Pedagogy and Cinema Technology: Hidden Stories copyright 1995 by Adwoa X. Muwzea

Adwoa X. Muwzea is an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University, in the Department of Communication, Detroit, Michigan. She teaches animation history and techniques, scripting and television production. Sonny's Song, was screened at the Chicago International Children's Film & Video Festival in 1991 and is one of several short, animated films by Muwzea.

Animation and its creative architechs are seldom the focus of cinema studies. Yet animation serves a dual purpose in discussions of cinema history. First of all, history and the development of technology inform modernist approaches to production and academic discourse in film and television studies. In the arena of technology, animation embraces a system of its own essential equipment, techniques, conventions and devices. Secondly, just as an authentic examination of any western media format dregs up the denigrated images of an African Diaspora, animation history is tainted by the vilified images of the Diaspora. So this discussion explores the relationship between the African Diaspora, animation and the development of cinematic technology in western society.

Investigation & Conferencing

In a recent study of animation texts, and early issues of the NAACP's Crisis Magazine,1 scarcely a word about the role of Black people in animation could be found. The texts attribute no developments of animation technology to Black inventors. Beyond its usual format, Crisis Magazine provides only rudimentary focus and criticism of Black representation in comic strips.

One animation researcher, digging in Disney Studio archives,2 noted that an African American presence was absent. In a 1991 study, researcher Charlene Love of Los Angeles, began a national search to compile a list of African American animators. Only one of the animators contacted was working independently to produce animation targeting Black audiences. Animator, Leo Sullivan, General Manager of his own production company, notes that "the University of California, Los Angeles interviewed him on video tape for their archive of animators in the twentieth century."3 In animation history overall, however, neither the impact nor the contributions of the Diaspora have been credited or investigated in any sort of authentic manner.

New York University recently hosted a conference, Black Cinema: A Celebration of Pan-African Film (22-30 March 1994). No mention of animation history, technology or Black achievement in these areas was put forth. Even as one panel prompted a discussion of "the ways in which television and new technologies provide possibilities for distribution and exhibition,"4 the discussion did not focus on Black contributions to animation or cinema technology. It seemed unlikely that topics of technology would emerge.

A flicker of encouragement was kindled when American Book Award author Toni Cade Bambara spoke, however, during the "History of Blacks in Cinema" panel. Her discussion related to notions of Black achievement in the development of cinema technology.

Training Memory: Toni Cade Bambara5

To engage a Pan-Africanist view of education in practice, the discussion pursued by Bambara represents a particularly relevant approach to examining issues of animation and cinema technology. Bambara, reflecting upon the history of Black cinema, points out that during Reconstruction, Black folk in America filed several hundred patents for inventions that relate to physics, light, motion and the development of the kinescope (a television receiver tube).6 According to Bambara, there is a "hidden history in patents, diaries, journals" which demonstrate the poignant interest in technology of Black citizens in early America.

Bambara contends that Robert B. Forten, the father of well known anti-slavery crusader, Charlotte Forten (1837-1914),7 was known to have financed several "optical toys," a phonograph and a kinescope. Such instruments figure easily into the technology of animation and cinema. Yet in her discussion of hidden histories, Bambara stresses that the papers of inventor Lewis Latimer (1848-1928), are key to investigations of technology and cinema in the Diaspora. She cites late 1880-1890, as the time in which Latimer was most active, noting during this period "he's on the move."

Lewis Latimer: A synopsis

Latimer, a self taught draughtsman, drew the technical plans for Bell's telephone patent. He was the only African American on the team of the Edison Pioneers. Latimer improved the life and quality of light bulbs by replacing the carbon filament with cotton and bamboo conductors, making electric light practical for homes. He supervised the installation of Edison's electric light system in New York, Philadelphia, Canada and London, England and served in court as an expert witness in defense of Edison's patents.8 Latimer also authored the book, Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System (1890)9

Bambara confirms that during the period 1880-1890, Latimer was a chief engineer on the boards of Edison and General Electric. Edison's ventures into animation and motion picture productions are documented.10 Expanding on the notion that Latimer was involved in the motion picture industry, Bambara adds that he was present at the first major public projection of cinema, in October 1886 and at subsequent first projections throughout the United States and in overseas events. She explains that Latimer's presence is evinced by his writings on audience responses at such events. Latimer was in London with the Lumiere Brothers. He was with Coster and Beale "talking scientific, technology...documenting Negro exhibitions," Bambara assets. He stayed with Black families during his most active years and conducted seminars in Black homes to consider the possibilities of creating new films, new applications and apparatus.

Latimer's testimony in defense of nearly all Edison patents, challenged through litigation, brought him recognition as a patents expert. Bambara notes that he also played a significant role in helping other Black inventors to register patents with the U.S. Patents Office. Latimer's significant encounters include meetings with Ferinand Marquiche, a Nigerian associated with the Lumieres. Framing the Pan-African context of the conference, Bambara notes that Latimer's links to Marquiche indicate investigation across the Diaspora. She also cites Picinnies Dancing on the Streets of London and Native Women Holding a Ship, as foreign films related to Black participation in early cinema. Of the latter, Bambara notes that an African American, possibly Spencer Williams, was behind the megaphone. Various diaries recount that in addition to performance, Black folk were assistants and camera operators on such films. Their roles as inventors and scientists are also implied in diaries of Black Americans of the era.

Bambara's insights into hidden history is, at least in part, informed by early experiences with her father. She shared an anecdote about how her father operated the elevator at Aubach's in New York, between 1930-1940. "He read strange materials-- telephone books, Greyhound schedules and patents texts." The patents texts were given to her father by Latimer himself, who taught at the Henry Street Settlement.

Digging Deeper: The Rest of the Story

During the early era of animation and cinema, African Americans were inventing and contributing to the technology of the nation. They've made significant contributions in many disciplines, without recognition, so it's probable they've made contributions in the field of animation too. Thus you have the cotton gin-- more likely created by the cotton reaper than the exploiter; the ingenious patents of Granville T. Woods for phone relay systems and rail telegraphy between 1885 and 1888; and the genius of electrical wiring and patents from Lewis H. Latimer.

In 1982, Bell Laboratories, a private research and development company, employed close to a thousand African Americans,11 who made important contributions to the company. Brian G. Jackson built and instructed computers for Bell Labs. Light reflected back from concentric circle registry marks, called Frensel lenses, is relayed by a system of mirrors to a television camera. A unit Jackson created, called a "frame grabber," captures a picture of light intensity, representing the relative position of circles in the mask and wafer.12 Such work may relate tot he development of animation and cinema technology, but requires further investigation. Dr. John Henrik Clarke, who was in contact with the Latimer family, is an excellent source for investigating the work of Latimer. Black history sources also provide information on Black inventions.

Pedagogy: A Summary

African contributions to communication technology is apparent. Their works are utilized by media professionals. Still, it is important that their achievements be recognized and taught as contributions from the Diaspora. Applications for inventions and designs from the Diaspora need to be established. It's necessary to determine the extent to which the Diaspora contributes to the development of animation stories, characterizations, cinema history and technology. The African Diaspora, itself, must be held accountable for encouraging and producing creative scholarship in these areas. Then, as animation and cinema history are taught in schools across the Diaspora, and negative descriptions of the Diaspora appear, film students will know that African people have used their intellect and creativity to raise cinema, animation and technology to modern heights.

1 "Animation Signifiers: An African World View," A.X.Muwzea. Unpublished paper presented at the "5th Annual Society of Animation Studies Conference," Farnham, U.K., 1993. The paper references animation texts by Charles Solomon; The American Film Institute; and Leonard Maltin.

2 "Gallup Goes to Hollywood: Opinion Polling, Market Research and American Film," Susan Ohmer. Ohmer presented her dissertation research from New York University, Department of Cinema Studies, at a Wayne State University colloquium, 4 Feb 1995.

3 From the vita and self composed biography of Leo D. Sullivan, Jan 1994. Sullivan has overseen all phases of production on animated television shows in China, Thailand, the Philippines, Spain, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, Ireland and the United States.

4 Black Cinema: The Artist's Perspective, "Black Participation in the Film Industry: Black Hollywood," was a panel convened on Saturday, 26 March 1994. The panel's discourse in outlined in the conference bulletin.

5 Toni Cade Bambara called her presentation by the title "Training Memory." The details of her speech which pertain to cinema technology is outlined in the discussion which follows, along with direct quotes from her presentation.

6 Burrows, Wood, Gross. Television Production, Disciplines & Techniques, 5th Ed., (1992), p. 125, 187. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, Iowa.

7 Sterling, Dorothy, ed., We Are Your Sister. Black Women in the Nineteen Century, (1984), p. 119. W.W. Norton & Company., New York. The text provides a partial discussion of the Forten family. An Elder Charlotte Forten (1784-1884), was the matriarch of this Philadelphia family, and the mother of Robert B. Forten.

8 "Black Americans in the Field of Science and Invention," Robert C. Hayden, in Blacks in Science, ancient and modern, Ivan Van Sertima, Ed., p220. Transaction Books, New Brunswick, 1983 (1989).

9 Ibid., p. 273.

10 See Animation, A Reference Guide, Hoffer, Thomas W. (1981), p. 10, Greenwood Press, Connecticut. Also, The Animation Book: a complete guide to animated filmmaking from flip-books to sound cartoons, Layborne, Kit (1979). p. 86, Crown Publishers, New York.

11 Van Sertima, p. 227.

12 Van Sertima, p. 227.