A “dark and wielding” racism

Clay drove home the absurdity of black women wearing fashionable clothing as a reflection on their existential absurdity. Whether shopping for dresses and bonnets, promenading with black men, receiving love letters, or being engaged in casual conversation, black women were “revealed” to be absurd and inferior beings whose only legitimate role might be as a domestic servant. The Black women in Clay’s lithographs had enough money to buy the best in fashionable clothes but the women were so grotesque in their taste and malformed in their bodies that the laughable absurdity of their attempts to wear their fashionable clothes revealed the comic grotesquery of their nature.

For both Black-American women and white women, aspirations to personal independence, equality, and political rights were portrayed as laughable, absurd, or ridiculous.  However, the motivation for the ridicule was different.  White women were ridiculed for aspiring to abandon a “natural” order of society in which they had an honorable set of roles (wives, sisters, daughters) in subordination to men.  If women acted in ways that were deemed appropriate to their roles as wives, mothers, daughters, widows, and seamstresses, they could be viewed as virtuous, amiable, or respectable. Likewise, “feminine” virtues could be seen as fundamental to the functioning of society. To the contrary, Black women were viewed as naturally “subordinate” but not as having a “place” in society that could be viewed as virtuous, honest, or contributing to the common good. Even though Black women were forced into servile roles as domestic servants, they were not seen as naturally “fitting” into those roles or portrayed as fitting into “society.”  In several Clay lithographs, blacks were represented as dressing with exaggerated “inappropriateness,” but black impropriety was not in relation to any kind of appropriate status.  For free blacks in Philadelphia, existence was impropriety.    

In Plate 14 above, the unnamed Black woman in the picture was wearing the same kind of absurdly large dress as “Chloe” in Plate 4 and having just as large a figure as “Chloe” from the previous engraving. In trying on an grotesque “poke bonnet,” the Black Woman with the bonnet had the same kind of problem as Chloe. As a woman with an exaggerated black body, the Black woman with the bonnet did not have either the physique or the taste to look anything but inappropriate. Indeed, the bonnet was even larger for her head than her dress was for the rest of her body. The front of the bonnet protruded so far beyond her face that her companion “Caesar Augustus” complained about not being able to see her face. At the same time, the rear end of the bonnet had a horn-like shape that was reminiscent of a horn of plenty but also had phallic connotations. There were more phallic connotations with her feet which were extremely large in her blue slippers. The back part of the Black woman’s heel also extending backwards in an unusual and grotesque manner. Stereotypes of black women’s feet, and especially their heels, as elongated in humorous ways were common among the blackface acts of the late 1830’s and blackface bands of the mid and later 1840’s. However, the stereotype of black women having misshapen feet and heels was already current when Clay did his lithographs. In the art of Edward W. Clay, the phallic images of elongated feet and the base of the over-sized bonnet combined with the woman’s blocky figure and inappropriate dress to give her a misshapen body and a complete lack of common sense. For all the genteel affect of the woman with the bonnet, she was represented as incapable of performing basic functions like dressing herself or buying clothes. She was somebody with no place in society and Caesar Augustus spoke for the white community by using a racist putdown. In the opinion of her companion “Caesar Augustus,” these kinds of bonnets hid the faces of Black women to such an extent that “you can’t tell one she-nigger from another.”

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