Colluding with the Hoax: A Conversation with Kevin Young by Adam Fitzgerald

The writer of Bunk on American hucksterism, racism, plagiarism, and why we believe what we want to believe.

Barnum Bailey

Kevin Young’s newest collection of essays, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Graywolf Press), was not a book composed and rushed to print somehow, miraculously, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, as its timely title suggests. Instead, around five years ago, Young began meticulously investigating the headlines and backstories of one of America’s favorite pastimes: lying—the more public and sensational, the better. Bunk profiles larger-than-life American hucksters, journalists and entertainers who put forth incredulous “news” stories and sideshow exhibitions that drew massive crowds.

Whether people believed what they were reading, the “Fake News” business of 19th-century penny-paper journalism gripped thousands. Young connects the dots between these spectator habits, analyzing the explicitly racialized nature of sideshows such as those popularized by P.T. Barnum’s circus. Young lays bare how America’s conceptualization of race has always been the biggest stage act in the country’s busy and bloody leisure economies. It’s no wonder then that lies, rumors, and scandals about racial identity are perpetually insinuated across the cracks and crevices of white supremacist American cultural life, including its literatures.

Adam Fitzgerald How long have you been working with the essay genre?

Kevin Young Ever since I started writing poems in earnest, I was also writing essays, particularly about art. I edited too; my first project, Giant Steps, was a collection of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by young black writers. It gave me the chance to see where the genres were and how they were being developed. I think now we’re arguably in this great renaissance of black writing, with poetry and beyond.

AF I’m curious what set The Grey Album, your first book, into being. I’ve always been taken with the organizational structure of that project; those essays form a kind of subterranean system of associative roots and references (even between headings and chapter titles).

KY I was interested in different aspects of African American culture and I found myself seeing these connections across genres and centuries. I wanted to write a book that understood that and the essay form seemed the way to do it. I’m happy that it worked out. The kernel of the book came some twenty years before, but I think it was mostly just a series of ideas rather than a series of arguments—or maybe the other way around (laughs). After I settled on the title I started thinking about embodying these kinds of changes, but also supporting them with quotes, riffs, the various struts of language. 

Amiri Baraka’s book Blues People was really important to me. So was reading [Ralph] Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, who I think is an exemplar of nonfiction, both in short and long-form work. She has a great essay called “Characteristics of Negro Expression” that is just unbelievable. It’s both intuitive and accurate. Then she wrote a great book like Mules and Men, which is this folklore that she’s knitted as narrative that’s powerful and smart.

AF Bunk is crammed with anagrammatical dazzle. The graphic and sonic bodies of words call out, cross out, link up. They almost dictate the flow of argumentation. A great deal of Bunk was written before 2016, yet its central themes—the hoax, fraud, and con artist—are literally the things running the country right now, as “fake news” and “alternative truth.” The prescience of your project is most certainly eerie, beyond uncanny.

KY Thank you for calling it uncanny. I had this hunch about the prevalence of the hoax and what the hoax was about but I also wanted to explore ideas about how we got here. I even pulled back on the parallel a little because I didn’t want to over-determine it. Then suddenly the term “fake news” became reality. I was literally writing about fake journalism. So in a weird way, it required very little changing. It was almost like aaaand now this! The hoax wasn’t just about false narratives or the difficulty of telling a story. It’s about things that divide us, foremost perhaps race. Which is, you know, a euphemism for racism.

Young Bunk Book

AF When did you start working on what would become Bunk

KY Five or six years ago. I first thought it would be a book that explored what these kinds of things meant, but once I realized that so few books really look at the actual cultures of hoaxes—they just kind of tell the anecdotes—it forced me to think, “What does this mean?” By looking at these original or unoriginal, in many cases, texts—how can I see what was convincing to people? What I found is that quite often they weren’t very convincing and that they were shoddy in trying to convince. They go over the top and there’s this weird desire for us to believe. This quickly went from being a book about why people do this and why we get deceived, to a book about why we believe. At a certain point I had to just stop because I realized there was a new hoax every week, and if I kept on I would have to write a Pizza Gate Chapter or something.

AF You focus on 19th-century America as the era that established our contemporary thinking about race and the hoax. I also sense you’re collapsing our easy distinctions between now and then. While reading your research, I found myself thinking that people then must have just been a bunch of naïve simpletons. That only the miseducated or uneducated fall for these things. Yet cultural delusion is also the apex of rarefied knowledge production in U.S. history, not just tall-tales and sideshows.

KY Well, the narratives about race became really codified across the 19th century. This was a period where we were trying to discuss what these categories of being human meant, what their hierarchies were. But the fact that there were hierarchies at all, of course, tells you the cause is already lost. Have things only gotten worse and worse? I quote Stephen Jay Gould in the book about the fudging of results—whether [that’s done] accidentally or unconsciously—to fit exactly what you want to see or what certain figures in the American School of Anthropology wanted to see. 

The fact that such a practice became common belief is really troubling. The hoax goes right along with that. It’s not that I think people were smarter or less smart back then, it’s more that there was a kind of fluidity to some of this material that then became stock and trade. And Barnum was a big part of that. He invented whole kinds and manners of exhibitions. Now, we’re reaping the opposite of benefits. Certain scandals get more and more cliché as people don’t know half the time they’re falling, in fact, for a late 19th-century version of misinformation.

Cardiff Giant Young Interview

To capitalize on the popularity of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, Barnum created the Cardiff Giant hoax, where he displayed a so-called unearthed giant, touting it as the “missing link” of the human species. In Bunk, Young quotes the Prince of Wales’s response after visiting the figure, “whose humiliating likeness to mankind has led certain muddled philosophers to insinuate that he is an idiotic negro. Only a single glance from the bright and very intelligent eyes of the creature is necessary to disprove this absurd guess, while it adds to our bewilderment when we would trace a brute genealogy for him.”

AF Part of what I found so interesting is how you detail our very American investment in this shared compulsion that we have to participate in, our allure with and around the fake. It’s very much a book about audience and about spectatorship. I’m thinking of David Marriott’s work and how the global modernity of racism is tied inherently to the rise of visual culture—the nature of surveillance that is very old, not new, what is heard in the biting phrases of “black death spectacle” to describe the new-old digitalization of the lynching, what binds white media to its white consumer audience base.

KY Sometimes I think of us as colluding with the hoax, but in a more profound way we also collaborate and interact with it. We supply a lot of the details and assumptions. That doesn’t mean that we’re not led there. One of my realizations was that the hoax—like the con—draws on a store of ideas like that. A lot of those ideas come from the fraught history of race in this country, all the way from Barnum to the present. 

I have a piece coming out in the Kenyon Review about what people sometimes call “Pretendians.” I say in one part of the book that it’s an American tradition—blackface or redface, whatever you want to call these fake natives of different stripes. What I end up calling “exoticist” is so common and hard to shake and hard to deny. Rachel Dolezal seems pretty silly, but there she is on the Today Show talking about race, something that she clearly doesn’t really grasp.

AF In the section of the book entitled “Cowboys and Aliens” you talk about how it’s a rite of passage for white people. The carceral logic that structures our problems also tries to convince us that these problems are always the matter of a few bad actors deserving the performance of outrage, scandal, isolation, or punishment if they’re white people; whereas people of color are just brutalized, punished, executed immediately. Sometimes, only sometimes, outrage comes after the fact. This rite of passage, as you call it, is an inevitable byproduct as long as race governs the violence of American life.

KY The hoax has these similar qualities, effects, and habits—but it’s often de-centered. It’s not like people got in a room together and said, let’s fake this particular way. What’s really haunting is that people are making use of these social divisions. The hoax has changed—it used to be something that honored people and sort of said, wow, George Washington was great so I’m gonna make up this nursemaid of his. This is what Barnum did. Or The Origin of Species—let’s capitalize on that and make a missing link.

Joice Heth Poster Jpeg

One of Barnum’s early hoaxes involved Joice Heth, George Washington’s nurse slave from childhood. Barnum put her on display claiming she was 161 years old, objectifying her with problematic language and reinforcing the black mammy stereotype.

KY Now the fact that both of those figures were black makes it all the more troubling. But it isn’t that Barnum, of course, was very sophisticated about these things. Looking back on it, we realize the way in which the audience brought a lot to that story, a need that Barnum just simply realized. The better we understand that, the better we understand the kind of symptoms of the thing you’re talking about.

AF Bunk closes with an extended meditation entitled “The Body of Michael Brown.” You discuss a performance by Kenneth Goldsmith at Brown University, and the immediate response by poets and critics, especially the insurgent advocacy of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. For many poet-critics, this appropriation of a young dead black man’s autopsy report signaled a longtime divide in contemporary American poetics, especially the supposed and actual experimental wing. Plagiarism seems central to the hoax as racial violence.

KY There was a kind of double or triple crime at work. I even tease out and play with the idea of crime because we’re not totally sure if it’s entirely bad even though we have a knee-jerk reaction sometimes. Plagiarists do quite well for themselves. Think of the Melania Trump theft (apparently by her speechwriter) of Michelle Obama. Understanding who is being stolen from is really important, and plagiarists often target certain things—not just good writing, though of course, they do that—but good writing by women or people of color. 

Many of the poetry plagiarists who I trace do just that. It’s a really strange kind of participation in the larger cultural plagiarism that’s been going on for centuries of black cultural production. It’s a preparation for a larger theft that these little plagiarisms are but forays into. Oftentimes we think of them as totally separate from hoaxes. I wanted to purposefully include plagiarism as a kind of hoax, but also many of the people about whom we think just merely made something up are often plagiarists, too. There’s no clear demarcation.

AF “The Age of Euphemism” is the final chapter in the book. Could you say more about that?

KY I was thinking about where we are now. And it seemed that [calling it out as a] euphemism was a good way to not be euphemistic about it. Even fake news is a kind of euphemism. Is it a euphemism for propaganda? Is it a euphemism for “news I don’t like”? It seemed to me we were somewhere past just being in the information or digital age, as stories and facts suddenly get thrown around. We’re in a period of real risk. This seems to be proven true. Even “race” is euphemistic: are we talking about racism or are we talking about whiteness? I wanted to write something that was ultimately balanced and considered the hoaxes on their own terms. Not necessarily their explicitly stated terms, but to take them in and to help us see them again.

Adam Fitzgerald is the author of two poetry collections, The Late Parade and George Washington. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and lives in New York City.

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