“The nation [the founders] envisioned and created was a white supremacist nation. Meaning, it was founded on the notion that whites should rule, that whites had superior ability to rule, that the nation should be a white republic, and that people of color surely should not have equal rights with whites.” – Tim Wise
When The Birth of a Nation (“BOAN”) was released 97 years ago in 1915, it was heralded for its technical innovations and was the first film screened at the White House. However, many – including the NAACP – protested BOAN’s degrading black stereotypes, glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, and its racist propaganda dressed up as historical representation. Despite its controversies, BOAN is a valuable part of my film collection. It is a movie that I watch and refer to regularly. The hegemonic worldview expressed in BOAN is still very relevant, unfortunately, and offers great insights about the ongoing pervasiveness of American racism, even more so in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
BOAN dramatizes the Civil War and its consequences from the perspectives of two families – the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. Life in the South before the war was depicted as idyllic. Whites reigned supreme while blacks were carefree and content in their subservient roles. After the war, however, the defeated Southerners fell under the rule of “carpetbaggers.” They also found themselves vulnerable to the newly freed slaves who outnumbered them, had voting rights, violent tendencies and the audacity to pursue white women. The Southerners responded to this threat to their existence by forming an underground vigilante group to restore “order” to the South, and hence the Ku Klux Klan was born.
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained…will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia
Jefferson’s quote reflects the inconsistencies on which this nation was founded – contradictions that have yet to be meaningfully recognized. On the one hand, this slave-owning author of the Declaration of Independence acknowledged the “injuries” inflicted on blacks due to racial discrimination. On the other hand, however, Jefferson rationalized that it was in America’s best interest to deny blacks equal rights and protections under the Constitution in order to avoid retaliation and anarchy.
“I felt a little bit threatened, if you will, in the attitude that [President Obama] had.” – Arizona Governor Jan Brewer
As if taking a cue from Jefferson, BOAN depicted the newly emancipated blacks as irresponsible, brutal and out of control. The abuse of their newly acquired political power left whites disenfranchised and helpless to do anything about it. Left to their own devices, blacks were well on their way to taking over the nation. That is until the Ku Klux Klan rode in and saved America. Using intimidation, coercion and violence to oppress blacks, the Klan’s methods were deemed necessary to preserve the nation. The end justified the means. Could this be why an unarmed man can be shot 41 times and his murderers set free? Perhaps this explains why a man who was outnumbered and beaten savagely on videotape was perceived as the aggressor. Is this why Trayvon Martin, armed only with a cell phone, Skittles and ice tea, was shot to death and his assailant, George Zimmerman, has so far avoided murder charges by claiming self-defense? Adding insult to injury, it has been reported Zimmerman “suffers” from PTSD – as if that’s any comparison to being DEAD.
“It’s time this generation learned the difference between a villain and a hero.” – J. Edgar Hoover
The irony of quoting Hoover on this topic aside, the concept of heroes and villains works well in fiction. In BOAN, the villainous blacks are returned to a submissive position by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s savior status is denoted by the superimposed images of Christ and a Klansman in the final minutes of the film. Therefore, it stands to reason, according to BOAN, that if the Klan is godly, then blacks are the direct opposite. However, in real life using the “good versus evil” rubric to assess others often leads to tragic consequences. Dehumanizing and demonizing one’s opponents and/or those with whom you are unfamiliar results in a delusional sense of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to consider different points of view. Peaceful resolutions are replaced by ongoing conflict and domination.
“If you’re black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you.” – Chris Rock
America likes to see itself as the land of freedom, justice and opportunity – a harmonious, multi-cultural melting pot. That is not my reality though I yearn for that ideal. In my America, racial discrimination and stereotyping are constant companions. Racism does not always involve physical violence, although its emotional toll can be just as destructive over time. Its more subtle forms include low expectations, backhanded compliments and hasty assumptions.
History informs me that demanding Zimmerman’s arrest is not enough. Based on the way this case has been handled so far and the efforts to criminalize Martin, the state of Florida is incapable of conducting a fair trial. This case must be prosecuted on the federal level. There also needs to be a major shake-up in the Sanford Police Department. Resignations/terminations are not sufficient. The conduct of the police and state attorney’s office should be thoroughly investigated. Negligent law enforcement officers must be prosecuted and their pensions should be revoked. Maybe then they will value the rights of everyone they are supposed to “serve and protect.” Finally, looking to the future, now is the time to push for legislation about racial profiling with specific guidelines and consequences applicable to both law enforcement officials and civilians.
Frank Costello: “When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I’m saying is this. When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” – The Departed
The Ku Klux Klan’s hoods versus Trayvon Martin’s hoodie – who’s the hero and who’s the villain? Whether it’s on the screen in BOAN or in real life, the designation of heroes and villains is not absolute. There are many shades of gray. The real dilemma is not in the “hero” and “villain” designations; it is in the desire to categorize them in the first place. After all, the concept of heroes and villains is relative. Much depends on which end of the proverbial loaded gun you find yourself on.
What will it take for this nation to be reborn?
TO BE CONCLUDED
“The Rebirth of a Nation – Part 2: Truth and Reconciliation”