Monday, December 19, 2016

Post 1876 Civil War African American Christmas

Sol Eytinge. From Harper's Weekly, January 1, 1876. No Small Breed Fer Yer Uncle Abe Dis Chrismas! Ain't He a Cherub

By the time Mark Twain was writing Huckleberry Finn in the early 1880s, the United States was redefining itself as a nation postwar and post-slavery. Reconstruction policies, begun by Abraham Lincoln and continued by the United States Congress after the Civil War, aimed to reintegrate the Southern states into the Union politically and to provide support for freed slaves. But antagonism between North and South, Southern bitterness at defeat, and racism on both sides meant that early gains in political representation and equality for African Americans were quickly suppressed. In both North and South, many white citizens felt a great deal of nostalgia for the decades before the war. The horrors of slavery disappeared from the nation’s history books, replaced by images of contented slaves and affectionate masters. The Democratic Party, historically allied with the South, violently contested the presidential election of 1876, resorting to mob violence to suppress black voter turnout in the South. Though the Democratic candidate ultimately lost the electoral vote, the election marked the end of Reconstruction Era policies aimed at reuniting the country politically.

Amid this political strife, representations of African American life varied greatly. Within the space of one year, depictions in New York–based Harper’s Weekly veered from a cheery Christmas scene to a terrifying image of a black voter held at gunpoint and an African American man seeming to vow revenge on the mob that killed his family. Illustrator Sol Eytinge borrowed from his background illustrating American editions of Charles Dickens to show a black family gathered excitedly around a Christmas goose.