Black! Benign? Bizarre.

black woman song


I have spent an ass-achingly amount of time combing through image archives, looking for 19th century, hi-res 300 dpi or greater, public domain pictures to put in my book. (UNMENTIONABLE: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners Due Fall 2016 from Little, Brown! Woot!) Which is more difficult than you can even imagine, to find the combination of all those things in one picture of a corset.

The other day I was literally looking in a Library of Congress archive at every single picture of about 4000 that were tagged with the word, “woman”; and found this picture: freedman's bureau

Depiction of ex-slaves outside the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau, sort of a help-for-refugees set up that helped blacks get the feet under them after the war.

It shocked me. A 19th century drawing of black people that wasn’t mean or stupid. I began snagging them each time I saw one.

I know the real shocking part should be that I only expected to find black people as punchlines…but I’m steeped in history, and history was just…wow. History was merciless. History was the nastiest bully, looking for any difference in you from the ideal and torturing you for it.

I’m honestly more used to seeing black folks bursting out of watermelons to sell curative tonics…somehow…or the incredibly popular depiction of a soap SO strong, it turns out many of the African American children living in the past century where actually just very, very dirty WHITE children.

Seriously, this one is everywhere.

I do not think it speaks well of that soap, which was made with lye back in the day, to suggest it’s so strong that it bleaches melanin. Cuz, one that’s fall advertising for all the ladies trying to scorch off their freckles, and two, it can’t be good for children.

So I made a little compilation. These depictions are (unfortunately) really rare for this era. Some of them might seem middle of the road…but if everyone in the drawing was pictured equally silly, I made the call as satire, not pure racism. And sometimes the artist was just bad.

So here, I thought my fellow history lovers might like this. Images of 19th century black people as regular humans.

visit by clan

Post Civil-War Reconstruction. The Klan was a secret society out to save the Confederacy by terrorizing NOT the Yankee soldiers who’d set up shop in their land…but the blacks who were just sort of trying to make sense of it all. Way to take a stand, flour-sack head.



black voting

The top picture is a political cartoon depicting a black man voting, and a pissed off…Andrew Johnson? I think? trying to veto the Act that allowed him too. The bottom picture…I have no idea what’s going on down there. I bet it was HILARIOUS 150 yrs ago. Like their version of a twerking joke or something.

sure winner black

This is just a regular cigar advertisement. If there is a racist subtext it’s lost on me. So that’s cool. Except why is she dating such an old dude? Or is that her grandpa? That sort of thing shouldn’t be ambiguous. 


civil war black

This is a cartoon that IS mean, but to the white folks. The black lady is in on the joke. The woman says to her friend, as they walk through the ruins of their culture and home, “Don’t you think that Yankee must feel like shrinking into his boots before such high-turned Southern Belles as we?” The joke being, sorry Scarlett, it don’t work that way anymore. Get on the trolley, honey. 

back to old virginny 1859

This is a tobacco add, and if you have a crazy good computer you can probably learn more than I can tell you by reading those little mouse etchings below. But I can tell you it was from 1859, before the Civil War. The black folks are poor, and they say “Virginny”…but that was probably fairly accurate for MOST 1859  Virginians. The happiness…I don’t know. There had to be some, right? 

black watching yankees

This was a toughie. I’m used to recoiling at a picture of a tattered black lady looking “oh my lawd” agog. But….the caption swears it was drawn from real life, and in all fairness she’s looking at Sherman’s March to the Sea…which would drop my jaw too. However I don’t know what’s going on with the spike sticking out the back of her head. 





This cartoon must have made more sense back in the day. There must have been a fad for genealogy, specifically relation to someone important, among Americans…the only people who purposefully left their heritages and started out fresh. The vignettes are of all these dopey rich folks buying evidence that they are related to kings. But the real king’s descendants are at the center, black painter, Irish cook, bricklayer. I’m not sure if that means Americans are all just an equal bunch of nobodies in fancy clothes, or if the real descendants of nobility don’t care…actually I don’t get it. I have not idea. None. But it’s very interesting to look at.


So what do you think? Are these images rare to your eyes as they were to mine? Do they still somehow seem offensive or merely historic? And does anyone have anything to add that can help make these jokes make more sense?

2 thoughts on “Black! Benign? Bizarre.

  1. I cannot wait to read your book! Years ago I developed a fascination for the Victorians’ approach to sexuality, and although that gave way to other interests – while also expanding to include a broader (and often bewildered) fascination with human sexuality in general – I’ve never made a serious study of it. (Unless reading large, damp piles of Victorian porn counts as serious.)

    The pictures are intriguing. I think the one of the woman’s hairstyles may have something to do with early women’s lib – the first “style” looks very much like a top hat. I know this was way before the suffragettes, but it would be interesting to know what was happening back then in that arena. But what the child-on-head style is actually trying to say is beyond me.

    The spike in the black woman’s head is probably the tie on her bandanna.

    Thanks for sharing this! An interesting read, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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