This Friday evening (8/22/2014) on C-SPAN3: Slavery in Cinema

The C-SPAN network will air a trio of shows tonight that focus on the depiction of slavery in film:

The Civil War: Slavery & Cinema (8PM ET 8/21/2014; 11:42PM ET 8/21/2014)

A panel of history professors traces the evolution of slavery as depicted in film since the 1930s. Drawing examples from films like “Mandingo,” “Amistad” and “12 Years a Slave,” panelists discuss how filmmakers have framed the idea of slavery. They also describe changes in race relations and gender portrayals in films and how slave characters have shifted from the background into leading roles. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

Hollywood and the Passage of the 13th Amendment (9:30PM ET 8/21/2014; 2AM ET 8/22/2014)

Professor Matthew Pinsker talks about Stephen Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, analyzing what is fact and what is Hollywood fiction. The video for this should be available online by Tuesday, August 28, 2014.

Civil War History and the Film Gone With the Wind (10:20PM ET 8/21/2014; 1:12AM ET 8/22/2014)

Jeffrey McClurken talked about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind,” looking at it as a source on southern culture during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and reflective of the Depression era in which it was created. (This can be viewed online; see here. The video might require the Flash web-browser plug-in for viewing.)

These three videos will be useful for folks interested in slavery and the way that slavery and emancipation have been portrayed on film, especially by Hollywood.

Also of interest is this article on Examiner.com: Black slave movies are proven winners in Hollywood, which identifies the most popular slave movies to date.

Camp William Penn to be Commemorated with Parade, USCT Living History Association Conference – 9/20 & 9/21

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Flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

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Second flyer for Camp Penn Commemoration activities

Camp William Penn, the US Army enlistment and training site for African Americans from the Philadelphia, PA/Delaware Valley area during the Civil War, will be commemorated with a number of activities on Friday, September 20, 2013, and Saturday, September 21, 2013 in Fort Washington and Elkins Park, PA, just outside of Philadelphia. This will include a parade on Saturday at 10 AM. Alongside the commemoration events, the United States Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) is holding its Annual Meeting and Banquet.

Information about the events is provided on the flyers above, and more info is here on Facebook:
https://www.facebook.com/USCTLHA#

A number of people have come together to organize these activites, including the 3rd and 6th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) Reenactors, Citizens for the Restoration of Historic La Mott (La Mott, PA, is the site of Camp Penn), the Camp William Penn Museum, and the USCTLHA.

The USCTLHA Annual Meeting activities will include a conference on Friday, September 20, at 4PM and a banquet on Saturday, September 21, at 6PM. The USCTLHA is a non-profit national organization “whose purpose is to promote and accurately interpret the history of the United States Colored Troops of the American Civil War and those that supported their efforts to abolish slavery and preserve the Union and to educate the public and promote research of the history and legacy of those who served in the Civil War.” Their website is here.

I will not be able to attend the event, unfortunately for me. I wish the best to those who are conducting and participating in these activities.

What if Slaves Wrote the History of Georgia?


A slave family in Georgia, circa 1850. How would they write the history of Georgia?
Source: New York Historical Society

As the historian Melvyn Stokes has observed, “the traditional focus” of American history has been “on the centers of political, economic, and social power and the doings of elite white men.” He also observed that in the last several decades, historical study has turned its eyes on groups that had largely been “ignored and misinterpreted.”

The history of the United States with respect to the role of enslaved people is a case in point. Much of US history, in our schoolbooks and popular culture, has been told from the perspective of white slaveholders and nonslaveholders; the viewpoint of slaves themselves was often ignored. There has been, though, a sea change in this since the 1950s, thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the growth of an educated African American middle class, and modern historians of all races and backgrounds.

But it’s not as if, throughout history, African Americans have made no attempt at their own telling the story of America. One example of this is the 1890 book A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, written by Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944). Johnson was born enslaved, and grew-up to become an educator, historian, attorney, and politician. As noted by Andrew Leiter at the Documenting the American South website,

Edward Johnson wrote this book in 1890 to counteract the lack of African American representation in textbooks, or to correct, as he says, “the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors.” He offers sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies–northern and southern. He presents the accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves, including poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, as well as the mathematician and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the valorous roles African Americans played in America’s various wars…

The latter part of Johnson’s book is devoted to the progress of the African American race since Emancipation. He describes the early successes of reconstruction despite southern white resistance… Johnson includes this information on the progress of the race in his textbook “to inspire new zeal and fresh courage, that each one of you may add something more to what has already been accomplished.” Johnson concludes his book with a collection of sketches of notable secular and religious African Americans.

In his book, Johnson provides a brief history of the state of Georgia. Compare this to what you’ve learned and know about the state from school and other sources:

GEORGIA.

From the time of its settlement in 1732 till 1750 this colony held no slaves. Many of the inhabitants were anxious for the introduction of slaves, and when the condition of the colony finally became hopeless they sent many long petitions to the Trustees, stating that “the one thing needful” for their prosperity was Negroes.

It was a long time before the Trustees would give their consent; they said that the colony of Georgia was designed to be a protection to South Carolina and the other more Northern colonies against the Spanish, who were then occupying Florida, and if the colonists had to control slaves it would weaken their power to defend their colonies. Finally, owing to the hopeless condition of the Georgia colony, the Trustees yielded. Slaves were introduced in large numbers.

The famous minister, George Whitfield, referring to his plantation in this colony, said: “Upward of five thousand pounds have been expended in the undertaking, and yet very little proficiency made in the cultivation of my tract of land, and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands. Had a Negro been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which has been laid out.” He purchased a plantation in South Carolina, where slavery existed, and speaks of it thus: “Blessed be God! This plantation has succeeded; and though at present I have only eight working hands, yet, in all probability, there will be more raised in one year, and without a quarter of the expense, than has been produced at Bethesda for several years past. This confirms me in the opinion I have entertained for a long time, that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without Negroes are allowed.”

Prosperity came with the slaves, and, as in the case of Virginia, the colony of Georgia took a fresh start and began to prosper. White labor proved a failure. It was the honest and faithful toil of the Negro that turned the richness of Georgia’s soil into English gold, built cities and created large estates, gilded mansions furnished with gold and silver plate.

(James) Oglethorpe (who founded the colony) planned the Georgia colony as a home for Englishmen who had failed in business and were imprisoned for their debts. These English people were out of place in the wild woods of America, and continued a failure in America, as well as in England, until the toiling but “heathen” African came to their aid.

Cotton Plantations were numerous in Georgia under the slave system. The slave-owners had large estates, numbering thousands of acres in many cases. The slaves were experts in the culture of cotton. The climate was adapted to sugarcane and rice, both of which were raised in abundance.

As they say, this puts a whole different spin on things.

“Ask a Slave” Asks, Can Slavery be Funny?

This is Episode 2 of the Web-based comedy series “Ask a Slave.” Azie Mira Dungey plays show host Lizzie Mae, who fields questions about her experience as slave to Martha Washington (George Washington’s wife).

Actress and slave enslaved-person reenactor Azie Mira Dungey is trying her hand at comedy which tackles a very difficult subject: American slavery. The website Ask A Slave: A Comedy Web Series features videos based on her experiences portraying slaves at Mount Vernon, a historical site in northern Virginia that preserves the estate of George Washington. Episode 2 of the show is shown above.

On the “Ask a Slave” website, Dungey discusses the genesis for her project:

I must have played every black woman of note that ever lived. From Harriet Tubman to Diane Nash to Claudette Colvin to Caroline Branham– Martha Washington’s enslaved Lady’s maid… Studying American history and the lives of these women, while virtually living in their heads and experiences each day, made me feel like I was in some sort of twisted time warp. This was also the time of Barack Obama’s first term in White House and his subsequent run for a second term.

I ask you to remember the racial tension that was all around. We had people saying that the President would be planting watermelons on the White House lawn. Emails were forwarded proclaiming that this was the beginning of a race war and the end of the country as we know it. People bought guns. (A lot of guns.) A scientist reported the evolutionary explanation as to why black women were the least attractive of all the races. The Oprah Show ended. It was mass chaos.

And in the midst of all this, I was playing a slave. Everyday, I was literally playing a slave. I mean, I was getting paid well for it, don’t get me wrong, and we all need a day job. But all the same, I was having all these experiences, and emotions. Talking to 100s of people a day about what it was like to be black in 18th Century America. And then returning to the 21st Century and reflecting on what had and had not changed.

So, I wanted a way to present all of the most interesting, and somewhat infuriating encounters that I had, the feelings that they brought up, and the questions that they left unanswered. I do not think that Ask A Slave is a perfect way to do so, but I think that it is a fun, and a hopefully somewhat enriching start.

While all of that does seem like fertile ground for further exploration, making a comedy about slavery seems like a tough sell. Even today, slavery is an extremely sensitive subject that raises feelings of anger, guilt, and shame. It is perhaps the ultimate taboo topic in American history. I wonder how far the series can go before the treatment of the subject becomes, as one 19th century girl said about Civil War-related entrainment, “too perfect for enjoyment.”

But I did enjoy the first two episodes of the show, and I look forward to more. I am very interested in seeing how the creative team is going to approach the character and the content for the show. In the first episode, show host Lizzie Mae becomes somewhat flustered at the not-too-smart questions she’s getting, and comes off seeming like – dare I say it – an Angry Black Woman. I think the anger is righteous, and I like the satire in it, but some members of the audience might be turned off. The second episode makes more use of deadpan and irony, and I thought that it was funny and more palatable for a wide audience. Time will tell what kind of groove the creators will get into. I’ll certainly be watching to see how it goes.

For those who are interested:  Azie Mira Dungey is scheduled for an interview about her series on National Public Radio’s national midday show Here and Now. The show is expected to air on Friday, Sept 6th. Check your local NPR station for scheduling.

PS: I do disagree with a critique that blogger Kevin Levin has about the show. He did not find the show to be funny, and that’s OK; comedy, as with many things, is a matter of taste. But he also said this:

There is no exploration as to why some of these questions are problematic. She merely pokes fun at the visitors’ questions. I suspect that there are any number of factors beyond mere intelligence that shapes the kinds of questions posed to reenactors at historic sites. I wonder what the staff at Mount Vernon thinks of this.

I think that’s the wrong way to look at this series. I don’t see this show as having a pedagogic intent, that is, it’s not about providing teaching moments or insights into the thought processes of visitors to historic sites and their notions of slavery. It’s just a comedy show. I don’t hold this show accountable for addressing the issues that Mr. Levin suggests. In the same way, I don’t hold Saturday Night Live’s news segment accountable for thoughtful and nuanced information about current events. I just hope they’ll be funny.

Having said that: the creative team does have a challenge to face. Their job is to get the history right – they can’t make fun of the kinds of questions they’re getting, if they get the history wrong in the answers they give. I hope they understand that they have this responsibility, and I hope they deal with it in a righteous manner.

“Battle of Manassas,” by Tom “Blind Tom” Wiggins

This is Battle of Manassas by Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, circa 1861. It might take two or three listens to “get” this piece, but once you get it, you might find it moving.

Tom Wiggins was black, blind, brilliant, autistic, artistic, and enslaved. His life defies our imagination, yet, there he was, and one of his gifts to us is his piano mashup “Battle of Manassas.”

As told at the website BlindTom.org, Tom was precocious child who defied the term “handicapped”:

Blind Tom was one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary performers. An autistic savant with an encyclopedic memory, all-consuming passion for the piano and mind-boggling capacity to replicate – musically and vocally – any sound he heard, his name was a byword for eccentricity and oddball genius.

Blind Tom was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia in 1848. His master, Wiley Jones, unwilling to clothe and feed a disabled ‘runt’, wanted him dead and, if not for vigilance of his mother, Charity, Tom would not have survived his infancy. But when Tom was nine months old, Wiley Jones put the baby, his two older sisters and parents up for auction, intending to sell the family off individually and not as a unit. The chances of anyone buying blind infant were remote – his death was as good as certain.

Tom’s life was again spared, thanks to the tenacity of his mother. A few weeks before the auction, Charity approached a neighbor, General James Bethune, and begged him to save them from the auction block. At first he refused her, but on the day of the sale, the lawyer and newspaperman turned up at the slave mart and purchased the family.

Apart from his blindness, Tom was ‘just like any other baby’ at first, but a few months after arriving at the Bethune Farm, things began to change and the toddler began to echo the sounds around him. If a rooster crowed, he made the same noise. If a bird sang, he would pursue it or attack his younger siblings just to hear them scream. If left alone in the cabin, he would drag chairs across the floor or bang pans and pots together – anything to make a noise.

By the age of four, Tom could repeat conversations ten minutes in length, but expressed his own needs in whines and tugs. Unless constantly watched, he would escape: to the chicken coop, woods and finally to the piano in his master’s house, the sound of each note causing his young body to tremble in ecstasy. After a string of unwelcome visits, General Bethune finally recognized the stirrings of a musical prodigy in the raggedy slave child and installed him in the Big House where he underwent extensive tuition.

Music saved – and changed – Tom Wiggins’ life. He went on to become a great performer, something akin to the Fats Waller or Liberace of his era. His unlikely combination of blackness, autism, virtuosity, and creativity made for an irresistible combination on the stage. According to one source, he was the first African AMerican to perform at the White House, when he performed for president Patrick Buchanan (who preceded Abraham Lincoln in office).

One of Wiggins’ most memorable performances was “Battle of Manassas.” Dedicated to the July 1861 Confederate victory in Northern Virginia that made Stonewall Jackson famous (it was also known as the Battle of Bull Run), it combined music from several songs and his own unique arrangement and vocalizations to produce a stunning work. As described at Blind Tom.org,

Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale. “In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault”, said biographer Deirdre O’Connell, author of The Ballad of Blind Tom.

The song is a fine piece, but it might take several hearings to fully understand the depth and imagination of the piece. What Jimi Hedrix’s Star Spangled Banner was to the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s, Wiggins’ Battle of Manassas was to the Civil War generation. Its stunning, bombastic end properly recalls the boom of war, and then some.

The website BlindTom.org is an excellent way to learn more about Wiggins. This web video gives a quick recap of his life:

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.