Thanks to the help of a Twitter connection after a inquiry Tweet relating to the papers of the cast of The Birth of a Nation, I am now aware of the whereabouts of the papers of Ms. Lilian Gish: at the New York Public Library. This once again confirms (as if I needed any confirmation) that social media are wonderful tools for researchers. Ask a question, broadcast it to the world, get an immediate answer. I love it.
So my Internet friends, should you know the locations of any other collections pertaining to the cast and crew of this most controversial silent film I would love the tip off.
By now you have certainly all read, or at least become aware of, TheEconomist’s rather scathing review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. If not, I’ll just point out that the unsigned piece ends with an unfavorable, “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.” (Sept 6-12, p. 86-87)
I have not read Baptist’s book, though I plan to – perhaps because of the review…so I suppose he has TheEconomist to thank for that. But because I have yet to read the study, I do not feel like I can reasonably comment on either the book or the review. I have noticed the veritable shit storm across most social media platforms attacking The Economist for running a questionable (read: problematic that leans toward racism) review. TheEconomist has since removed the piece from its web component and issued a retraction – what reads as an apology for insensitivity.
But still…there is a word that keeps coming up in the attacks on the review that I find troubling…or at least slippery: victim. If slaves were not victims, suggest many incensed readers, what were they? I think it would be foolish to imply that black people were not victims of a reprehensible system. In the most obvious sense, they certainly were. But is the reductionist victimization position doing the history of slavery a disservice? Is it indeed demeaning the slaves themselves?
I would suggest this: to reduce a living breathing human being to the status of victim robs that individual of the very humanity that slavery failed to destroy. It’s been a long time since we understood slavery as social death – but the notion appears to have been oddly resurrected in the many missives launched against TheEconomist.
Let me remind you – I say this without having read the book. So before you come at me, remember – I am just looking at a word. One word that keeps coming up…repeatedly. And I am wondering if another word choice might better suit those enslaved.
Henry B. Walthall, who gained great fame as Ben “the little colonel” Cameron in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, was apparently well-suited for the role. Wathall, born on an Alabama cotton plantation and educated privately, had all the opportunities of a privileged plantation gentleman – but chose a career in acting. Go figure. The parts he played early in his career, whether by intentionally seeking them out or simply by happenstance, seemed to figure around the Civil War and the Old South.
None of this was lost on Griffith, who when casting the role of the little colonel, thought Walthall perfectly suited for the gig. In a sense it was the role he was born to play.