Few of the early visual artists of Philadelphia are better remembered than Edward W. Clay. His late 1820s print series entitled “Life in Philadelphia” grappled with who African Americans could be in the social world of antebellum America, 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, a series that was one part observation, one part artistry, one part imagination.

Clay’s work offered American 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. Blackness, as depicted by Clay, rendered his free black 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 the nation’s fears and fascinations with the problem of slavery and its abolition.