Black Media Archive

The Black Media Archive has more than one front door via a variety of sites and internet services, most of which I am still entirely new to BUT at this link http:/www.theBMA.org, you will find yourself somewhere making it possible to download the podcast, watch or listen to the programs archived herein via an itunes link. Then there is a related site http://www.theBMA.blogspot.com, which seems to provide information and commentary from the director and composer of the Archive, Bill Lee, about where he got the material from and so forth. It is possible to make comments and to conversate but it is moderated because some of the material would be a little dicey for some on the stereotypical tip.

In the process of going through the itunes selection of podcasts, there it was and I found it to be what I hope will be an endless list of black archival sources, cartoons, old films, radio shows, speeches, newsreels on a variety of topics of particular interest to me at the moment. No reason to be overly exuberant about this though. There aren't likely to be very many surprises, at least for me. I went to the Ph.D. program in Cinema Studies at NYU in order to unearth something no one had noticed. Mainly I wanted to see for myself. I worried less about whether I would be able to say anything new about it. It would be new to me. That was the point, to have the experience of seeing it for myself but to find that so much of it was what I already knew on some level, well that was a disappointment.

Much of it is the old disappointment of realizing I am black, and therefore a member of a club for which there are certain limitations. Nothing I signed up for, nothing that I or anyone I know ever was consulted about but limitations nonetheless so far as how the club is represented via audio-visuals especially in the distant past when the technology was really young. But for some who may read this who are younger and have had less time to browse the electronic archival record, I hope that some of the BMA will be helpful, entertaining, surprising, mind expanding, revelatory, whatever.

Unfortunately, however, the older you get, the more ridiculous and claustrophobic the rules of this ancestral club appear. I think the thing that always gets me is the infernal shallowness of it. Anyhow this isn't the place to try to explain what I mean. See for yourself. Keep an open mind if you can. The trouble is most people can't.

Among the materials I have thus far seen are a March of Time newsreel about John Lomax and Lead Belly right next to a wonderful recording of Lead Belly singing "Irene." Newsreels were the way the old folks use to get their news before there was CNN and NPR, WBAI and Democracy Now.

There is a documentary about the work of the WPA in the Harlem area around Edgecombe Avenue and Colonial Park in the early 40s (including the description of changes in the park to provide diversion for small children such as a wading pool). This, too, was obviously a newsreel. I just love this one. It includes so much stuff compressed in a tight space--a lengthy video selection from a performance of Orson Welle's black cast production of Macbeth set in Haiti. Also the BMA includes speeches galore from MLK, Paul Robeson, Fanny Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, Malcolm X and lots of much rarer names. It is all just beautifully done, a great educational resources for serious scholars as well as kids of all ages.

Alternately obtuse and ridiculous, yet essential and blood curdlingly moving, the documents are presented one after the other in a dazzling array. Through this source, I am beginning to get a feel for the old radio days my parents always talked about.

So these podcasts are free, downloadable to your hard drive and playable on an ipod or perhaps other mp3 players as well (do I know what I am talking about I do not) , and it is also posssible to just watch it and move on, which is always good I think. This material helps provides the milieu for all the pictures of the time--the photos from my family archive and from photography of race generally through the first half of the 20th Century, the overall subject of this blog.

Right now some of these documents are of particular interest to me because as a family we are moving toward the exciting project of the Faith Ringgold's Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling in Harlem, which is being sponsored by Broadway Housing (the authors of the impressive Dorothy Day Residence for the formerly homeless) and spearheaded by its fabulous director Ellen Baxter. The site, which has already been purchased, is at one of the major intersections in the new Harlem-- Sugar Hill and the Valley, the Macombs Dam Bridge and Washington Heights at the old garage on St. Nicholas and 155th Street. Right where the museum will be is not a highly or even over-populated area, which is nice, because of all the park land surrounding it and the way the bridge and the dam are designed to augment the panaromic view of the Bronx and Yankee Stadium and the Hudson River. Just spectacular. The biggest population of the children in the area will perhaps be provided by those who live in the Jackie Robinson Housing Projects just beneath the site of the planned museum in the valley. These children and the children who live on the hill should be well served by the museum, as well as children from all over the world. A somewhat grown up museum focused upon the art of children (and the capacity of children for the appreciation of art) in a predominantly black community is utopian and unprecedented so far as I have been able to tell. It is nonetheless easy for my sister and I to imagine because of our experience of having been introduced to visual art as children by my Mom. We both love museums because we were raised in them.

It distresses me that some people hate museums. It also distresses me that everything remotely like a museum is having its entry-level re-designed as a miniature crystal palace. This is going to get very dated very fast. To me it already seems old.

As we speak, the plans are going forward to build the museum, as well as ten floors of demographically much needed affordable apartments. I can't begin to describe how excited I am about this prospect, about which I can say more in a later post.

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About Me

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I am a writer and a professor of English at the City College of New York, and the CUNY Graduate Center. My books include Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1979), Invisibility Blues (1990), Black Popular Culture (1992), and Dark Designs and Visual Culture (2005). I write cultural criticism frequently and am currently working on a project on creativity and feminism among the women in my family, some of which is posted on the Soul Pictures blog.