In Word and Image: The Promise of Haitian Culture and Politics in 19th-Century Philadelphia

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:20 AM
Virginia Suite B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Aston Gonzalez, Salisbury University
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, black Philadelphians engaged in discussions about the promise of Haiti as a place to establish a new life free from mounting racist restrictions. Earlier, the Haitian Revolution had ignited debates among Americans of all races and walks of life, but the prospect of Haiti as a haven from racist laws and social practices became more pressing.

This paper studies the racialized political discourses concerning Haitian emigration, racial violence, and black leadership in the artwork and speeches of a black Philadelphian artist named Robert Douglass, Jr. His business as a portrait painter and lithographer enjoyed success in part due to his friendship with William Lloyd Garrison, but Douglass’ racial identity made him vulnerable to the racism that plagued antebellum Philadelphia. Surviving the Philadelphia race riots in Philadelphia of the 1830s, he traveled to Haiti to experience a country of black independence where he could learn how to fight racism when he returned home to Philadelphia. He brought back to Philadelphia a rich trove of writings and paintings that he used to lecture widely and convince Philadelphians of the power of black political leadership and the possibilities of a society free of anti-blackness.

This paper rethinks the terrain in which political arguments can take shape, unfold, and reach audiences. It argues that the fight for black rights in the antebellum North not only occurred at marches and political conventions; the fight included visual culture created by African Americans. Douglass’ paintings and lithographs of black Haitian leaders and Haitian independence during the 1830s and 1840s celebrated the cause of abolition and rights for both enslaved and free African Americans. Douglass envisioned his Haitian writings and paintings to inspire audiences to action to end slavery and reinstate free black rights in the U.S.