A few days ago I sat in one of my friend’s sociology class on race and ethnicities, the subject of the day was a film the examined the different portrayals of the African Americans that were enslaved and the African American that were “free”. The enslaved African American was characterized as the mami, the uncle, ect. These characters were well behaved, loyal, and attentive to their masters every need. They were happy, well feed, and housed “blackies”. The mami character was a parallel to the white mall head of the house, expressing the so thought incompetence of the black male. The free blacks were loud, bum-ish, and shown in images with monkey like features. The children were dehumanized by having them play with crocodiles and even die in children’s books. The endpoint was to show how much better off black people where, but actually showed how much better off a civilized white society is when blacks are enslaved.
My interpretation of the picture and the conversation surrounding picture 26 “Condition” made me think back to that lecture. The characters involved in the conversation seemed white and from different parts of society, they were contemplating the effects of free black people. Considering that this discussion occurred on the eve of the civil war, it is of high importance. In the film I watched, one of the concerns of the white people was that black people didn’t have the mental capacity to think for themselves. This lack of mental capacity was also noted in William and Ellen Crafts Escape with the white “Christian” slave owner believing her slaves were better while under her control. In the “Condition” there is a young black on the bank of a river dressed in rags while around him to one side are beautiful fields and the other side there are yachts. He is described to be in a trance of “interference of stolid content … Pale and emaciated he sits” (Ethiop 243). The questions of “can such a subject be improved” is asked (244).
The white viewers interpreted the boy’s facial expression as him not knowing what to do with his new found freedom, that is his condition. To them, he a black man, that just doesn’t have the intelligence to be free. The Doctor believes that by changing the youth’s nature his condition will improve, while the Skeptic believes its by giving the youth wealth and intelligence (that he lacks probably because he is black). The author clearly related to the reader that these two suggestions are actually the same. At this time period being poor and in poverty went hand and hand with being black. The Skeptic noted that by giving the youth money he wouldn’t have to change his repulsive features (ebon face, dull eye, curly hair), these features are a part of the youth’s nature. The money would make people look past his blackness. Perhaps even view him as white? I drew to this conclusion by making a stretch from a Brazilian literature class I took last semester. One of the authors were read, Machado de Assis, had black slave grandparents but since he was a prominent wealthy member of society in Brazil he wasn’t viewed as black. The narrator fires back by explaining the true significance of the picture. This is an image of a young black man that has risked his life and relied on his intelligence and strength to break through barriers to obtain his freedom but now is tired. The youth “has all the great essentials common to humanity.” (Ethiop 244). The youth lacks nothing expect the opportunities he will miss out on due to the racism in the United States.
Other examples in the African American Picture Gallery could have been used as examples to show that this piece of literature was ahead of its time, already predicting the types of conversations and other barriers free blacks would face.
Ethiop. “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (1859). jtoaa.common-place.org/welcome-to just-