Nast’s ‘Emancipation’: Omission Of The Fugitive

On January 24th 1863, just over three weeks after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Harper’s Weekly featured Thomas Nast’s cartoon, ‘The Emancipation of the Negroes, January 1863—The Past and the Future’ (see fig. 1) as their weekly centrepiece. Published during the Civil War, Nast’s image was (at the time) a radical reimagination of the status and role of African American people in Confederate-held territories. Nast attempts to convey the promise of the proclamation via his visual dichotomy between the evils of slavery shown in the left of the picture, versus the current and future blessings of freedom shown in the right, featuring a united, nuclear Black family in the centre. Whilst Nast somewhat successfully presents a positive future for the newly freed people—acknowledging African Americans as humans worthy of inclusion within education and paid labour, as opposed to being condemned as property like slavery did—there are several shortcomings to this depiction of emancipation. Namely, the omission of Black agency and centricity. Nast’s image essentially removes, or at least severely underestimates, any meaningful role the enslaved people had in obtaining their own liberation. Instead, Nast presents emancipation as an act of ‘Yankee benevolence,’  on a single-axis and contained white flash, thus, subscribing to the nineteenth-century consensus of Black “passivity.”  

This narrative of Black passivity has been championed in white, American history; writing over sixty years after the Emancipation Proclamation, W.E. Woodward expressed that ‘negroes are the only people in the history of the world, so far as I know that ever became free without any effort of their own.’  There has been a prevailing Afro-pessimism that sought to omit the figure of the Black fugitive and fighter, whose efforts on and off the battlefield were vital for the Union’s survival and subsequent emancipation.  Nast’s Emancipation somewhat subscribes to Woodward’s perception of Black freedom by no efforts of their own as he romanticises the role of white paternalism in the future of African American lives. This is embodied in the smaller, central vignette near the bottom of the image, where white Father Time holds New Year (symbolised by a white baby) who leans forward to unshackle a Black man. Whilst this is an allegory for Lincoln’s promise and philosophy for a nation renewed by unity and inclusion, it is tainted by this implicit allusion to the consensus of Black ‘passivity’ that was simply false. 

It completely undermines the role African Americans played in winning the Civil War for the Union—the use of a small, fragile, white, angelic baby as the symbol for Black liberation is a gross underestimation of the violence involved in the struggle for freedom. Nast, argued as one of the greatest cartoonist America has produced,  demonstrated that cartoons could be a powerful force in shaping public opinion.  Evident by the popularity of his work, where Emancipation ‘appealed so much to abolitionists that it was reprinted as a poster.’

07 July 2022
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