Were Illustrators of the Golden Age Racists?
Even before the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement, American illustration has continuously been under attack for described negative depictions of African-Americans. Many images have been misconstrued as racist in nature. In this hub, I will bring to the forefront many facts that help defend my stand that a large number of great illustrators in the past were products of their time and indeed not racists. Not only will their work reveal this, but coinciding news events and popular forms of entertainment can help to clarify many misunderstandings.
As shameful as it may be, the hard facts tell us that turn of the century Americans characterized race for one reason or another and did not think much about it. Just read Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Out of harmless ignorance or misunderstanding, these things took place historically and we cannot take them back. Not only visual, but performance arts evidence tells us that in the turn of the century and up until the 40s, the Minstrel or “Coon” Show was a top form of entertainment. Black characters such as “Kingfish” and “Rastus” were the comic punch lines in classic radio and magazines. However, the African-American was not the only butt of jokes.
“During this time everybody was fair game”-Murray Tinkelman, Chairman of the Hall of Fame Committee, Society of Illustrators
Negative stereotypes have been a constant in American visual communications. The images, however hurtful, are still valuable historically to study and learn from. My conclusion will explore the works of William Edwards Clay, Thomas Nast, Arthur B. Frost, Edward W. Kemble. I will enter my discussion with analysis of the early cartoonist Edward Williams Clay and his 1829 broadsides in Philadelphia.
Clay, as shown on right lampooned early religious black abolition societies in the Philadelphia Press, illustrating disturbing stereotypes before the Civil War began in 1861. Clay was a strong supporter of the abolishionist cause, but was ardent about non-equality of blacks to whites. Could Clay be called a racist during his time or was he a man who simply held prejudices? Yes and no! Perhaps both because hidden under his abolitionists stand, there stood a harsh contradiction in Clay’s beliefs. Clay was a follower of the North’s vast ideology that whites were still superior to freed blacks; this obviously shows prejudice. Instead of being a racist, he held prejudices, because the key word is “during his time.” Remember, in 1828 equality was not the major issue for early white abolitionists, not being owned as a human being was! On the other hand, would the South have considered Clay a threat for his personal ideas still somewhat sympathetic to the black cause? Yes. Clay’s radical underlying view in the South would have stabbed a knife into the agricultural-based society they knew, highly supported by slave labor and slave trade. Clay could have never practiced his art in the cotton belt because first he had no place, second because he would not have lampooned these enslaved people he defended. In context his artform in the North, he had a nitch. He could poke fun of free black organized religious societies that were trying to push freedom to the next level. This was a threat to the Northern white establishment and also to Clay and historically this is of great significance. The way Clay illustrates the African-American should not be used as evidence to convict him because it is not of importance considering at this time white cartoonists and illustrators depicted blacks much the same. It was the style. To prove this, a comparison is made by again looking at Clay’s 1828 depictions and William McLean’s stereotyped Offended Dignity of 1829 revealing unjustice to blacks.
The next significant illustrator that must be explored is Thomas Nast. In this study, we will look into his personal prejudices and hopefully, understand and appreciate Nast as the single most important political cartoonist in American history. Mrs. Jane Eisenstat, owner of Thomas Nast’s work, as well as an incredible collection of “Golden Age” stereotypical imagery so openly states:
“Because the Irish were the thugs at that time, they were the low men on the totem poll, they were the newest immigrants.”
American illustration during the height of Harper’s Weekly and other popular journals, prove her point. The Irish-Catholic in the Nast-era and well after, were horrible satirized and were considered the outcasts of their day as were the Jews, who became the popular big-nosed financial hordes of Society.
“It was very interesting for me as an African-American to realize that there was a time in this country where everybody, any immigrant, was open to be stereotyped. It isn’t that you were Irish, or you were Italian, or certainly if you were Jewish, there are examples across the board of how that was looked at and portrayed in a very, very negative and malicious way. And I think that is important only because in a sense you have to understand that and put that in perspective. But this existed in this country, not only for African-Americans but for all minorities.-Jerry Pinkney
Thomas Nast, one of the the greatest visual defenders of the African-American, held prejudices and despised the corrupt Irishmen of New York’s Tammany Hall.
It is also noted that Irish-Catholics were always shown as hard drinking apes. Would it be safe to call Thomas Nast a racist based on his cartoons? An Irishman might answer “Yes.” What about African-Americans? Would the African-American defend him because of all he did for the great cause of reformation and the equal treatment of black Americans at this time? Thomas Nast, as most Americans during this era, had a strong reason for attacking Irish-Catholics. First, Nast was a protestant German. Second, the most corrupt people in Nast’s world were the Irish. “Boss Tweed” was number one on his list and he made every Irish stereotype come true in his sharp eyes. Was Nast right in his views? His job was to bring to the forefront corruption. He made his living as the master of this artform and everyone, including the Southern whites, blacks, Jews, and Irish, were fair game.
Just because individuals were black, Nast did not hold back. Corruption was taking place and he was doing his job as a political cartoonist. Unfortunately, in some of his assignments, blacks took the blows for being corrupt. If Asians had been doing this, he would have revealed them and even if his own dearly loved German people were corrupt, he would have chastised them. This was his strength and personal nature. As illustrators and Americans, we owe much homage to his many bold stands for all races of people including African-Americans.
While composing this thesis, I was disillusioned, but not surprised when one of my fellow students sent an Arthur Burdett Frost piece called Christmas Dinner. All his other images gathered were so sensitive and there was very little exaggeration added to the features of the subjects. This piece was so off-track compared to the others, there really was no place for it until I traveled to San Francisco with the Syracuse Independent Studies Masters Program and visited Mrs. Jane Eisenstat’s incredible illustration collection. While there, I saw both sides of Frost, the stereotypical cartoonist and the sensitive illustrator. While viewing the Eisenstat collection, I held two original Frost works. One piece instantly jogged my memory. While looking at the pen and ink drawing, I noticed a common thread in the way the blacks in this piece were drawn mirrored the other drawing my classmate had sent me, as well as easily coupling many negative stereotypes of his day.
Murray Tinkelman had shown Christmas Dinner in my first year in the Syracuse Masters Degree program in Illustration during his History of Illustration class. I admired it for its pure draftsmanship. By this time, I had not decided on this topic for a thesis and let it slide out of memory. I vaguely remembered Tinkelman saying this piece caused some excitement while at one of his touring lectures:
“While at a lecture at Brigham-Young this piece had upset a few people in the audience, including Burton Silverman, a close personal friend of mine, because of its harsh racist depiction of African-Americans.” Tinkelman defended himself by proclaiming,
“After I let these individuals go on their tyraid,” ‘I told them,’ “If you had listened to the context, everybody back then was fair game.” Tinkelman later explained to Silverman and another ethnic individual, “that these stereotypes did not only include African-Americans, but Jews, the Irish, and all other minorities.” Silverman later apologized, however, the other individual left the room in a huff. Tinkelman also noted: “ that the owners of the piece Ben and Jane Eisenstat were there and defended my statements.”
In an interview with Mrs. Jane Eisenstat, Tinkelman’s experience is backed up. Eisenstat comments on April 15, 2002: “Burt was very upset about this piece because he is against all racial stereotypes, he is very sensitive on the subject and he didn’t like that at all. He took exception to it, but he didn’t realize that the reason it was being shown was to show that it was such an accepted thing in those days and that it shouldn’t reflect the feeling of the artist himself, because at the same time A. B. Frost was painting the blacks in a very sympathetic way. In fact we had another illustration where it showed an Italian barber I believe in front of his barber shop talking to a black man who was perfectly nice looking member of the community and someone else was there. Men talking together in a very peaceful way and that was being depicted at the same time as the other, And the whole point of showing it was to say that in those days there were may racist cartoons, there were more, as many against the Irish as there were against the blacks, and there were many many jewish illustrations and cartoons, mostly cartoons. So Burt obviously wasn’t listening to what was being said, he was just blindly thinking of what he believed in and took exception to what he considered an insult. And that is what it was all about, but it was not the way Frost felt. Frost was a northerner and he did not feel one way or the other way about the blacks, he just felt that they were people to be depicted in illustration for whatever the text was. That was his job, he was an illustrator.”
While at Mrs. Eisenstat house on this occasion, I also saw the sensitive Frost I had dearly grown to love. Here was this incredible sensitive treatment of an African-American man Tinkelman then spoke up and told me: “I think this is probably one of the most sensitive paintings ever done of a black man included with Rockwell’s black man in the dining car.
This single piece puts a whole new perspective on the racist notions of American illustrators during this period. Frost and many other artists of this era would see nothing harmful in “negro drawings” because they were indicative of the day. True, they were given the task of illustrating a part of American history that was shameful and even embarrassing. In modern day, Jerry Pinkney’s depiction of slavery and Tom Feelings The Middle Passage have done the same thing. These truly gifted artists were merely products of their day. They had an assignment to complete and they did them marvelously, whether depicting a sensitive black man or lampooning a possum dinner for Christmas. These images can and should be considered for academic training and draftsmanship, but there must always be context and a story to go with these pictures. The definition of illustration is story-telling visually and most likely is not the man drawing the pictures, but the author or editor who is of question. As is the case with Edward W. Kemble, master of “negro drawings,” in such works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
To further look into this matter and to answer the dangling question, one must not forget the most popular form of entertainment at this time in America-the black minstrel “coon” show as pointed out by the University of Virginia’s research.
“The first of all the negro minstrel shows came to town,and made a sensation.” -The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The very first minstrel show occurred in 1843 in New York City. Within a year, it became the most popular form of live entertainment in America, and remained so from the time Tom Sawyer was a child up to the time Mark Twain began writing Huck Finn. It is known that Twain loved the form. In an autobiographical reminiscence dictated in 1906, he said using a word that would have bothered almost no white Americans at the time, but which now makes us wince:
“The genuine nigger show, the extravagant nigger show” was “the show which to me had no peer” and “a thoroughly delightful thing.”-Mark Twain
Just as his use of the word in Huck Finn has provoked controversy, so do commentators disagree on how to characterize the minstrel show as a source for the novel.
In the minstrel show, white entertainers put on blackface and “imitated” or “caricatured” slaves in the South and ex-slaves in the North. The distinction is crucial. During Twain’s time most white commentary on minstrelsy (including Twain’s own remarks for his autobiography) assume its accuracy, its essentially faithful imitation of African-American speech, singing and dancing. Since the Civil Rights Movement, on the other hand, nearly every commentator agrees that the minstrel show “coon” is a racist caricature.
The audience of the day would not have been upset with the stereotypes of minstrelsy as indicated by the many notices and ads for added minstrel performances according to reviews of Mark Twain’s early lectures in newspapers from Cleveland, Peoria, or Newark. It is also clear that Cort, the white New York teenager Edward Kemble used as his model for Jim in his illustrations for Huck Finn, imagined African-Americans after the actors of these minstrel shows. Kemble says: “Cort most enjoyed posing as Jim: “he would jam his little black wool cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon talk.”
Kemble’s representations of Jim, is this same caricature placed before him to draw. If this fact was not known, his depiction are still not that unusual or bizarre because his drawings of Cort dressed as Jim works amazingly well.
Mark Twain’s contemporary white readers would have seen nothing wrong with a “minstrel-show” version of an African-American, but the question of what kind of “source” minstrelsy was for Twain’s novel remains unanswered by a reference to the many prejudices of his popular audience. Does Mark Twain’s and Kemble’s representation of Jim reinforce or complicate or subvert such prejudices?
One fair way to answer these questions is to compare the kinds of routines that audiences heard at the minstrel show with the kinds of conversations Twain stages between Jim and Huck. Immediately below are two typical “Ethiopian dialogues,” both taken from a 19th-century text called Minstrel Gags and End Men’s Hand-Book. They are followed by a familiar passage in Huck Finn, where it seems to me that in Huck’s lines one hears the correct accents of Mr. Interlocutor, and in Jim’s replies, the comic inadequacies of Mr. Bones.
An excerpt from “Bones Opens A ‘Spout’ Shop” from Minstrel Gags and End Men’s Hand-Book (New York: n.d., Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers)
Interlocutor: What are you thinking about, Mr. Bones? What is there on your mind this evening?
Bones: I was jis’ thinking ‘bout dat business I was in some time ago. I started in de-what you call dat business dat da hab free balls hanging out?
Interlocutor: Oh, you mean the pawnbroker.
Bones: Yes, I was a pawnbroker wen I went in de bis, but I was a dead broaker wen I came out.
Interlocutor: Let us hear of your experience as a pawnbroker.
Bones: Well, having nofing to do I fout I’d start de broaking business; so I rented a room, got free balls what I found laying around loose in a ten pin alley, and hung 'em out.
Interlocutor: And what success did you have?
Bones. I’ll tell you. De fust man dat cum in had a big paper bundel under his arm; he looked all around, den begin to open de bundel, den he look all around agin.
Interlocutor. He was suspicious, I suspect.
Bones. Spec he was. At las’ he open de bundel and took out an ole hammer, an’ wanted two dollars on it.
Interlocutor. And what did you do about it then?
Bones: Hammered him over de head wid a club.
This is a comparative excerpt taken from chapter 8 Huckleberry Finn, Illustrated by E.W. Kemble, 1885.
Huck: “What did you speculate in, Jim?”
Jim: “Well, fust I tackled stock.”
Huck: “What kind of stock?”
Jim: “Why, livestock - cattle, you know. I put ten dollars in a cow. But I ain’ gwyne to resk no mo’ money in stock. De cow up ‘n’ died on my han’s.’
Huck: “So you lost the ten dollars.”
Jim: “No, I didn’t lose it all. I on’y los’ ‘bout nine of it. I sole de hide en taller for a dollar en ten cents.”
Of course, these are not the only kinds of conversations the two runaways have, but they are the parts of the novel that Mark Twain first took with him on the “Twins of Genius” lecture tour. These talks helped shape the contemporary turn of the century’s public perception of the novel. Apparently when Richard Gilder heard Twain’s perform Jim’s account of his speculations and also a diatribe against King Solomon, he talked Mark Twain into letting him publish additional installments of the novel in his Century Magazine. These colloquys not only made up the entire installment that appeared in the January issue of the Century; the punch line of Jim’s account of his “speculatin” was changed to make it sound even more like a minstrel show routine.
Kemble depicts Jim as a character, but also as Twain’s caricature. Kemble draws a character simply because he understood Jim, and he lived during Jim’s time. He caricaturized Jim to match Twain’s depiction. By looking closely at the other representations listed below, one can follow Kemble’s original versions of Jim and then watch as this complex caricature visually evolves to mirror social change towards the novel.
It must be said that if a negative stereotype is encountered before making a harsh judgement, research and understand the context, understand the artist, but most importantly, read the story. I am not by any means saying these images were not hurtful however I will say these images show historically a reflection of the change of the times.
More by this Author
In the late 1970's a young British artist named Derek Riggs came up with a character with punk rock hair a t-shirt and the body of a decaying corpse. In his twenties Rigg's would never of dreamed that this image he...
In March of this year I became a government statistic and was let go as a creative business developer after seventeen years in the packaging and point of sale industry. This industry was not my particular passion in...
The Problem We All Live With done by Norman Perceval Rockwell is arguably the single most important image ever done of an African-American in illustration history. This piece is the most requested work at the...