an enjoyable process (other than the obvious struggles with bureaucracy, formatting, technology, etc).

– On that same note, I have been working on merging my professional blog with my doctoral portfolio, so let me know what you think of the site changes around here!

Sun Studio Visit with TAM

– I went to the Tennessee Association of Museums conference in Memphis in March as one of their scholarship winners… if you kept up with my twitter at all you know some of what went on there, but that only scratches the surface.  I have a blog in the works to review more of the conference, the sessions, the sights, and of course my own presentation on sensitivity and awareness of disabilities at museums.  Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks!

– I’ve also been finishing up teaching Explorations in Public History.  My students have been writing blogs that I post on their website, http://explorationsinpublichistory.wordpress.com/.  Check back soon, because I will be posting their final projects in the next week!  They were a wonderful class, and I look forward to seeing them as new public history professionals in the future.

– Next week I will head to New York City for a research trip!!  I will have all kinds of updates on my dissertation and ideas to talk about once I get back.  I am fortunate enough to have meetings set up with people from the Intrepid Museum, Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Transit Museum, Museum Of Modern Art, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Coney Island USA, and people from the Museum Access Consortium.

Liberal Arts Awards Banquet

– As for other updates… I won the Bart McCash Memorial Scholarship for Graduate Students again this year!  My dissertation committee chair shared with me last week that Dr. McCash was his step-father and an influential person in his life personally and academically.  I’m honored to have been chosen as the recipient of a scholarship named for such a great person.

– I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student Association president for the 2012-2013 academic year.   I’m looking forward to serving the 3000 graduate students at Middle Tennessee State University!

SGA Awards

 

– April finished up my term as a graduate senator for the Student Government Association.  Serving as a senator was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot.  Surprisingly, I was elected “Best All Around” senator, and the graduate students were named “Best Friends” by the Senate Superlatives.  We were treated to a lovely banquet on campus on my birthday, which I consider to be MTU’s birthday gift to me.

– So I had a crazy end of my academic semester, not to mention I bought art, had a birthday, watched a lot of trash TV, finished the Game of Thrones books, spent too much time looking at Tumblrs, got a radical haircut change,  and reorganized all of my bookshelves.

This summer should be more conducive to blogging, if I can squeeze it in among writing and researching the dissertation, traveling, working as a camp counselor at Camp Will in Franklin, Tennessee, and some quality lake time.  I have plenty to write about, so keep coming back!!

Thanks, as always, for reading.