Birth of a Nation
This is a powerful video.
Birth of a Nation
This is a powerful video.
Nast drew numerous cartoons sympathetic to the Chinese in reaction to unfolding events in California. In Every Dog (No Distinction of Color) Has His Day, February 8, 1879, Nast drew attention to a disturbing shift in anti-Chinese sentiment, but he does so at the expense of the Negro (Keller 107).
Nast features a male Native American (Red Gentleman) and Chinese (Yellow Gentleman) standing as they consider a wall of seven placards espousing various sources of nativist sentiment. The Native American, driven out of his East Coast home in the early nineteenth century moves westward and encounters a Chinese man somewhere in the middle of the United States. Each is being forced to live in new areas as a result of racial prejudice. At the stop, he warns the Chinese man that it is now his turn to be uprooted to the East. The caption reads: “Red Gentlemen to Yellow Gentleman. Pale face, ‘fraid you crowd him out, as he did me.”
Behind the two men is a classic Nast device of using public declarations – proclamations of prejudice and hate speech plastered on a wall for public viewing. At the top of the wall, a simple illustration shows a feathered man with a tomahawk fleeing westward, barely ahead of a U.S. railroad engine at his heels.
Conversely, in the sketch directly below, a Chinese man flees with such urgency that his queue is propelled airborne at a 45-degree angle. He beats a drum of “cheap labor” as he tries to catch up to an Atlantic-bound steam engine. Six other wall posters pronounce prevailing and growing political sentiment. The notices call attention to a fear of foreigners and Irish illiteracy. Nast wants his readers to see the variety of vitriol that exists. He sarcastically turns the meaning of the secretive nativist society, ‘Know Nothingism’ as braggarts of ignorance. Those who were once oppressed (Irish) are now the oppressors. Nast tucks his signature right below the bottom right sign. In the history of Know Nothings’ ignorance repeats. Once, the nativist society had proclaimed “Down with the Irish,” and “Down with the Dutch.” The Irish are now just like their Know Nothing oppressors. Only the victims have changed. German demands for a “bier” government round out the cluster of declarations. Most are proudly signed by their purveyors: “‘Down on the Nigger,” “K.K.K.” and “’The Chinese Must Go. Kearney (A real American).” Denis Kearney, Nast’s reminder of the Irish-born instigator who shouted the loudest, and most effectively, that “The Chinese Must Go.”
The largest and most prominent poster in the cartoon addresses the “Chinese Problem” and its solution–highlights of a proposed law prohibiting Chinese immigration to the United States. This would become the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in May 1882.
The two gentlemen read the writing on the wall. The feathered Native American “Red Gentleman” scratches his chin. He’s seen this all before–he has lived it. Driven from his native East Coast lands he has walked the Trail of Tears. A blanket drapes his upper body covering a hump that suggests he carries most of his belongings and is a nomad in his native country. In his hand, he holds a peace pipe which he is ready to extend to the “Yellow Gentleman.” The Chinese man is styled as a diplomat, the same “John Confucius” character seen in the Civilization of Blaine. His eyes are fixed on the pending legislation that is advertised front and center. His face shows concern and his arms are folded in defiance, enveloping his long queue close to the front of his chest. He is embracing his culture and identity. Hanging low in his left hand is a western-styled pipe (not an opium vessel). Both men are wearing their cultural dress–a dignified, if not a purposeful use of stereotype.
Among the many stereotypes that prevailed about Chinese people, Americans considered Chinese men docile and easily manipulated, thus it was believed, ideal workers for capitalist interests. In this cartoon, Nast creates a different character, a man who does not readily accept his limited options. The Chinese man is thinking and he reflects and weighs his future plans.
Curiously, off to the left and in the background an African American relaxes against a wall on which is scrawled “My day is coming.” The black man is minimized and not part of the larger debate commanding the discussion at hand. An early champion of abolition and the African American Vote, by 1879 Nast no longer considered the African American an equal partner in the minority rights debate. After winning a hard-fought battle for abolition and civil rights, which included suffrage, Nast is angry by failed Reconstruction policies of the Republican Party. Nast believed the African Americans as a group, too easily compromised their gains to southern politicians who did not have their best interest at heart. Nast, therefore, draws the African American kicking back, one leg resting over a knee; head tipped down, with a carefree grin on his face, content to allow the politicians to oppress other minorities. For Nast, this was a breach of integrity and his early progressive Republican values, a disillusion of hope that permeated within the once hopeful Republican Party. Nast subsequent drawings of African Americans would never again possess the dignity that embodied his Utopian vision seen in the “Emancipation of Negroes.”