New England roundup #16

Screengrab from 1974 WGBH report on anti-busing rally in Boston (click image to link to video).
Screengrab from 1974 WGBH report on anti-busing rally in Boston (click image to link to video).

After an irritatingly persistent illness, I’m getting back into action:

The color of Scouting during World War II

Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)
Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)

This year marks the one-hundredth birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. In a new guest post up today over at The Lazy Scholar, I discuss my nagging interest in the Scouts’ history and suggest some ways the digital archive can allow historians to pierce the organization’s own mythology and examine its place in American life. Have a look. (And my thanks to Stephen for the platform.)

One archival resource that I ran out of room to discuss in the post is the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress (LOC), which offers several hundred images of Boy Scout activities. Many of these were created by Office of War Information (OWI) photographers during World War II, and they hint that at how Scouting’s social composition became part of the government’s wartime propaganda effort. A 1942 image, taken by an OWI photographer at the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, depicts the African American members of Troop 446. Others depict a multiracial group eating dinner at a Scout camp in New York and Portuguese American boys in New Bedford, MA.

Most striking are the two seen above. On the left: “colored, white and Chinese Boy scouts in front of the Capitol”, holding a poster celebrating the Allied coalition. On the right: a second photo of the same scene, including only the white boy. (The LOC metadata suggests a July 1941 date for the photographs, but that doesn’t seem right: both the OWI and the term “United Nations” originated in 1942.)

Although I don’t think he examines these specific photographs, George H. Roeder’s vividly-illustrated book The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (1993) establishes their context. The OWI made sophisticated use of photographic imagery—and distribution channels segmented by race and region—to celebrate social harmony on the home front without upsetting existing social arrangements. This pair of images offers powerful evidence that the Boy Scouts participated in both prongs of this effort.

Rapid response

Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)
Add-a-gay Tim Bagley (cc photo by NoHoDamon)

Last week, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) released its 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index, “an evaluation of the quantity, quality and diversity of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on television.” In the report, GLAAD gave CBS a failing grade, citing a lack of “LGBT series regular characters on any of its scripted programs.” Only seven percent of CBS’s primetime program-hours were deemed “LGBT-Inclusive.”

Yesterday, presenting CBS’s fall schedule, network president Nina Tassler declared, “We know we will do better.” Specifically, Tassler promised, “We’re going to meet Alicia’s brother on The Good Wife as a gay character. We’re also going to be adding a new character to Rules of Engagement. Jeff and Audrey’s surrogate will be a member of Jeff’s softball team and she’s a lesbian. We’re also going to be recurring a gay character in Bleep My Dad Says. The character Tim Bagley played will be returning this season.”

I don’t watch any of these shows. But I still find this sequence of events interesting and remarkable, for a number of reasons. It seems especially noteworthy to me right now as I plow through primary sources documenting several decades of pressure by African American activists and performers to increase the number of black faces on primetime TV, often to quite limited effect. Indeed, just a year and a half ago, the NAACP identified a “critical lack of programming by, for or about people of color.” CBS’s swift reaction to GLAAD’s report, I think, highlights a fundamental difference between efforts to make television programming more racially and more sexually diverse—the far greater ease, for better or for worse, with which producers seem to be able to tack gay and lesbian characters (usually, white, male ones) onto already-existing pilots and shows.

“There is consolation in the thought that America is young”

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. National Archives and Records Administration, ARC identifier 558770

For the past couple of years, I’ve taught excerpts of probably the most famous Fifth of July speech, Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 address, popularly known as the “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech. I was familiar, therefore, with the searing rhetoric of the speech’s climax:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelly to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

I took the opportunity today to read the full address, and wanted to share a couple other passages I found resonant. One comes from the opening section, where Douglass discusses what the holiday means to his (white) audience:

This celebration also marks the beginning of another year of your national life; and reminds you that the Republic of America is now 76 years old. I am glad, fellow-citizens, that your nation is so young. Seventy-six years, though a good old age for a man, is but a mere speck in the life of a nation. Three score years and ten is the allotted time for individual men; but nations number their years by thousands. According to this fact, you are, even now, only in the beginning of your national career, still lingering in the period of childhood. I repeat, I am glad this is so. There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon. The eye of the reformer is met with angry flashes, portending disastrous times; but his heart may well beat lighter at the thought that America is young, and that she is still in the impressible stage of her existence. May he not hope that high lessons of wisdom, of justice and of truth, will yet give direction to her destiny? Were the nation older, the patriot’s heart might be sadder, and the reformer’s brow heavier. Its future might be shrouded in gloom, and the hope of its prophets go out in sorrow. There is consolation in the thought that America is young.

The second comes from the end of the address, when Douglass, having delivered such lines as, “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie,” pivots suddenly to make common cause with the abolitionist audience—to talk of global interconnectedness, hope, and change, and to prove that there is very little new in American political rhetoric:

I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference. The time was when such could be done. Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind.

Three films, three protests

I’m currently working on synthesizing a number of existing accounts of minority protests against films of the silent and early sound eras, of the first social scientific accounts of the influence of film stereotypes on audiences, and of the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency as the primary external constraints on film content.  The result will serve either as a first chapter or as part of a long introduction.

Conveniently, each of the three most important players throughout this story—African American, Jewish, and Irish-Catholic groups—campaigned prominently against a different film of this period, and did so in a way I can use to illustrate the nature of their broader role in the story.  So the fulcrum of the chapter will be African American protests against D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Jewish protests against Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), and Irish and Catholic protests against The Callahans and the Murphys, a 1927 MGM comedy.

The last of these three cases is the most obscure but, I think, the most fascinating.  First, because aside from its offensive stereotypes of brawling, drinking, ditch-digging Irish, the film’s story of two women, Mrs. Callahan and Mrs. Murphy, who are at once friends and bitter rivals, sounds potentially entertaining and intriguingly modern (Mmes. Bluth and Austero, anyone?).  Second, because protests by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Catholic Church, and the Irish American press worked—the film was withdrawn from circulation—and intimated the success that a core of Catholic clergy and laity would have in shaping the regulation of film content in the years that followed.  And finally, because the film is lost—a sobering reminder that, notwithstanding the website promising to let you “Watch The Callahans And The Murphys Movie Free,” even in the digital age not every source is at your fingertips, after all.

New England roundup #2

About this feature: Each week, I compile recent articles and other items relating to New England’s history, its regional identity, and its future.  If you come across something interesting or relevant, please submit it for inclusion in a future post.  Click here for previous roundups.

Lena Horne and the campaign against film stereotypes in the 1940s

Lena Horne at Committee for Unity in Motion Pictures reception in 1944
Rex Ingram, Jesse Graves, Lena Horne, Ben Carter, and Dooley Wilson at a 1944 reception hosted by the Committee for Unity In Motion Pictures. From the Afro-American, August 5, 1944.

Lena Horne died yesterday at age 92.  Most obituaries, as well as President Obama’s statement, mention her activism both outside and within the movie industry.  The lede of Richard Corliss’s obit at Time also highlights the barriers she confronted by offering a pointed counterfactual Horne filmography with MGM: White CargoPinkyShow Boat–all roles that actually went to white actresses, despite the long-term contract she won in 1942.

As I’ve learned while researching my dissertation and reading film historian Thomas Cripps’s pathbreaking Making Movies Black, Horne was both symbolically and personally central in the intense struggle African Americans waged during World War II to transform how they were depicted on film.  NAACP executive secretary Walter White was a friend–Horne grew up in a middle-class, activist family in New York–and he encouraged her movie career, seeing her as a talent who could break from the “comic and menial” screen roles he abhorred.  (Shortly after the war, White also sought to tap Horne’s uncle, Frank, a poet and New Deal “race adviser,” to head the NAACP bureau he wanted to establish in Hollywood.)  And to some black actors who had carved out a place in the film capital, often by playing such roles, and who were already suspicious of White’s tendency to meet with white executives, producers, and stars on his Hollywood jaunts while ignoring them, Horne seemed further evidence of a takeover by outsiders from the East. Continue reading “Lena Horne and the campaign against film stereotypes in the 1940s”

“Colorful administrations”

A member of my dissertation committee advised me early in the project to watch movies from my period constantly, the better to develop a “density of authority.”  I’ve had mixed success at following this recommendation so far.  But it did recently lead me to watch—for the first time, embarrassingly—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 Stanley Kramer film on interracial marriage starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a wealthy, liberal, white couple whose daughter returns from a trip to Hawaii with a new fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier.

About halfway into the film (a minute into the clip below), Tracy’s character grills Poitier’s about the latter’s prospective children.  Poitier reports that his fiancé “feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States, and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”  Poitier, on the other hand, “would settle for Secretary of State.”

It’s an uncanny moment, certainly, when the president is the son of a well-educated black man and a younger white woman who met in Hawaii.  Some quick searching reveals that Ezra Klein and Frank Rich both noted it in the lead-up to the 2008 election.  (More often, commentators—most famously, BET founder Robert Johnson—drew a lazier comparison between Poitier’s character and Obama himself.)

The resonance is coincidental, of course.  But I wonder if it’s not accidental, on some level, that Hawaii was the launching pad for both the fictional Preston-Drayton and real Obama-Dunham marriages—that only in what Cokie Roberts assured us was a “foreign, exotic place” could such an interracial coupling occur, despite the favorable legal landscape across most of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Far West even before Loving v. Virginia.  Deserved mockery of Roberts aside, Hawaii’s real and imagined status as a racial and political borderland had an obvious role in Obama’s narrative as a source of both possibility (the Dunhams went there “in search of opportunity,” his 2004 convention speech declared) and distrust (ask any birther).  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner suggests a deeper history to such conceptions.  The resonance of this Hawaiian plot point with the 2008 election, in turn, underlines the intriguing centrality in that campaign of the legacies of nineteenth-century U.S. imperial ambitions: Obama’s Hawaii, McCain’s Panama Canal Zone, Palin’s Alaska.

Parenthetically, it’s also interesting to note that quite conservative gender and sexual politics of the scene above: Poitier assures Tracy that there will be children, because “it wouldn’t be a marriage” otherwise.