Lingering violence of ‘Birth of a Nation’

“one of the embarrassments of film scholarship”

Birth of a NationIn the CHRISTMAS EVE 2020 edition of the Boston Globe, there was a stunning bit from an article. Social Studies: “The lingering violence of ‘Birth of a Nation’” excerpted five articles from university-based publications.

The one I want to point out here is “The Birth of a Nation: Media and Racial Hate,” Harvard University (November 2020). The author is listed as D. Ang. I assume it is Desmond Ang, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The quotes

The 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation” is infamous for its positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, but what many people may not appreciate today is just how influential it was — and still is. Little surprise when the source material was the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. “Romance,” indeed.

Here are a couple of more recent contrasting opinions. James Agee: “To watch his work is like being witness to the beginning of melody, or the first conscious use of the lever or the wheel; the emergence, coordination and first eloquence of language; the birth of an art: and to realize that this is all the work of one man.” That man, of course, was D.W. Griffith.

Andrew Sarris: “Classic or not, ‘Birth of a Nation’ has long been one of the embarrassments of film scholarship. It can’t be ignored…and yet it was regarded as outrageously racist even at a time when racism was hardly a household word.”

As the Harvard professor notes, “an estimated 10 million Americans — roughly one-fifth of the adult white population — turned out to see the movie in its first two years,” and “newspaper reports from the period estimated that nearly 50 percent of adults in Boston, Baltimore, and New Orleans saw the film.”

The movie was screened via traveling roadshow rather than simultaneous nationwide release, and the professor finds that lynchings and race riots increased fivefold within a month of the movie’s arrival in a county. Also, counties that screened the film were much more likely to have a Klan chapter in 1930 — a correlation that persists into the 21st century, with more white supremacist groups and hate crimes in those counties than in counties that didn’t screen the movie.

The Binghamton Press

There were over 150 references to the movie in my hometown papers. It was first shown in the area the week of January 10, 1916, and played again in 1917. The Klan was quite visible in Binghamton, NY in the mid-1920s, as pictured here.

But I’m curious about how narrow those early showings were. It played for three days at the Stone Theater in early September of 1921. The anonymous movie compiler wrote, “It will be presented upon the same elaborate scale which has marked its recent presentations” in New York City and other large markets.

The film returned with a soundtrack recorded in 1930 but wasn’t shown until 1949. The Roberson Theatre showed it in 1979, but I see that one as a totally different experience. Robeson was an educational center where I saw movies by Fellini, Bergman, and Hitchcock, so I imagine there was some contextualization taking place.

The more recent references included a writer finding the placement of the film on the AFI’s best to be abhorrent. I suppose one could make the case that it was very good at being terrible.

Should I see this?

I’ll admit I’ve never seen the movie in its entirety. I’ve watched clips, of course. There were several bits of it in the 2018 film BlacKkKlansman

As it turns out, one can find copies of the film, which runs for 195 minutes at the National Archives site. Next time I want to get ticked off, and have three hours on my hands, I guess I’ll check it out.

Blackface + time + change = redemption?

“When a politician’s positions on current issues already raise questions about racism, then evidence of racism in his or her past ought to have increased significance.”

Ralph Northam
Ralph Northam, elected Virginia governor in 2017
“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” That was Abraham Lincoln in 1858 during a debate with Stephen Douglas.

Seven years later, he evolved, wanting to allow black soldiers – such as my ancestors – who had fought so bravely in the Civil War the ballot. Had he lived, who knows how much he may have changed, with Frederick Douglass whispering in his ear.

The notion here is rather obvious: people change. In The Mosque Across the Street – a video shown at the FOCUS churches service I attended this month – we see one Christian parishioner at a Memphis church weep as he realizes that HE was the problem in dealing with the new Muslim neighbors.

Jeff, a Facebook friend, wrote this recently: “Bob Zellner was a civil rights hero, a white organizer of SNCC. His father was a Klansman until he went to Europe in the 1930s, met up with a group of Southern Gospel singers and traveled with them. He wrote to his wife that at some point, he ‘forgot they were black,’ and he realized how foolish and awful he had been. When he got home he resigned from the Klan, traveled the South as an anti-Klan preacher… and his wife took his Klan uniforms and made much needed shirts out of them for the kids.”

As the very first line of his Oyez bio reads, “Hugo LaFayette Black refused to let his past dictate his future.” The Alabaman joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1923, but quit two years later. As an old poli sci major could tell you, Black was sworn in as an Associate Justice in 1937, and served for 34 years, supporting many groundbreaking civil rights cases.

People change. And we WANT and EXPECT people to do so. I’ve read a number of stories from white people, especially during this Black History Month, about how they, or those around them, were radically changed by interaction with people of different backgrounds.

One fellow from my former hometown wrote: “I changed from the young guy growing up in a backward community that still appears to show the same racist, bigoted attitude. Becoming educated, and allowing others to point out most of my misconceptions helped.”

So I am having some difficulty – OK, a LOT of difficulty – judging people solely based on how they dressed up in costumes – even racist, offensive costumes – decades ago. It does not necessarily make that person a bigot for life.

If people who were ACTUAL members of the Ku Klux Klan can be redeemed, some indiscretions of the past, even blackface – which must have been the state hobby among white Virginians at some point – can be contextualized.

What we need is some sort of formula based on the severity of the offense, the recency of the offense, the level of contrition, and most importantly, their current comportment. As a guy I know wrote: “I think that this needs to be decided by the group that he has offended, not white liberals.”

To that end, the subhead of this article from a couple weeks ago intrigued me: As Calls Mount for Ralph Northam to Resign, Some Virginians Mull a Second Chance. “Seems the average black voter in VA has conflicting feelings about all this. Maybe because they have seen a lot worse?

Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel had to quit recently. He wore blackface to make fun of victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I have no sympathy, and he needed to go.

As the Weekly Sift guy notes: “When a politician’s positions on current issues already raise questions about racism, then evidence of racism in his or her past ought to have increased significance.”

As a practical matter, I believe this is also true:

“I worry that we’re playing into Trump’s hands when we drum Ralph Northam out of the Democratic Party. As I interpret it, Trump’s message to wavering whites and men and anti-gay straights goes something like this:
“‘You’re never going to be pure enough to satisfy the liberals. So you might as well wear your MAGA hat and fly your Confederate flag, because no matter what you do, there’s never going to be a place for you on the other side'”.

Nation of Change recommends that Ralph Northam immediately resigns when the “lord of racism in the here and now” goes. THAT is a workable plan.

Charleston, the responses

The Ku Klux Klan has a permit to protest removal of Confederate flag on July 18 at the South Carolina Statehouse.

At my church on Sunday, June 28, we sang a new hymn printed in the bulletin. It was They Met to Read the Bible by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a pastor from Wilmington, Delaware, to the tune of Beneath the Cross of Jesus (ST. CHRISTOPHER 7.6.8.6.8.6.8.6):

They met to read the Bible,
they gathered for a prayer,
They worshiped God and shared with friends
and welcomed strangers there.
They went to church to speak of love,
To celebrate God’s grace.
O Lord, we tremble when we hear
What happened in that place.

O God of love and justice,
we thank you for the nine.

I then realized this song was in specific response to the Charleston shooting Continue reading “Charleston, the responses”