Cara Caddoo is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Indiana University – Bloomington. Her book Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life was published by Harvard University Press in 2014. This interview is based on her December 2014 Journal of American History article “‘Put Together to Please a Colored Audience’: Black Churches, Motion Pictures, and Migration at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.”
Could you briefly summarize what your article is about?
My article discusses early African American cinema, which first appeared in black churches in the 1890s. African Americans transformed the new technology of motion pictures into a tool for racial progress as they exhibited, produced, and watched films together. These film exhibitions raised money for black institutions, and itinerant black film exhibitors used the medium to promote their beliefs in the philosophy of racial uplift. In this era of mass migration and Jim Crow segregation, film going became a popular leisure activity for black urban dwellers.
What sources did you use? What sort of benefits or drawbacks are there to using these sources?
The black-produced films from the era I’m looking at no longer exist, but the films alone could have only told part of the story. I relied mostly on black newspapers. I also looked at sociological studies, railroad and insurance maps, church directories, census records, and industry publications. I should say, though, that my sources led me to my project, rather than the other way around. When I began my research on black film, I thought I would be writing about film going in theaters. I had learned that black religious leaders were generally opposed to moving pictures, and that most African Americans began watching films in commercial white-owned, usually segregated spaces. When I was looking at black newspapers like the New York Age and the Broad Ax, that story made sense. But then I started reading black newspapers published in the South and Midwest, and my project began to change. I kept running into references to film exhibitions in black churches, lodges, and schools, which I initially set aside. But as that pile of records grew bigger, I realized that they weren’t just anomalies, or occasional events, but part of a parallel, thriving black film culture. At that moment, it suddenly all made so much sense: the overlapping routes of black urban migration and itinerant black film exhibition; the fact that moving pictures were shown in black churches—the “public” spaces for black social life in the Jim Crow city; the ways motion pictures were fit into the goals of black institutions, and the leisure desires of black migrants.
How does this article fit into your larger research interests?
I’ve always been interested in representation, especially the importance that visual representation acquired in twentieth century black politics and cultural movements. When I was in graduate school, I read Thomas Cripps’s Slow Fade to Black, which introduced me to the protests black Americans organized against DW Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. I wanted to know why the campaigns—the first mass black protest movement of the twentieth century–developed in response to a movie. I wondered how a broad swath of African Americans, and eventually other groups, began to associate visual representation with civil and natural rights. My article for the Journal of American History is part of that story. And my book, Envisioning Freedom: Cinema and the Building of Modern Black Life, continues to track the history of cinema in black life through the nickelodeon era, the rise of Hollywood, and the race film industry. It’s through that history that I’ve been able to understand how and why the motion pictures became important to so many twentieth century articulations of what it meant to be black and to be free.
Any advice for graduate students or junior scholars who are submitting a first article?
Graduate students and junior scholars who, like myself, traverse the disciplines might be hesitant to submit to the JAH, but they can benefit enormously from the feedback. I think I received seven readers’ reports. Only three of the readers have identified themselves, but it’s clear that the JAH editors went to lengths to find people who could critique my work from a variety of perspectives both within the discipline of history and from the other fields that I engage with. I really appreciated that, and I learned so much from the process.