I have lost count of how many times I have sat through D.W. Griffith’s 1915 cinematic masterpiece and historical monstrosity, The Birth of a Nation. It has long been my contention that one cannot properly understand the American past without seeing this film. But it was not until my most recent screening of the movie for students that I suddenly realized that it also the case that one cannot properly understand the American present without seeing this infamous racist epic.
What struck me was that this infamous film provides the key to explaining both the rise of the Tea Party and the totally irrational hatred that a substantial fraction of Americans holds for President Obama.
Griffith portrays black people as sub-human beings who are just fine as long as they accept and stay in their place of subjugation. The slaves on the South Carolina plantation that is the principal setting for the film’s story are “faithful souls,” eager to help their kindly masters. Enjoying the benefits of their enslavement, they abhor freedom as something they do not deserve and could not handle.
The radical racist mentality that had emerged in the 1880s and constitutes the foundation upon which The Birth of a Nation is constructed was, in the words of historian Joel Williamson, “the concept that Negroes, freed from the restraining influences of slavery, were rapidly ‘retrogressing’ toward their natural state of bestiality.” In Griffith’s film, they become “crazed negroes” who make “helpless whites” their “victims.” Mammy, one of the faithful souls who appreciate what slavery does for them, sums up the filmmaker’s view when she says, “Dem free-niggers f’um de N’of am sho’ crazy.”
That tells us a great deal about widespread attitudes a century ago, but surely we have come a very long way since then… haven’t we?
Of course the racial views of the nation as a whole have progressed to a degree that would have been unimaginable in Woodrow Wilson’s day. But as the surface waves have moved dramatically in one direction, there has been a growing undertow pulling back the other way, and that undertow has become very strong and dangerous since the election of President Obama.
In 2010, regressives who dominate the Texas State Board of Education directed that acceptable textbooks should talk about “the positive aspects of American slavery.”