The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow--PBS Series

The first two parts of The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow are 60 minutes each. A lot of information is communicated in a fairly efficient manner. If you had seen DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) (the entire film can be viewed at video.google.com or read the two books -- The Klansman (1903) and The Leopard's Spots (1901) by Thomas Dixon upon which the plot of the The Birth of a Nation was based-- you will recognize many of the images and substantial portions of the narrative, except that Griffith simply reversed antagonist with victim, making blacks the antagonists and whites the victims who then bravely bring the "Negro rebellion" under control. It is just crazy but it is a skillfully made film, in fact innovative in the genre at the time and there were no lack fo racist audiences who were eager to see it in 1915. It didn't help at all that the president then, Woodrow Wilson, had it screened it at the White House and then endorsed the film in a statement that was then included in the film.

The odd thing about The Birth of a Nation, which presents itself as being about the Civil War and Reconstruction, is that it is actually about events related to the political ascendancy of Jim Crow taking place at the turn of the century and in the early 20th century.  In this we see a characteristic danger in historical film dramas (from Gone With the Wind to JFK), which is that they almost always reveal a lot more about the time in which they were made than about the period represented.

But the important thing about paying attention to this now is to see what happens when people get confident enough to believe that the situation is settled and that nothing can overturn the progress that has been made. In a country of our size and history, that probably won't ever be true. So I think one should be careful and humble.

I am hoping we can find time to schedule some portion of a screening of The Rise and Fall. The book by Richard Wormser (St. Martin's Press 2003) has some interesting illustrations, as does the dvd (which can be purchased via California Newsreel) and the PBS website.

As somebody who is interested in tracking the history of images in photography and film for what the surviving fragments can tell us about events and people, it is irritating beyond belief to encounter again and again this dumbed down techno-wizardry which will use the ocean lapping up on the beach or the side of a boat as a perpetual stand-in for the slave trade, or any vaguely old vaguely humble group of blacks in a photograph to stand in for a group of slaves, or ex-slaves or migrants to the North, as the case may warrant. The photographers are never identified even when they are known. The situation in which the photograph is known is never talked about.

They call them stock images or stock footage.  It happens all the time in films and other uses of photographs and I never was bothered about it at all until I became a student of African American history and culture, so I would suppose it happens with images of people in every society now.  The way images are used in a technological society is designed to eventually make it impossible to track their genealogy of creation and use.  

Photographic and filmic images rarely come with provenances in the way that art images are expected to have, and when they do, it is a deep dark secret difficult to obtain and impossible to make public.

In the Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, I recognize a fair number of photographs that are used.  

In particular one photographer who did very special work, Julian Dimock.  Soon after the turn of the century, he and his father, a writer of travel literature, went on a trip to Columbia, South Carolina and Beaufort, North Carolina and took a number of pictures of the people in the black communities there immediately following the downfall of the Republican Party and the forcing out of office of all black office holders.  

The Souls of Black Folk was published right before their trip.  The resulting photographs, are a perfect accompaniment to Du Bois's text. These photographs were taken in Beaufort, North Carolina (an isolated region of the state) and Columbia, South Carolina of  black men, women and children following the so-called "Wilmington Massacre" portrayed strikingly by the African American writer Charles Chesnutt in the novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) in which white racists physically prevented black registered voters from voting in local elections and also forcibly ejected local black office holders from office.  

The people look poor and a little shabby but their dignity and coherence is striking. In particular, most of the photographs were of children who make the best photographic subjects in all circumstances. Dimocks' pictures had been hidden away in the Museum of Natural History for decades when somebody there decided to publish them in a book so that we could see what this community looked liked given the extraordinary political pressures of the time. Several of these photographs are used in the documentary The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, without any mention of their origin.  Probably the reason why it took so long for Dimock to be presented in such a monograph is partly because the lack of popularity in our time for photographs of black people taken by white photographers, particularly in this period of Jim Crow history.  

Included in Dimock's collection was a photograph of Robert Smalls, a native Beaufortian whose life is described in Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839-1915.  Smalls had served five terms as a U.S. congressman but by 1904 when Dimock took his picture such offices were no longer viable for blacks because of Jim Crow laws. 

This shuffling of unidentified images is a technique which has existed for a long time, but which has become associated in my mind with Ken Burns' approach to documentary as popularized in his series on The Civil War.  The historical critique of his documentary on The Civil War is more highly developed than the criticism of his many other documentaries, as demonstrated in Robert Brent Toplins' Ken Burns's The Civil War: Historians Respond (Oxford University Press 1996).

No comments: