Clay Lithographs: Adding Men to the Mix

In his pictures of Black men, Clay uses racial stereotypes to signify blackness as degraded and animalistic while also employing a language of “blackness” to demean black people.

In the case of the man at the cellar door, his pretensions to gentility are mocked by his attempt at courtship. The man is dressed as a gentleman with a blue coat, top hat, and a cane and formally addresses a servant when he asks “Is Miss Dina at home?” The appearance of gentility is already subverted when the man asks for a “Miss Dina” which marks the object of his attraction as a black woman. The appearance becomes farcical when “Miss Dina” is revealed as a domestic servant “potickly engaged in washing de dishes.” The lesson of the lithograph is that gentility on the part of black men is strictly a pretense and that black men are just as much servants by nature as “Dina.” By substituting the African dialect of “potickly” for the term “particularly,” the servant opens to door for malapropisms signifying her blackness and the Man at the Cellar Door regrets that he “cant have the honour to pay my devours to her” before leaving his card.

The Clay lithographs had a variety of ways to represent the “blackness” of black men in terms of being misshapen and animalistic. With the man at the cellar door, Clay portrays him as having enlarged and rounded buttocks. In the exchange between Caesar and Chloe on Plate 4, “Caesar” is not only represented as short but as having a body that resembles a chimpanzee in the way it is short with a thick chest, shoulders and arms with a small waist.

Library Company of Philadelphia

In the picture of the woman trying on the poke bonnet, Clay portrays “Frederick Augustus as having such an enlarged backside that it looked like Clay drew a pillow back there. At the same time, Clay gave “Frederick Augustus” a facial shape, beard, lips, and hair that had an ape-like appearance. In this sense, Clay was not just ridiculing the aspirations of Frederick Augustus and Caesar to the genteel status advertised by their clothes, he was portraying them as a kind of monstrous combination of the human and animal with genteel pretension giving the concoction a particular absurdity. The black men in Clay’s pictures had money and taste, but their monstrous blackness meant that they had no real place in either the human or animal kingdom. Even Frederick’s dog turns away from him.

With the "Dark Conversation" picture, Clay brings together several of his themes concerning black men. All the men in Dark Conversation have a genteel affect of top hats, waist coats, gentleman's trousers, and umbrellas. The man in the green jacket is wearing boots and carrying a crop for riding horses. But most of the men in "Dark Conversation" have the same rounded buttocks as the man in the cellar door and Frederick Augustus with the absurdity enhanced by the group effect of having several black men in the picture. As was the case with T.D. Rice and Jim Crow, the rounded buttocks were a stereotype of blackness, but Clay added to the half human connotations of blackness by giving almost all of the men extra large feet with heels extending well to the rear. The men conversing with each other each has ridiculously large feet that extend far out of both the front and the back. In this sense, Clay's lithographs portray black men and black women as being monstrosity of nature as well as ridiculous in their aspirations for upward mobility.

In “Dark Conversation,” Edward W. Clay also began using the term “black” as a way to demean black men and women. The set up for Clay’s joke was the man in the green jacket saying “berry black looking day this” with the man in the blue answering that “the blacks flying around so make it polikly disagreeable.” Along the same line, Clay’s “The New Shoes, has a black shoemaker admit that black is “not handsome to look at” when a black woman asks for pink or white shoes because black “is such a berry dirty color.” The power of the humor lay particularly in Clay’s putting his own demeaning of black people in the mouth of a black man. From Clay’s point of view, his portrayals of black people as misshapen misfits were enhanced by attributing them to black men and women.

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