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Discourses of Dissent


I've already noted that, from a film studies perspective, local newspapers are crucial for a consideration of Spanish-American films because of the central role the print medium played not only in re-presenting the Spanish-American War to the U.S. public, but also in creating receptive or non-receptive film spectators--depending on the local contexts of reception. Indicative of the urban bias and New York-centrism of much influential film scholarship, of the forty-six newspapers used in Charles Musser's paradigm-setting Emergence of Cinema, only three are from the South. Two of those, the Louisville Courier-Journal and the New Orleans Picayune, cover the year with which I am most concerned (1898) and the African American press is absent from his sample.

A notable exception to the lack of concern for the South is Gregory Waller's Main Street Amusements, which documents the "wild enthusiasm" of Lexington audiences for Spanish-American War films (including Wargraph exhibitions) in 1899 (58-60). Douglas Gomery also reports that in May 1898 "hundreds lined up [in New Orleans] to see images of the United States naval fleet engaged in the Battle of Manila, featuring the cruiser New Orleans" (15). After the ideologically charged environment and the concomitant fear and anxiety created by the outbreak of hostilities (facilitated by Admiral Dewey's lopsided victory in Manila and the easy capture of Puerto Rico) had subsided, it is possible that the symbolic trope of reunification between the North and the South constructed a receptive spectator in many southern states during late 1898 and into 1899.

The movies in Savannah, Charleston,
and Atlanta in 1897 and 1898
When one considers that Kentucky chose not to secede and remained neutral during the Civil War (and that the majority of its soldiers fought on the side of the Union), however, its relationship to the Spanish-American War becomes different in important ways from states in the Deep South. Waller notes that Lexington had "strong economic and social ties to the small towns and agricultural heartland of central Kentucky. And like the South as a whole, Lexington had a large black population, upwards of 39 percent in 1900." Yet he also cautions that "to insist on these characteristics is not to suggest that Lexington can somehow stand in for all of Kentucky, much less for the entire South" (xiv).

Having said that, I have been unable to find any conclusive evidence of the existence of war films in Georgia or South Carolina during the war in local papers or trade journals, although films had been exhibited in these regions before and/or during the war. As early as January of 1897, the Savannah Theater had been showing a "series of pictures. . .between the acts of every play, including foreign and American views, coronation of the czar of Russia at Moscow, the Austrian infantry marching, boulevards of Paris, [and] the arrival of trains at grand central depot in New York . . . ." Nine different "views" were shown every night of the week, and on opening night ladies were "admitted free to the best reserved seats, if accompanied by any persons holding a paid 30 cent ticket" (Savannah Morning News January 3, 1897). Films had also been exhibited in Charleston before the war and in Atlanta before and during the conflict. Rather than using this apparent lack of Spanish-American War films to exclude the South, however, I am arguing that this absence (or "negative result") is a significant part of early U.S. film history and the American experience of the Spanish-American War. Indeed, if we are to take seriously Robert Sklar's claim in Resisting Images that "there cannot be satisfactory film history without adequate social history," bracketing this salient context becomes methodologically problematic. Furthermore, as Miriam Hansen reminds us, an alternative cinematic public sphere is "to some extent a theoretical construct" and, consequently, we must ask, "alternative for whom and at which historical juncture, in relation to which configurations of experience?" (Babel and Babylon 91). In short, the politics of Spanish-American War films and the institution of early cinema also reside in what is absented from its representations.

We are thus entering the methodological terrain of the tradition of feminist film theoretical project--inspired by Adrienne Rich and Michel Foucault--"[t]o fiction 'history starting from a political reality that renders it true'" (Doane, Mellencamp, Williams 2). The critical project is not only an attempt to "fill out" what is absent from hegemonic film histories, but a more general perspectival historiographic shift. Patrice Petro's claim that for feminist historians history is also about what fails to happen ("Historical Ennui" 197), although made in a different context, is also instructive for the project of re-visioning early American film history in ways that do not recapitulate the institutional expulsion and representational exscription of non-privileged groups.

In "The Anti-Imperialist as Racist," Christopher Lasch argues that anti-imperialist arguments from both political affiliations were informed by doctrines of racial superiority. And many African Americans left the Grand Old Republican party because of the resulting rhetorical, political, and physical assaults committed on the homefront during the war with Spain (assaults launched by many Americans in the name of affirming the domestic social order of things). The violence of wartime culture was clearly expressed on the floor of the 55th and 56th U.S. Congresses, where "Negroes"--not Spaniards or Cubans--were without question the nation's biggest "problem" for many lawmakers. On the day that the U.S. declared war against Spain, for instance, Congressman De Armond of Missouri announced on the House floor that African Americans were "almost too ignorant to eat, scarcely wise enough to breathe, mere existing machines." Senator Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman of South Carolina summarized his war against "black domination": "We have done our level best; we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it" (Katz ix).

Throughout 1898 the African American newspaper the Indianapolis Freeman consistently voiced its opposition to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii and in March reported the following:

The U.S. recruiting office is expected in Hartford this week to receive names of men for the prospective Spanish-American war. . . . The government of the United States will allow some of her most loyal and true citizens to be burned and butchered and shot to pieces, like dogs, without protection, and go right on ignoring their rights and claims as if all were peace happiness in the family; and yet when a foreign war is threatened, these same ill-treated citizens are wont to be rushed to the front in the name of protecting the nation's honor.
Other papers made similar connections between domestic and international conflict. For instance, the Omaha Afro-American Sentinel wrote the following contestational editorial on April 2, 1898:

It does seem to us that in order to appear consistent these same negroes who exhibit such commendable readiness to assist in driving out the cowardly and treacherous Spaniards ought to show equal readiness when occasions arise--and such occasions certainly occur often enough--to kill off some of their drunken, cut-throat neighbors who make a pastime of hanging, shooting, and burning men, women, and children. . . . Let the negroes of South Carolina and other Southern states where crimes too cruel and infamous for Indian savages to commit are daily perpetrated by American-born caucasians, offer their services to their governors to wage war on the vile pests if civilized society.
Other reports saw the connections between the two "wars" in more positive ways. For instance, although the February 26, 1898 Indianapolis Freeman published the following somewhat optimistic claims about the future of lynching in America:
All that is said of the injustices done us here is true, but not a single mob was ever composed of men who were swayed by the sentiments that have called the present great army to war. The same feelings that now lead America to reach out her arm to the oppressed of Cuba will one day lead her to rescue the Negro of America from his oppression, just as it once delivered him from slavery. We should condemn the mob that lynches, but not the army that rescues.
The ubiquitous presence of these stories stands in marked contrast to the northern papers and presents us with a very different hypothetical spectator and another kind of intertextual context of reception.

Shortly after the Maine explosion, other black news-papers supported American and African American involvement. According to the Cleveland Gazette,

The destruction of the Maine was a crime against this nation not yet fully realized; but gradually the civilized world is awakened to a sense of the appalling deed. . . . The colored men of America have immense interests at stake. As a citizen and patriot, let him make common cause with the people and again prove himself an element of strength and power vindicating the honor and claims of his country in the hour of the nation's peril. The cause of the government is our cause. If die we must, let us die defending a just cause. (February 19, 1898)
In May the Wisconsin Advocate of Milwaukee published a restrained yet optimistic article on "The Moral Aspects of War," arguing,
At this time, when feeling runs high, when the baser and bitter sentiments are stirred alike, all thoughtful people must ponder deeply the real significance of this war in which we are engaged. In the first place, all raucorous exultation is out of place; thankfulness, but not boasting, should prevail. During the period of more than a century that this country has developed into the foremost nation in the world, an all-wise providence has guarded us against meddling in affairs across the seas, and this very isolation, politically, has been one of the means of preparation for the grand purposes to which this country is destined. (May 14, 1898)
Many articles articulate a solidarity not with white U.S. soldiers but with the Cubans. On August 20, 1898, the Richmond Planet published a letter with the following Marxist analysis of the situation in Cuba:

The capitalists of the United States and France and Spain will settle the matter and the misguided followers of Gen. Gomez and Gen. Garcia will find will find that their last condition will be as wretched as the first. They have been used to accomplish a purpose and their usefulness is at an end. The wealthy Spaniards upon the island of Cuba will surely control its destiny. The white men of this country will surely combine with them in insuring this control. The dark-skinned inhabitants of the island will be the victims of race prejudice, and this combined with Spaniard contempt will make their wretched lives miserable. It is indeed a gloomy outlook with not a ray of light visible upon the horizon of their future.
Finally, the Cleveland Gazette printed a letter from the Superintendent of Missions, Rev. H.C.C. Astwood, written in Santiago on August 30th, 1898:
The color line is being fastly drawn by our whites here, and the Cubans abused as negroes. It has been found at last, as I used to tell them in the United States, the majority of Cubans were Negroes; now that this fact has dawned upon the white brother, there is no longer a desire to have Cuban independence, but they must be crushed out. The political situation is alarming, and if President McKinley is not careful he will have a terrible job upon his hands.
The African American press also referred to the Cuban victims of Spanish oppression, but often from a very different perspective from those voiced in mainstream newspapers. According to the August 27, 1898 Washington Bee, for instance, "It is hoped that Cuba will not be annexed to the United States. Under Spanish rule the negro is treated, to a great extent, as a man, although the Spanish laws may be severe and oppressive. The moment an attempt is made to establish American prejudice on the Island of Cuba, that moment there will be trouble [since the] negro Cuban will not tolerate it. . . ." On the same day the Richmond Planet asked rhetorically, "Is not the acquiring of territory more the real cause of the war than the relief of suffering humanity?" These African American newspapers clearly demonstrate that there was no homogeneous position among African Americans during the war. On the one hand, many African Americans saw the war and imperialism as a chance to prove their patriotism and as a window of opportunity for improving African Americans cultural status. At the same time, given the realities of lynching and "Jim Crow" in the South, many African Americans were ambivalent about or militantly resistant to joining the American cause. During the events in Cuba--and more so during the Philippine-American War--many African Americans even began to consider leaving the Republican party.

Although the anti-imperialist movement gained momentum during the Philippine-American War and even shortly after the events in Cuba in 1898, the motivations and arguments for military intervention in the early months of 1898 were perceived as morally just by many future anti-imperialists who consequently saw the Spanish-American war as ethically justified. At the same time, those most vocal against military involvement cast their anti-expansionist rhetoric in racist ideologies very different from the dissent outlined above from African American papers in 1898. The reponses of African American suggest another potentially resistant and active Spanish-American War spectator from the one presented in film studies literature. In other words, if we accept the methodological premise that newspapers provided essential intertexts for constructing receptive Spanish-American War film spectators, then the alternative views expressed by the African American press suggest an oppositional spectator and a very different configuration of experience at this historical juncture.

To be sure, this resisting spectator remains a largely hypothetical one. According to Douglas Gomery,

African Americans frequently were not welcome in mainstream movie theaters prior to 1965. Often they had to go to special theatres or make do with special accommodations. In particular, to be black in the South in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century was to fall victim to daily white oppression. "Jim Crow" laws throughout the South. . .caused nothing less than total humiliation. (Shared Pleasures 155)
Colored Troops Disembarking
Colored Troops Disembarking
It is thus possible that many African Americans saw war films at fairground exhibitions at legally and culturally segregated theaters and fairgrounds across the country. Yet given the ambivalence many African Americans felt toward the war and the anger they expressed about governmental and societal hypocrisy, one can speculate that images of America's imperial pursuits would be received very differently among parts of the African American population. For instance, one could speculate that a Spanish-American War film like Colored Troops Disembarking would have different meanings for African American spectators than many other spectators in the North and the South, although certainly not uniformly--as the wide range of political positions expressed in African American newspapers suggests.