An Inexpressive Caricature

The bottom photo, belonging to McLean’s Monthly Sheet of Caricatures and drawn in 1832, shows two kinds of families, wherein one depicts a family of slaves and the other, a British family. Clearly a satirical piece, it uses irony to illustrate what was happening in the time it was drawn, how free men saw slaves and furthermore, themselves.

 The British father is under distress as he lays his head onto his arm rested upon the table; he is very thin and offered by the dialogue, we know that he is not being fed. His wife asks him the possibility of a man of his status starving in their country, and he says it is possible, and that only a slave eats well, “yes, unless I draw a cart harness’d like a beast and get fed by the Parish.” This side of the caricature is labeled “SLAVERY,” that is, they’re “living like slaves” according to the artist. The other side of the drawing is labeled “FREEDOM” while a family of slaves is shown with their baby full of food, and beyond them: a group of men and women dancing. What this image is trying to convey is that the slaves are somehow freer than perhaps a family of plantation owners, in the sense that all their expenses (those they do not have) don’t have to be taken from them due to taxation, leaving them unfed. Their message is simply this: slaves are not all that bad off, in fact, they kind of enjoy living the way they do; they get to eat and enjoy life, whereas the “the others” truly have it bad.

However, Equiano would disagree with this message early on in his narrative (Chapter 2), where he’s having dreams of becoming part of someone’s family—a free man—and then startling himself awake to the horror of his reality:

“Thus, at the very moment I dreamed of the greatest happiness, I found myself most miserable; and it seemed as if fortune wished to give me this taste of joy, only to render the reverse more poignant. The change I now experienced was as painful as it was sudden and unexpected. It was a change indeed from a state of bliss to a scene which is inexpressible by me, as it discovered to me an element I had never before beheld, and till then had no idea of, and wherein such instances of hardship and cruelty continually occurred as I can never reflect on but with horror.” (70, e-text).

Equiano sees being a free man as being in “a state of bliss” and being a slave as an inexpressible horror. This opposes the message being conveyed in the photo. The artist is trying to say that slavery can be as beautiful as a nice summer’s day, dancing around and loving life. Whereas Equiano cannot express the horrors of finding himself, yet again, not a free man. In this passage alone, not only do we get the image of a frightened, lamenting Equiano, but in a sense—through no expressions of his hardship—we can also imagine the horror one endures in being enslaved. Surely it doesn’t consist of slave families joyously living on free time, able to be a family. The photo doesn’t reflect on what Equiano would state “wherein such instances of hardship and cruelty continually occur[ed]” (Ibid).

–Daniel Lizaola Lopez


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