Now that the Oscars have been handed out, the hoo-ha surrounding diversity in the motion picture industry will subside. But it won’t stay dormant for long.
A young African American writer and actor named Nate Parker has made a movie about Nat Turner’s slave revolt in the mid-19th century. He has titled it Birth of a Nation.
For those of you who are not film aficionados, the original Birth of a Nation, released in theaters a hundred years ago, was one of the first blockbuster movies. Its director, D.W. Griffith, introduced unheard of filmmaking techniques.
Unfortunately, he used them in the service of racism. And I do mean racism, extolling the Ku Klux Klan and demeaning African-Americans. The movie led to race riots and arguably helped the Klan, whose white-robed loser misfits were riding high a century ago, in California and elsewhere.
The film is instructive, but so is the book on which it was based: The Clansman by Thomas Dixon. It was widely read at the time.
I dug up this startling piece of “literature” on one of my many forays through used bookstores. I later reviewed it for a column I wrote about such stores, “Mining For Musty Gold.”
I’m going to share some of that review because it will tell you about the temper of the times—those times and, apparently, some people who live in these times.
The Klan, alas, is not old news thanks to Donald Trump and the new life his campaign seems to have breathed into America’s racists. They attack black people at his campaign events and consider themselves accepted because the man who could become the next president accepts them.
When Dixon wrote The Clansman, the Civil War had been over for less than 40 years and was still a vivid memory for many Americans, both North and South.
Southern whites, who had been forced to relinquish formal control over the lives of blacks, were continuing to re-establish their grip informally through various Jim Crow institutions and practices. This was the context for Dixon’s vile screed.
When you read the novel through the filter of the century that has passed since its publication, it is difficult to imagine how the book could see the light of day, let alone win wide acceptance. And yet it not only sold thousands of copies, it—in conjunction with Griffith’s movie—helped set the tone of race relations for much of the 20th century.
The Clansman, in a word, tells how the heroic Ku Klux Klan rescued the post-Civil War South from the ravages of freed blacks and sinister Northern carpetbaggers.
Its hero is idealistic young Ben Cameron, who joins the Klan to “save” his homeland. But the Klan as an institution is the real hero here, and Dixon presents its nighttime lynchings and other murders as both gallant and valorous.
There may be a book someplace that holds more alarming racial stereotypes than The Clansman, but it seems unlikely. Here we have white damsels in distress being menaced by libidinous blacks (black men in this novel have one thing in mind: getting their hands on white women). You have black “savages” becoming judges. You have slippery Northern abolitionists with sinister ulterior motives. And, of course, you have the noble Klan.
The book is fascinating because you can turn to nearly every page and find appalling racism and then recoil when you realize that the images held wide currency as fact 100 years ago.
Here, for example, is a white doctor in the court of a black judge: “For four thousand years his land [Africa] had stood a solid bulwark of unbroken barbarism. Out of its darkness he had been thrust upon the seat of judgment of the law of the proudest and highest type of man evolved in time. It seemed a hideous dream.”
Elsewhere Dixon extols “40 centuries of Aryan genius,” menaced by the disappearance of slavery.
Here’s Dixon describing Gus, one of his chief villains, advancing on a cowering white maiden. “His beastly jaws half cover[ed] the gold braid on the collar. His thick lips were drawn upward in an ugly leer, and his sinister bead eyes gleamed like a gorilla’s.”
Good God! Well, you get the picture.
Time and the Civil Rights movement blunted or eroded some of the stereotypes and tropes in Dixon’s florid, lurid prose. We can’t allow any of them to creep back.
Parker’s movie will help, at least in the broader culture. But what is one to make of the acceptance of the Klan in significant parts of the political culture?