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Conjure Times: Black Magicians in American

Author John Cech and Jim Haskins
Air Date 2/5/2002

Black Magicians in American Transcript

David Blaine, who has been called the “hip hop Houdini,” a young, and – according to his various descriptions of his ethnic origins, Puerto Rican, Italian, Russian, Jewish, African American – is one of the leading magicians in American today. He does street magic, dressed in a tee shirt, which literally makes it impossible to hide anything up his sleeves. On his television specials, he has levitated, been submerged under water for seven days, and sealed in ice for sixty-two hours — in plain view of pedestrians and monitored constantly by TV cameras.

But guess who could make eggs hop from the top of one hat to another and then disappear into thin air, who could drink molten lead and then spit out solid pieces of the metal, still warm to the touch; or who, with his wife, could climb a rope suspended in space, while being carefully observed by a crowd of people, and then simply vanish? Those were just a few of the tricks that were performed, to great acclaim, by America’s first recorded magician, Richard Potter, who was African American. He was born in 1783, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, and through a series of events worthy of a novel and a major motion picture, found his way to England as a cabin boy, and with his sea-earned wages, was out on a ramble when he came upon a country fair and a Scottish magician who just happened to need an assistant. I won’t spoil the surprise of reading the rest of Richard Potter’s story in a book by Kathleen Benson and my late colleague, Jim Haskins, called Conjure Times: Black Magicians in America.

In this eye-opening book, you’ll also find the incredible story of Henry “Box” Brown, who earned his stage name by means of his famous escape from that most horrific confinement of all: slavery. When his family was forcibly separated, Henry vowed to make his way to freedom. He somehow managed to find a sympathetic and courageous white carpenter who built Henry a box that he could fit into, and then he had Henry shipped north to a friend in Philadelphia. How Henry endured, and how the other Black magicians described in this book all found their ways onto the stage is a remarkable testament to human resourcefulness and bravery, and to the power of the human spirit to find ways to perform sheer, breath-taking magic.

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