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.

Blackness as a Universal Vulnerability

Going back to this picture of T. D. Rice as “Jim Crow,” a question that needs to be asked is “what does it mean to be black” in the context of early blackface.

There are several answers.

Within early blackface, being black partly meant being understood through physical stereotypes such as dark skin, protruding lips, a particularly large nose, “woolly hair,” African dialect, a large derriere, and extended feet and heels. The primary social stereotype for blackness was the all-encompassing poverty represented in the “Jim Crow” picture through holes in shoes, wrinkled and torn pants, and a worn out hat.

The main connotation of physical and social stereotypes was that blackness was a degraded condition–particularly vulnerable, dependent, enslaved or barely out of slavery, deprived of the necessities of life, targeted by (white) violence, human in a form that can be readily questioned, denied, and laughed at. From the late 1820’s to the 1840’s, white men had an intense fear of falling into the kind of degradation associated with blackness. However, they also sought to distance themselves, master, and adapt the image of “degraded blackness” and T. D. Rice paved the way for doing so by adapting blackface make-up and costuming and performing as “Jim Crow.”

How extensive was the vulnerability involved in the representation of “degraded blackness?” The best analogy would be delirium tremens, a condition that still strikes alcoholics and drug users who suddenly reduce or eliminate their high levels of alcohol and drug consumption. In the first stage of delirium tremens (or mania a potu as it was most often called from the 1820’s-1840’s), men experienced the entire environment as assaulting them and themselves as intensely vulnerable with seemingly their whole bodies exposed to danger.

In representing himself as a black man, Rice was doing the same. It wasn’t just that his skin and hair were black or that he was wearing ragged and torn clothes, or that his shoes had gaping holes. Instead, Rice’s “Jim Crow” conveyed a total or universal vulnerability to the world. In Workingmen’s imagery, men could analogize themselves to vampires or incubuses that were attached to them and attacking them as though they were women. Later in the 1830’s, William Burton put songs about men being killed by mechanical arms and wooden legs that they could not control. More than “attached” these threats were partially occupying men and leading them to painful deaths.

But the figure of Jim Crow anticipated Burton by representing men as fully occupied by blackness and that blackness as an indicator of an extreme kind of vulnerability. For white men in Rice’s audiences, it was like delirium tremens with their whole exposed, almost as if their skin had been torn off and their insides exposed. This “display of degradation” is what gave blackface much of its power with white audiences.

A Different Kind of Otherness

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With the “Jim Crow” act of T. D. Rice, black people became one of the dominant figures of “otherness” in popular culture. Before 1830, black people in Philadelphia were not acknowledged as having enough status to be defined as the other. Women were defined as a physically weak, vulnerable, and penetrable “other.” Seducers, drunken sots, and immigrants could also be portrayed as the “other,” but black people were portrayed primarily as being outside the “self-other” relationships by which society was constituted.

That changed with Rice and Jim Crow.

In the picture above, Rice’s “Jim Crow” includes many features that whites at the time viewed as “degrading” about black men. That includes their dark skin, the worn hat, “wooly” hair, rumpled jacket and shirt, pants ripped in several places. and shoes so worn that his left foot was sticking out the front. Jim Crow also s+poke in “black dialect” and had the “loose” kind of gait associated with black people.

In the idea of women as the “other,” any association with female qualities was felt to be deeply humiliating and strenuously avoided. The workingmen had felt especially degraded when representing their own bodies as feminine in the sense of being seduced or subject to vampires and incubuses.

Rice’s version of “Jim Crow” was a full figure of black “otherness” to white men. But instead of avoiding association with the “degradations” of blackness, Rice completely “embraced” blackness, eagerly “displayed” himself as a full black man for his performances and sang songs, told jokes, and danced as a “black” man. The performances of Rice were “displays of degradation.”

Black “otherness” in “Jim Crow” was more complex than previous forms of otherness in the popular culture of white laboring men. Otherness in the case of both women and black people was created out of stereotypes, but instead of avoiding “blackness,” Rice internalized the full range of black stereotypes and employed those stereotypes to transform himself into a different kind of man and performer–“Jim Crow.”

Given that Rice built the “Jim Crow” character out of racial stereotypes, he internalized “fantasies of blackness” rather than the diverse reality of black people in cities like Philadelphia and New York. At the same time, blackface fantasies of blackness became important enough to the popular culture and identity of white laboring people that the blackness existing outside the fantasy became a serious threat to white stability.

Theft or Cannibalism

Long quote from account of T.D. Rice performance as “Jim Crow” in Pittsburgh from Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, 18-19.

“Rice prepared to take advantage of his opportunity. There was a negro in attendance at Griffith’s Hotel on Wood Street, named Cuff–an exquisite specimen of his sort,–who won a precarious subsistence by letting his open mouth as a mark for boys to pitch pennies into, at three paces, and by carrying the trunks of passengers from the steamboats to the hotels. Cuff was precisely the subject for Rice’s purpose. Slight persuasion induced him to accompany the actor to the theatre, where he was led through the private entrance, and quietly ensconced behind the scenes . . . . Rice, having shaded his own countenance to the “contraband” hue, ordered Cuff to disrobe, and proceeded to invest himself in the cast off apparel . . . . [Onstage] the extraordinary apparition produced an instant effect . . . . The effect effect was electric . . . .

Now it happened that Cuff, who meanwhile was crouching in dishabille under concealment of a projecting flat behind the performer, by some means received intelligence, at this point, of the near approach of a steamer to the Monongahela Wharf. Between himself and others of his color in the same line of business, and especially as regarded a certain formidable competitor called Ginger, there existed an active rivalry in the baggage-carrying business. for Cuff to allow Ginger the advantage of an undisputed descent upon the baggage of the approaching vessel would be not only to forget all “considerations” from the passengers, but, by proving him a laggard in his calling, to cast a damaging blemish upon his reputation. Liberally as me might lend himself to a friend, it could not be done at that sacrifice. After a minute or two of fidgety waiting for [Rice’s] song to end, Cuff’s patience could endure no longer, and cautiously hazarding a glimpse of his profile beyond the edge of the flat, he called in a hurried whisper: “Massa Rice, Massa Rice, must have my clo’se! Masa Griffif wants me,–steamboat’s comin!”

The appeal was fruitless. Massa Rice did not hear it, for a happy hit at an unpopular city functionary had set the audience in a roar in which all other sounds were lost . . . . [Another appeal went unheeded, when, driven to desperation and forgetful in the emergency of every sense of propriety, Cuff, in ludicrous undress as he was, started from his place, rushed upon the stage, and laying his hand upon the performer’s shoulder, called out excitedly: “Massa Rice, Massa rice, gi’ me nigga’s hat,–nigga’s coat,–niggas’s shoes–gi’ me nigga’s things! Massa griffif wants ‘im,–STEAMBOAT’S COMIN’!!

The incident was the touch, in the mirthful experience of that night, that passed endurance.”

Like W. T. Lhamon, Jr. in Raising Cain, Eric Lott is fascinated by the way Rice, other blackface performers, and white audiences were drawn to ante-bellum black culture. Lott sees blackface minstrelsy as a “theft” of blackness but views whites as having a “love” for black culture that powered the impulse to steal.

My argument is somewhat different.

Two points

Lott’s idea is that Rice stole from black culture when he put burnt cork make-up on his face, hands, and feet, donned a “woolly wig” to simulate black hair, spoke in dialect, and delivered a blizzard of malapropisms in his “Jim Crow” character.

But I view T. D. Rice much more as creating a white fantasy of blackness and insisting it was the reality of black people despite black churches, taverns, businesses, and artists of the 1830’s. The imperative that white fantasy have social and symbolic priority over black reality has been an element of practical white supremacy ever since.

Also, there’s a strong element of cannibalism as well as theft in blackface performance. In other words, T. D. Rice wasn’t just influenced, borrowing from, or stealing black culture when he put on “Jim Crow,” he was consuming fantasized blackness in a process that transforming his person and audience into a different, less anxiety-ridden kind of white person. This process of white identity having powerful roots in the consumption of racial fantasy went far beyond Rice and remains an element of white racial identity today.

Comic Substance

Two important points for my argument on minstrelsy:

  1. Blackface performers adapted a concept of black people as “comic substance” whose humiliation, torture, and dismemberment could be enjoyed.
  2. The shared enjoyment of black humiliation and suffering became an anchor point for white identity.

There’s an example of the concept of black people as “comic substance” in “Lucy Long” which was written before the formation of the Virginia minstrels but was the most popular minstrel song of the 1840’s

Yes Lucy is a pretty girl/Such lubly hands and feet/When her toes is in de market house/Her heels is in Main Street,/Take your time, etc.

There was a stereotype that black women had large heels and feet–in this case that her feet extended 30 feet or more. The stereotypes themselves are what Patricia Hill Collins called a “controlling image” but minstrelsy multiplied the stereotypes concerning black hair, size, lips, and noses to the extent that they conveyed a general idea of black people as comic monstrosities, or “comic substance.”

A Contemporary Note:

When conservatives complain about being condemned for racist language, they express a longing to treat black people as comic substance and rage over current taboos on the n-word, racist jokes, etc. The ability to use and enjoy racist language has long been a significant part of being white and they feel the loss.