Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Way out West: Images of African Americans in the Wild West

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American West was a place that blacks felt they could start over.  Between 1865 and 1920, thousands of blacks left the South to establish towns, make money, and create better lives.  Movies tend to ignore their presence, but African Americans were a part of the Wild West as lawmen, outlaws, soldiers, cowboys, settlers, and adventurers.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves escaped slavery into Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) sometime during the Civil War.  After working as a scout and a tracker he was hired as a deputy U.S. Marshal in 1875.  He reportedly made 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws during his 32 year career.   

This flier promoted an anniversary celebration for Benjamin "Pap" Singleton's birthday.  Singleton was one of the leaders of the Exoduster movement of African Americans who left the hardships of the South and settled in Kansas.  Many of Singleton's colonies failed and life in Kansas was difficult for the new settlers.  Singleton's Dunlap Colony, however, was successfully established in the late 1870s.

 Henry Williams and Reece Switzer were settlers of Nicodemus, Kansas.  Founded in 1877, Nicodemus was one of the black towns established during the Exoduster Movement.

Nona Marshall photographed in her ostrich feather hat during the late 19th century or early 20th century in the Arizona Territory.

Also known as Ned Huddleston, Isom Dart was an outlaw in Wyoming Territory.  He was also nicknamed the "Black Fox" or the "Calico Cowboy", and rode with the Tip Gault Gang.  After life as a horse thief and cattle rustler he decided to give that up and set up his own ranch.  But some ranchers didn't believe he really gave up cattle rustling, and they hired hitman Tom Horn to take care of him.  Horn decided not to bring him in alive, and gunned Isom Dart down in 1900.     

 Lou Southworth was a settler and fiddler in Oregon.  His master took him on the Oregon Trail into Oregon Territory in 1853.  Southworth tried gold mining in southern Oregon and California to pay for his freedom, but he soon realized that he could earn more money from music than mining.  So, he became a violin instructor and played at dance schools in California and Nevada.  He earned enough money to pay for his freedom and became free in 1859.  

Paul Cephas Howell, about 1880.  Howell settled in Salt Lake City in 1874, and became the first black police detective in the United States.

George Stevens and his wife Lucinda Vilate Flake.  His mother was Spanish and her parents were African American, but they were legally married in Utah in 1872.  Interracial marriage became illegal in Utah in 1888 and would remain illegal until 1963.

Bill Pickett was a rodeo performer of African, European, and Cherokee ancestry.  Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett performed in silent films and the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show between 1905 and 1931.  He invented steer wrestling (or bulldogging), toured the world, and was friends with entertainers like Will Rogers and Tom Mix.   

"Stagecoach" Mary Fields arrived in the town of Cascade, Montana in 1884.  6 feet tall, and rarely without a pistol hidden beneath her apron, a shotgun, a jug of whiskey, and a cigar, Fields became the first African American and the second woman to work for the US Postal Service in 1895.  In her 60s, she rode a stagecoach across the dangerous Montana territory, delivering mail on time no matter the weather or terrain.  She didn't take any nonsense from any man - one newspaper said she had "broken more noses than any other person in Montana."  Fields eventually became a beloved citizen of the town of Cascade.  She could have free meals at a town hotel, and residents even rebuilt her house after it burned down in 1912.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Silent Film Starlet Louise Brooks Gets the Hollywood Treatment

It looks like Fox Searchlight has gotten the rights to adapt Laura Moriarty's novel The Chaperone.  The novel is about a 15 year old Louise Brooks and a fictionalized Alice Mills (Cora Carlisle in the novel), who chaperones her on her summer trip to New York City in 1922.  She's supposed to make sure Louise behaves.  Good luck lady.  Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern is attached to the film and will play the chaperone. It's been on my to read list because it's set in the 1920s (my favorite era), and because Louise Brooks is my favorite silent film star.  I can't wait to find out who will get to play her.

 Louise at about age 16, circa 1923

In her day, Brooks was apparently considered a "second-tier star".  We'd probably consider her a B-list celebrity if she was around today, but she became an icon over the years.

Her early years weren't always good.  A bachelor she dubbed "Mr. Feathers" or sometimes "Mr. Flowers" molested her when she was nine years old.  It was a memory she would block out for decades.  She ditched high school, left Wichita, Kansas and began her career dancing in 1922 after Ruth St. Denis invited Brooks to her dance company.

After being fired from the dance company she was hired to be a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1925.  Once a producer saw her in the Follies, she was given a contract with Paramount.  She was 19 years old.

Brooks had a reputation for being direct, and utterly unimpressed by Hollywood.  But the celebrity mags seemed to love her, especially her sleek black hair.  If Brooks got a mention in the fan magazines, so did her High-brow Bob.  Or her square bob.  Or her bangs.  Her love life - including her "wild and swift" romance with director Eddie Sutherland - was the source of endless fascination and speculation.

 Pandora's Box

Though half of her 14 films with Paramount are considered lost, it is her work outside of Paramount - 1929's Pandora's Box - that Brooks is most remembered for.  Originally, the film bombed, and the critics hated her performance ("Louise Brooks cannot act," one said bluntly), but as time went by, critics like Kenneth Tynan recognized her alluring paradoxes:
She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. 
When she returned to Hollywood, her career in American films was practically over.  Silent film stars who wanted to stay in talkies had to make the transition fast, and she missed the opportunity by making movies in Europe for too long.

You can head on over to YouTube for a look at a rare interview with Louis Brooks in her later years.

Who would you cast to play Louise Brooks?

"The Girl in the Black Helmet" by Kenneth Tynan
"The Martyrdom of Lulu" by Dan Callahan
Photoplay Magazine (January-June 1927)

Further Reading
When Kenneth Met Lulu
Opening Pandora's Box by J. Hoberman

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Manuscripts of Medieval Timbuktu

Before militants fled Timbuktu last month, they set fire to the library inside the Ahmed Baba Institute. The library housed thousands of treasured manuscripts, some of which the militants tried to burn. But as it turns out, thousands of texts had already been stealthily removed by librarians and security guards. At night, library staff packed manuscripts onto donkey carts and transported them to boats on the Niger River. Then, the boats sailed to Mopti, which was out of militant control. From Mopti, a truck, took the manuscripts to Bamako, Mali’s capital. But even the few hundred manuscripts that the militants burned had reportedly already been digitized.

Manuscripts in the library included the Tariqh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), a 17th century narrative of the history of the Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire rose in the 14th century after the Mali Empire began to fall. The capital of the Songhai Empire was another historic Malian city – Gao. The Tariqh al-Sudan, called Timbuktu:
"a refuge of scholarly and righteous folk, a haunt of saints and ascetics, and a meeting place for caravans and boats." 
Other manuscripts also included Korans, inventories, receipts, letters and documents on medicine, chemistry, geography, history, astronomy, literature, poetry, grammar, magic, botany, mathematics, women’s rights and law. Most documents were written between in Arabic, but others were written in Songhai, Tamashek, and Bambara.

The new library in the Ahmed Baba Institute housed tens of thousands of manuscripts and it has been estimated that these manuscripts were one-fifth of all the texts in the Timbuktu area. Documents outside of the library were in Timbuktu’s public and private libraries or hidden in the city and in surrounding towns. The library staff wanted to restore and digitize Timbuktu’s documents, but residents were still reluctant to loan or even sell their manuscripts, wanting to protect their heritage themselves.

Over the years many residents of Timbuktu tried to preserve these documents, vigilant in their mission to protect their history from invasions from Morocco, the Songhai Empire, and France in the late 19th century. They have also had to face the challenges of termites, the passage of time, and illegal trafficking of manuscripts. Residents have hidden these family heirlooms under furniture or floors or in the desert sand to protect them. Sometimes old hiding places are found, the original owners long forgotten about the hiding place. During this most recent invasion by militants residents once again hid their family manuscripts to preserve their history.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries Timbuktu was a city of learning for scholars from all over the world. There were refugees from Spain, teachers and students from Cairo, Baghdad, and Persia, and intellectuals from the Mali and Songhai Empires. It developed from a trading center, and by the 16th century had become a university town. The learning spread to other cities like Gao and Djénné. It was in the early 16th century that Askia Mohammed ruled the Songhai Empire, a huge West African empire which included Timbuktu. During that time, adventurer and visitor Hassan ibn Muhammed al Wazzan al Fasi (also known as Leo Africanus) wrote:

“In the city are many judges, doctors, and clerics, all well-financed by the king, who greatly honors lettered men…Many hand-written books are sold there that come from Barbary, and from these more is earned than from any other merchandise.”

 Sankoré Mosque by Baz Lecocq

Camel caravans brought salt to Timbuktu. From the 12th century onwards, scholars came with these caravans, transporting thousands of texts on their journey. Merchants also brought textiles and spices from places like Granada to Mecca, in exchange for gold, ivory, and slaves from Ghana. Goods were bought and sold with cowrie shells and gold nuggets. Scholars began to leave Timbuktu after late 16th century invasions from Morocco forced them from the city.

In addition to manuscripts, modern Timbuktu is home to historical buildings. The most famous being three large 13th and 14th century earthen-brick mosques – Djingarey Ber, Sankoré, and Sidi Yahia – which formed the University of Timbuktu. The militants destroyed many of the tombs at these mosques several months ago.   Unesco officials are preparing to rebuild the tombs.

Further Reading
Ibn Battuta's: Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
Leo Africanus: Description of Timbuktu
Tombouctou Manuscripts Project