In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson hosted a special White House screening of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film based on The Clansman, by Wilson’s friend Thomas Dixon. The film was a racial marker of the time – it portrayed Black politicians as drunken buffoons and set the stage for the Ku Klux Klan’s savage attempts to remove them from office. While showing such a film would spark outrage today, it really shouldn’t surprise us given President Wilson’s track record at the time: he segregated federal workers in Washington, D.C. and following World War I, he blocked efforts to include racial equality as a founding principle of the League of Nations. Pretty unsavory behavior for a sitting US president.
Movies have the ability to bring us out of our everyday reality and to take us into places of fiction and nonfiction, to entertain us and even awaken unconsciousness. My all-time favorite movie is director Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou” set in our nation’s Deep South. Louisiana bayous are strange and wonderful places – a world unto their own, overflowing with a wealth of stories and thematic possibilities. At the start of the film, Lemmons introduces us to the area’s enigmatic nature, beginning with a declaration: “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain.”
One century after Birth of a Nation premiered America is – again – grappling with indelible racism. A nation that, seemingly, made progress in the election of its first President of both, African and White American heritage, still sits amid painful memories. Rather than America being fully conscious of her progress, she now appears to be travailing in re-birth. Arguably the “birther” inquisition of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump gave credence to this resurgence. His questioning of President Obama’s legitimacy and identity wasn’t actually based in concern about his being born in America. Instead it speaks to an inherent privilege to determine if, where, how and to whom he belonged. America must acknowledge it’s own gritty memory and at times, sobering present.
Film director and actor Nate Parker recently reclaimed the “Birth of a Nation” title and repurposed his new film as a vehicle to challenge racism and White supremacy in America. He depicts the same issues as the original film, but from a different vantage point: he points to slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Parker) as his central character.
When Turner’s master positions him as a preacher to fellow slaves – and makes money from the preaching engagements – Turner begins to see the scope of slavery. The system’s consequences are pervasive and reach further than he’d fully imagined. He decides rather than being used for profit he’d rather become a prophet. Parker hopes his film will give birth to “the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.” In a riveting scene, Turner evokes his fellow enslaved faith community with a call towards justice: they are the individuals creating America’s prominence and wealth, and thereby deserve rights.
A friend told me that giving birth to a child (beyond the agony of labor) brings something “new” into the world that you commit to nurture and protect. It is also a time of bringing two families together as one. Our nation is less than 30 days from a moment that will redefine the rebirthing of our nation, from its economics to social policies to leadership of the Supreme Court.
This birthing isn’t something new but entangled in a selection of memories, and needs leadership that has capacity to adopt and nurture America through cultural, heritage and socio-economic growth. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in Strength to Love “that there is a deep understanding for the need of agape; a love that is concerned with going the extra mile to ensure the well-being of others.” My mother often tells me, “though I didn’t birth you in my womb, I did birth you in my heart.” A rebirth can only prevail through this kind of love.
Keith Magee is a public intellectual, theologian and social justice scholar. He divides his time, equally, between Boston, MA and London, England. He leads the Social Justice Institute and is Scholar in Residence at the Elie Wiesel Center Boston University; Senior Researcher of Culture and Justice, University College London; and Senior Pastor, The Berachah Church, Dorchester Centre, MA. For more information visit www.4justicesake.org or follow him at @keithlmagee.