The Caribbean in Early Black Cinema Culture
The Caribbean in Early Black Cinema Culture
In the spring of 1906, Clarence “C. E.” Hawk’s Electrical Display of Life Motion Pictures arrived in Havana, Cuba, for a two-week tour on the island. The thirty-two year old black film exhibitor and his troupe had earned renown across the US South and the Caribbean for their extraordinary motion picture shows. The previous season, they had played in dozens of venues across Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. They thrilled their audiences with magic tricks, musical concerts, and films such as The Great Train Robbery, Condemnation of Faust, and actuality scenes of the black Ninth Calvary Regiment marching past President Theodore Roosevelt. Across the Gulf of Mexico, black audiences eagerly awaited Hawk’s “clear, interesting and instructive show.”1
Hawk and his contemporaries were pioneers of the motion pictures, but their contributions to modern cinema are still largely unrecognized. There are several reasons for this absence in the literature: Gaps in our historical knowledge reflect the larger challenges of writing about turn-of-the-century black life. There are limitations in the archives and difficulties in accessing extant records. Yet the black men and women who exhibited and circulated motion pictures at the turn of the century were literate and highly public, leaving more records about their lives than most of their black counterparts. Indeed, a great number of film exhibitors worked concurrently for black newspapers as editors, correspondents, or sales agents. More important, the methodologies and attributes of modern cinema, which have been framed by dominant white motion picture practices and the practices of the Hollywood-era film production, have led many to look past the locations of, indeed, even the very possibility of, this early black cinema culture.
When I began my research on race and early cinema, I was interested in turn-of-the-century black Americans’ responses to segregation in white-owned motion picture venues. These experiences, I believed, compelled black Americans to construct their own theaters and eventually to produce their own films during World War I. In the archives, I quickly found what I had expected to discover—white theater proprietors and managers openly discriminated against black patrons, who in turn picketed, sued, and otherwise demanded equal treatment. But as I continued my research, I encountered something much more complex. Past the pages of white film industry publications and newspapers, even past the theatrical announcements of black newspapers, the social and religious pages of the black press hinted at another landscape of turn-of-the-century black leisure. I first cast aside these practices as uncommon and infrequent. But eventually it became clear: blacks attended and exhibited motion pictures for black audiences in Canada, Mexico, the United States, and the Caribbean; some individuals even produced their own films before the nickelodeon period.
The Caribbean was critical to the formation of early-twentieth-century transnational circuits of black cinema culture. Its routes extended across geographies that have long framed studies of film history, particularly in regard to national cinema. Although the nation-state created boundaries around certain experiences, early black cinema demonstrated how diaspora could undermine, negotiate, or otherwise complicate notions of national belonging and citizenship. As geographer Doreen Massey has argued, place is “always constructed out of articulations of social relations” made within the context of broader political and economic forces.2 Place, in essence, is experienced uniquely by each subject, even when standing at the same physical coordinates of longitude and latitude.
Where, then, might we locate early black cinema? How can we map this arena of black social and cultural life at the turn of the twentieth century? And most significant, what would this tell us about how a population—migratory, subject to displacement, and excluded from citizenship—understood their shared place in the world? The history of early black cinema, and the role of the Caribbean within it, provides some insights into these questions.
Hawk described himself as the “first Negro owner of moving pictures south of the Mason and Dixon line,” but he was far from the first black entertainer to travel between the Caribbean and the United States.3 Black film exhibitors participated in a broader landscape of transnational black commercial leisure that developed at the turn of the century. A month before Hawk arrived in Cuba, the Porter Howard and Walson Rag-time Opera Company, along with white circus performer Baba Delgarian, traveled an almost identical route. They left Tampa, Florida, on 21 January 1906 for Havana. A perilous two-day journey in stormy weather brought them to Havana Bay, where they glided past the wreckage of the USS Maine, which stood “about twenty feet out of water.”4 After they dropped anchor at Morro Castle, the group moved inland to Havana, where they performed for standing-room-only crowds and distributed copies of the black newspaper the Indianapolis Freeman.
Black migrants from the West Indies also played an important role in introducing the motion pictures to black audiences in North America. For example, in 1900, Jamaican-born John E. Lewis purchased the equipment for a traveling motion picture show in Wichita, Kansas.5 It is unclear if he took his motion pictures beyond the Midwest, but it was no coincidence that this black West Indian migrant had become involved in the motion pictures. Broader, transnational forces contributed to ways black people across the Atlantic were reconfiguring their own sense of geographic place and belonging.
As Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz have explained, the “elements of modern life,” including mass production, urbanization, new technologies, and visual sensibilities, “created sufficient epistemological pressure to produce cinema.”6 Black film exhibitions first appeared in cities such as Savannah, Georgia; Havana, Cuba; and Kingston, Jamaica, with dense urban populations connected by railroads and ports that were established to meet the growing market demands of industrial capitalism. These developments both enabled the growth of global mass entertainment industries and fueled the widespread demand for commercial amusements such as the motion pictures. Moreover, these same modern elements were pivotal to the geographic transformation of turn-of-the-century black social and cultural life.
As with black film exhibition in the United States, black cinema practices across the Atlantic were shaped by the infrastructure of early-twentieth-century modes of transportation. Railroads, trains, steamboats, and transoceanic liners overlapped with the emerging networks of film distribution. Black film exhibitors rode the rails and boarded ships that circulated across these regions. Amid the political and economic upheavals of the late nineteenth century, black migrants traveled to cities such as Kingston, Jamaica, and Atlanta, Georgia, by the same railroads and ports that distributed reels of motion pictures. Across the Caribbean, townships emerged in the maritime, industrial, and commercial centers where black people worked. In Cuba, for example, urbanization increased sharply between 1899 and 1907, “when one-half of all urban centers in Cuba had between 1000 and 2000 residents.”7 Thus the relationships, networks of communication, economic exchanges, and sites of black film exhibition collectively reframed the map of turn-of-the-century black life.
When Hawk arrived in Cuba to exhibit his films, he contributed to the formation of such translocal geographies. Hawk’s route, which was centered on Florida and the Caribbean, reflected the intertwined history of black cinema, migration, and labor. When in Key West and Havana, Hawk likely catered to a cosmopolitan crowd of cigar workers that circulated between the United States and Cuba.8 And as he traveled, his motion pictures contributed to the common experiences and social networks that formed across Georgia, down the spine of Florida, and through Cuba, from Havana to Matanzas, Santa Clara, and Cienfuegos. In fact, prior to 1910, black cinema culture in these regions was more closely knit than that of, for example, African Americans living in Texas and New York City. These circuits push against the boundaries of the nation-state, throwing into relief a new geography of black sociality. The moving pictures served as an aspect of—and as a generating factor in—linking experiences across the black diaspora.
Other routes linked the US Midwest to cities in the Caribbean. Across these circuits, black film exhibitors may have played at any number of venues, from tent shows to theaters to churches and halls.9 In 1906, Havana was home to the Indiana Teatro, which may have been operated by a black expatriate from the Hoosier state.10 Individuals such as Thomas Williams, based in Havana, posted advertisements in the Indianapolis Freeman for “First-Class” acts interested in coming to Cuba.11 Moreover, when agents for the black Indiana newspaper arrived in Cuba, they distributed copies of the Freeman across the country. The presence of an English-language black newspaper from the heart of the US Midwest to an enthusiastic readership in Havana reveals much about the ways black cinema culture orbited around and overlapped with other interactions and movements of black people, ideas, and cultural products across geographic space. Cinema, in essence, provides insights into modern racial formation—not only in terms of the representation and the medium itself but also as part of broader cultural practices, shared experiences, and economic relations that it contributed to.
Although film history has turned decisively away from the “site of production” and “ideology” approach to scholarship on “national cinema,” the framework of the nation is occasionally resuscitated in calls for national studies of film exhibition and audience reception.12 Yet, as the development of early black cinema demonstrates, a methodology that accounts for the ever-shifting factors that contribute to place might better illuminate the social and cultural history of film, especially in regard to the place of black people within it. We should not disregard national policies and economic systems but rather consider how they interact with other factors that affect the lives and cultural practices of our subjects. Simultaneously, looking beyond the borders of the nation-state helps to privilege the perspectives of the men and women who forged this early black cinema culture. The US government used maps and coordinates to enforce its own sense of place but did not single-handedly determine the social and cultural experiences of turn-of-the-century black people within its national borders.
To map the geographic manifestations of early black cinema culture, we must include the curving, nonlinear pathways between Toronto, Canada, and the eastern seaboard of the United States, the sprawling routes across the US Midwest, Mexico, and Jamaica, and the specialized region that bound together Key West and Havana. These sites present a critical geography of black life. As I compile records of black film exhibitions, I continue to discover factors that shaped the development of early black cinema culture that national borders can only partially (and sometimes, it seems, not at all) explain. Brent Edwards has written that print culture was the “‘technical means’ for representing the ‘imagined community of diaspora.’”13 By the early twentieth century, cinema—transnational from its very beginnings—became equally important in forming an “envisioned community” of blackness. As cinema flourished along the paths of black migration, it engendered a new sense of temporality in black life, akin to what Benedict Anderson refers to as “simultaneity”—the sense of moving together in time toward a common future.14 In the process of integrating moving pictures into their lives, black people participated in the creation of these new locations of blackness. But while Anderson writes that simultaneity creates nations encompassed by national borders, the social and cultural geography of blackness was much less circumscribed. Always in motion and overlapping, these routes together contributed to the assemblage of diaspora.
Cara Caddoo is a filmmaker and an assistant professor of American studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She writes about African American and black diasporic history, cinema, mass media, religion, and migration. She is the author of Envisioning the Race: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (2014) and a recipient of a 2014–15 Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
1 Hawk may have exhibited Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Sigmeund Lubin’s Condemnation of Faust (1904), but other production companies created their own versions of these popular subjects. For example, Lubin produced Great Train Robbery (1904) after the Edison Manufacturing Company released Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. It is possible that Hawk was showing Lubin’s film or another rendition of the popular heist film. New York Clipper, 30 January 1904, 1184; Joseph P. Eckhardt, The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin (London: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997), 50. Quote from 4 March 1905, 5. See also the “Stage” section of the Freeman (Indianapolis), 11 March 1905, 5; 18 March 1905, 5; 1 July 1905, 5; 10 February 1906, 5; 21 April 1906, 5; and 14 May 1910, 6. In 1900, Hawk described his profession to an Atlanta, Georgia, census worker: “travel with panorama.” Clarence Hawk, 1900 United States Federal Census—Population, Ancestry.com. I first wrote about Hawk and some of the other individuals in this article in Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).
2 Doreen Massey, “Places and Their Pasts,” History Workshop Journal 39 (1995): 183.
3 Freeman, 14 May 1910, 6. Baseball was another important aspect of this history.
4 “Notes from the Porter Howard and Walson Rag-time Opera Company, with Baba Delgarian, at Havana, Cuba,” Freeman, 24 February, 1906, 6.
5 Wichita Searchlight, 20 October 1900, 2; 17 November 1900, 2; 29 December 1900, 4.
6 Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 10.
7 Donald R. Dyer, “Urbanism in Cuba,” Geographical Review 47, no. 2 (1957): 227.
8 Winston James, Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century America (New York: Verso, 1998).
9 Hawk explained that he played in churches and halls. Others played in large theaters. For example, when “Mr. and Mrs. John D. Clair” performed, in Cuba, they booked shows at the Theater Marti. Freeman, 11 November 1906, 5. The Black Patti Troubadours played at the Theatro Tacon.
10 The theater was promoted by the newspaper. The Freeman usually reported on theatrical endeavors managed or owned by black proprietors. Freeman, 4 August 1906, 5.
11 Freeman, 7 July 1906, 5.
12 See Andrew Higson, “The Concept of National Cinema,” Screen 30, no. 4 (1989): 36–47; and Ian Christie, “Where Is National Cinema Today (and Do We Still Need It)?,” Film History: An International Journal, 25, nos. 1–2 (2013): 19–30.
13 Brent Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 115.
14 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983), 37–46.