Just over 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson called the film Birth of a Nation “history writ in lightening”. His endorsement did much to promote the success of the film, which sought, in no uncertain terms, the rollback of Black social, economic and political progress. Birth of a Nation publicly codified and disseminated the fiction of the menacing black predatory male (performed by white actors in blackface-embodying their fearful fiction with all its toxic force, as was the tradition with blackface) and valorized the Ku Klux Klan as the defenders of white virtue in the USA. The film’s rise to prominence was roughly in tandem with the wave of lynchings and purges in both Southern AND Northern states, and the systematic undoing of material, political and social gains by Black Americans post-emancipation during the period of Reconstruction.
This deliberate DE-construction destabilized generations. The insatiable, metastatic spectre of the fiction Wilson celebrated is well documented, and surges with renewed fervor at this time, feeding this insane blood lust and justifying, in the minds of perpetrators, their unbridled violence. Just as lynching was meant to extend beyond the individual victim to terrorize communities, these contemporary acts of murder and violent attack are unquestioningly meant to do the same. Only willful ignorance can decouple our time from its historical antecedent. Then, courageous voices spoke what others feared to face, or struggled to move through, and carried out the anti-lynching campaigns.
Now, the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the new national student activist movement, are intent upon wiping the sleep from eyes that would rather justify fictions than face the harsh facts. Symbols matter. And for those who would quibble over the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton buildings, I say there is a direct, unbroken line between Wilson and the horror of Laquan McDonald’s execution and the shootings in Minneapolis. These are the two examples from THIS week. We might pick others from last week, we might anticipate those that will come next week. But what remains consistent is the USA’s willingness to avoid its reckoning with history, as it continues to sacrifice its young to the hungriest of ghosts.