Conference Proposal on Blackface

T.D. Rice as Jim Crow, lithograph by Edward Williams Clay

White Popular Culture and Discourses on Blackness in Jacksonian Philadelphia

This study examines three discourses on blackness in the white popular culture of 1820’s and 1830’s Philadelphia–the lithographs of Edward W. Clay, blackface minstrelsy of T.D. Rice, and representations of rioters in the 1834 anti-black riot.  With “Jim Crow,” Rice developed a representation of blackness that embraced the white male bodily vulnerability that had gained prominence in the Workingmen’s writing of the late 1820’s. However, Clay’s 1828 “Life in Philadelphia” lithographs had already represented black men and women as a “comic substance” of extended feet and heels, absurd fashion choices, and ape-like features. The paper addresses the extent of Clay’s influence on both Rice and subsequent blackface performers. There is a similar question about the extent to which Clay’s representation of blacks overlapped with the racial discourses of white rioters in the 1834 anti-black riot. White men responded to attacks on a fire company by young black men by attacking a black neighborhood and then attacked black churches while attempting to drive the whole black population away. Where Clay portrayed black people as absurdly sub-human, the rioters were antagonistic toward black accomplishment and attempted a complete removal of black people from the city rather than accept black men as competing with whites or creating their own institutions. All three discourses on blackness remained influential as new versions of Clay’s Life in Philadelphia came out into the early 1840’s, blackface minstrelsy became even more popular with the advent of blackface bands, and anti-black riots continued to proliferate. Part of the durability of racist representation in white popular culture derives from the multiplicity and flexibility of white racist discourses. This paper provides an example of how distinct racist discourses in Philadelphia reinforced and strengthened each other.

NMGiovannucci –

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