Nursery Rhyme or Working-Class Folk Culture?

By Nadine Blank

American folk music is known largely for its use in the 20th century as a rallying cry for the working class left. We often think of the music made or popularized by people such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. However, if folk is, according to the Oxford Dictionary, “relating to or originating from the beliefs and opinions of ordinary people,” then folk music and culture must have been a prevalent piece in earlier American cultural periods. However, upon more internet research into the timeline of American folk, there were far more journals and articles on the twentieth and twenty-first century.

This is understandable, in part because the technology needed to spread a song was either just being developed or not even fathomed yet. Word of mouth could only go so far. As a result, most Americans would not recognize the handful of tunes and melodies from the 1800s that historians managed to salvage and archive from different regions, eras, and walks of life. There is, however, one song that has almost become a nursery rhyme; most Americans know it, but most likely don’t think of or realize the historical context behind it. “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” is possibly the only nineteenth-century folk song to break through barriers of time and culture, imprinting itself into modern day popular culture.


While the origins of the melody itself are unknown,  the lyrics are quite self-explanatory. The song was a demonstration of the workers’ patient longing for a basic, limited-hour work day. “Can’t you hear the whistle blowing, rise up so early in the morn” is a testament to the early mornings that begin a terribly long work day, and the horn waiting to be blown is most likely the signal for a lunch break or end of day.  This catchy tune seems like a worker’s lament but in a major key, one which makes the complaints of the workers into a unifying chant that they all could know and appreciate together.

The primary evidence provides a completely different characterization of workers in the Gilded Age, when this tune was most likely founded, compared to the American Railroad Journal which “bemoaned in 1858 [that the workers] lack ‘the right kind of sentiment.’ They established their own ‘rules for the regulation of their own conduct'” (Licht 97). This is not what we see in the culture–if the culture was anything like the music. Workers would argue that the “rules” they want to establish, whether through unions or protests or strikes, were basic workers’ rights. The reason folk found such a home in blue-collar communities such as railroads is because of this; the culture these communities embodied were consciously aware and weary of the wrongs being done to them.

“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” began as an obvious and specific outcry of railroad workers, but it still lives on in America to this day–but why? Something about the patient lament of a long day stuck with the working class; my own grandfather sang the song almost every day until he died, though he’d never worked on a railroad. Charles Keil in Folk Music and Modern Sound suggests that the meaning of the song will never truly die:

Why not just talk about people’s music, or the working people’s music that’s not dependent on state subsidy or corporate mediation, and then celebrate the fact that it changes in striking ways from old country to new, from rural to urban settings, from one city to another, and from generation to generation (Keil, 58).

Eventually, no one will work on the railroad anymore, but we may still be singing this old tune because the new “folk”–whether it be blue-collar country music or Woody Guthrie proteges or any other working class anthem from any genre–reflects the old railroad songs inherently. We will always remember “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” because we will always be working; whether our rat-race takes place on a railway or a farm or an urban office, the patient lament guides us, and it guides our folk culture.


Works Cited

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton University Press, 2014.

Keil, Charles . “Ethnic Voices.” Folk Music and Modern Sound, University Press of Mississippi, 1982.

Altos, the Female Belt and Their Place in the 1990s

By Nadine Blank

The 1990s is an era that lives on in many of our hearts, even if some of us weren’t alive for most of it. Listening to music can especially give those of us who might not remember much of that time an image of the zeitgeist of the 1990s in America. While many issues plagued the 90s (and that era is indeed remembered for all of them), one significant topic that countless faces of the music industry addressed was the idea of feminism and femininity, and all the dimensions that reside within these concepts. Many artists, such as Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, decided to own the sexuality that male society had already attached to them and make it their own. They often played it up and used sexualized music as an outlet to declare freedom and agency. However, there were many more facets to feminist, “girl power” 90s music. One of these sub-genres was that of many indie, rock, and country artists that happened to make top-40 radio. This sub-genre included women with strong, often low, unique vocals that demonstrated power and a refusal to remain quiet. These women often sang a variety of songs on more than just the usual topics of love and sex. This specific niche of popular female artists in the 90s express, reject, and modify ideals and expectations of what it means and feels like to be a woman even to this day.

(Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” 1997)


This first track, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain, is a classic country-power-pop anthem that many continue to appreciate for its feel-good tone and message. While the overall theme of the song is arguably cheesy and possibly naïve, Twain’s chorus brings up an especially important inconsistency between the idea of a lady versus a woman. Twain wants to “forget I’m a lady,” but she also claims in the same chorus that she feels like a woman. In this context, Twain seems to be commenting on a more structured ideal that embodies “ladylike” behavior. She even goes as far to say that she has the “prerogative” to shed her expected role as a “lady,” and this freedom makes her feel more like a woman than anything else. As far as musicality, Twain has a fairly lower alto voice, which in general is associated with the older connotation of “women” rather than younger “ladies,” which are oftentimes associated with the higher soprano vocal range. Shania Twain, however, owns her alto voice and enjoys what comes with feeling like a woman.


(Alanis Morissette, “Ironic,” 1995; directed by Stéphane Sednaoui)


The second song, “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette, begins quietly, almost sweetly, with only her voice and a guitar to accompany her. In the above music video, the singer is a seemingly delicate woman, wrapped up and protected from the world and snow around her. When the chorus hits, however, what appears to be her alter egos take over with louder, more striking vocals, and they seem much happier than the woman singing daintily. As the song continues, the alter egos riding in the car continue with much less “dainty” behavior, with one passenger even attempting to hold her whole body out of the car window and becoming covered in snow. Additionally, while the lyrics of the song are fairly cynical and defeatist, the alter-egos are taking them in stride and not allowing this to engulf their personalities. Both the context of the video and the content of the song exemplify a response to the sexualized movement happening in 90s music at the same time. It reminds the audience, through visuals, non-romantic lyrics, and strong, almost stubborn-sounding vocals, that a woman does not need to sexualize herself—that it is her choice. Alanis Morissette herself seems to have a broad understanding of this fact and the different forms of female empowerment, having released her raspy, “sexy” belt, “You Oughtta Know” on the same album, Jagged Little Pill.


(4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up,” 1992)


This playlist ends with a ballad full of profound, untraditional female vocal power: “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes. Like “Ironic,” the song begins with an acoustic guitar, but a slow, marching beat and bassline soon follow, and the singer begins a solemn lament of what society is doing to women. The first verse creates a visual of the infamous glass ceiling as, “ trying to get up that great big hill of hope for a destination.” Her voice is full and deep, not delicate or fragile in the slightest. If there were any doubts in the singer’s vocal ability, they would be gone by the second verse, when she sings of how hard she tries and that she prays “every single day for a revolution.” Her belt is rough and robust, showcasing the pain of being a woman in the world while defying expectations of her. She hits incredible notes while still maintaining a deep, soulful tone. The power in the song in conjunction with the sadness and pain creates a multidimensionality for not only the song but the woman singing and her inherently feminist cause.

Confederacy Supporters Should Be Anti-Monument Too

By Nadine Blank

*Disclaimer: I do not sympathize with the Confederacy or their racist, slavery-driven cause in any context. However, some ideologies and ideas cannot be unlearned and instead of trying hopelessly to change minds, I am simply offering a compromise between two extremely passionate sides. *

In the past year, there has been a slew of controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments across the country, and both sides are opening wounds that run deeper than the surface issue of “good versus evil.” As a country, we have failed to find common ground on what the statues are actually made to represent. Many, such as the president of the University of Texas at Austin, believe “that Confederate monuments have become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism,” while others, particularly in the South, find the display of their Confederate heritage to be inspiring, comforting even. In order to find closure in one of our nation’s ugliest scars, our country must compromise with a balance of memorialization and criticism rather than polarizing ourselves further with glorification and condemnation of individual soldiers.


Photo of the Statue of Robert E. Lee being taken down at the University of Texas at Austin, courtesy of The New York Times

First, we must find a way to agree that Confederate memorials belong in museums and cemeteries, not town squares. The anti-Confederacy argument is centered around lack of public context of these alleged heroes who were frankly the enemy of the United States. However, there may be a pro-Confederate heritage argument here as well. According to Drew Faust in the book This Republic of Suffering, Americans of the nineteenth century believed in “sacred reverence and care” of the body as a physical and spiritual identity, and Civil War soldiers were deeply concerned for their remains once they died (62). How then, would these men feel if they knew that their sacred bodies were replicated in town squares, left to be desecrated by the elements? How would they feel, knowing that symbols of their sacrifice were being used as propaganda during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era? While racism was a deep-seeded ideal in the South during the Civil War, more eternally so was the idea of a “decent burial.” How can one’s burial be decent if his image is used endlessly to stir up controversy and fear? How can descendants of the Confederacy argue against this disrespect?

Similarly, we must realize that by publicly dragging out the legacy of the Confederate loss, we are not only fueling fear and hatred toward people of color, but we are exacerbating the devastation of both Union and Confederate soldiers that died for their cause to be settled almost two centuries ago. The “Good Death,” which Faust basically describes as the art of dying “well,” cannot be achieved as long as we are looking back and dredging up the details in a secular setting (6). The soldiers that died knew that their business was to die, and they welcomed death in order to be remembered as men who sacrificed for their country; many did not even fight for Confederate cause, per se—they fought to sacrifice their lives (5). In a cemetery or even a museum, these soldiers would be remembered not only in a fair, unbiased context, but also in a context that gives them the big-picture finality and legacy that a “Good Death” should. Instead, these statues and monuments are reminders of the losing side and the rebels that weren’t strong enough to win.

To conclude, it is essential that for all parties involved, these statues should be taken down and put somewhere more appropriate to their history. To achieve this, we must have support from all Americans, not just one side. Arlington has room, and the Smithsonian has room. What are we waiting for?



Sources Cited

Bromwich, Jonah Engel. “University of Texas at Austin Removes Confederate Statues in Overnight Operation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2017,



Ongoing Issues of Race and Labor, A Century Apart: Who Do We Blame?

By Nadine Blank

There is no doubt that people of color are still being affected by the United States’ complicated racial history of enslavement, genocide, and imperialism—what many fail to realize, however, is that the effects still being felt are not only social but economic as well. The ends of centuries should be moments of progress, focused on improvements toward the future, and in recent centuries a myriad of technological advancements have been made in the last decade of a century. Nonetheless, current events and feelings do not always match up with the times for all people. In America, even progress tends to leave the disadvantaged out. Events of the early 1890s and 1990s provide evidence to suggest that America was and is not willing to allow people of color, especially African Americans, to catch up to white society. In these decades that should symbolize movement forward, white institutions such as the media and the white workforce stalled forward economic movement for African Americans, perpetuating the hierarchy of slavery even long after it had been abolished. Of course, a lot did progress for African Americans between the 1890s and 1990s, but we cannot properly appreciate what did change for the better if we do not examine what Black struggles went ignored by white American society.

By 1892, Black Americans were citizens with the right to vote, but this post-Civil War formality was far from a racial truce; in many places, even mere territories of the United States, white workers refused to work with black workers. This is the situation that prefaced a great controversy in Krebs, Oklahoma on January 7, which The New York Times calls “The Great Mine Disaster.” On that day, a mine in Krebs exploded, killing and injuring over 100 white miners. Amidst the aftermath, while black miners were helping to recover bodies from the mine, the United States Deputy Marshall and his men chased them away at gunpoint. In covering this story, The New York Times mentioned this injustice in passing, and immediately put the blame on the black miners, claiming that their efforts and aid were “in only a half-hearted way,” and that a black miner had provoked “indignation and fury” without providing sources for any of these allegations (“The Great Mine Disaster”). While it is understandable to mourn those lost, the scapegoating of the black miners minimalized their struggle after first being ousted from their workplace. The “newsworthy” part of the story, to readers, was the death of the white workers and the alleged reluctance of “negroes” in the recovery effort that followed. Meanwhile, the line “some time ago the white miners refused to work with the negroes” is the only explanation given in the article to explain why these laborers were not allowed to work; it is simply glazed over and regarded as the way things were. This is so deeply troubling because as a reputable news source, the New York Times and its reporters failed to critically report upon both sides of a complicated, racialized event.


Krebs Mine Disaster OKLA 1892 Photo of the mine in Krebs, OK, and the recent picture of the memorial for those lost in 1892, courtesy of Stu Beitler,  When the mine exploded, thousands of family and community members crowded to the scene to find loved ones and attempt to save those trapped.


In 1993, twenty days shy of exactly 101 years later, on January 27, 1993 the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about the Urban League and its push for President Clinton to acknowledge the particular economic struggles of Black Americans. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Urban League “cited steep increases in black unemployment, at more than 14 percent… and warned of economic devastation for black Americans as jobs are cut in auto manufacturing, the military, defense, and service-oriented industries” (Ross). This article, unlike the one from 1892, delves into a specific issue that was brought to light by an event; in this case, the article noted the Los Angeles riots of the previous year as an effect of the economic turmoil to which late 1980s/early 90s America had subjected black Americans. The article not only placed agency on the black community in pointing out that Clinton could not have won his election without them; it also placed blame onto the American government, mentioning a need for federal investment in programs to help black communities and enforcement of discrimination laws. While these issues were most likely even worse in the 1890s than the 1990s, there was less of a national platform for black Americans that were passionate about it–by 1993, for example, Sonya Ross as a black American woman was able to write and publish this article in a major newspaper.


This cartoon by Carol Simpson draws a modern comparison between Krebs and the 1990s. Whether mining or business, those who participate in discrimination aim to exclude blacks from work altogether rather than work in a segregated or another unequal manner. President Clinton, with strong support from the black community, was expected to address and fix this issue.   


Now that we have examined how events were analyzed by the American media within the two centuries, it is important to consider how those who are not journalists feel about these issues and where they draw their conclusions. About a month after the mining disaster in Oklahoma, on February 24, 1982 the New York Times published an opinion piece titled “The Race Question,” in which the writer claims that “the negro is not so trustworthy a worker for an employer as he was in the old days” of slavery. This embedded thought process of the 1890s could be the foundation of modern-day worker discrimination, and it may very well have something to do with the reason black workers were kicked out of Krebs’ mine. The writer seems to suggest in his piece that the black population holds no importance politically because of its already historically suppressed vote. The attitudes that are presented in a piece published by a reputable news source suggests that many Americans felt this way. The unified opinion on the issue helped to solidify racial economic boundaries in many industries and geographic areas.

Similarly, in 1993, Rudolph A. Pyatt Jr. wrote a column for the Washington Post, “Racial Discrimination Has Become a Major Drain on the U.S. Economy.”  In this piece, Pyatt discussed the economic impact of racial discrimination rather than just the social impact that had frequently been discussed. Rather than simply convey his opinion, Pyatt gave ample evidence and date to suggest that “disparate treatment of blacks cost the U.S about $215 billion in 1991” (Pyatt). He also makes a point to talk about the “legacy” of discrimination, one that can be traced back to not only the 1890s, but the slavery that existed decades before. This is a big change, because according to the writer of “The Race Question,” “slavery has disappeared forever.” If that were truly the case, one hundred years later there wouldn’t be an equation for how much racism affected the economy. What does remain the same, however, is that whether people at the time recognized the economic legacy of slavery or not, the effects were playing out in the lives of black workers, due to their perceived “untrustworthiness” or other negative factors that gained white credibility following the Civil War. This discrimination has carried through time and through the workplace for the black population, and this history is often silent or told as an aside rather than its own significant event. These economic struggles in the workplace are merely the tip of the iceberg; even today we are still wary of discrimination, and the wage gap still exists, especially for black women. Only when we recognize the history of today’s struggles will we learn to correct the damage done by so many decades before us.


Works Cited

“THE GREAT MINE DISASTER.” New York Times (1857-1922), Jan 10, 1892, pp. 16, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times,

Sonya Ross, “Urban League urges job creation and rights enforcement Philadelphia Inquirer (1969-2010), Jan 27, 1993, pp. 7, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer,

“THE RACE QUESTION.” New York Times (1857-1922), Feb 24, 1892, pp. 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times,

Rudolph A Pyatt Jr, “Racial Discrimination has Become a Major Drain on the U.S. Economy.” The Washington Post (1974-Current file), Jan 07, 1993, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post,



Little Women and the Conflicts of the Feminist Lifestyle

By Nadine Blank

As a fairly new country with nearly no literary standing in the world, America was due for a classic feminist tale for readers of all ages. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women checked all the boxes as far as nineteenth-century American questions went, addressing issues like economic dependency on men, conflicts between being independent women and docile wives, and compromise versus submission. Some feminists such as Judith Fetterley argue that while the Civil War was going on in the novel, the main character Jo was facing her own Civil War regarding her place in America. Using the novel as an idealized platform for her own life, Alcott explains her ideas of feminist struggles in American culture in the 1800s.

One step further, Angela Estes and Kathleen Lant argue that Jo is Alcott’s doll of sorts, allowing her to experience her own conflicts in an out-of-body context:

“For Jo is an experimental heroine through whom Alcott can explore the tensions of female experience in nineteenth-century America: between being a dutiful member of women’s sphere and being an independent, self-reliant woman” (103).

These spheres do not always intersect, as Jo learns in “Chapter 27: Literary Lessons.” When faced with a decision of waiting to publish her book the way she wants it or publishing a cut-down version for a cash advance she can spend on her family, she explains her line of thinking:

“Fame is a very good thing to have in the house, but cash is more convenient, so I wish to take the sense of the meeting on this important subject” (7).

Jo’s thought process is not a feminist one, but that is not to say it is bad. In fact, in the nineteenth century, this thought process would have been considered womanly and motherly. This is part of the conflict that Jo grapples with; her existence as a “little woman” does not always fit with her existence as a writer. Alcott herself most likely felt this way and used the novel as an outlet for her frustration of the limitations of nineteenth-century American feminist progress.


Sita and SaritaCecilia Beaux c. 1921

The arts were a large feminist influence in the nineteenth century and beyond, and many female artists, like Alcott, used their art as an outlet. Cecilia Beaux was an art student in Paris in the late nineteenth century, and she developed skill and focused on painting women as more than just objects of beauty. The woman pictured is her cousin, Sarah Allibone Leavitt, with a carefully crafted expression of intelligence. Beaux enjoyed this piece so much that “she made a second painting for her ‘own satisfaction when the original went to France for good.”


The concept of the “little woman” seems to be a self-conflicting feminist viewpoint, which is why it works so well in a book that Alcott loads with feminist vs. traditionalist discord. Alcott and her characters themselves are living through unsolvable mixed feelings. Fetterley assumes that this is the ultimate message of Alcott’s novel:

“Our attitude, moreover, is not the result of feminist values imposed on Alcott’s work but the result of ambivalence within the work on the subject of what it means to be a little woman. Certainly this ambivalence is itself part of the message of Little Women. It accurately reflects the position of the woman writer in nineteenth-century America, confronted on all sides by forces pressuring her to compromise her vision” (Fetterley 382).

Jo and most likely Alcott’s dilemma is two dueling pressures: feminist demands and womanly demands. Alcott experiences this as a writer and puts Jo into situations like this as a writer and breadwinner:

“So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all” (6).

On the one hand, Jo is making her own money doing something she is passionate about, something that many women in the nineteenth century were unable to achieve. On the other hand, she is selling out with sensationalist stories that she knows will sell in order to earn this money, which goes against her plea for independence. In the end, there is no right answer, and what Alcott may be toying with in this as well as the very title of the book is a concept that may even be appreciated in today’s feminism. Alcott’s book may be a prime example that being a feminist and living a feminist life might not mean that a woman’s every action must be a feminist act. Little Women eliminates the unhealthy expectations and guilt of conflicting ideas when pursuing something less than liberating and outlines an accepting pro-woman lifestyle, no matter how a woman may choose to live.



Fetterley, Judith. “”Little Women”: Alcotts Civil War.” Feminist Studies 5, no. 2 (1979): 369. doi:10.2307/3177602.

Alcott, Louisa May. Chapter 27: Literary Lessons. In Little Women.

Estes, Angela M., and Kathleen Margaret Lant. “Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcotts Little Women.” Childrens Literature 17, no. 1 (1989): 98-123. doi:10.1353/chl.0.0430.




Zamba’s Experience from Royalty to Slavery

By Nadine Blank

Enslaved Africans were considered bottom of the barrel subjects in American society, and even freed blacks held the stigma of slavery because of the color of their skin. However, they were not always known this way; many affluent citizens of Africa and the Caribbean were captured and enslaved, which gives them an intense comparative perspective. Their narratives are especially impactful because of the audience they appeal to and the perspective they can give to white readers. Zamba, in his narrative, shows that enslaved persons were more than just dirty and poor; in fact, when left untouched by slavery, they prospered just as white Americans and Europeans did. In Life of Zamba, arranged by Peter Neilson, Zamba reminisces about his home, south of the Congo, where he resided when his father was king:

  “The royal palace towered over all the other buildings, and was in reality a very considerable edifice. Its form was circular, with an imitation of a dome at the top, in which hung an old ship’s bell that was rung on all great occasions, either of a mournful or joyous nature. The interior of the palace was divided into eighteen or twenty apartments, two of them especially being furnished in a manner that would rather astonish an European” (2).

This is not the typical lifestyle of Africa that many white people would have heard before, which may have been a hard pill to swallow at the time, and many white Americans may not have believed it. This imagery of a palace that “would rather astonish an European” gave a sense of grandiosity that is only associated with white royalty. Had any white Americans even thought of black royalty as a concept before? While it may be a stretch, beginning Zamba’s story with his past as a king could have been strategy to strike a chord of sympathy in some white Americans.

Delving further into his story, as Zamba was brought to America as a slave, the Captain bringing him over gave him lessons in reading the Bible, and Zamba thought it to be a special privilege because he was a king. He recalled that the Captain had been more cordial to him than others in Africa, but it seemed the Captain had alterior motives:

“Then addressing me, he said,–“Really, King Zamba, I must charge you for all the lessons I have given you for these some years past, and I cannot charge you less than a doubloon per hour. I could positively have picked up many a good boat-load of niggers during the time I spent in hammering lessons into your head; and besides this, it is not every day that the poor master of a slave-ship falls in with a king for a pupil. We shall talk of this again, however, and settle our accounts at the end of the voyage.” He laughed heartily as he said this, which I at first thought he meant only for a joke; but as he cast his eyes in a peculiar way from me to the mate, and again from the mate towards me, I could not help feeling somewhat uneasy. I felt, in fact, that I was not exactly safe” (90).

This exchange revealed to Zamba that his status did not give him special treatment–it made him a higher valued property and target. According to Walter Johnson in Turning People into Products, in order to sell a slave, a trader had to “slip beneath them a suggestion of personal distinction that would make one slave stand out to a buyer” (124). Zamba’s status, to the captain, was merely a key to selling him. Status to white Americans was merely another “feature.” Not only was Zamba a tool to the captain, but a way to fuel his ego and flaunt his power. The captain, laughing, even enjoyed the power play he was making, even though it was solely to prove his perceived superiority over Zamba.


Zamba, enslaved in Charleston 


Zamba was later enslaved to a master in Charleston, South Carolina. He tells many stories of terrible scenes regarding punishment and power, especially white women demonstrating their power over their slaves. He describes one gruesome example:

“The poor wretch, it seems, in ironing a gown of the lady’s, had applied an iron in rather too hot a state; and now the meek-tempered mistress revenged herself at the expense of everything sacred and dear to the sex, by treating her worse than a dog…I made some inquiries regarding the parties, and found that the lady was a Miss–(I am strongly tempted to disclose her name), a young woman of twenty; very beautiful, according to white notions, accomplished and wealthy, and much admired by the other sex: in short, one of the toasts of the city” (162)

The power exchange in this example as well as others is crucial and gives white women accountability. It also shows a violence that is not revealed in the passive language of “domestic” slavery. Zamba is disgusted by the woman’s stature in society even though she is terrible and cruel at home. In Charleston, at least, it seemed not to matter. The “white woman” in society was presented as a delicate object to protect, someone that could not take care of herself. The idea that a white woman could be so brutal and cruel was probably shocking to many white readers, who didn’t see this private, unpublished side of domestic life.


Methods of punishing black slaves. Female domestic slaves were not immune to punishment and were often beaten brutally by the white women of the house.


Zamba’s story is full of new perspectives and educated opinions on American slavery and its injustices, as well as facts and anecdotes to embellish his impactful experience and narrative.

Uncle Sam as a Political Critique in the 1890s

By Nadine Blank

The character of Uncle Sam, beloved and notorious in the 19th and 20th centuries, originated during the War of 1812, when an American businessman, Samuel Wilson, supplied to the army with a stamp of U.S. to “indicate government property” (Brittanica). These initials were joked about to be from Wilson, known as “Uncle Sam.” As the folklore spread, Uncle Sam became a new symbol of the United States, and Thomas Nast of Puck Magazine was the first to depict him as we know him today, top hat, stars and stripes included. While it can be argued that he is most known for the “I Want You” propaganda, Uncle Sam was also depicted both affectionately and viciously in political commentary and cartoons. By the 1870s, he became a universal personification of the United States and was used extensively to critique American foreign affairs. This post will discuss four cartoons and their relation to American imperialism during the Spanish-American War. In the first two cartoons, I will discuss the drastic change in Uncle Sam’s character and the setting and circumstances in which he is viewed. “The White Man’s Burden” portrays America leading Cuba and others to civilization, while “Remember the Maine! And Don’t Forget the Starving Cubans!” shows America turning its back on those people in the first place. In the last two cartoons, I will draw important parallels between the depiction of Uncle Sam and “Negro Rule” and discuss how one can be considered a “vampire” and the other a hero and icon of American culture.

cartoon1(Victor Gillam, “The White Man’s Burden,” Judge, April 1, 1899.)

Here, Victor Gillam personifies the countries of the United States and Great Britain, as well as the respective peoples and countries they had invaded and imperialized. Uncle Sam seems to be struggling to carry his basket, which is “filled” with some of the countries of American interest during and directly after the Spanish American War, such as Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Samoa. The stepping stones are an interesting element, since their labels neither increase or decrease in severity and immorality. It is also worth noting that the labels of “vice” and “ignorance” have stepping stones at both the bottom of the hill and the top. Might this signal that these two matters exist even at the golden summit of civilization? Furthermore, Uncle Sam dons a red cross on his arm, symbolling aid, but the people on his back don’t seem very relieved. If anything, they are staring down at the stones he is using to forcibly “lead” them to the top. The words on the stones are mostly associated with how Americans viewed the native peoples of their imperialized countries, but if Uncle Sam is the one using them to climb up, isn’t he the one participating in “uncivilized” behavior?

cartoon2(Victor Gillam, “Remember the Maine! And Don’t Forget the Starving Cubans!” Judge, May 7, 1898.)

In an earlier piece by Gillam, Uncle Sam is depicted in front of what can only be described as a scrapbook of American imperialism. The use of real photographs gives this artwork a sense of tragic nostalgia and the two pages divided by Uncle Sam sends an eerie “cause and effect” message. The destruction of the naval ship USS Maine, thought to be at the fault of Spain, was often used as a reason for the Spanish-American War. While Spain and America fought for Cuba as a territory, both countries neglected the Cuban rebels, who were purposefully starved by the Spanish (Hernandez). A menacing Uncle Sam, with clenched fists, seems to be sending a warning, but to whom remains unclear. It is worth noting that within a year, Gillam’s Uncle Sam goes from angry and murderous to carrying the peoples he let starve in “The White Man’s Burden.” Perhaps this Uncle Sam never bothered to glance behind him at the consequences of his actions.

cartoon3.png(M. Moliné, “La Fatlera Del Oncle Sam,” La Campana de Gracia, 1896.)

The cartoon above, whose title translates to “Uncle Sam’s Craving,” was originally published in a newspaper, ironically, from Spain. Cuba was, at the time, rebelling from Spain, who was just as imperialist as the United States. Uncle Sam looks monstrous in this cartoon, and his hands are as large and clawlike as the “vampire” of Negro Rule in the below cartoon. He is reaching as far as Cuba and to what looks like faceless people swimming in the middle of the ocean. Uncle Sam, in this depiction looks predatory, as predatory as the vampire of the cartoon below. The caption reads, “saving the island so it won’t get lost.” In the face of Uncle Sam, it is incredibly obvious that his primary emotion is not concern, but greed. He is hunched over his empire in order to claim it. In the first two cartoons, his intentions may be naively justifiable at least; but in “Uncle Sam’s Craving,” it is obvious that he is a greedy, selfish beast, easily comparable to a vampire—the beast of imperialism that is the United States.

cartoon4(“The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina,” Raleigh News and Observer, September 27, 1898.)


Additional Sources Cited:

José M. Hernandez, “Cuba in 1898,” Hispanic Division Library of Congress.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Uncle Sam: United States Symbol.”