Comic Substance and the Clay Lithographs

In my chapter on “Jim Crow and Marginal Performers,” I have a draft on the Jim Crow section and am preparing to start writing on the Edward W. Clay Lithographs at the Library Company of Philadelphia and Library of Congress. in 1828, Clay was a 30 year old lawyer who was making a transition to being a full-time engraver and artist. His “Life in Philadelphia” series has been viewed as a “satire” on black aspirations and Plate 4 of an exchange between “Caesar” and “Chloe,” “Chloe’s” answerer that she “aspires” too much to a question about the weather is seen as a prototypical example of Clay’s approach.

However, Clay’s lithographs have much more significance than satire. Concerning Clay, my argument is that Clay portrays black men and women in terms of being “comic substance,” that the stereotypes in Clay’s work formed part of the “discourse on blackness” that informed the reception to Rice’s portrayal of “Jim Crow” in the early 1830,” and that Clay’s representation of “blackness” was more influential on the blackface minstrelsy of the late 1830’s and early 1840’s than that of Rice.

In the drawing of the conversation between “Caesar” and “Chloe” above, “Chloe” is pictured as a dark-skinned black woman with an exceedingly large, block-like figure rendered absurd by the apparatus of genteel femininity, including her oversized dress, enormous hat, veil, fan, and parasol, her largeness accentuated by Clay’s making her slightly bigger than “Caesar.” These two signifiers of Chloe’s “blackness” mirrored each other in a way that enhanced both the grotesqueness of her body and the absurdity of her attempts at genteel fashion. Chloe’s absurdity was heightened even further by her “African” malapropism of “I aspire too much.” She may have had the genteel ambitions that can be seen through her wardrobe, but Chloe’s size, clothes, and speech all signified her as a combination of black and an out of place figure of absurdity. Chloe was far from being a lady, but her genteel ambitions disqualified her from being a domestic servant, shopkeeper, bar maid, or any other position in society. Having no other place in the world except her highly magnified blackness, Chloe was represented as a comic substance existing entirely for the amusement of white people. In this sense, the figure of Chloe embodies a kind of slave state where her reason for existing was serving the purposes of white people. Outside the purposes of white people, the figure of Chloe had no place in society.

Edward W. Clay produced fourteen plates in his “Life in Philadelphia” series. Where T. D. Rice represented “Jim Crow” as “degraded” in his black skin, hair, dialect, and poverty, Clay imparted more racially degrading content into his image of blackness. Clay did not just assume that his audience would recognize blackness as degraded, he portrayed that degradation in terms of black people of having no real place in Philadelphia society and existing as a “comic substance.” Clay published the “Life in Philadelphia” series two years before Rice made his first appearance as “Jim Crow” and four years before Rice arrived for his first performances in Philadelphia. To the extent that Clay’s representation of blackness as a comic substance of over-sized bodies, social homelessness, and ridiculous lack of common sense characterized Philadelphia audiences, the appropriation of blackness by Rice and his audience was an even more profound cultural act than was indicated by the “Jim Crow” songs and performances. If “blackness” was understood as more deeply degraded, the identification with blackness involved even more than Rice may have understood.

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