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Scraping away the whitewash

African-American film series reveals hidden histories

The Black Press is one of three films to be shown as - part - of Penrose Librarys African-American Film Series.
  • The Black Press is one of three films to be shown as part of Penrose Librarys African-American Film Series.

Civil rights activists, women, gays, migrants and other minorities know that so-called unbiased, historical accounts always have a bias. In the teaching of American history, for example, the role of African-Americans is often overlooked.

This month, Penrose Library is helping to fill in some of those missing stories with a series of documentaries exploring African-American life. The films demonstrate how negative imagery, biased news reporting and one-sided historical accounts can distort, obscure and heighten racial tensions.

Ethnic Notions, a 1987 Emmy-winning documentary, scrutinizes the images mass media has used to reflect and subsequently influence public perceptions of African-Americans. The images range from the evolution of minstrels -- whites and later blacks sporting blackened faces and white makeup -- to cartoon caricatures and celluloid depictions. From the portrayal of happily contented slaves before the abolition of slavery to the irresponsible work-shy clown during the age of Jim Crow, these images distorted reality while suiting white needs.

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords documents the challenge black-owned newspapers presented to these false caricatures and the voice they gave to African-Americans. Through voiceovers, grainy newsreels, stark photographs and interviews with journalists and long-retired paperboys, the history of black publishing is a wonderful story of the human spirit succeeding against the odds.

Its heroes are the black journalists and publishers who fought racism with words, including Samuel E. Cornish, 32, and John B. Russwurm, 28, editors of Freedom's Journal, the first black-owned newspaper in 1827. The paper lasted only two years, but paved the way for 24 other papers published before the Civil War, including North Star, published by escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Perhaps two of the most influential publishers were Robert S. Abbott, owner of The Chicago Defender, and Charlotta A. Bass of the California Eagle. Their wit, cynicism and attitude remained thorns in the white establishment's side for over 35 years.

The Black Press is also a tale of intrepid reporters like Ida B. Wells, the 29-year-old publisher of Memphis' The Free Speech. After she wrote a series of articles in 1892 damning Southern lynchings, a lynch mob destroyed the paper's offices forcing her into exile for 30 years. Wells continued her courageous work, publishing in another black paper, The New York Age.

The last documentary, When Black Men Ruled the World: Egypt During the Golden Age, is part one of a series, taking a racially non-biased look at ancient history, developed for high school students by Legrand H. Clegg II. Though pitched at a younger audience, it is a fascinating rethinking of ancient history raising many questions including: If Adam and Eve existed, were they black? Were the Egyptians descended from black Africans? If, as anthropologists suggest, Africa is the land that populated the rest of the world, do we not all have black roots, irrespective of our race?

All three documentaries scrape aside white-washed history to reveal long repressed and overlooked stories, helping to make the world a little less monotone.

-- Wayne Young


African-American Film Series

Sunday, Feb. 27, 2005, 1:30-5 p.m.

Penrose Public Library, 20 N. Cascade Ave.


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