Cartoon: Nobody Back Then Knew Slavery Was Wrong!

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This cartoon is, of course, drawn by Becky Hawkins, who did her usual wonderful job.

Becky says:

I feel like a dick saying “I had so much fun doing goofy drawings about the horror of slavery,” but I had so much fun on this cartoon. As soon as I read the script, I asked Barry if I could take this one. I was excited about the challenge of drawing recognizable historical figures, in a big-headed cartoony style, with occasional goofy body language to match Barry’s dialogue. I’d looked up photos of John Brown after listening to the Behind the Bastards episode about him. His face had so many delightful lines to dig into! When I was drawing and coloring this, I kept leaving John Brown for last, as a treat.

I spent the most time looking for clothing references for Panel 1. When I looked for pictures of enslaved people in America, I found a lot of photographs and paintings from the 1860s, 150 years after that panel takes place. I also found some movie stills, but I didn’t want an outfit to be recognizable as “that dress from 12 Years a Slave” or something. And I wanted the women to belong in the same cartoony world as panels 2-4 without looking like an Aunt Jemima caricature. Also, some of the 18th-century paintings left me zooming in and trying to guess how the clothes were put together. (Is that shawl tied in the front? pinned? sewn together?) In the end, I did my best guess from a combination of drawings and paintings.

It was easy to find portraits of the historical figures in panels 2-3. (John Brown was the subject of photographs, oil paintings, political cartoons and news illustrations!) So I could recreate those outfits and hairstyles, and even use the color picker tool in Photoshop to copy the colors from the paintings. Jefferson and Washington are in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in panel 2. So if you look at this panel and get a song from 1776 stuck in your head…Me, too.

I drew the guy in panel 4 with a shaved head, T-shirt and jeans, and rimless glasses so that everything about him would scream “modern.” But he accidentally looks like a great guy who used to come to Drawing Nights at my house, so…sorry, Ryan. Also, thank you to my image-conscious coworkers on Zoom meetings. You added the phrase “ring light” to my vocabulary, so I could look up the proper YouTuber equipment!

The reference images Becky used when drawing this cartoon:

After Becky finished drawing the strip, I realized that John Brown had a beard in 1859. But Becky and I decided we could somehow live with that historical inaccuracy.

Frederick Douglass and John Brown really did have a secret meeting in 1859. On Route 30 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, there’s a historical marker, which says:


The two abolitionists met at a stone quarry here, Aug. 19-21, 1859, and discussed Brown’s plans to raid the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. He urged Douglass to join an armed demonstration against slavery. Douglass refused, warning the raid would fail; the Oct. 16, 1859 attack confirmed his fears. Brown was captured with his surviving followers and was executed Dec. 2, 1859.

Douglass wrote about the meeting over 20 years later: “…all his arguments, and all his descriptions of the place, convinced me that he was going into a perfect steel-trap, and that once in he would never get out alive.”

Reading that reminded me of a cartoon I’d written a few years ago, but then put aside, unhappy with it. I got overly fancy with the layout, trying to make it work as one big panel with characters receding from the viewer in perspective, with the more distant characters temporally being the ones who were drawn as being furthest away from the viewer.

It was a convoluted idea and I wasn’t able to convince myself it worked. But after reading about the secret Douglass and Brown meeting, I went back to the idea and realized that it would work much better as with a simple four-panel approach.

While Becky was drawing this cartoon, I was interviewed by the Where We Go Next podcast, and we discussed laying out for comic books versus laying out political cartoons  (the episode hasn’t been released yet). When drawing or writing long-form comic books, I often try to think of interesting layouts.

But I don’t do that much in political cartoons. Political cartoons generally just try to communicate a single idea, and hopefully communicate it strongly. Anything that makes the cartoon less “transparent” to readers – that calls attention to what I as a cartoonist am doing, rather than to the idea the comic is conveying – is a distraction and might be making the cartoon weaker.

In an op-ed in The Washington Examiner, Louis Sarkozy – son of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (which is irrelevant but also somehow too odd a piece of trivia for me to leave out)  – wrote:

…as a product of one’s own time, then it is challenging to morally condemn an individual born in 1750, when slavery was regarded as ethically okay, legally permissible, and widely practiced (even by African slave owners).

But that slavery was morally odious wasn’t unknown in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The slaves knew it, the abolitionists knew it. The “founding fathers” themselves objected to what they called Britain’s “enslavement” of the colonies, and they were well aware of criticisms of their own hypocrisy.

Unrelatedly, I read aloud “Eight Arms To Hold You,” a sweet and funny jailbreak short story starring an octopus, by Angela Teagardner, for the Cast of Wonders podcast. You can read the story, or listen to me read it, here.


This cartoon has four panels; each panel shows a different scene with different characters.


A caption at the top of the panel says “1710.”

A Black woman sits on the front steps of a ramshackle wooden house; a small boy is sitting next to her on the steps, and she’s bandaging an injury on his hand. She’s wearing a yellow kerchief wrapped around her hair and tied in back, and speaking to the viewer with an earnest expression.

Standing next to her is another Black woman, speaking a bit angrily to the viewer, with her fists on her hips. She’s wearing a red kerchief over her hair, tied on top, and a yellow dress with an apron.

Both of the dresses are modest and plain, and look old-fashioned by today’s standards.

RED KERCHIEF: Slavery is crushing our lives, our children’s lives…

YELLOW KERCHIEF: It’s simply evil!


A caption at the top of the panel says “1776.”

The panel shows Thomas Jefferson and George Washington standing in Independence Hall, dressed in revolutionary-era men’s finery. Jefferson is smirking while leaning back against a table, and Washington is speaking more seriously, spreading his arms to make his point.

JEFFERSON: Even we know slavery is a horror!

WASHINGTON: And we’re super racist slaveowners!


A caption at the top of the panel says “1859.”

Frederick Douglass, wearing a fine looking suit, and John Brown, wearing a rougher looking outfit and carrying a rifle, are standing in a clearing in a wooded area, talking to the viewer. Douglass has a serious expression; with one hand he’s covering his mouth, as if to keep Brown from hearing what he says, and with his other hand he’s pointing to Brown with a thumb. Brown is grinning and pumping a fist into the air.

BROWN: I hate slavery! So I’m gonna capture an armory and start a huge slave rebellion!

DOUGLASS: I’d do anything to end slavery. Except his stupid plan, because it won’t work and he’ll definitely be killed.

BROWN: Worth it!


A caption at the top of the panel says “TODAY.”

A man with a shaved head and a scruffy beard is speaking to a smartphone mounted on a tripod. The tripod is also holding a ring light. There’s a blue sheet behind the man providing a background – what I’m saying is, this guy is a podcaster. He has an orange t shirt with an image of a hand with a raised middle finger and the caption “Cancel This.” The podcaster is holding one hand palm up, and pointing up with his other hand, as if to make a point.

SCRUFFY: It’s unfair to judge slave owners by today’s standards! Nobody back then knew slavery was wrong!

This cartoon on Patreon

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6 Responses to Cartoon: Nobody Back Then Knew Slavery Was Wrong!

  1. 1
    Görkem says:

    I don’t think Louis Sarkozy being the son of a famously conservative, authoritarian and racist President is just a coincidence when it comes to his defending slavery.

  2. 2
    Lauren says:

    It is so incredibly revealing of the way people making that argument think of the people who were enslaved. One can only argue that nobody knew that slavery was evil if one does not include the human beings suffering under chattel slavery in the definition of “people who had opinions”. Because no, they were not all perfectly happy to serve their “masters”, have their partners and children sold away, be beaten and raped and killed. Nobody who looks at the reality of slavery – which to people of the time was ever present- and delude themself into believing that enslaved people were happy with their lot in life. Which means the argument is based on considering slaves sub-human, not capable of forming thought or at least not worth considering their thoughts as actual opinions.

    (And yes of course, there were also white people who were opposed to slavery, people who “count” even with that racist view of the world, but still…the former is so much worse to me)

  3. 3
    Schroeder4213 says:

    This comic is critical, but I still like John Brown, though.

    Fun art from Becky!

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    I like John Brown, too. But I’m sure glad Douglass didn’t join him!

  5. 5
    Schroeder4213 says:

    Me too! Just wanted to put in a good word for him.

  6. 6
    Douglas Scheinberg says:

    The rhetoric used to defend slavery changed around the time of Nat Turner’s rebellion, which I read had a similar effect on the slave states to the effect 9/11 had on contemporary America. In Jefferson’s time, the pro-slavery arguments tended to cast it as a necessary evil: one, that slaves had been treated so badly that they’d use their freedom to seek revenge, and two, that the cotton-growing colonies couldn’t survive economically and would collapse without the cheap labor from slaves. Arguments that slavery was good for slaves themselves didn’t become popular until long after 1776.