- Letters from the People: A Response to Radiclani Clytus
It is a real pleasure to compose this letter in response to Radiclani Clytus’s invigorating and absolutely necessary “Visualizing Black Print: The Brooklyn Correspondence of William J. Wilson aka ‘Ethiop’” (Spring 2018). As Clytus notes, Wilson is not exactly unknown to scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, and especially not to those who focus on African American literature and culture. In 2015, for example, Leif Eckstrom and Britt Rusert edited a digital edition of Wilson’s 1859 “Afric-American Picture Gallery” for the Just Teach One: Early African American Print initiative. But while scholars may be aware of Wilson’s earlier correspondence to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, published under the pseudonym “Ethiop,” these missives have gone largely unexamined. That is, until Clytus’s essay. In addition to accomplishing the important work of introducing Wilson and his letters in particular to readers of this journal, Clytus situates these newspaper writings within a series of overlapping cultural constellations and in doing so makes a powerful argument for placing Wilson at the center of our explorations of nineteenth-century African American literature.
Clytus devotes much of his article to exploring Wilson’s writings on the spectacle of New York City’s streets. From the 1830s to the 1850s, the promenades up and down Broadway in particular attracted the attention of a host of onlookers, with well-known white authors such as George Foster and Nathaniel Parker Willis offering detailed accounts of the display. Adopting the “urban flaneuring” of such figures, Wilson-as-Ethiop recognized the Broadway strolls as condensed performances of [End Page 17] the antebellum city’s overlapping racial and class anxieties (30). Relaying the scene in an 1852 letter to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Wilson detects in all the “white, ghost-like, motionless face[s],” be they rich or poor, “the same hawk-line nose, and thin, livid lip, and restless wolf-like countenance, indicative of keen scent after what is another’s” (36). By contrast, writes Wilson in the same letter, the scene on Church Street, “alias (black) Broadway,” is one defined by black joy: “Life, vivacity, merriment, mark the faces that now present themselves” (48). This juxtaposition of predatory whiteness to the “refined freedom” of black New Yorkers upends the visions of race and class peddled by writers like Foster, whose 1850 New York by Gas-Light consistently characterizes the city’s black inhabitants as, in Clytus’s crisp phrasing, “insistently proximate to Manhattan’s criminal underworld” (48; 36). Wilson thus emerges as a sophisticated theorist of the ways in which race and class are performed through urban spectacle. Accordingly, for those of us interested in issues of race, class, and the city in the nineteenth century, his missives to Frederick Douglass’ Paper become necessary reading.
By reading the Ethiop missives together with a range of visual materials, Clytus also recovers Wilson as a keen reader of nineteenth-century visual culture. As Clytus argues in his essay’s opening, through his letters to the newspaper, “Wilson insisted on nothing less than the graphic reformation of African American subjectivity” (30). While not producing what we might traditionally recognize as visual material, through his manipulation of “the idea of figural vision in print,” Wilson created imaginative illustrations of black life in the city that ran counter to dominant visual representations of African Americans (31). Clytus reads the Ethiop letters together with a selection of images that include Edward Clay’s Life in Philadelphia and Life in New York series, Thomas Benecke’s Sleighing in New York, and illustrations that accompanied an 1848 plan to build an elevated railway along Broadway. Such images tended to either erase black New Yorkers from the city or, more frequently, traffic in racist stereotypes. Countering such misrepresentations, Wilson’s letters suggest a visual register where blackness not only escapes the distorted images of white artists but indeed “embod[ies] the ideal of representative democracy” (49). Scholars who have written on Wilson’s “Afric-American Picture Gallery” have similarly focused on his attention to the visual, and Clytus’s attention to his newspaper correspondence cements Wilson’s status as a key critic of visual culture.