BLACK DISPATCHES: The Original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door” in the Age of Steam
Espionage – the act or practice of spying or of using spies to obtain secret information – has been with us probably since of our first villagers looked over the hill to see what the other village was up to.
Espionage is one of the world’s oldest professions because as long as there is one person who has an advantage over another, be it military, agricultural, industrial, or even sexual, undoubtedly, someone will be skulking about trying to get their hands on someone else’s information or technology.
The most valuable thing in the world is not gold or diamonds, it is information.
Information of every kind has its own value depending on who wants it and why.
Industrial espionage can alter the wealth of a nation and thus its capacity to compete commercially and wage war. A great example of this took place around A.D. 550, when Justinian I, leader of the Byzantine Empire, wanted to undo China’s historic domination of the silk trade and, at the same time, end Persian control of this valuable commodity as the middlemen.
Justinian I was undeterred in wresting this information from China, which they protected under penalty of death.
He sent two Nestorian monks into China with the specific intent of conducting industrial espionage. While in China they observed how silk was produced and what key ingredients were used in silk production. The monks took two hollowed out walking sticks with them and hid silk worms and mulberry bush seeds inside them – both essential for silk production.
The monks were stopped and searched repeatedly on their journey home. Nevertheless, they were successful in their quest: they single-handedly transferred the technology for silk production to the West and within a short period of time, the silk trade had been completely upended. Byzantium, and thus the Roman Empire, became the world leader in silk production, which is why your ties are made in Milan and not Beijing.
This act of espionage changed trade throughout the world.
In the United States, Samuel Slater, a former apprentice at a state-of-the-art cotton mill in England, found eager buyers for the technology he had regarding the most modern techniques in use in England for wool and cotton production. With the information Slater sold, America became the world’s leading manufacturer of cotton, which shifted wool and cotton production from Europe to the Americas, thus kick-starting America’s Industrial Revolution.
This single act of industrial espionage elevated the United States to international economic eminence in less than 50 years.
These two industrial espionage cases demonstrate that all it takes is one person to alter history, if they are in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of information.
Having people in the right place at the right time was vital to both the Union and the Confederate armies during the American Civil War.
Units of spies and scouts reported directly to the commanders of armies in the field. They provided details on troop movements and strengths.
Intelligence gathering for the Confederates was focused on Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding area. Virginia Governor John Letcher created a network of agents that included Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Thomas Jordan. Greenhow delivered reports to Jordan via the “Secret Line,” the name for the system used to get letters, intelligence reports, and other documents across the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers to Confederate officials.
The Confederacy’s Signal Corps was devoted primarily to communications and intercepts, but it also included a covert agency called the Confederate Secret Service Bureau, which ran espionage and counter-espionage operations in the North including two networks in Washington.
The Union’s intelligence gathering initiatives were decentralized.
Allan Pinkerton worked for Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and created the United States Secret Service.
Lafayette C. Baker conducted intelligence and security work for Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
President Abraham Lincoln hired William Alvin Lloyd to spy in the South and report to Lincoln directly.
The most useful military intelligence of the American Civil War, however, was provided to Union officers by “Black Dispatches” – a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Black people.
Black Dispatches were the original “Spooks Who Sat by the Door”.
For those unfamiliar with the film, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, based on the incredible novel of the same name by author Sam Greenlee, let me offer this brief synopsis: A congressman, hoping to attract African-American voters during an election year decides to make political hay by pointing out that the Central Intelligence Agency has no Black agents.
Bowing to subsequent public pressure, the CIA admits a number of Black applicants to their training program, but they purposefully make the process difficult and unpleasant enough to winnow out nearly all the African-American candidates.
Dan Freeman, a strong, intelligent but soft-spoken man, somehow makes it through the gauntlet to become the Black CIA agent; however, rather than being given important field assignments, Freeman is put in charge of the agency’s copying machines and gives tours of their facilities to give the offices a progressive front for visitors.
After a few years, Freeman leaves the agency to move back to his hometown of Chicago and do work with the community…at least that’s what he tells his superiors. In fact, Freeman has used his time at the CIA to collect information on how to launch a political revolution, and not long after he arrives in Chi-Town, he begins recruiting an army of leftist radicals and Black nationalists fed up with the system. With their help, Freeman launches the first stage of an armed revolt with the stated goal of bringing the white-dominated power structure to its knees.
In 1862, Frederick Douglass wrote:
The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac.
Black Americans contributed to tactical and strategic Union intelligence through behind-enemy-lines missions and deep covert operations during the American Civil War.
The value of the information that could be obtained, both passively and actively, by Black Americans behind Confederate lines was clearly understood by most Union generals early in the war.
Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was equally aware, and in May 1863 he said, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes.”
Because of the culture of slavery in the South, Blacks involved in menial activities could move about without suspicion. Also, officials and officers tended to ignore their presence as personal servants when discussing war-related matters.
Let’s look at some of the Black Dispatches and their invaluable contributions and acts of derring-do.
One of the first large-scale Civil War battles was the result of information provided by George Scott, a runaway slave.
Scott furnished intelligence on Confederate fortifications and troop movements to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of Fort Monroe, located at the mouth of the James River on the tip of the Virginia peninsula.
Scott had escaped from a plantation near Yorktown. While making his way toward Fort Monroe, he observed that Confederate forces had thrown up two fortifications between Yorktown and the fortress. Butler’s officers were impressed with Scott’s information but wanted to confirm it. Scott agreed to accompany a Union officer on several scouting trips behind Confederate lines to obtain more specific intelligence. On one of these missions, Scott barely missed being wounded by a Confederate rifle; the bullet went through his jacket.
Based on the intelligence gained from these missions, Butler determined that Confederate forces were planning an attack on Newport News – capture of which would have isolated Fort Monroe from Union resupply.
As Union forces grew and better organization was required, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan was given command of the Army of the Potomac defending Washington. He brought with him, as his chief of intelligence, Allan Pinkerton, who had gained some fame running a Chicago detective agency.
Pinkerton, often using the alias Major Allen or E. J. Allen, had responsibilities for collecting intelligence on the enemy and for counterintelligence activities against enemy agents.
Most of the intelligence he collected resulted from an extensive and well-organized debriefing program of former enslaved Black people, who had extensive knowledge of Confederate fortifications, camps, and supply points.
From these Black men and women, Pinkerton recruited a small number for intelligence collection missions behind Confederate lines.
The best known of these Pinkerton agents was John Scobell, recruited in the fall of 1861.
Scobell had been a slave in Mississippi but had been well educated by his owner, a Scotsman who subsequently freed him. He was quick-witted and an accomplished actor, which permitted him to function in several different identities on various missions, including food vendor, cook, or laborer.
Scobell often worked with other Pinkerton agents, sometimes playing the role of their servant while in the South. He worked with Timothy Webster, perhaps Pinkerton’s best agent, on missions into Virginia and also with Mrs. Carrie Lawton, Pinkerton’s best female operative.
Scobell is credited with providing valuable intelligence on Confederate order of battle, status of supplies, and troop morale and movements. Frequently, while the white Pinkerton agents elicited information from Confederate officials and officers, Scobell would seek out leaders in the Black community and collect their information on local conditions, fortifications, and troop dispositions.
Scobell often used his membership in the “Legal League,” a clandestine Black organization in the South supporting freedom for slaves, to acquire local information. League members sometimes supported Scobell’s collection activities by acting as couriers to carry his information to Union lines. On at least one occasion, as described by Pinkerton, Scobell protected the escape of the aforementioned Carrie Lawton from pursuing Confederate agents.
Scobell worked for Pinkerton from late 1861 until the intelligence chief closed down his operations in November 1862, when McClellan was replaced by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside.
W. H. Ringgold
W. H. Ringgold worked on a riverboat on the York River in Virginia. Ringgold spent six months on the river, helping move Confederate troops and supplies on the Virginia peninsula. When his ship was damaged by a storm, he and the other crewmen were permitted to travel back North by way of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. On reaching Baltimore, he sought out Union officials, who immediately sent him to Pinkerton in Washington.
In December 1861, Ringgold provided Pinkerton with detailed intelligence on Confederate defenses on the peninsula. This included locations of fortifications and artillery batteries, troop concentrations, and defenses on the York River. His information was the best McClellan received before the start of his peninsula campaign in March 1862; it was also the basis for much of his strategic planning for that campaign.
Mary Touvestre, a freed slave, worked in Norfolk, VA as a housekeeper for an engineer who was involved in the refitting and transformation of the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Overhearing the engineer talk about the importance of his project, she recognized the danger this new type of ship represented to the Union navy blockading Norfolk. Touvestre stole a set of plans for the ship and fled North. After a perilous trip, she arrived in Washington and arranged a meeting with officials at the Department of the Navy.
The stolen plans and Touvestre’s verbal report on the ship’s construction convinced the officials of the need to speed up construction of the Union’s own ironclad, the Monitor.
Robert Smalls – a contraband ship pilot who had recently escaped from Charleston, SC – supplied important military operational intelligence that generated a turning of the forces in the Charleston harbor. Smalls supplied Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont with the necessary intelligence to seize Stono Inlet, occupying it with several gun-boats and securing an important base for military operations.
Agents in Place
While the Confederacy did not create a civilian and military power structure until just before the war began, the Union already had several deep cover agents, called “Agents in Place”, in the Confederate capital by the first year of the war. Two were Black Americans employed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his official residence.
William A. Jackson was a slave hired out to President Davis as a coachman. As a servant in the Davis household, he was able to observe and overhear the Confederate President’s discussions with his military leadership.
The second agent, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was part of a Union spy ring known as “the Richmond underground”, directed by Elizabeth Van Lew, whose family was well respected and well connected socially in Richmond.
Bowser had been a slave of the Van Lew family, but Van Lew freed her and sent her North to be educated. When Van Lew decided to establish a spy ring in Richmond shortly before the fighting began, she asked Bowser to return and work with her for the Union. Van Lew obtained a position for Bowser as a servant in the Confederate “White House” through the recommendation of a friend who provided supplies to that household.
Bowser pretended to be uneducated but hardworking and, after working part-time at several functions, was hired as a regular employee. Her access provided her with opportunities to overhear valuable information. As a Black woman – and a servant at that – Bowser was ignored by the President’s guests.
Her reports focused on conversations she overheard between Confederate officials at the President’s residence and on documents she was able to read while working around the house. She and Van Lew would meet at isolated locations on the outskirts of Richmond to exchange information.
Bowser had a photographic memory and could report every word of the documents she saw at the “White House”.
In recognition of her intelligence contributions, Bowser was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on 30 June 1995.
Her intelligence activities are well documented in many books and served as part of the inspiration for this author writing Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet (Book 1: Kings / Book 2: Judges).
Tubman, often referred to by her contemporaries as “Moses” and as “General Tubman”, is best known for the numerous trips she made into the South to free relatives, friends and many more and to bring them to safety. Her last trip took place in 1860. With the advent of the fighting, she spent the early years of the war assisting with the care and feeding of the massive numbers of slaves who had fled to Union-controlled areas.
In South Carolina, the Union forces were in desperate need of information about Confederate forces opposing them. Intelligence on the strength of enemy units, location of encampments, and designs of fortifications was almost non-existent. It fell to Tubman to organize and lead short-term spying expeditions behind enemy lines to gather such intelligence.
Tubman selected a few former slaves knowledgeable about the areas to be visited and then she established her spy organization. Often disguised as a field hand or poor farm wife, Tubman led several spy missions herself, while directing others from Union lines.
She reported her intelligence findings to Col. James Montgomery, a Union officer commanding the Second South Carolina Volunteers, a Black unit involved in guerrilla warfare activities.
The tactical intelligence Tubman provided to Union forces during the war was frequent, abundant, and used effectively in military operations. Tubman conducted spy missions into the area, identified enemy supply areas, and reported weaknesses in Confederate troop deployments.
In late May, Gen. David Hunter, commander of all Union forces in the area, asked Tubman to personally guide a raiding party up the river. On the evening of 2 June, Tubman led Montgomery and 150 of his men up the river past Confederate picket lines. In a swift raid, taking the Confederates by surprise, the Union forces destroyed several million dollars worth of Confederate supplies and brought back more than 800 slaves and thousands of dollars in enemy property. When Tubman died in 1913, she was honored with a full military funeral as a mark of respect for her activities during the war.
The Ingenious Dabneys
A runaway slave named Dabney, crossed into Union lines with his wife and found employment in General Hooker’s headquarters camp. It became apparent that Dabney knew the geography of the area very well, and, though he had little education, was clever. He quickly developed an interest in the Union flag-signal system, and he studied it intensely.
After several weeks, Dabney’s wife asked permission to return to Confederate lines as a personal servant to a Southern woman returning to her home. A few days after his wife’s departure, Dabney began reporting Confederate movements to members of Hooker’s staff. His reports soon proved accurate, and he was questioned as to the source of his intelligence.
Dabney explained that he and his wife had worked out a signaling system based on the laundry that she hung out to dry at her mistress’ house, which was observable from Hooker’s headquarters. As the wife observed Confederate troop movements, she would hang the laundry in a particular sequence to signal Dabney of the activity. For example, a white shirt represented Gen. A. P. Hill, a pair of pants hung upside down represented the direction west, and so forth. This system produced useful intelligence on Confederate movements.
While I am not a fan of government agents, spies and the like – I grew up with the philosophy of “no snitchin’” – and Blacks worldwide have suffered much due to COINTELPRO and other overt and covert operations, this does not diminish the courage, dedication, and personal commitment which these Brothers and Sisters demonstrated in doing what they believed to be a way to free themselves and their people.
I have been inspired to write – and possibly direct – a film on the Black Dispatches. It will be action-packed, thrilling and, of course, Steamfunk!
Countering Negative Images of Black People in the Media by Thinking Inside the (Becoming) Box: An Interview with Filmmaker Monique Walton!
Countering Negative Images of Black People in the Media by Thinking Inside the (Becoming) Box: An Interview with Filmmaker Monique Walton!
At the Black Science Fiction Film Festival, which took place August 4, 2012 in Atlanta, GA, the amazing film The Becoming Box screened, receiving rave reviews and high praise. The audience was blown away by the masterful storytelling that could only be done by a director of the highest caliber. That director was none other than the incomparable Monique Walton – director, screenwriter and film producer.
Ms. Walton was kind enough to grant me an interview, which happens to be this post. Read and enjoy!
And, as always, your feedback is always welcome and encouraged.
What is your film, The Becoming Box, about?
The Becoming Box is about a family of three siblings dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of their mother in a storm. It’s about how each of them deal with the aftermath of that tragedy, and it’s about rebirth and re-invention.
What is your role in the making of the movie and how did you become a part of this project?
This is my second fiction film project as a grad student in UT Austin’s film department. I co-wrote this piece with my classmate, Paavo Hanninen (who was also the DP), and then I co-produced and directed it.
What were your experiences in the creation of The Becoming Box?
So all of the locations had a localized, historical and emotional significance. The mural pillars under the I-10 overpass and the African American History Museum were a good example of that. It was definitely a challenge getting my crew and equipment down there from Austin, but luckily I was able to enlist some great crew members in New Orleans as well, and everyone ended up getting along on set, which I was really happy about. The one thing I didn’t anticipate was how cold it got in the city in January. The house we shot in had no heat so it was far from the humid, swampy weather we were hoping for!
How do you think the negative images of Black people in the media affect society?
How can we counter those negative images?
We counter those images by making our own, simple as that. And it’s happening more everyday with the democratization of image making on the internet, but Black folks have been representing themselves and countering negatives images since the beginning of cinema, despite direct efforts to degrade Black characters on screen.
As a filmmaker, how important is it to you to have creative and financial control of your work?
Ideally, it will be the only way I’ll make work. Once you give up creative control, you might as well be making a commercial. And I’ll do that too, but that’s working to pay the bills, not making art.
Is there such a thing as a “Black Science Fiction movie”? If so, what makes it such?
Looking back and reading about the Harlem Renaissance, Dubois and Locke were having the same critical debates. I think the arguments continue to come up because, at least if we’re talking about film, Black directors, writers, and stories are still not appropriately represented in the mainstream. So I think it’s important to continue to work to get your voice out there, and whether or not the viewing public calls your work Black, will be a representation of the times.
How do you come up with ideas for films?
The best ideas are spontaneous. They come up (usually in the shower) and then they take off. With The Becoming Box it was a discussion I was having with my classmate Paavo about alternate realities and identities that just snowballed into the idea for the film and kind of took off. But I’m inspired on a daily basis by things I watch, read, experience etc. So the challenge is acknowledging and cataloguing that information and using it when the time is right.
What upcoming film projects are you planning?
My next film is a documentary about gentrification in Austin. The basis of the narrative will be non-fiction, but it will still have some science fiction elements to it.
What advice can you give to someone who also wants to make an independent film?
Do it! I love that the Black Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction genre is taking off, and I can’t wait to enjoy the fruits of everyone’s labor. There’s no formula for success, except you have to be creative and relentless and surround yourself with positive supportive people.
Monique Walton was born and raised in Long Island, New York. A 2004 graduate of Yale University, she has directed and produced numerous documentary and narrative films focusing on racial identity and belonging. Ms. Walton’s first film, a short documentary entitled Still Black, at Yale, screened at over ten film festivals and at universities across the country. She worked at Viacom for four years producing on-air and web videos for Nickelodeon and then relocated to Austin, TX in August 2009. Her sci-fi short, Dark Matters, premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Creatively Speaking series in September 2010.
STEAMFUNK MAD SCIENTISTS & MECHANICS: Black Inventors of the Steam Age!
This month, I feature the Mad Scientists / Inventors and Mechanics / Tinkerers.
As always, your feedback is welcomed and encouraged.
What we know about early African-American innovators comes mostly from the work of Henry Baker, who was an assistant patent examiner at the U.S. Patent Office. Baker was dedicated to uncovering and publicizing the contributions of Black inventors.
Around 1900, the Patent Office – under Baker’s guidance, conducted a survey to gather information about Black inventors and their inventions. Letters were sent to patent attorneys, company presidents, newspaper editors, and prominent African-Americans. Henry Baker recorded the replies and followed-up on leads. Baker’s research also provided the information used to select Black inventions exhibited at the Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the World’s Fair in Chicago, and the Southern Exposition in Atlanta.
By the time of his death, Henry Baker had compiled four massive volumes of Black inventors and their inventions, called The Baker Papers.
Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1848. He enlisted in the Union Navy at the age of 15 and upon completion of his military service, returned to Massachusetts and was employed by a patent solicitor where he began the study of drafting.
His talent for drafting and his creative genius led him to invent an improved toilet system for railroad cars called the Water Closet for Railroad Cars, in 1874; and a method of making carbon filaments for the Maxim electric incandescent lamp in 1881. Also in 1881, he supervised installation of electric light in New York, Philadelphia, Montreal, and London.
Latimer was the original draftsman for Thomas Edison and as such was the star witness in Edison’s infringement suits. Latimer had many interests. He was a draftsman, engineer, author, poet, musician, and, at the same time, a devoted family man and philanthropist.
Granville T. Woods
Born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1856, Granville T. Woods dedicated his life to developing a variety of inventions relating to trains and street cars. To some he was known as the “Black Edison”. Woods invented more than a dozen devices to improve electric railway cars and nearly fifty more for controlling the flow of electricity.
In 1887 he patented his most noted invention – the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, a device that sent messages between train stations and moving trains, informing the engineer of a train how close his train was to others. This device helped cut down accidents and collisions between trains.
In 1885, Woods patented an apparatus which was a combination of a telephone and a telegraph. The device, which he called telegraphony, would allow a telegraph station to send voice and telegraph messages over a single wire. Alexander Graham Bell’s company purchased the rights to the telegraphony, enabling Woods to become a full-time inventor.
Among Woods’ other top inventions were a steam boiler furnace and an automatic air brake used to slow or stop trains. His electric car, powered by overhead wires, was the third rail system to keep cars running on the right track.
Success led to law suits filed by that wicked little shark, Thomas Alva Edison, who claimed ownership of the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph. Woods eventually won. Unable to defeat Woods, Edison became a stalker, wooing Woods and – in an attempt to win him, and his inventions over – offered Woods a prominent position in the engineering department of Edison Electric Light Company in New York. Woods, wisely, declined.
George Washington Carver
Carver profoundly affected the lives of people throughout the world by successfully shifting Southern farming away from risky cotton, which depletes soil of its nutrients, to nitrate-producing crops such as peanuts, peas, sweet potatoes, pecans, and soybeans. Farmers began rotating crops of cotton one year with peanuts the next.
From his laboratory at Tuskegee, Carver developed 325 different uses for the peanut, including 105 food recipes and over 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including adhesives, axle grease, bleach, buttermilk, chili sauce, fuel briquettes (a biofuel), ink, instant coffee, linoleum, mayonnaise, meat tenderizer, metal polish, pavement, shaving cream, shoe polish, synthetic rubber, talcum powder, wood stain, cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. He also developed 118 products from the sweet potato. Other Carver innovations include synthetic marble from sawdust, plastics from wood shavings, and writing paper from wisteria vines.
Upon his death in 1943, Carver contributed his life savings to establish a research institute at Tuskegee University. His birthplace was declared a national monument in 1953, and he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990.
When you say “I want the real McCoy”, you are saying you want the ‘real thing’ – what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation. This saying refers to the famous African American inventor, Elijah McCoy, who earned 57 patents, most to do with lubrication of steam engines, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators would demand “the real McCoy”.
McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1843, the son of slaves who fled Kentucky. Educated in Scotland, he relocated to the United States to pursue a position in his field of mechanical engineering. The only job available to him was that of a locomotive fireman / oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators, and Michigan Central promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions.
Later, McCoy moved to Detroit where he became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters.
Jan Matzeliger was born in Paramaribo, Dutch Guiana (now Suriname) in 1852. He immigrated to the United States at age 18. After a while, he went to work in the Harney Brothers Shoes factory in Massachusetts. At the time, no machine could attach the upper part of a shoe to the sole. This had to be done manually by a “Hand Laster”; a skilled one could produce 50 pairs in a ten-hour day.
Matzeliger obtained a patent for his invention – the Shoe Lasting Machine, which adjusts the shoe leather upper snugly over the mold, arranges the leather under the sole and pins it in place with nails while the sole is stitched to the leather upper – in 1883. His machine could produce up to 700 pairs of shoes a day, cutting shoe prices across the nation in half.
George “Speck” Crum
In 1853, french fries – thickly sliced fried potatoes, a concept brought to the U.S. from France by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s – were on the lodge’s menu.
It is said that George Crum was a tough, crusty old man who had previously been a trapper. If any of the diners at the Moon Lake Lodge had the nerve to complain about their food, Crum would release his wrath upon them. He would send back any food that had been returned to his kitchen, only after he made it nearly inedible.
On August 24, 1853, a customer complained that Crum’s french fries were “too thick”. George Crum grumbled, but he sliced the customer up a thinner batch of potatoes, fried them, and sent them back out to the dining room.
Still, the plate of potatoes were returned to the kitchen. The diner complained that they were still too thick. He also requested that his potatoes be crunchy.
This angered Crum. Hoping to gain personal satisfaction and annoy the complainer at the same time, Crum took his sharp knife and sliced another batch of potatoes as thin as he possibly could. Crum then fried the sliced potatoes in grease until they were hard and crunchy. There was no way now that the customer would be able to eat them with a fork! He then piled them on a plate, sprinkled an over generous amount of salt on them, and sent them back to the disgruntled diner.
Crum expected the customer to dislike them very much, but he actually loved them.
Crum dubbed his creation “Saratoga chips” or “potato crunches”.
They soon became so popular that they were made up in large batches, packaged in bags, and sold in New England.
Eventually, Crum left the Moon Lake Lodge and, in 1860 with the profits he made selling his new chips, started his own successful restaurant.
The chips remained a local delicacy until the Prohibition era, when an enterprising salesman named Herman Lay popularized the product throughout the Southeastern United States.
Stay tuned for more in the League of Extraordinary Black People Series. Next month: Adventurers / Explorers!
A QUIET STORM STRIKES: Are you Ready for Revolution?
At this Pan-African meeting, the men decide that for there to be a positive change in the social and economic situation of Africans at home and throughout the Diaspora, some of the problems with leadership must be rectified. They confront the corrupt, puppet African leaders and their powerful patrons in the West and face-off against their rivals from the underworld.
The deeply committed, honest and reflective Baku – the main character – leads the band of self-professed “Robin-Hoodlums” as they work to redistribute the misappropriated resources of the African continent to alleviate the suffering of their land and their people.
In Quiet Storm, very important questions are raised regarding the appropriate strategies to throw off the yoke of colonial rulers who exploit Africa’s land and people.
While there is plenty of action, there is no gratuitous violence. However, this movie does contain some violent imagery and strong language.
The film’s director, Shango B’Song, says about his hard-hitting film: “Quiet Storm, for me, was a film that showed us taking active steps to resolve some of the problems affecting our people. It placed four Black men on an equal intellectual and political footing with our oppressors. The lead characters indicted, judged and executed those who, in their view, were responsible for committing genocide on our people. Secondly, we wanted to use the film to raise funds for some organizations that were taking pro-active steps to resolving some of the problems that affect our people.”
Touted as the UK’s first independent Black feature film, Quiet Storm has a cast of 248 actors, was shot in over 52 locations, has scenes with helicopter crashes and includes extensive CGI work, all while totally and independently funded by Black people, which – in itself – is a revolution.
We must take control of the images of Black people put before us. We must counter these negative images with creative control and we must support our Black artists.
This was the overall mindset of the panelists and those in attendance at the State of Black Science Fiction Film Festival, held on August 4, 2012 in Atlanta, GA. The panel, entitled Art at War: Countering Negative Images of Blacks in the Media, examined the deep-rooted psychological and sociological problems caused by the negative images of Blacks in film, television, print media, radio and fashion.
We will continue this lively, informative and interactive discussion Saturday, August 18, 2012 at the 33rd Annual Black August Commemoration / 10th Annual Happily Natural Day Atlanta during a panel entitled The State of Black Science Fiction: Why Black People Should Read & Write Science Fiction, during which time we will discuss why reading and writing Science Fiction is vital to Black growth and development and why there are those who do not want us to know this.
For those interested in seeing Quiet Storm, look no further…well, actually look below this paragraph. Enjoy!
ART AT WAR: Countering Negative Images of Blacks in the Media
From posters that advertised slaves for sale, to the New Yorker‘s radical “Obama” cover, there has been an unrelenting, powerfully persuasive effort to promote what the brand of black inferiority. Even today, for every positive image of African-Americans, there are 100 negative stereotypes; sadly, many of them perpetrated by Black people.
Advertising came in many, many forms, including any form of communication, such as text, posters, placards, and the like and consists of a clever combination of images and words. Images and words combined are very powerful, and have been used, quite effectively, to convey this whole idea of African-Americans being “less than”; “not as good as”: the myth of Black inferiority.
And the concomitant myth of white superiority.
Black inferiority is a myth that had to be created in order to justify slavery within a democracy. These two contradictions – slavery and democracy – had to be reconciled, and the only thing the good old U.S. of A. could come up with was the declaration and substantiation that slaves were not human.
We must realize that we are not talking about ancient history, either. We have slave narratives that were written in the 1930s. The tragedy and horror of chattel slavery happened only a few generations ago. And the inferiority that was drummed into us through the media – through propaganda – has passed down from generation to generation just like a favorite family recipe.
This sickness must be addressed.
If you have a malignant tumor, you cannot just wait for it to dissipate. It will not just go away. It will spread. The disease of institutionalized racism in the media has been a cancer that we have hoped would just go into remission and now, the whole planet has bought into the myth of Black inferiority, and of white superiority.
We have become insensitive or desensitized to the point we are unconscious of what we see, hear and what is going into our minds. We have become a party to our own brainwashing. We have joined in and become our own victimizers.
In the old days, you had white comedians putting on black cork and basically humiliating and ridiculing Black people. Fast-forward a few years, when we were given this illusion called “progress”. Black comedians said to the white comedians “Hey, you don’t have to ridicule and humiliate us, we’ll do it. We’ll take it from here, boss.”
And they took it from there…and carried it straight to Hell.
Let’s take the use of the word “nigger”, for example. Black comedians took this wicked, destructive word and took ownership of it as if to call ourselves a nigger was empowering, when in fact it continues to damage our psyches and diminish us as human beings.
The historian Carter G. Woodson said that African-Americans have been basically conditioned to go around to the back door, and if there is no back door, we will insist on one.
If you can get a Black comedian to show up on a late-night talk show and act the clown, it’s comforting to those people who say, “See they are a happy people. They aren’t angry with us for five hundred years of slavery and oppression.” It is like approaching a dog you have abused, neglected and chained up in your kitchen for a week, thinking “Boy, I sure hope it doesn’t bite.” And if, instead of tearing out your throat, the dog starts wagging its tail, you breathe a sigh of relief and say “Whew, good dog.”
It is a toxic mix – white supremacy, white superiority, and black inferiority.
Why we expect so little of ourselves and of each other
For starters, lower expectations mean fewer disappointments.
We have become comfortable with negative behavior; with poor performance.
Recently, my students and I met at a local, Black-owned vegetarian / vegan restaurant for a meeting. The restaurant, scheduled to open at 11:00am, was closed. It was noon when we arrived. This was not the first time this had happened and I suggested we go somewhere else, but everyone – except yours truly – was set on eating at this place.
Time crept on. 12:30pm…12:45pm…1:00pm.
Finally, at 1:15pm, the owners drove up, walked by us without even a “Hello”, let alone an apology for their extreme lateness, and entered the restaurant.
My students and I followed. I asked if they had anything already prepared that we could eat and they informed me that they prepare their food daily, so I would have to wait. I informed the owner that we had already been waiting for an hour and that they were supposed to be open at 11:00. The owner shrugged her shoulders and said “We have lives outside of this restaurant. Don’t you have a life outside of your job?”
As a business owner who goes above and beyond to satisfy my students and those who read my books and watch my films, I was shocked and furious. I told my students that I was leaving and would never spend another dime with those fools. My students all said that we need to give Black businesses second, third and forth chances. And that as “conscious” Black folks we must be even more forgiving.
I said “Consciousness has nothing to do with it! We have to demand excellence from Black businesses and cease this acceptance of Black mediocrity or we will remain mediocre!” I then hugged everyone and left. I have never returned to that restaurant. And never will.
From kindergarten through fourth grade, I attended Sol R. Crown Elementary School in a poor neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. At Crown, being smart and working hard was interpreted as acting white. Because to be smart, was also to be different. And to be different meant that you were trying to be better than those who were not striving.
When I was in kindergarten, one day my class was counting from one, through ten. My voice seemed to stick out from the rest of the group for some reason. The substitute teacher – a Caucasian woman who appeared to be in her early forties and mean as a junkyard dog fed a steady diet of gunpowder and guinea peppers – seemed to notice too and she singled me to count by myself. “Won…too…th-REE…for…” I said, pronouncing the words carefully and correctly, as my mother and sisters taught me. “…fiv…” The students laughed at the way I properly said five. They also laughed at my “nin” and my “tehn”, saying “It ain’t ‘fiv’, it’s ‘fahv’; it’s not ‘nin’, it’s ‘nahn’; and it shol’ ain’t ‘tehn’, it’s ‘tin’.”
I challenged them and said they were “talking country” (“talking country” means to speak in an unsophisticated manner, usually associated with the drawl of the rural American South) and asked the teacher who was right. The teacher told them I was wrong and that the “country” way they said the numbers was the “proper way for your people to say it.”
And no, this was not in Yazoo, Mississippi in the 1800s. It was 1972 in Chicago, Illinois.
Even today, if a Black person is articulate and does not use slang, some of us will say that person is acting “white”.
The media is directly responsible for this. The perpetuation of stereotypes is always done through print, television, film, radio, music and, now, the internet.
We sing, dance, and make love to catchy beats that endorse, reinforce, and promulgate our most self-destructive habits.
Flip the channel or turn the page and there are the “baby mamas” and “baby daddies” so ubiquitous in common American culture that they become plot points or titles for mainstream comedies and movies.
And there, on the news, backed by respected research, are the products of all this ingrained promiscuity and violence – young Black children, seemingly running amok in urban cities that breed violence.
The syndicated television program Maury, hosted by Maury Povich, is known for its “Who’s Your Daddy?” segments. Much of the content is based on issuing paternity tests to teens and young adults in hopes of determining fatherhood.
Many of Maury’s guests are black, and the sheer number of these cases is damning. Shows like these, along with court television shows that promote the same dysfunction, are very popular.
Millions of viewers are indoctrinated by these images of black family chaos. And we watch these programs like a gory highway car wreck because they involve so many people who look like us.
Blacks not only dance to the beat of family destruction, we patronize films by black producers and directors that reinforce all the bad we’ve been fed about ourselves – first by the white ruling class, and now by our brainwashed brethren.
Whether it’s the Rihanna and Chris Brown domestic violence madness, negative, self-demeaning movies, or characters like those depicted in nearly any Tyler Perry movie – Black relationships and families are seen as hopelessly at odds, dysfunctional, violent, and inadequate.
Yet we accept and share these perceptions without question, qualm or quarrel.
Passionate conversations about “no good black men” among groups of Black women are common. What is a rare occurrence, though, is our willingness to go to the historic root of negative Black male behavior or discuss how fatherless homes help shape the sentiments shared by so many Black women.
Likewise, Black men are not aware of the unconscious motivators that cause them to demean our Sisters. There is no objection raised when these men lament about evil, mean-spirited, materialistic, or impatient Black women, and then expound on why they are better off with white women. Little attention is paid to the daughters these men bring into the world. Not only are they conditioned to live the stereotype of their mothers, many do so in homes with absentee fathers.
It is assumed that Black women are supposed to have a gang of children with multiple men who will eventually abandon them. These women are quickly relegated to “supermom” status, expected to serve as both the foundation and as the Black family’s doormat. This, too, is a topic that receives little discussion, as is the mystery of how and why Black women become enablers, molding Black boys who will someday emulate the actions of their wayward fathers.
At a very young age, Black men and women are inundated with messages that they cannot trust or depend upon one other. Children see images of – and hear comments and jokes about – lazy, greedy, irresponsible, or otherwise flawed Black adults.
These degrading stereotypes are reinforced and enhanced by our negative portrayal of in the media. Black characters have appeared in American films since the beginning of the industry in 1888, but Black actors were not even hired to portray Black people in early works. Instead, white actors and actresses were hired to portray the characters while in “blackface.”
In addition, Black people were purposely portrayed in films with negative stereotypes that reinforced white supremacy over Black people. Since motion pictures have had more of an impact on the public mind than any other entertainment medium in the last ninety years, this has had a tremendous effect on society’s view of Black people.
The media sets the tone for the morals, values, and images of our culture. Many people in this country, believe that the degrading stereotypes of Black people are based on reality and not fiction. Everything they believe about us is determined by what they see on television. After over a century of movie making, these horrible stereotypes continue to plague us today, and until negative images of Black people are extinguished from the media, we will be regarded as second-class citizens.
We have not come that far since 1914, when Sam Lucas was the first black actor to have a lead role in a movie for his performance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
1915 is a significant date in motion picture history because D.W. Griffith released The Birth of a Nation, which supported the Ku Klux Klan and is possibly the most anti-Black film ever made.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) worked very hard to try to ban the film due to its vicious portrayal of Black people as subhuman compared to the glorified Ku Klux Klan. The Birth of a Nation was important because it led to the creation of a new industry that produced “race films” for African-Americans. These films portrayed us in a positive light and addressed many social concerns of the community.
Before “race films,” Black people were nothing more than shuffling, shiny-faced, head-scratching simpletons with bugged out eyes who leaned on brooms and spoke bad English, but after the introduction of “race films,” we were depicted with more dignity and respect.
In order for Black people to ensure that they would have positive roles and stop reinforcing negative stereotypes through film, we had to make our own movies. The same holds true today.
On Saturday, August 4, 2012, we will explore this topic in-depth and present solutions at the Black Science Fiction Film Festival, during the panel entitled Art at War: Countering Negative Images of Blacks in the Media.
This amazing panel includes:
KALONJI JAMA CHANGA, Moderator
Under Kalonji’s direction as Founder/National Chief Coordinator of the FTP Movement, programs such as Feed The People, Siafu Youth Corps, MOBB(Mothers of Black and Brown Babies) and the FTP Artists Collective, have matured and developed.
Known as “The Riot Starter” due to his uncompromising position, ability to move the crowd, and muscle in his voice, Kalonji has been featured on the Ride or Die, Poets 4 Political Prisoners and Organize the Hood Tours.
The high demand for this powerful force in the Black Movement has earned him the honor of hosting both Black August Commemoration Concerts and Festivals in Oakland, California and Atlanta, Georgia, annually. In 2007, Kalonji was instrumental in the launching of the Cease Fire: Stop Police Terrorism Campaign, a national crusade that amalgamated community organizers and the hip hop community to tackle issues of police brutality. Endorsers of the Cease Fire Campaign include The National Political Hip Hop Convention, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and former political prisoner Dhoruba Bin Wahad.
In addition to his effective organizing and electrifying microphone skill, Kalonji is also a talented writer whose work has appeared in San Francisco Bay View, The Source, Frontline Magazine and The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by Gang Members and Their Affiliates. Kalonji is also author of the bestselling book, How to Build a People’s Army.
Finally, Kalonji Changa and film producer Vaughn Saber will be releasing an explosive documentary about police brutality entitled Why We Say FTP. The film will be internationally distributed and includes freedom fighters, rappers and politicians.
One of the newest faces in Hollywood to watch is Atlanta native Yakini Horn, who made her television debut as a member of the ensemble cast joining Oscar winner, Cuba Gooding Jr., in the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie Firelight on ABC. She also has a role in Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family.
Yakini’s love affair with acting began as a student at North Atlanta High School, when she was cast to play the lead role in the production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and continued while she was a student at Georgia State University, where she graduated with a degree in Theatre and African-American Studies.
She has appeared in several prominent Atlanta theatrical productions including For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf and The Colored Museum, both directed by actress and director Jasmine Guy; the Vagina Monologues; and her annual show for teen girls called Divine Intervention, in which she plays a variety of characters whose common thread is that somewhere in their childhood, either family, church, school or community failed to intervene at the first signs of trauma and trouble.
Most recently, Yakini appeared in an episode of the USA Network series Necessary Roughness, in which she played a roller derby star and she will be seen in the upcoming season of Homeland on Showtime.
BOBBY M. PEOPLES, SR.
After several rejections at auditions, Bobby entered film school, where he studied music and video production.
After working on several projects for Dreamworks, Touchstone Pictures and New
Millennium film studios, he founded his own film production company, The Peoples Film Company, where he writes, produces and directs great films and nurtures the talent of other up-and-coming filmmakers.
Balogun is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing and Steampunk in general, at http://chroniclesofharriet.com/.
He is author of three novels – MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2) (Steampunk); Redeemer (Science Fiction); and Once Upon A Time In Afrika (Sword & Soul). He is also co-creator of the soon-to-be-released role-playing game, Ki-Khanga™: The Sword & Soul RPG.
Balogun is Master Instructor of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute and Technical Director of Martial Ministries of America, a non-profit organization that serves at-risk youth. He is also a traditional African priest, actor and conflict resolution specialist, who works and lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife, his seven daughters and his son.
RABIYAH A. KARIM-KINCEY / “SISTER RAH”
Rabiyah is a native of Compton, California. She is a professor of Speech Communications at Clark Atlanta University, and a professional radio broadcaster by trade; she has worked in radio for over 12 years and currently hosts ORGANIZED FUSION on WRFG 89.3 FM-Atlanta.
Rabiyah received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her graduate degree was acquired in the disciplines of Rhetoric and Intercultural Communications, with an emphasis in the study of Hip Hop Music and Culture as a rhetorical tool.
Ms. Karim-Kincey lectures and consults in the area of Hip Hop music and culture. She is author of the lecture series,THE DUAFE PARADIGM: Restoring Feminine Energy for the Survival of Hip Hop, and the book, NOMMO RHYME & REASON-Power of the Spoken Word: The Rhetorical Significance of Hip Hop Culture through its Element of Hip Hop Music. Her article, Hip Hop is a Tool, Not a Circus! was published in Clark Atlanta University’s Spring 2007 Journal of Communications.
From Zulu Queen in the Universal Zulu Nation to academician, Ms. Karim-Kincey seeks to further studies and research that will restore the “Kulture” to Hip Hop. It is her desire to join the efforts of the many brilliant scholars and artists of the Hip Hop community who are working tirelessly to take Hip Hop back from the grips of the mainstream, and return it to a level of integrity and artistry that once was revered.
Launched in 2003, Guerrilla Republik‘s goal is to bridge the gap between black and brown communities through Hip Hop.
Guerrilla Republik draws its inspiration from the first successful slave revolt in Haiti (Ayiti) in 1794; a rebellion that – to Rabb Love – exemplifies unity, strength, determination and the will of the Creator.
Rabb’s mission is to stimulate minds, expand the dynamics of thinking in our inner cities and motivate individuals to take a pro-active approach to life through re-education, self-reliance and preparedness.
MILTON J. DAVIS
Milton Davis is a chemist by day and a writer/publisher by night and on the weekends. He writes and publishes uplifting science fiction and fantasy stories from an African-American perspective because he feels that there is a lack of positive black characters in the speculative fiction market.
Milton is the author of five novels: Meji Book One, Meji Book Two, Changa’s Safari Vol. 1, Changa’s Safari Vol. 2 and Griots: A Sword & Soul Anthology, for which he is a contributing editor, along with sword and sorcery living legend – and founder of the fantasy subgenre, Sword and Soul – Charles R. Saunders.
A man who wears many hats and wears them well, Milton is producer of the film, Rite of Passage: Initiation, which is based on his short story, Rite of Passage and co-creator / cartographer for Ki-Khanga: The Sword and Soul Roleplaying Game.
All of Milton’s works are self-published through his company, MVmedia, LLC: http://www.mvmediaatl.com/.
KOFI MICHAEL JOHNSON
Kofi Michael Johnson – a native of Rochester, New York – has worked extensively in the multimedia field for over 10 years. His love for visual art was developed during his studies at the famed School of the Arts High School, based in Rochester, New York; The Art Institute of Atlanta; and Westwood College, as an animation major.
Kofi was one of the first to produce and self publish a comic book that features an African-American super hero, even going on to produce a special series in conjunction with the American Cancer Society to promote non-tobacco use among the urban youth.
Kofi has been featured in several newspapers and magazines, including About Time, Rochester Magazine, Reality Magazine, The Sentinel, The Democrat & Chronicle, City Paper, and Creative Loafing.
To his credit, Kofi has directed 10 music videos, including two filmed in Africa. He has also worked as a story board artist, comic book illustrator, camera operator, and video editor.
Finally, Kofi is the founder of Afrikom Media Group and Afro-Man Kids Space, a positive social network targeting youth of African descent.
So, walk, crawl, bicycle, or rent a blimp…whatever it takes to make it out to the Black Science Film Festival in Atlanta, GA. You do not want to miss this!