Friday, January 3, 2020

Slavery Propaganda, 1841

One does not have to do much more than scroll through Facebook or other social media to see endless amounts of political propaganda. Individuals, special interest groups, and political parties often utilize it in either an attempt to sway individuals to their particular point of view or demonize their opponent's position. The primary idea behind propaganda is to elicit an emotional response rather than a rational one. In addition, the image quality of much modern propaganda is professional looking which seeks to increase its credibility.

Of course, propaganda is not a recent phenomena. Looking back through history at almost any issue leads to numerous examples.  Controversial institutions like slavery abound with many cases.

The above image, published in 1841 by artist Edward Williams Clay, shows an idealized plantation scene. On the left side to the picture an elderly enslaved man sits while a woman, who appears to be his wife, stands by his side. A baby, perhaps their grandchild or great grandchild  sits at the old man's feet, illustrating the generations. In the background, younger enslaved men and women dance while a fiddler saws away with his bow. Further in the background the slave quarters are visible. All of the enslaved people are modestly but well clothed. The caption cloud above the old man says "God bless you massa! you cloth and feed us. When we are sick you nurse us, and when too old to work, you provide for us."

On the right side of the image, a slave owner, his wife, and two children stand wearing the day's high fashion. Behind the paternalistic father figure, an enslaved nurse holds the white family's baby. The caption bubble above the white man says, "These poor creatures are a sacred legacy from my ancestors and while a dollar is left me, nothing shall be spared to increase their comfort and happiness."

Apparently, this image is only half of full picture. According to the Library of Congress, the other half showed this picture in opposition to another showing England's so called "white slaves" or factory workers, who labored without any of the supposed guarantees that enslaved people received from their owners in America's slave states. This was a common apology for pro-slavery Northerners. Pro-slavery Southerners also used this argument but more often substituted Northern poor wage laborers in place of those from England.

Edward Williams Clay, a Philadelphia native, appears to fit the bill of a pro-slavery Northerner. He made a career as an illustrator often depicting African Americans in demeaning images. His Life in Philadelphia, is a collection of cartoons featuring grotesque and exaggerated images of the black experience in the City of Brotherly Love.

Image artists like Clay, as well as musicians who played mistral music, crafted one-sided portrayals of both free and enslaved African Americans that influenced how whites perceived black people. Showing blacks to be inferior in every way with their visual and musical depictions, many whites ingrained these false one-sided but influential images, tainting race relations for generations.

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