From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures

By Daniel J. Leab | Go to book overview

1
GAMUT FROM A TO B

THE PERIOD between the mid- 1890s and 1915, when the movies became one of the most important forms of mass entertainment in the United States, was a period in which racial libels abounded. At the turn of the century, the mayor of San Francisco could declare, with self-righteous assurance, that Japanese "are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made." Jews were described as unethical, ill-mannered, and vulgar Shylocks: in 1907, the journalist Burton Hendrick could warn that New York was being turned into "a city of Asiatics" by the "Great Jewish Invasion." Describing new productions, movie companies felt free to refer to "the dago with his fruit stand" and "a group of greasers playing dice outside the saloon." 1

The prevailing attitude probably victimized blacks more than any other group. It was, as historian C. Vann Woodward has pointed out, an era in which "the extremists of Southern racism probably reached a wider audience, both within their own region and in the nation, than ever before." Newspapers and magazines used the words "negro," "nigger," "darky," "colored," and "coon" indiscriminately. A staff member of the film industry journal Moving Picture World, who claimed to be without prejudice, vowed that "never again will I go to a theatre, knowing that fellow citizens of African descent form part of the audience [because] . . . so many of the colored people are like children and insist on laughing at the pictures, no matter how tragic they may be." As late as World War I the Cincinnati Enquirer carried a headline "Yah Suh! Black Boys Are Happy" above a story on Negro troops

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