Reframing the Color Line
Controversy erupted in 2009 when the White House released its official photographic portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama. Just weeks into the new administration, it is perhaps no surprise that the occasion attracted attention. Nearly every detail of the Obamas’ transition into the White House was put under a cultural microscope. Was she suited to the role of First Lady? Perhaps, some suggested, she aspired too much.
The portrait raised many comments, and points to the ongoing discussion of how African Americans are portrayed, even at the highest levels of American society. In the exhibit, “Reframing the Color Line: Race and the Visual Culture of the Atlantic World” at the William L. Clements Library, the early story of race, gender and power in America visual culture is explored. The series of images reveals how racial stereotypes were perpetuated, and in many ways, continue to exist. (NOTE: Image credit list at end of article.)
Idealized 21st-century woman
Obama’s sleeveless dress revealing her arms signified her status as an idealized, twenty-first century woman: smart, beautiful, stylish, disciplined, and strong. The First Lady’s portrait was titillating. Look at her well-toned muscles or “thunder and lightning,” remarked The New York Times’ David Brooks. Cover up, some admonished, suggesting bolero jackets and cardigan sweaters. Her fashion faux pas signaled an incapacity to represent the nation. Be prepared, such critics warned, for an awkward four years. In every case, the capacity of the visual — Obama’s body, its form, its posture, and its adornment — evidenced her character, standing, and position in an imagined national order.
There was also history, history that Obama’s portrait sought to rewrite. Situated just over the First Lady’s left shoulder, White House photographer Joyce Boghosian used a provocative prop to make this point. It was a Rembrandt Peale portrait of the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, captured just slightly out of focus. Michelle Obama stands out in front of this scion of American slavery and American freedom. Jefferson’s image is a powerful reminder that the meaning of Michelle Obama’s presence in the Blue Room is rooted in a history that extends back to the earliest years of the republic.
Today, it is this African American First Lady that commands the White House, while Jefferson has become a shadowy figure that underscores her authority.
A critical allegory of the nation
Obama’s portrait appears to be a literal inversion to students of early American visual culture.
More than two centuries earlier, Philadelphia cartoonist James Akin told a very different story about race, gender, and power when he drew Jefferson alongside another African American woman, his slave and longtime sexual partner, Sally Hemings. An 1804 political parody entitled “A Philosophic Cock,” portrayed Jefferson as a proud, elaborately feathered rooster. To his left was the image of a hen topped with the head of an attractive, brownskinned woman who gazes up with open affection. The caption, a partial quote from Addison’s Cato, reads “’Tis not a set of features or complexion or tincture of skin that I admire.” The image is consistent with the rumors of Jefferson’s intimate relationship with Hemings that circulated after 1802 when the President’s opponents hoped they could undercut the administration.
When we adopt a trans-Atlantic view of the cartoon we see a critical allegory of the nation. By the conventions of French visual culture, Jefferson as the cock symbolizes the nation. While Hemings as the hen or French poule, is its concubine or mistress. American nationhood and American slavery are locked in an intimate gaze that simultaneously flatters and undercuts its standard bearers. Hemings set alongside Jefferson reminds us how black women were tied to the nation by compulsion and lust. And it is this history that Michelle Obama’s portrait dramatically answers.
In the early nineteenth-century, Americans increasingly encountered black people in new and provocative places. During the first generation after the American Revolution, former slaves and their descendents migrated to urban centers, making northern cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia their home. It was an era of slavery’s gradual abolition and the building of an African American public culture of churches, political organizations, fraternal orders, and schools.
Visual culture reminds us of their presence on city streets. Painters, lithographers, illustrators, portrait makers, and caricaturists frequently incorporated black subjects into their representations of urban life.
Signs of inequality
Few of these early visual artists are better remembered than Philadelphia’s Edward Clay. His late 1820s print series, “Life in Philadelphia,” grappled with who African Americans could be in the new republic, a world that relied upon race and slavery as powerful signs of inequality. His answers were pointedly racist.
In Philadelphia, those African Americans who took on the trappings of bourgeois urban life were overreaching and out of place. Clay’s critique came in the form of fourteen engraved plates that were one part observation, one part artistry, and one part imagination.
The series circulated widely in print shops from Philadelphia and New York to Baltimore and New Orleans. It spawned a parallel series titled “Life in New York.” Clay’s figures adorned sheet music and were mass produced in miniatures.
Clay’s work offered audiences a cruel portrayal of black figures that uttered malapropisms, overdressed in clothing of exaggerated proportions, struck ungraceful poses, and thereby failed to measure up to the demands of freedom and citizenship. We find his figures strolling in parks, taking tea in parlors, exchanging banter at dances, and generally inhabiting a black social world that most white Americans might not otherwise glimpse.
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Blackness, as depicted by Clay, rendered his subjects misguided aspirants, always constrained by inassimilable difference. They might imitate middle-class manners and habits, but they always over-reached. Or as one of Clay’s characters, a perspiring Miss Chloe, put it, “I aspire too much.” The early success of Clay’s images is attributable to his capacity to tap into fears and fascinations with the problem of slavery and its abolition.
In London, they were incorporated into book illustrations and sold in elaborate, full-color reproductions. In Paris, Clay’s images made their way into elite homes when they were incorporated into fine French wallpaper. While these forms were ephemeral, their appeal was not. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, commentators noted encounters with Clay’s images in prominent public venues. His subject matter expanded to comment upon antebellum American politics.
A national taxonomy of race
Clay’ parodied abolitionist objectives, using images of inter-racial intimacy — dinner parties, balls, and parlor scenes. His argument: The anti-slavery cause was driven by lust rather than by a commitment to freeing the enslaved. Clay’s ideas about race were quickly taken up by others.
A countless number of nineteenth century engravers, lithographers, cartoonists, and illustrators adopted Clay’s visual strategies. They transformed what began as a local look at black life in Philadelphia into a national taxonomy of race. His ideas, ones that interwove social, political, and corporeal commentary on blackness, dominated visual culture’s contribution to national debates over race and power.
In Philadelphia, representations of blackness were a contested terrain. The city’s free black leaders commissioned respectable renderings — their own portraits as well as images of their institutions.
Charles Willson Peale painted romantic portraits of Philadelphia’s black working class figures (below right). James Akin included rather ordinary black figures in his animated parodies of the city’s sporting culture. Pavel Petrovich Svinin deployed caricature’s techniques to question the nature of black religiosity.
Abolition activists, including the African American engraver Patrick Reason, circulated their own depictions of black Americans. Most popular was the image of the kneeling slave supplicant pleading “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”
In 1826, Clay sailed for Europe. Once on board ship, he began to draw fellow passengers and crew members. Herein lies evidence of Clay’s developing interest in the well-established conventions of “types” that were typical in British and French circles. Clay learned to call a figure’s social pretentions into question by subtle nuances of proportion — a hat too tall, a coat too small, or a rotund mid-section brought into relief by feet so petite that they would fail to take the subject very far.
Clay began “Life in Philadelphia” shortly after returning from Europe. This story places the series’ origins in Paris rather than Philadelphia, and links narratives about race in the United States to those of Europe and the Atlantic world. It was in the streets as well as the literature, theater, and visual culture of Europe that Clay encountered potent influences.
Race and power in contemporary culture
Interest in “Life in Philadelphia’s” visual vocabulary endures, in part, because visual culture continues to appropriate it. Contemporary artists still deploy caricature’s techniques to suggest social and political critique. Bodies, their adornment, proportions and postures, continue to construct ideas about difference and power.
Some artists, like Robert Colescott, have gone explicitly back to Clay-like caricature to comment on the politics of race and power in contemporary culture. His “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (see top, first image), Page from an American History Textbook,” (1975) substitutes caricatured black figures for those of the first President and his crew as first depicted by Emmanuel Leutze in 1850. Colescott challenges us to reconsider what might be the nation’s founding image, that of a regal, commanding Washington, or that of the grotesque and buffoonish Washington Carver? Adrian Piper subtly deploys caricature’s techniques to suggest the constructed nature of race.
In “Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features” (1981), Piper uses slight changes to her facial features and hair to transform her racially ambiguous visage into one that is more clearly understood to be that of a black American. In the hands of these artists, caricature’s vocabulary of race is re-appropriated to destabilize ideas about race and difference.
Months prior to the release of Michelle Obama’s official portrait, we were invited to imagine her in the White House by way of caricature. The New Yorker’s Barry Blitt set the presidential candidate and his wife in a White House oval shaped room. Barack Obama’s figure was flanked by a portrait of Osama Bin Laden above, and a burning American flag below. His tunic and turban mirrored Bin Laden’s garb. The artist chided us about the suggestion that Obama was in any way allied with radical Muslim leaders.
Michelle Obama’s billowing natural or Afro that crowns her head suggests how she would bring to the White House yet another brand of radical politics — that of Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party. Controversy erupted. The New Yorker defended the cartoon as a spoof on “The Politics of Fear,” while some Obama supporters deflected any suggestion that their candidate and his wife were subversive, anti-establishment figures.
In the final analysis, Michelle Obama’s official portrait reframes the twenty-first century caricature. In her self-authored representation, a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and the south lawn replaces Bin Laden and a burning flag. A designer dress and pearls erase combat fatigues and an automatic rifle. In both cases, corporeality suggests character, with Obama’s arms telling the story. Open, gently poised hands pointedly displace the fierceness of the fist-bump of The New Yorker cover.
Michelle Obama’s admonitions go well beyond training in poise, hospitality, or a fashion sense. Contemplating Jefferson just over the First Lady’s shoulder, we re-learn old lessons about race, power, and visual culture.
“Reframing the Color Line: Race and the Visual Culture of the Atlantic World,” is on exhibit at the Clements Library through February 2010. The exhibited is curated by Martha S. Jones, associate professor of history and Afro American and African Studies, and Clayton Lewis, curator of graphics at the William L. Clements Library.
IMAGE CREDITS/APPRECIATION: First Lady Michelle Obama, Joyce N. Boghosian, 2009, courtesy The White House; “A Philosophic Cock,” ca. 1804, James Akin, courtesy American Antiquarian Society; third image (in article) courtesy of The Library Company of Philadelphia; fourth image (in article) courtesy of The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University; fifth image (in article) courtesy of Musee d’Aquitaine; sixth image (in article) courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection, Atwater Kent Museum; and, the last image (in article) courtesy of the New Yorker magazine.