In the image published in Mc Lean’s Monthly Sheet of Caricatures (#32) the diction choices of slavery vs. freedom are questioned. In the cartoon there is a rather pump (and thus, not struggling) man, prominently in the middle of frame, elevated above the others proclaiming, “Think of the poor suffering Affricans called a slave unpossessed of any of the rights and privileges that you enjoy, while you sit under the rine of your reform bill and the fig-tree of your Magna [Carta] – He knows nothing of such blessings.” However, while the man (who looks like a preacher) is speaking, specifically of the “poor suffering Affricans,” (who are depicted on the right side of the image) his left hand is extended towards the “European” family. The implication here is that this family on the left is the one to “sit under the rine” and have “such blessing” as the “rights and privileges” that free men “enjoy.” However, if one addresses their attention to the bottom of the image, the word “slavery” appears underneath the European family, whereas the word “freedom” appears under the African family.
If one looks at the families themselves, it seem1s obvious that the Europeans are the ones being depicted as suffering, whereas the Africans are depicted as having a jolly good time. The European father is sitting at a chair, obviously down trodden with his head buried in the crook of his right arm and the other arm lays limp at his side. His body appears thin and frail. The speech bubble above his head reads, “Yes unless I draw a cart harnessed like a beast and get fed by the Parish.” This is in response to his (ever comforting) wife, laying a hand on his shoulder and questioning, “What must an industrious and honest man starve in a country like this.” In addition, there are papers titled “taxes” staked to the ground. This implies that taxes (or the government) are oppressing the European man and that he is no more than a work mule, having to take to the fields and accept charity in to survive.
However, on the other side of the picture, the African family is depicted as having an abundance of resources and comforts. The “fig-tree” is here, casting shade over a family of sizable proportions (denoting that they are not starving) discussing the consumption of food. The father questions the child in broken English, “A ah pieaninny you eat yam yam you belly full?” The mother replies, “Ess sambo he berry like you.” In the background other African people can be seen dancing, depicting “privilege” and “enjoyment.” Also, at their feet is their very livelihood, food of the earth, growing in abundance, promising fortitude.
I would argue that this image is pro-slavery. I believe that it is propagating that if the “white-man” promotes the end to slavery (or the abolitionist movement), then he, himself will become a slave to the ever demanding government which lords over him. The image mocks the “Magna Carta” (1215) which for centuries had been celebrated as a literary symbol for the freedom from oppression. It likewise mocks, the “reform bill,” (which I believe to a reference to the Reform Act of 1832) which gave men in the Americas more rights to representation in Parliament. However, while the “preacher character” is implying that these are “privileges” in terms of the “rights” European families (though specifically men) could “enjoy,” the image clearly contradicts itself, implying that the African family is free from the cares of dealing with bureaucracy more or less. This sort of visual rhetoric reinforced, not eliminated oppression.
On page 121 of Equiano’s narrative, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauduh Equiano,” Equiano addresses this idea of what it means to truly be free, verses enslaved and how in many ways both are faulty explanations for existence. “Hitherto I had thought only of slavery dreadful; but the state of a free negro appeared to me now equally so at least, and in some respects even worse, for they life in constant alarm of their liberty.” He continues, “In this situation is it shrouding that slaves, when mildly treated, should prefer even the misery of slavery to such mockery of freedom?” Although here Equiano is talking specifically regarding an incident in which a free man (born free) is suddenly taken into slavery based on some ill grounded claims, I would argue his thought process extends beyond that one isolated incident.
However, precarious the situation of a “free” man in terms of one with African decent may be, I believe here Equiano’s words can be removed from their current context and be applied to the more extensive narrative of existence. Here he grapples with conceptions of “freedom” verses “slavery” and in the end seems to conclude that they are merely words, insignificant and meaningless without societal reinforcement. This idea of the “misery of slavery” verses “the mockery of freedom” reminds me of the age old saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Here Equiano is sympathizing with people who would rather recognize and work within the confines of oppression than to be exposed to the cruel and unforgiving elements of both obtaining and maintaining freedom.
When we consider the politically charged illustration, the interchangeability of the terms freedom and slavery are based on societal context. This is why there are various forms of “slavery” in virtually all societal contexts. However, though varying forms of oppression will never be fully avoidable and thus true freedom is not an achievable goal with in the constrains of society, there is no excuse whatsoever for whole groups of people to oppress one another and then act as though that oppression, in and of itself is a relief. Being oppressed is not a “right,” nor a “privilege” and it is surely not an activity to “enjoy.”