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Mark Twain House To Show Films About Blacks In America

'The Birth Of A Nation,' DJ Spooky's 'Rebirth Of A Nation,' Documentaries About Blacks Part Of Series


March 05, 2012

Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford this month opens "Hateful Things," an exhibit of racist memorabilia, as part of the "Race, Rage & Redemption" series. As a complement, the Twain House will show a series of films about the black experience in America, both bad and good.

Beginning the series on Wednesday, March 14, are two documentaries produced in 1998 by Connecticut Public Television: "African Americans in Connecticut." One, narrated by Ossie Davis, covers the Colonial era to the Civil War. The second, narrated by Ruby Dee, covers the Civil War to the present day.

The first documentary begins with a discussion of Venture Smith, a slave purchased in Africa who later bought his freedom and that of his whole family, and later bought land in HaddamNeck.

Other prominent blacks profiled are Revolution veteran Nero Hawley, religious leaders Jeremiah Asher and James Pennington, writer Ann Plato, educator Rebecca Primus and Amistad rebel Cinque.

Some of the most prominent people profiled in the first episode, ironically, are white: educatorPrudence Crandall, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" author Harriet Beecher Stowe, radical abolitionist John Brown.

The film also traces the gradual movement of blacks from the farms to the cities, and toward emancipation. It was a slow process. A law was passed in 1784, but total emancipation of Connecticut's African Americans wasn't achieved until more than 60 years later.

Part two takes up after emancipation, describing a backlash that led whites to deny blacks the right to vote and challenged their right to full citizenship. This was also an era of "scientific racism," the belief, backed up by seemingly legitimate research, that whites were evolutionarily superior to blacks.

Among the prominent opponents to this belief was P.T. Barnum, who is quoted "God has made of one blood all the nations of men. A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It is still an immortal spirit without regard to color or condition. All men are equally children of a common Father."

Moving into the 20th century, the story moves through World War I, increased immigration of blacks from the Jim Crow South, hiring discrimination, World War II when Jamaicans were brought here to work on tobacco farms, as well as southern teens includingMartin Luther King Jr. the Civil Rights era and beyond.

The documentaries celebrate blacks' progress up to this point giving a special mention to artists Charles Ethan Porter and Laura Wheeler Waring and writer Ann Petry but also makes clear that they still have a long way to go.

Among those seen in the documentaries are historians Stephen Ray Jr., David White, Christopher Collier, Farah Griffin, Maisa Tisdale, Khalid Lum, Deirdre Bibby, Dale Plummer, Kazimiera Kozlowski, Chrisopher Cloud, Charles Bellinger, Herb Janick and Eugene Leach, religious leaders Barb Headley, Ned Edwards, Samuel Slie and William S. Coffin and local luminaries such as former Hartford Mayor Carrie Saxon Perry, former Hartford Fire Chief John B. Stewart Jr., Yale Prof. Willie Ruff and U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley.

'Birth' And 'Rebirth'

Another film to be shown at the fest is "Ethnic Notions," a study of the origins of demeaning stereotypes of blacks, and how those stereotypes are revived whenever blacks make societal advances.

One common theme in the documentaries is the huge step backward in white-black relations that happened in 1915, when the movie "The Birth of a Nation" was released.

That legendary film, by cinema pioneer and Kentucky nativeD.W. Griffith, was as artistically groundbreaking as it was philosophically immoral. It idealized the slave-era South, depicted emancipated blacks as lazy and out of control and made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan.

The movie revived interest in the Klan, spreading it to Northern states and swelling its ranks nationwide. When distributors tried to bring the film back to Hartford in 1922, it was banned.

As part of the film series, that film will be shown in its three-hour-plus entirety. But a few weeks later, it will be followed by a screening of "Rebirth of a Nation," hip-hop artist DJ Spooky's 90-minute "remix" of the classic film.

DJ Spooky uses the "Rebirth" remix to point out Griffith's factual biases and intentional omissions, to show "how easily a revisionist history can be introduced to the mainstream."

"How can we deprogram ourselves," he says in a narration. "There are many different versions or possibilities to any story."

DJ Spooky will give a lecture after the "Rebirth of a Nation" screening.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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