One hundred years ago, Woodrow Wilson historically hosted the first motion picture screened at the White House. The film, based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, was D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. The efforts of the NAACP to ban the now notoriously racist film were effectively frustrated by the White House’s endorsement. A century later, the film remains worth consideration in part because of its masterful use of metaphor.
Griffith’s A Birth of a Nation centers on the metaphor of reproduction. Reproduction is, of course, a biological function by which parents produce offspring. The statement is simple enough—a birth of a nation—except for the fact that there are no obvious parents here and the offspring is not a baby. The title obscures the fact that nations are not “born” and it hides the reality that none of the key elements are in place in the act of nation building to make it a reproductive process. Nevertheless, the title seems to make a lot of sense—a birth of a nation. Griffith bridges the conceptual schism between nation-building on the one hand and the reproductive process of giving birth on the other with the power of metaphor.
While we know what “a birth” is, the term “reproduction” is a rather sanitized expression of it. In fact, we have many more common words that we use to connote birthing and the act leading up to it. Reproduction for human beings involves sex, right? And if we begin to think about other extra-lexical values, the connotations associated with “sex,” then we might choose to alter our own metaphor of an iceberg to a minefield because we have to be very careful in choosing our steps for fear of blowing ourselves up. There is no way to think of “a birth”—mentioned in the title of the film—and avoid suggesting, on some level, a range of connotations that necessarily include common and even vulgar expressions.
In fact, it is the vulgar expression that is very much on the mind of the filmmaker and his audience. A Birth of a Nation’s central conflict is the death of an innocent white girl who chooses to jump off a cliff to her death rather than to have that apparent innocence spoiled through rape at the hands of a depraved black man, a man who has been emboldened by misguided methods for enacting social liberties developed in the wake of the Civil War.
If “a birth” and its associated unruliness is the known, the unknown part of the metaphorical equation presented by Griffith in the title of his epic film is “a nation.” Metaphor encourages us to assign the attributes linked with the known concept to that which we do not know. In this case we carry the attributes of “a birth” across the metaphorical bridge and apply them to “a nation.” So we see a nation as a function of reproduction. We see it as the effect of sexual intercourse between a fertile male and a fertile female. It follows a period of gestation and produces after its kind. Additionally, the metaphor asserts that nation building involves sex and all the messiness that accompanies that act. Griffith released A Birth of a Nation into the twilight of Victorianism, when enough of the country held to a pervading sense of virtue as to be certain about “morality” and “justice.” If a nation were to be born, Griffith’s audience had clear ideas about whom this union should and should not engage.
It is the last point on our list that is of concern here. This metaphor insists upon white parentage even as it imagines mixed raced heritage as a national nightmare. In fact, miscegenation had long been outlawed. Laws against miscegenation, or mixed raced relationships, were first introduced in the seventeenth century before the colonies became a nation. These laws remained in place in many states until struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967 three centuries later. According to this line of thinking, the bi-racial, the mulatto, the half-breed who is neither white nor black represents the biggest threat to the security of the nation. Their in-betweeness, their tan skin and good hair, tempt and ensnare respectable white men to succumb to their baser nature. But the union between white men and black women was not the real target of the law. According to the logic of the southern plantation, Black women were somehow responsible for white male sexual aggression. On the other hand, white women had been aligned with the “Cult of True Womanhood,” wherein virtue seemed connected with domesticity, submissiveness, purity, and piety.
The fear behind miscegenation laws, as graphically depicted in Griffith’s film, is that black men would have sex with white women. And in the sordid imagination of many Americans, no white woman would sexually desire a Black man; this union could only occur by force. Or at least that was the public line. Ida B. Wells-Barnett called out this falsehood in her 1895 publication A Red Record stating, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” (http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.5813:3.lincoln). Part of the reason that “the old thread bare lie” as Wells called it of Black men raping white women persists is because of the way the metaphor operates. The white woman does not merely represent herself. Consider the quotation attributed to President Woodrow Wilson in the film wherein he says, “The white men were roused by the instinct of self-preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.” The Southern country is substituted for the white woman’s body. The chaste, young, white woman operates as a metaphor for the South. The mob, then, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan, arises in defense of her noble cause. Griffith is extremely skillful in his technique and artistry. As film critic Roger Ebert said of A Birth of a Nation, “It is a great film that argues for evil.”
But what does any of this matter now? We are currently in the latter half of the second term of our first African American president, whose name signifies his difference as clearly as does his hair and his complexion. If his birth, which was the source of much consternation for some during his first B Obamapresidential campaign, fails to adequately demonstrate his nationality, it unquestionably certifies the union between an African—a Kenyan—a black man and a white, American woman. It is against his birth that the Klan arose to fight. He is the mixed raced son who would rise to occupy the highest seat of government.
Now, as in 1915 when Griffith presented A Birth of Nation on film and as when so many unsung heroes took to the streets in the 1960s to either march or to sit-in or to stand in armed resistance, cameras and media play an important role. Fifty years ago a lethargic nation roused to find the world watching, a world that would charge them as hypocrites and as a failed democratic state. In the 1960s Mao Tse Tung issued two articles in support of African American human rights. Today State sanctioned violence against and the mass incarceration of overcrowdingAfrican Americans continue to be thorny issues in both national and international relations. Add to that the media fascination with salacious stories about child abuse,domestic violence, and rape, which seem to insist on designating black faces to represent unfortunately all-too-common crimes. Peterson Unfortunately, the implications of the metaphor
bill-cosbyat the Janay-Palmer-and-Ray-Riceheart of that hundred year old film–like Black Lives–matters.