Three. Life in Philadelphia: Racial Caricature in Graphic Art and Performance

From: Haunted City

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58 three | Life in Philadelphia Racial Caricature in Graphic Art and Performance On January 3, 1799, Philadelphia diarist Elizabeth Drinker remarked on the fine clothes her two black servants had recently worn to a wedding: Jacob dress[ed] in a light cloth coat, white cashmere vest and britches, white silk Stockings and a new hat. Sarah, the bridesmaid, [dressed] in white muslin . . . with white ribbons from head to foot, yellow Morocco shoes with white bows, &c. They went in Benjamin Oliver’s coach, [driven] by his white man. . . . They are both honest servants, but times [are] much altered with the black folk.1 As historians Shane White and Graham White argue, the “feelings of disquiet about free blacks” expressed by Drinker and her contemporaries “coalesced around the perceived lack of self-­ control African Americans exercised in the presentation of their bodies.”2 Writing in 1830, thirty-­ one years after Drinker, John Fanning Watson lamented the changing deportment of African Americans in Philadelphia: In the olden time dressy blacks and dandy colour’d beaux and belles . . . were quite unknown. Their aspirings and little vanities have been rapidly growing since they got those separate churches, and have received their entire exemption from slavery. Once they submitted to the appellation of servants, blacks, or negroes, but now they require to be called coloured people, and among themselves, their common call or salutation is—­ gentlemen and ladies. Twenty to thirty years ago, they were much humbler, more esteemed in their place, and more useful to themselves and others. As a whole they show an overweening fondness for display and vainglory—­ fondly imitating the whites in processions and banners, and in the pomp and pageantry of Masonic and Washington societies, &c.3 59 life in philadelphia Richard Allen established Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets in 1794, and by 1811 black Philadelphians had set up “schools, insurance companies, masonic lodges, and several additional churches within a few blocks of Bethel,” forming an “identifiable [neighborhood] at the southern edge of the city.”4 Black Masons began parading publicly in Philadelphia in 1797, and in 1815 four black Masonic societies merged to form the First African Independent Grand Lodge under Absalom Jones, who also ministered to the congregation at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.5 Douglas A. Jones Jr. views the flourishing parade culture among black social organizations in the antebellum North as a performance of black presence, which “aimed to position African Americans as self-­ determined citizens and bearers of American possibility.”6 These aspirations, as expressed in parade performances, provoked fearful derision from whites—­ including Watson’s racist screed and a caricature of a black Masonic procession by Philadelphia artist David Claypoole Johnston, to give just two examples.7 Fictions of Blackness In 1819 James Thackera, another Philadelphia artist, produced an etching of two well-­ dressed white men scowling at a pair of black dandies they encounter on the street. In the background, a monkey perched on a windowsill holds a monocle to its eye, mimicking a gesture performed by one of the two flamboyantly dressed black men. In a note appended to this print, Thackera complains, “The black gentry . . . not only ape the dress of their masters, but also their cant terms, being well versed in the fashionable vocabulary.”8 Interestingly, Thackera’s print laces its antiblack caricature with a barb aimed at rich whites. By drawing attention to the “cant terms” of the “masters” who employ Philadelphia’s “black gentry,” Thackera mocks not only blacks who imitate white fashions but also the very concept of fashion itself. In his book on the literary history of Philadelphia, Samuel Otter analyzes the frequent appearance of “double parody” in antebellum racial caricature, arguing that works like Thackera’s etching unmask “all social performance” as “mimicry” while also offering white viewers “the reassurance that their own [social] performances are more successful” than those of African Americans.9 A decade after Thackera, Edward Williams Clay utilized double parody to great effect in Life in Philadelphia (1828–­ 30), a series 60 haunted citY of fourteen aquatints lampooning the pretentious manners of both whites and blacks in the City of Brotherly Love. Four of these prints poke fun at upper-­ class white Philadelphians. In one, a dour Quaker couple exchange verses from the Song of Solomon in front of an extinguished fireplace.10 In another, a young couple attend a “fancy ball” dressed in garish, pastoral attire.11 However, the images in Life in Philadelphia that...