A Sense of Ourselves: Filming Black Authors and the Burnham Ware Collection

In the field of moving image archiving, lost films are not uncommon. This issue is especially pervasive in Black cinematographic culture due to the difficulties in accessing cameras, films, and archives to preserve the work created by filmmakers. These films, created by and about Black people of color, represent the history experienced through the eyes of those with first hand knowledge and interaction with it. As the famed Roots author Alex Haley wrote, “Because for a long period of time it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write, much of black American history had to be documented by people other than blacks. As a result, much of our history has either been lost or severely distorted,” (Kern-Foxworth, 1994). All lost films are a detriment to the knowledge of the history of those who have come before us, but without organizations like the Black Film Center/Archive, the amount of absent information specifically related to Black films and filmmakers would be insurmountable.

The Burnham Ware Collection, 1980-1989 is one collection that escaped this unfortunate fate. Donated by the filmmaker Burnham Ware in 1993, the twelve, unique Super 8 films feature four prominent Black writers: Gloria Naylor, Houston A. Baker, Terry McMillan, and Alex Haley. In a history wrought with stereotypes and misrepresentation, this Collection gives great insight into African-American literature from the 1980s.

Alex Haley

Alex Haley at Georgetown College in Kentucky, October 1982.

Film was embedded into Mr. Burnham Ware’s (b. 1949) life at an early age. He and his father would watch movies together each week and his mother, a domestic worker, was able to secure him a photographic camera from her employer. His avid interest in Blues music coupled with photography led him to music festivals in the late 1960s. It was there in Ann Arbor, MI where Ware met up with the creators and staff of Living Blues Magazine, who agreed to pay him to write and take photographs for the magazine. As many can empathize, financial constraints led Ware to a more stable professional opportunity working for the Kentucky State Government in Libraries and Archives Department, as what he describes as a “laborer” for the next twenty-seven years.

Ware appreciated this feeling of constancy, but did not allow his new position to shrink his pursuit of filmmaking. He frequently made time to film different kinds of events around the state, from lectures at local colleges and universities, to a KKK rally and protest. Though he did not have any official credentials, Ware would typically head to a lecture and set up near the stage, filming the event with his newly purchased (and expensive!) Super 8 camera. He remembers Terry McMillan’s lecture at Kentucky State University fondly: she was “a funky lady, not your typical academic type,” brought on campus one afternoon by the English department to speak to students. Silent film and still photographs were taken of her, just as they were of Alex Haley at his speaking engagement at Georgetown College (KY) in early October of 1982. Ware set up his equipment like he typically did, and shot four reels of Haley before receiving a wave and smile from the author upon his departure. The Haley reels (see clips) were color with no sound, and were especially exciting for Ware because of Alex Haley’s fame due to his work on Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976).

Viewing the works of Mr. Burnham Ware allows us to reclaim a sense of ourselves in what can be a sea of negativity. In the age of a flourishing social media presence, one would think it would be simple for people of color to create and re-create our own history but, though it might be a new age, problems of racism, dehumanization, and scare tactics still exist. This fact highlights the importance of archiving and preserving films like those in the Burnham Ware Collection. Ware’s contributions equal those of other amateur Black filmmakers interested in documenting the less public parts of our society.

Mr. Ware continued to film and take photographs of small, but no less important, events in Kentucky until about 1998. His decision to not film any longer came with the grief of losing his father, a person that was fundamental in his relationship with film and the moving image. Despite that, however, he still feels the phantom effects of the camera in his life, and is always taking “pictures in [his] head” everywhere he goes. This small action gives us hope that other young women and men will take up the camera, in any and all of the ways it is formatted, and continue to write and preserve our history, black or otherwise.

The Burnham Ware Collection is available at the Black Film Center/Archive. The Alex Haley reels have been converted into a digital format and are available for viewing below. If you have more information on Mr. Ware’s Collection, please contact Brian Graney, Senior Archivist and Head of Public and Technology Services at the BFC/A, bpgraney@indiana.edu. An enormous thank you to Mr. Burnham Ware, Betsy Morelock (Kentucky State University), Brian Graney, Rachael Stoeltje (IU Libraries Moving Image Archive), and Andy Uhrich (IULMIA) for their help was integral to the creation, continuation, and completion of this project.

Haley_play

~Amanda Ferrara

Amanda Ferrara is a Massachusetts native with a BA from Smith College (MA) and a MLS from Indiana University (IN). She is interested in increasing diversity of, and outreach to, people of color in academic and government archives. This is her first project integrating these topics with film and the moving image.

NOTES

Kern-Foxworth, M. (1994). Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in advertising, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.

Kerr, L. M. (2013). Collectors’ Contributions to Archiving Early Black Films. Black Camera: An International Film Journal (The New Series), (1), 274.

 

 

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

2 responses to “A Sense of Ourselves: Filming Black Authors and the Burnham Ware Collection

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