Boisseau on Cardon, 'A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs'

Nathan Cardon
TJ Boisseau

Nathan Cardon. A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 192 pp. $74.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-027472-6.

Reviewed by TJ Boisseau (Purdue University) Published on H-SHGAPE (July, 2019) Commissioned by William S. Cossen (The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology)

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Nathan Cardon’s new book examining the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition (1895) and the Nashville Tennessee Centennial Exposition (1897) grapples with the most salient meanings of these two world’s fairs for southerners and for the larger project of nation-building at a distinct moment of national reckoning and regional reconciliation. Cardon agilely wrestles these fairs to the ground and wrings from them key bits of evidence and solid analytical insights regarding the changing landscape of race relations to explain how the ongoing (and markedly uneven and unequal) negotiations over the “New Negro” inflected every other social relation, including the emergence of a highly ambivalent “New Woman” in the South and the exportation of Jim Crow ideology to the larger nation and world via newly imperialist US foreign policies.

Of course, Cardon is not the first to focus on the articulation of nationalist and region-specific messaging regarding modernity at international expositions, or even at these two particular expositions. He credits Bruce Harvey’s World’s Fairs in a Southern Accent: Atlanta, Nashville, and Charleston, 1895-1902 (2014) with providing a useful guidepost to the three largest and arguably most impactful of nineteenth-century expositions held in the South, albeit without much of the cultural analysis and imperial context that animates his own look at two of three of these same fairs. He parts ways with Mabel O. Wilson’s more dismal assessment of Atlanta’s 1895 Negro Building’s artworks in Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (2012), but, for the most part, Cardon’s focus on the multiplicity of meanings generated by black participation in these expositions shores up Wilson’s assessment concerning the unresolvable dilemmas occasioned by these precious and yet constrained opportunities for black self-representation at world’s fairs (see p. 134n33). Nor does he ignore the debt he owes to Theda Perdue, whose Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 (2010) shares Cardon’s concern with explicating the unique role played by the 1895 Atlanta exposition in New South history—given the razor thin precipice the region’s rural cultural identity (both self-identity and an imposed stereotype) had nearly marooned its economy atop. The larger arguments of this book regarding ambivalence toward modernity do more to nuance and confirm the broad outline of theses on the New South as longstanding as C. Vann Woodward’s, and as universally agreed upon by Harvey, Wilson, and Perdue, than they stake out wholly new territory on this subject. Indeed, Cardon’s unique contributions come not in the larger overarching argument he makes and often repeats regarding “Jim Crow modernity”—and by that he means “the New South’s embrace of racial segregation and industrial capitalism” (p. 3)—nor in the evidence his research has supplied to support that central idea. Instead, Cardon brings a fresh eye to the more muted details of these expositions, presenting a remarkably subtle acceptance of the “at once contradictory and coherent” nature of that evidence (p. 72).

Cardon’s analytical nimbleness is most evident in his deft articulation of the conundrums and reversals black elites often found themselves engaging in when confronted with the continuum imagined as stretching between themselves and contemporary Africans whose presence at these fairs came in the form of reconstructed “Dahomey Village” exhibits and other anthropologically framed presentations. He tells us that even the “Old Plantation” exhibits of both fairs, where African Americans posed as happy-go-lucky antebellum slaves, “contained hidden transcripts” and came across quite differently to southern whites, to northern whites, to elite southern blacks, to northern blacks, and to the poor southern black performers who were being paid to pretend to engage in the grueling labor of picking cotton representing, to them, an escape from the actual manual labor they were otherwise confined to (pp. 57, 42). “Far from a pre-modern people locked in a rural economy,” Cardon astutely infers that “the southern black performers of the Old Plantation were a modern people exploiting the racist undercurrents of American society to their own advantage, even if middle-class whites and blacks heard only primitive rhythms and sounds” (p. 58). He furthermore does not shy away from drawing a direct line between the “Congress on Africa” held in conjunction with the 1895 Atlanta exposition and the “global racial framework” and a “trans-imperial movement of pedagogy” that these expositions helped construct and disseminate (p. 98). Likewise, he describes southern white women’s progressive embrace of technology and “modern motherhood” while simultaneously assuming a backward-looking stewardship of Confederate history “to assuage the crumbling of traditional gender roles” (pp. 74, 85). Cardon effectively demonstrates the fleeting nature of that embrace by following the thin thread of what might best be termed “New South white womanhood” as far as the 1907 Tercentennial Exposition in Jamestown. There, he argues, white female organizers left behind any radical politics increasingly associated with the New Woman after the turn of the century in order to construct a replica of Jefferson Davis’s Mississippi home, Beauvoir, in place of an actual Women’s Building. In the case of both gender and race analysis, there is no attempt here to impose uniformity for the sake of an artificial coherence. This work shines brightest in its explanation of how tight yet fluid the ideological spaces that African American men and women and white southern women found themselves in and how heterogeneously they navigated those spaces as individuals and as groups, fully mindful of the global context of empire within which they operated. “By embracing tradition and modernity, racial hierarchy, and imperial language,” Cardon maintains, “southern women made modernity palatable and positioned the region as central to the growing call for US expansionism” (p. 86). Like all exposition histories, Cardon’s research leaves no room for doubt regarding the significance of the world’s fair in this period as a venue for cultural expression, negotiation, and representation. His work distinguishes itself for grounding that assessment more firmly and precisely on the messy, heterotopic, and cross-pollinating meanings that expositions inevitably yielded. 

The book is slim, yet not for the sake of conciseness considering how immersed Cardon’s argument is in particular, finely drawn details of reception. Cardon never makes it clear why he chose to confine his analysis to just two expositions when evidence drawn from other expositions held in the South at the turn of the twentieth century offer the historian an abundance of entry points onto the subject of “Jim Crow modernity” and likely would have allowed his argument to achieve more magnitude. Even if Cardon preferred, for some reason, to limit his study primarily to the localities of Atlanta and Nashville, more evidence to support or nuance his conclusions could have been supplied by an analysis of the two small expositions held in Atlanta that bookended the 1895 exposition—the International Cotton Exposition (1881) and the Piedmont Exposition (1887)—or with a consideration of the few sources we have documenting the Appalachian Expositions (1910 and 1911) and the National Conservation Exposition (1913), all held not too far from Nashville in nearby Knoxville. To be sure, there were not nearly as many world’s fairs held in the South as in the North, but the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition held in New Orleans (1884-85) and the series of expositions held for five years running in Louisville (1883-87) offer some glaringly obvious opportunities for Cardon to have amplified his interpretation. The tiny but truly intriguing glimpses of other important expositions held in the South a few years after Atlanta and Nashville (the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition held in Charleston, 1901-2, and the Tercentennial Exposition held in Jamestown, 1907) that Cardon proffers in his interesting but all-too-brief conclusion, hint at the riches that a larger study inclusive of these other fairs would surely have unearthed. Admittedly, any limit can appear arbitrary and no one likes a reviewer to bemoan the book that was not written, but I could not help wishing that Cardon’s conclusion had been the start of the second half of this too-short book rather than its summation. Given Cardon’s apparent mission to provide a genealogical breakdown of how “Jim Crow modernity” unfolded at southern world’s fairs, it is a bit disappointing that so much potential was left untapped. Not least considering the insightful way that Cardon handles documentary evidence, one wonders whether incorporation of southern displays of regional pride and anxieties at a few other expositions in the period might have pushed Cardon’s contribution to exposition history, not toward some chimerical, comprehensive horizon but at least past the limits of insightful yet mostly confirmatory interpretation into exciting new territory.

Citation: TJ Boisseau. Review of Cardon, Nathan, A Dream of the Future: Race, Empire, and Modernity at the Atlanta and Nashville World's Fairs. H-SHGAPE, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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