Thursday, December 11, 2008
Watching "The Birth of a Nation"
Is it useful to attempt to understand American racism by watching D.W. Griffith's The Birth of the Nation? Perhaps this movie conceals more than it reveals about the real modus operandi of racism in the United States. Certainly, the racism of a Woodrow Wilson, who enjoyed the film, is more interesting. I would like to try and think about the way in which Griffith's terrible opus really did present something uncannily prescient about the birth of the nation. Perhaps, the birth of the Nation did occur in two acts. The first act was about abolition and liberty. The second act was about racialization and disenfranchisement. In these two acts the socio-ethnic-racial identity "American" is formed. In this sense the South is asked to play a dark but necessary role. National identity required a strong sense of alterity. The radical views of personhood and liberty fomented by that abolitionist had gained enormous cultural coinage. Racial exclusion could not be official and public. So, the South bore the dark under responsability at the heart of the birth of the nation The nation could not exist if exclusion from national personhood was official and public--or, at least the mythos that created the nation could not be preserved.
Perhaps, that chapter is now over with the election of Obama! Perhaps, Iowa--once a great seat of radicalism--might have been part of propelling an alternative politics forwards.