- Cultivating Black Visuality:The Controversy over Cartoons in the Indianapolis Freeman
Soon after editor Edward E. Cooper acquired the weekly Indianapolis Freeman in 1888, this “national illustrated colored newspaper” became an important vehicle for the circulation and reception of African American visual art.1 With an art department of on-staff African American artists and engravers who produced original illustrations, the paper exceeded many earlier black newspapers’ practice of reprinting woodcuts, photographs, and drawings that had been created elsewhere.2 (See Figure 1.) Establishing African Americans as its default viewership, the Freeman featured a range of portraiture, political cartoons, and comic cartoons aimed at enabling the audience to see “the colored race as it is, and not as it is misrepresented by many of our white contemporaries.”3 To this end, the paper frequently featured testaments to black achievement. But the Freeman’s representations of blackness were not wholly flattering. When, in mid-1889, Cooper hired artist Moses Tucker and introduced racial caricature as a prominent style of illustration in the paper, many audience members resisted these images as reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people. By contrast, Cooper made the bold, but unpopular claim that, when created by and for African American viewers in a black periodical, black caricatures served a self-reflexive, didactic function rather than the denigrating one in white media. He proposed that the trained African American eye could parse visual images—even seemingly unsavory caricatures—to gain cultural refinement and greater self-determination.
Through the auspices of Cooper and two of the paper’s early artists, Henry Jackson Lewis and Moses Tucker, the Freeman devised what might be considered a theory of visuality focused not only on publishing black images, but also on cultivating the practice of looking through African American eyes. If, as some scholars of visuality argue, vision is largely a learned rather than entirely natural ability to respond to images, then one may learn how to look, [End Page 124]
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how to focus on details or ignore them, and how to assess the value of what is seen or to attend to what remains invisible.4 Against the racial logic that positioned African Americans as the subjects of white spectatorship, Cooper’s artistic agenda for the paper refigured the practice of looking by instituting a self-reflexive gaze at blackness. In what follows, I first examine how the Freeman situated African Americans as critical viewers, in part by using illustrations and captions that emphasized black Americans’ sight and observation as means of self-assertion. Committed to patronizing black-produced art, Cooper saw no contradiction in the paper’s dual visual rhetorics of racial uplift and minstrel-like humor, insisting instead that the two worked together to provide a more expansive sense of the “colored race as it is.” Thus, in a single issue, the Freeman was likely to print both a political cartoon protesting black disfranchisement and a comic cartoon about slow-witted black folk. The paper’s layout encourages intratextual readings, such that only by reading across the paper’s many pages and varying types of illustrations—rather than by isolating a single illustration—can one gain a composite sense of complex black identity. But having entitled the Freeman’s audience to resist white-produced images of blackness that seemed inauthentic, racist, or exaggerative, Cooper was surprised and indignant when viewers turned those same sharp aesthetic and political assessments against some of Tucker’s cartoons for the Freeman. For [End Page 125] nearly two years, between 1889 and 1891, the paper’s visual offerings spurred controversy as Cooper and Freeman readers disagreed over the proper visual representation of blackness.
Tracing this controversy through selected illustrations and Cooper’s editorials, I consider the opportunities and challenges of establishing black visuality in an African American periodical against the larger context of anti-black imagery and discourse. The controversy over the Freeman’s cartoons provides a striking instance of larger nineteenth-century African American cultural debates over the imperatives of racial uplift and artistic...