The Power of Pictures and “Wide Good Results”: Thomas Nast’s Changing Depictions of African Americans

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 9:50 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Amy K. Lippert, University of Chicago
Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was the most celebrated, well paid, and influential cartoonist of the nineteenth-century U.S. Throughout his quarter-century at Harper’s Weekly—among the most popular periodicals in the country—Nast executed renderings ofAfrican Americans, which helped make him famous during and after the Civil War. Those images constituted the most paradoxical aspect of his otherwise firm and long-lasting convictions. The story, however, is more complicated than the oversimplified descent into racism with which it has usually been treated. While Nast always supported Reconstruction, and created some of the century’s most humanizing and sympathetic depictions of African Americans, he was willing to use the ubiquitous black stereotypes of his age in order to moralize about incompetence or to attack his political enemies. In time, the popular and scholarly authors of the “tragic failure” myth of Reconstruction would mobilize Nast’s caricatures to their own ends.
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