PHILADELPHIA'S CONTESTED BLACKNESS

In Philadelphia, representations of blackness emerged across a contested terrain. Edward W. Clay’s derogatory representations of black Americans did not stand alone. The city’s free black leaders commissioned renderings – their own portraits as well as portraits of their institutions. Charles Willson Peale painted romantic images of Philadelphia’s black working class figures. James Akin included rather ordinary black figures in his animated parodies of the city’s sporting culture. John Lewis Krimmel also deployed caricature’s techniques to question the character of black culture. 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?”

There was no single answer to the question that Clay and these other artists posed. Who were black Americans, and who might they be in urban settings like Philadelphia? If in Clay’s images they were misplaced when aspiring to middle-class trappings and style, alternative visual vantage points suggested that black people were sympathetic, respectable, and sometimes unremarkable actors on the urban landscape