Printer Friendly

"The Birth of a Nation'hood": lessons from Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith to William Bradford Huie and The Klansman, O.J. Simpson's First Movie (1).

The film Birth of a Nation, based on the novel The Klansman [sic], gathered up and solidified post-Civil War America's assumptions of and desires for white supremacy. The Simpson spectacle has become an enunciation of post-Civil Rights discourse on black deviance. Both of these sagas have race at their nexus. Not in spite of but because of the overdetermined claims: that race was "inserted" in the trial, or that the trial "became" about race, or that it degenerated into a racial referendum, it is clear that the Simpson official narrative, like Birth of a Nation, is ruled by race. Like Birth of a Nation, the case has generated a newer, more sophisticated national narrative of racial supremacy. But it is still the old sham white supremacy forever wedded to and dependent upon faux black inferiority. **

The official story, has thrown Mr. Simpson into [a] representative role. He is not an individual who underwent and was acquitted from a murder trial. He has become the whole race, needing correction, incarceration, censoring, silencing; the race that needs its civil rights disassembled; the race that is sign and symbol of domestic violence; the race that has made trial by jury a luxury rather than a right and placed affirmative action legislation in even greater jeopardy. This is the consequence and function of official stories: to impose the will of a dominant culture. It is Birth of a Nation writ large--menacingly and pointedly for the 'hood. (2)

--Toni Morrison


THOUGH WILLIAM BRADVORD HUIE'S NOVEL TheKlansman (1967) provided one of the most provocative exposts of the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights era and was the basis of the 1974 film by that same name in which O.J. Simpson debuted as an actor, today it is a book that appears to have been virtually forgotten. Few people seem to be reading, thinking, and writing about it, or teaching it. Even though he had a career spanning more than four decades, during which he variously served as a reporter, editor, literary magazine publisher, lecturer, and free-lance writer, and though he produced a voluminous body--twenty-one books--of fiction and non-fiction that sold more than 28 million copies, six of which were made into films, Huie himself seems to have suffered a similar fate. Most of his books are now out of print, the amount of criticism that has been written on them is negligible, and he has yet to be the subject of a book-length biography. (3) Born November 13, 1910, in Hartselle, Alabama, Huie was perhaps best known in his lifetime for his persistent investigative work during the civil rights era in the South, and particularly for the controversial style of "checkbook journalism" that he used to secure from the alleged assailants stories about the murders of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Cheney. (4)

Early on, the novel The Klansman hypothesizes that in the minds of white Southerners, anxieties about the Civil Rights Movement were at bottom fueled by a fear of and panic about interracial sex and homosexuality. The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, the novel suggests, was imagined by these white Southerners as having been little more than a large public orgy for "Punks, whores, scum, degenerates, kooks, atheists and perverts, all controlled by Communists." (5) In the opening pages, Big Track Bascomb, the sheriff of the fictive Ellenton, Alabama, and his son Allen, who are on a trip to Montgomery and Selma two weeks after the march to assess evidence of the event's licentiousness, are shown enlarged photographs of "the arms of white females around the necks of Negro males; the hands of Negro males on the rumps and breasts of white females; a Negro male and a white female kissing and 'sucking each other's tongues'; a Negro male and a white male kissing; and a Negro male and a white male lying under the tree with a hand in the other's crotch" (p. 9). Big Track's response to Allen's questions about the reductive logic of the march's detractors is that "I guess there was a few good people in the march. Just mixed up and thought they might be doin' some good. But in a white man's mind all this agitation comes down to is frigging" (p. 14).

As Big Track travels to the spot where white Detroit housewife Viola Liuzzo was slain, the novel suggests that a panic about sexual intermingling of black men and white women ultimately led to her murder by the Ku Klux Klan in the aftermath of the march. (6) Furthermore, the novel invokes Liuzzo's death when it invites us to recognize that the especial hatred reserved for white priests suspected of using the cloth as a guise to establish intimate relations with black women also led to the murder of "one nigger, one white woman, and one white preacher ... around Selma" (p. 62). However, Jon Daniels, the white priest likely recalled here, was actually killed in Lowndes County, Alabama, several months later in August of 1965, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. (7)

The plot thickens when Loretta Sykes, a black woman who grew up in a cabin on the mountain of white liberal benefactor Breck Stancill, returns home from Chicago to nurse her mother. Almost immediately, because she allowed movement supporters to come into her home, Loretta is suspected of conspiring to help set up a stronghold for the "agitators" on Stancill's mountain. These "agitators" include the black student activist Charles Peck and the white Reverend Josh Franklin. The latter, according to the Klan's poster that features his photograph, "Can always be found in a nigger girl's bed on Saturday nights" (p. 31). As a result, Sheriff's Deputy Butt Cutt Cates picks up Loretta and takes her to jail while Big Track and Allen are away. After pondering possible strategies that might be used to deter the movement that is growing in the county, the Action Squad members of the Ku Klux Klan agree to subject Loretta to a public rape in the jail by a retarded black man named Lightning Rod, who has a reputation for brutalizing black women, and who is often called on and paid to attack them in rape shows for the entertainment of white men in the county. (8) This is an option that Klan members find appealing because it "won't show" or attract media attention like the "burning, dynamitin' and killing's already been done" (p. 62; emphasis in the original). It is viewed as an act that will "allow two niggers the opportunity to prove again that niggers are bestial" (p. 64) and an act that is necessary "to help defend a Christian way of life" (p. 67). This logic conforms to Angela Davis's observation in her classic essay "Rape, Racism and the Myth of the Black Rapist" that
 The fictional image of the Black man as rapist has always
 strengthened its inseparable companion: the image of the
 Blackwoman as chronically promiscuous. For once the
 notion is accepted that Black men harbor irresistible
 and animal-like sexual urges, the entire race is
 invested with bestiality.... Viewed as 'loose
 women' and whores, Black women's cries of rape
 would necessarily lack legitimacy." (9)

The lynching of a black man named Willie Washington for the rape of a married and pregnant white woman named Nancy Poteet, we are told, is an incident that drew national attention to the county in the previous year. In the novel, her rape, contrasted with Loretta's, becomes the instrument whereby Huie attempts to dismanfle historical sexual stereotypes of both white and black female identity and the means by which he most directly engages D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, and the 1905 novel by Thomas Dixon entitled The Clansman, on which this film is based. Huie's novel also takes pains to stress the extent to which both texts continued to be revered by Ku Klux Klan members in the 1960s and to underscore more generally the persistence of Klan activity in the South. In figuring the investments of a semi-literate Butt Cutt in the propaganda espoused in passages from the Dixon novel and posted in public places around town, The Klansman relates these frameworks to the rape of Loretta. The novel offers Breck Stancill, the last living member of a cotton-farming dynasty, as the protagonist, emphasizing the struggle that he endures as he attempts to live among and support blacks on his mountain within a racially polarized social order. These are choices that cause him to be hated, regarded as a race traitor and treated as an outcast in Ellenton. However, beyond these issues, one of the main agendas of the novel is to foreground the trauma of black female rape within a narrative schema that addresses the historical and contemporary politics of race, gender, and sexuality in the South.

Therefore, it is fascinating that the 1974 film that this novel inspired, whose screenplay was written by Millard Kaufman and Samuel Fuller, ultimately acknowledges but subordinates this concern to focus primarily on an examination of race, masculinity, and the specter of lynching and to interrogate one of the most looming stereotypes of black male identity: the myth of the black rapist. The Klansman is an interesting popular artifact to reconsider in light of its examination of the black rapist as a product of the Southern cultural imagination and of the attempt to chronicle the residual impact of this sexual ideology--which emerged in the nineteenth century in the period after Emancipation--on black men in the South in the twentieth century. However, I am also intrigued by why the shifts to such a forthright and assertive engagement of this theme occur in the film. I believe that we can understand them as a response to both the discourses of black power and blaxploitation. Furthermore, an exploration of the particular strategies that the film uses, in ways that both intersect with and diverge from those of Huie's novel, offers a means to critique and respond to D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon's race and gender ideologies.

At the time of its release, the director Terence Young situated the film as "a denunciation of ... crass, stupid bigotry and intolerance" and as "a cinematic statement against terrorism or counter-terrorism of any sort--black or white." (10) In spite of these intentions, The Klansman, which was filmed on site in Oroville, California, with an all-star cast that included Linda Evans, Richard Burton, Lola Falana, and Lee Marvin, was a colossal failure, viewed as being too saturated with racial melodrama. (11) Vincent Canby of the New York Times remarked that The Klansman is "one of those rare films that are not as bad as they seem when you're watching them" and as "a thoroughly clumsy adaptation of William Bradford Huie's novel" with a "primitively written script" and "easy movie melodrama." (12) Roy Frumkes of Films in Review categorized The Klansman as the kind of film that "is so bad it's interesting." (13) Most bitingly, A.D. Murphy of Variety situates the film as "a perfect example of screen trash that almost invites derision" and as a "fetid carcass." (14) I want to suggest that in spite of its critical shortcomings, The Klansman has much to teach us not only in light of its examination of race, gender and sexuality in historical racialist narratives in film and literature, but also to the extent that it is shaped by and provides a commentary on black liberation ideology. This consideration seems necessary, too, because The Klansman, however problematic it may be, is one of the few popular sites on which a production as ubiquitous in American film history as Birth of a Nation has been engaged with so much directness and deliberateness. Finally, my interest lies in addressing what is of course a white elephant in the room, in a manner of speaking. That is to say, I will examine some of the implications that the film holds for the discourse on O.J. Simpson that unfolded in the national media following the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman in 1994.

Southern Shaft

The film The Klansman conserves most of the novel's characters while inventing a few of its own, with the most notable addition being Garth, who is portrayed by O.J. Simpson. From the beginning, the film recapitulates the novel's narrative itinerary related to black and white female rape. However, on its agenda, rape is subordinated to and displaced for an emphasis on the precarious status of the black male body. Furthermore, the specter of lynching is underscored as the most legitimate and urgent grounds for black political resistance. The scenes that signal these investments occur early in the film, and both involve Garth, who is the primary basis on which the film introduces and develops its themes relating to black masculinity. We first see him as his ire is visibly raised when Big Track comes into the pool hall to arrest Willie Washington, a young black man, on the grounds of very circumstantial evidence, for the alleged rape of Nancy Poteet. Later, Garth is walking along the road with his friend Henry just as Klansmen in the county, already upset because "outside agitators" encouraging voting rights and the desegregation of public schools and facilities are "coming around bothering our niggers," hear news of the rape and predictably begin to roam the county in search of black male prey. They spot Garth and Henry, and both men, sensing danger, run into the woods amidst gunfire. The Ku Klux Klan members eventually overtake Henry when he stumbles. As Garth looks on helplessly from a tree, they castrate Henry, who is crying out for mercy, and then take turns firing shots at him. Garth takes up the gun in the ensuing days and targets these Klan members, murdering one by one the Grand Wizard and two Imperial Dragons.

The film offers a more forthright exploration of the implications of interracial rape for black women in the shift from a figuration of Lightning Rod to Butt Cutt Cates as Loretta's sexual assailant in the jail. (15) In revealing that the twenty-two-year-old Loretta was a virgin at the time of her rape, it also works to unsettle myths of black girls and women as loose and sexually available. However, its emphasis on black male subjectivity promotes a reading of Loretta as apolitical and aligned with white patriarchy and in effect sustains the historical myth of black female sexual complicity with white men. Though the film acknowledges that her friendship with Breck Stancill is platonic, we see that once she returns to town, reestablishing her relationship with him is one of her main priorities, even as she remains indifferent to the growing black social movement in Atoka county. (16) Furthermore, it is telling that Loretta's rape is the only event orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan that Garth fails to show up and disrupt with gunfire as he has done on several occasions in the wake of the lynching; it is an incident for which he shows little sympathy. (17) The Klansman, we should remember, was produced in the years following the release of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 "Report on the Negro Family" that described black women as matriarchs who usurped the black male patriarchal role in the context of the family, and during a time when black liberation ideology was heavily invested in a rhetoric that construed black women as "emasculating" and prone to sabotaging and betraying black men sexually and politically in the interests of white men. (18) The film also seems to offer an equivocal statement on white female rape in that it never allows us to infer with any certainty that Willie Washington actually raped Nancy Poteet. (19) It makes its revisionist scripting of black male identity, which entails a destabilization of the myth of the black rapist, contingent on a signification of white and black female rape victimization as indeterminate, the constitution of rape and lynching as competing narratives, and the representation of a desexualized (and perhaps even asexual) black masculinity. (20)

Though Garth, like Loretta, is external to the organized movement for black liberation, the grounds on which he eschews official alignment with local activists are political and further underscore his racial authenticity. As he remarks to Loretta when asked if he is aware of his need for an organization: "I'm an organization of one, a headquarters, you might say, for the revolution in Atoka county." We can read his estrangement as an allusion to the tensions that were growing by the mid-1960s between the mainstream civil rights agenda that advocated non-violent resistance and later strands of the black liberation movement that espoused an ideology of black power and armed self-defense, the most salient example of which was the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland, California by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. It is clear that Garth's character endorses and is primarily modeled on the notions of militant black masculinity that were formulated within the later movements. These notions are invoked most directly in the film when Garth triumphantly raises his gun in a clenched fist, the sign of black power, after he has shot, sniper-style, one of the Ku Klux Klan members who is attempting to disrupt a civil rights demonstration in town; Garth has just run across the railroad tracks, barely being missed by a train whose passing blocks the view of him and allows him to get away. Similarly, in the scenes in which Klan members raid Stancill's mountain and exchange fire with Breck and Big Track, we see Garth, who has voluntarily enlisted himself in the battle, perched in a tree backing both men up with his rifle. The final image in the film is of Garth walking off into the night, holding his gun over his shoulder with a towering flame as a backdrop.

It is significant that in this final scene, Loretta, once accused by Garth of being a sellout and buying into middle-class values, is shown also taking up the gun against Klan members and burning the tree on which Breck's abolitionist ancestor was lynched. The film's suggestion is that any potential for black male and black female reunification and for black female redemption lies in the mutual participation of black men and black women in the project of black revolution, in violent revolution if necessary. (21) In one key scene, Garth asks Breck Stancill, who is in his view an ineffectual "John Brown," "When you gone pick up the gun?" (22) In the death of Breck, the film seems to say that white liberalism is an inadequate and dying ideology.

Though The Klansman relies on the discourses of black power in its delineation of Garth, its implication that he is a native and lifelong Southerner belies the culture's dominant images of the black male revolutionary of the 1960s as urban and Northern. These are images that the media popularized and that became entrenched in the cultural imagination notwithstanding the central historical role that organizations based in the South, such as the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) of Jackson, Mississippi, and the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) of Lowndes County, Alabama, played in the origination and implementation of black power ideology. The formation of these groups was catalyzed by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) under Stokely Carmichael's leadership for the purpose of advocating black voter registration and participation in electoral politics. (23) Furthermore, through Garth, The Klansman points to the role of black Southerners in advancing the pedagogy of armed self-defense within black revolutionary thought. Indeed, that the philosophy of armed self-defense advocated by the Black Panther Party was inspired in part by the LCFO and the Deacons for Defense based in North Carolina is a fact that has been obscured frequently, nor is it known widely that the black panther symbol had its origination in the LCFO and that this organization was the source from which the Oakland Party derived it. (24) Like The Klansman, Ernest J. Gaines's novel A Gathering of Old Men (1983), which is set in Louisiana in the 1970s on a sugarcane plantation, presents a noteworthy counter-narrative to the popular image of the young urban black revolutionary by depicting senior black men who arm themselves and close ranks after one of their own shoots a Cajun farmer. (25) Yet ultimately, this film is only capable of imagining a black and Southern male as defiant and resistant within a white supremacist context, to the extent that he is linked to a discourse of urban black militancy. As Robin D.G. Kelley remarks in his study of Communists in Alabama during the Depression years, the presumption has often been that black Southerners are "unlikely radicals." (26)

If The Klansman draws on the discourse of black power in negotiating its narrative shift from the novel's emphasis on black female identity and rape to a foregrounding of lynching and black masculinity, it also relies on conventions of blaxploitation film. This genre, which was heralded by productions such as Melvin Van Peebles's Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song (1971) and Gordon Parks's Shaft (1971), often drew on outdated Hollywood formulas from Western, science fiction, and detection films, and most typically highlighted black action heroes in conflict with an oppressive white establishment against which they were ultimately triumphant. With over two hundred proliferating from the early to mid 1970s, the films in this genre had wide popular appeal for a while. They eventually came into ill repute for propagating stereotypes of black identity by glamorizing crime, violence, and sex in the urban "ghetto," including figures such as prostitutes and pimps. (27) The imprint of blaxploitation conventions is evident in Garth's one-man and ultimately victorious crusade against a white supremacist system as embodied in the Ku Klux Klan, whose ideologies also help to corrupt local law enforcement. It seems fitting to situate within the schema of blaxploitation the fiery climactic scene that reveals Garth battle worn, but triumphant and unscathed, as he walks into the darkness with his gun over his shoulder. Though he maintains a low profile in the film, Garth accomplishes his mission with the deliberateness and finesse of eponymous blaxploitation heroes such as John Shaft, the sexually insatiable, hip, confrontational, leather-clad New York detective portrayed by Richard Roundtree in Parks's film. The Klansman construes Garth as a hero by highlighting the various strategies that he deploys to outwit and subvert those in power. For instance, in one key scene, Garth dons a Klan robe and knocks on the window of a Klan action squad member to lure him outside, only to reveal a brown hand holding a gun. While some of the campy elements of The Klansman are no doubt attributable to blaxploitation, it is also provocative to ponder these qualities as an allusion to and play on the sexual and stereotypical excessiveness of Birth of a Nation.

Furthermore, I want to suggest that Garth evokes the black badman as a historical prototype. The folklorist John W. Roberts has traced the evolution of the black badman as an outlaw folk hero from the trickster tales that emerged within black slave communities and the economically, legally, and politically repressive social climate that blacks faced after Emancipation. As he points out in From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom, "The impact of white manipulations of the law on the economic and social life of African Americans in the late nineteenth century is crucial to an understanding of how and why African Americans transformed their conception of the trickster to create the badman as an outlaw hero." (28)

At the time that The Klansman was produced and O.J. Simpson made his debut and crossover into acting, he was of course best known in American culture as the 1968 winner of the coveted Heisman Trophy and then as the legendary running back for the National Football League team the Buffalo Bills, a background that perhaps reinforced all the more the masculinism and heroism of his character in the film. African-American athletes such as Jim Brown and Bernie Casey were following similar paths to film stardom. In his discussion of the widespread fascination with the "jock" in 1970s film, Donald Bogle remarks that
 in American culture, the black athlete, powerful and seemingly of
 superhuman strength, has always been a double-sided social/political
 figure, both celebrated and feared because of his remarkable skills.
 The film industry, aware of this ambivalent attitude, has shrewdly
 learned how to manipulate the myth of the athlete and to alter
 his legend to fit the mood and tone of the times. The basic use of
 the black athlete has almost always been the same: if the 'name'
 athlete, with strength and force enough to oppose the culture
 successfully, chooses instead to support it, his endorsement serves
 as a clue to all us mortal weaklings with thoughts of rebellion to
 cool it. Consequently, on screen athletes have traditionally been
 packaged to proclaim the pleasures of a great capitalistic
 society. (29)

Hence, we can say that if O.J. Simpson portrays a rebel with a cause in The Klansman, his character's radical philosophy is undercut and rendered ironic, perhaps by the very logic of his casting as an actor in the film, to the extent that it draws on his public and popular images as an African American who had achieved the American Dream. (30) There is some irony, too, in the casting of Lola Falana, who was one of the most prominent black woman sex symbols of the 1970s, as the virtuous Loretta Sykes.

It seems reasonable to infer that The Klansman offers a radical revision of the plot of Huie's novel in part to reflect a shifting political and popular climate in which even the definitions of black masculinity were undergoing radical change. For while there had already been a move away from genteel notions of black masculinity by the mid-1960s in light of the emergence of black power ideology, by the early 1970s the genre of blaxploitation film had come to play the most decisive role in fashioning popular notions of black masculinity. It is worthwhile, then, to examine some of the film's contexts in American literary and cinematic history.

From The Clansman to The Klansman

Notwithstanding the technological innovations that Birth of a Nation achieved as the first feature-length film ever made, many of its critics also continue to regard it as one of the worst films ever made because of the egregious stereotypes of African-American identity that it propagated and because of the wave of violence against blacks in the United States incited in the wake of its release. As Manthia Diawara has pointed out,
 The release of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 defined
 for the first time the side that Hollywood was to take in the war to
 represent Black people in America. In The Birth of a Nation, D.W.
 Griffith, later a founding member of United Artists, created and
 fixed an image of Blackness that was necessary for racist America's
 fight against black people. The Birth of a Nation constitutes the
 grammar book for Hollywood's representation of Black manhood and
 womanhood, its obsession with miscegenation, and its fixing of Black
 people within certain spaces, such as kitchens, and into certain
 supporting roles, such as criminals, on the screen ... The Birth of a
 Nation is the master text that suppressed the real contours of black
 history and culture on movie screens, screens monopolized by the
 major motion picture companies of America. (31)

As is the case in Huie's novel, one of the central aims of the film The Klansman is to critique and destabilize the litany of racial and gender ideologies advanced in Birth of a Nation and in the novel by Thomas Dixon that inspired it.

There are a few obvious and significant parallels between Birth of a Nation and the film The Klansman, owing to the ways in which the latter invests itself in a revision and critique of the former. Birth of a Nation is set in the period during and immediately following the Civil War, while The Klansman, which resonates and recuperates Dixon's title, is set during the civil rights era a century later. In both films, the Ku Klux Klan asserts itself to restore a white supremacist social order in the South, and, by extension, in the nation perceived to be in disrepair and under attack because of an unruly and upwardly mobile black population. In Birth of a Nation, the problems are perceived as stemming from Emancipation and Reconstruction agendas, and in The Klansman, from the social movement for integration and voting rights. White liberal patriarch Breck Stancill, who mobilizes his wealth for the sustenance of the black community in his county, is a rough analogue to Dixon and Griffith's Austin Stoneman. This parallel is sustained most directly through the allusion, in Breck's use of a cane as a result of his losing a leg during the Korean War, to Stoneman's crippling club foot: "His walk was a painful hobble. He was lame in both feet, and one of them was deformed. The left leg ended in a mere bunch of flesh, resembling more closely an elephant's hoof than the foot of a man." (32) Furthermore, like Stoneman, Breck is reputed to be in a love relationship with a black woman.

From the outset, The Klansman acknowledges the view of black men as lascivious and rapacious in the Southern cultural imagination, as well as the logic in the Southern mind that has historically deemed the lynching of a black man the most natural and appropriate consequence for white female rape. I want to suggest that the chase sequence of Garth and Henry through the woods, and Henry's subsequent lynching and castration, purposefully revise the infamous scene in Birth of a Nation that features the brutish Gus, one of many characters rendered in blackface, in pursuit of Little Sister with the implicit intention of raping her. For in depicting the desperate run of Garth and Henry to protect their lives from the Ku Klux Klan members who are pursuing them, The Klansman highlights the vulnerability of the black male body to lynching, underscoring that the lynching of black men by white men was the more pervasive and truthful social phenomenon in the South than widespread black male rape of white women. As Angela Davis remarks, "To be sure, there were some examples of Black men raping white women. But the number of actual rapes which occurred was minutely disproportionate to the allegations implied by the myth" (p. 188). In general, the film makes valuable historical connections when it acknowledges that lynching was used as a form of social terror against white abolitionists during the antebellum period even before it was used widely as a tactic for disciplining and annihilating the black body. The Klansman is equally revealing in its depiction of how white Southern soldiers' xenophobia against Asians during the Korean War added fuel to segregationist ideologies and suggests that combat maneuvers learned during wartime led to violence and terror against blacks once these soldiers returned to the United States.

In addressing the ideologies through which black men have been construed as rapists, the film establishes a further bridge between the Civil War and civil rights eras, reminding us that this historical myth of black masculinity had its origin in the South in the post-war period. For the black rapist myth was the basis on which the Ku Klux Klan historically emerged in the late 1860s with its main goal being to protect white womanhood in the South from black male sexual violation and the threat of miscegenation. This myth served as the primary rationale for lynching, logic that is well illustrated in Dixon and Griffith's respective works.

As Frederick Douglass noted, the idea of an inherent black male bestiality was belied and the excuse for lynching rendered weak by the failure of black male servants to take advantage of white male absence during the Civil War to rape white women who had been left alone on plantations. (33) As Robyn Wiegman has illustrated, it was necessary to subtend the model of black male docility that had been dominant within the white paternalism of antebellum plantation ideology and that had been classically emblematized in popular representations of Uncle Tom, with the invention, in the late nineteenth century, of the rapacious black buck whose sexual pathology and depravity were an ever-looming threat to white female purity in the South. (34) While white femininity was exalted as the site of white racial purity within this ideology, it is ironic that the idea of the black rapist gained its force and authority precisely from the Southern fantasy of a ravaged, traumatized, and potentially miscegenated white female body.

Lynching, whose victims were frequently male, functioned as the most legible cultural practice through which black bodies were disciplined, contained, and subordinated within the white supremacist ideology that was dominant in the South. Though the black male body was scripted in post-Emancipation racialist thought as an imminent sexual threat to white femininity, the emergence of the black rapist myth during this time, along with its concomitant rationalization in the social terror of lynching, has been interpreted more accurately as less a reflection of the reality of white female rape than a public and ritualized manifestation of the growing white panic about a shifting social order in the South that promised blacks education, property, political participation, and social inclusion. (35) Indeed, one of the key aims of Birth of a Nation is to render mockingly the worst-case scenario in the South of a black political, economic, and social takeover, and to endorse the view of the Reconstruction era that was already deeply entrenched in many white Southern minds of black men as marauding rapists and inept politicians. In The Klansman, the irony in the narrative shift from an emphasis on black and white female rape to a spectacular emphasis on black male lynching to suture a sexed and gendered ideology of black male domination during the era of 1960s black liberation becomes clear if we recognize the historical role of the male-centered myth of the black rapist in mediating the consolidation of a context of repression and disenfranchisement for African Americans in late-nineteenth-century America. Through Garth and Henry, The Klansman suggests the continuing impact of ideologies such as that of the black rapist and the lingering specter of lynching on black male identities in the United States.

Similarly, The Klansman suggests that though white women may have been perceived as the only legitimate victims of rape in the South, the black female body has been more accessible as an object of sexual brutality by white Southern men. A close relationship to Breck Stancill positions Loretta as a rough analogue to Lydia Brown, Stoneman's mistress whom Dixon's novel describes as a "negress" (p. 91) with a "sleek tawny face" and "catlike eyes"(p. 94). Here Lydia seems to embody a perverse and grotesque characterization of the "mulatto" legal or common-law wife of a white man who appears in a host of novels ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) to Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and who has been epitomized as a historical prototype by Sally Hemings. However, The Klansman enacts the most assertive revision of this type in Loretta when it underscores the fact that there has been no sexual relationship between her and Breck--notwithstanding the widespread rumors in Ellenton of their sexual involvement--and stresses the avuncular character of his relationship with her. Instead, the film forges a romantic linkage between him and Nancy Poteet. Indeed, we might say that just as the film attempts to unsettle the myth of the black rapist by construing black masculinity as desexualized, it ultimately presents a similarly desexualized image of black femininity in an effort to destabilize the historical myth of black female sexual impurity and licentiousness. This myth is evident, for instance, in Big Track's remark that "every black girl has been popped by age thirteen" and in the widespread belief in the county that black women never mind "being raped a little." (36)

Where the film works to establish narrative interplay between interracial rape of black and white women, we see how such ideologies also come to shape the view of Nancy Poteet, who is rebuked openly in the white community for attending a church service in the days after her rape, and who is thought to be coming across as "too damned healthy," instead of "all broke up" as she should be, in the wake of rape by a black man. Furthermore, because her failure to offer a racist response to the violence that has been committed against her does not conform to the social expectations of white women in Ellenton, she is cast out, her husband deserts her (as well as their unborn child), and for her protection, she is taken to Stancill's mountain, As is the case with the film's negotiation of rape and lynching, the rapes of Loretta and Nancy are also set forth as competing narratives, and the sexual redemption of black femininity is premised on a negation of white female sexual victimization. This logic is evident in the film's contrast of the serious medical crisis that Loretta faces in the wake of Butt Cutt's attack with Nancy's relative health following rape.

This kind of logic also seriously flaws Huie's novel. It is apparent when Breck and Clay Wilbanks compare Loretta's medical situation in the aftermath of her rape with Marian's from Dixon's The Clansman and discuss the suicide imperative in the South for white women who have been raped by black men:
 "Now note," said Breck, "that the victim of that rape, who was
 seventeen, was physically strong at 3 a.m. when she regained
 consciousness. She was as strong as Nancy Poteet was. She didn't
 need hospitalization. She wasn't even bleeding, as Loretta Sykes
 was. She was strong enough to bathe, dress, and go hurrying through
 the woods with her mother, who was thirty-five. Yet daughter and
 mother agreed suicide was necessary." (pp. 158-159).

There are also overtones of this logic when Breck remarks on the hostile reaction of the Ellenton community to Nancy following her rape. This is a passage that merits quoting at length:
 Well, since it was Sunday, ten hours after the rape and six hours
 after the lynching Nancy bathed and dressed herself and her child,
 and with her husband, she went to church as she was accustomed to
 doing. For her family's sake she wanted to carry on as though
 nothing catastrophic had happened. Bobby Poteet sat in the choir and
 joined in singing "Bringing in the Sheaves" and "What a Friend We
 Have in Jesus." Nancy sat in the congregation. All that she and
 Bobby needed were a few pats on the back, a few kind words. With
 their presence they were pleading for help. But they didn't get
 it. The church members were too shocked, too confused, too sickened
 to comfort Nancy and Bobby. I say "sickened" because one woman,
 sitting near Nancy, vomited during the sermon and had to be assisted
 out. The "nigger odor" which she smelled on Nancy had turned the
 woman's stomach. Several other women smelled the odor, but by
 holding perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses they managed not
 to throw up. To her fellow Christians Nancy had become loathsome ...
 leprous.... an Untouchable. (p. 161)

Though Huie's novel is perhaps most revealing when it engages Birth of a Nation and The Clansman to examine the issue of rape in the South, and when it relates the white panic about black male rape to a fear of miscegenation and to the continuation of racism, the novel is problematic where it construes the white female body as less sexually vulnerable. It is also significant that Wilbanks highlights the prevalence of sexual activity among white teenage girls in the county to challenge ideologies of an inherent white female sexual purity and black female promiscuity.

The film well suggests the extent to which Klan ideology infused politics and law in the South. For instance, as sheriff, Big Track has been ambivalent about the organization throughout the film and only decides to come down on the side of the law in the penultimate scenes after he takes Butt Cutt's badge for the rape of Loretta. Furthermore, the film points to the continuing viability of the Klan even during an era when many in the nation were assuming that the organization was virtually obsolete. However, The Klansman marks Klan members as a dying breed. The finale that presents Ku Klux Klan members lying wounded and dying on the battlefield of Stancill's mountain stands in striking contrast to their stampede to triumph in the climactic scenes of D.W. Griffith's film. In The Klansman, the Ku Klux Klan and white liberalism, as embodied in Breck, are figured as taking their last breaths together, so that the last man standing in the film is Garth, a symbol of the black revolution.

However flawed they may be, the work that both the book and film versions of The Klansman do to counter the racial, gender, and sexual ideologies propagated by Thomas Dixon and D.W. Griffith have made them well worth revisiting and reconsidering here. I have attempted to illustrate how much more we can learn about the ideological legacy of The Clansman and Birth of a Nation by placing Huie's novel and the related film in a historical continuum with these prior works and examining them together. However, I am also intrigued by the implications of the book and film versions of The Klansman for more contemporary public discourses, including O.J. Simpson's criminal trial during the mid-1990s.

The Birth of the Bad White Woman and Other Fictions of Identity

If the film The Klansman illustrates how the politics of racial oppression and the trauma of lynching in the South can in effect give birth to an outlaw like Garth and reveals ways in which an ideology of black inferiority has been sutured in the national context from the Civil War to the civil rights era, then it seems ironic that O.J. Simpson himself, as the epigraph from Toni Morrison's Birth of a Nation 'hood suggests, has literally emerged in the post-civil rights era as a poster boy for a national ideology scripting the black subject as criminal and violent. Of course this imaging of him was most obvious in the June 27, 1994, issue of Time magazine, which featured a now infamous cover photograph of him with darkened skin. Few in the 1970s would have anticipated that O.J. Simpson would face murder charges in the 1990s, forever fall from grace as a "hero" in the national context, and be transformed from the iconic advertising spokesperson for products such as Hertz rental cars into a persona non grata.

This portrait of Simpson, which belied his celebrity and the "colorblind" view of his identity that he had long maintained, crystallized during the height of public discussions of black male homicide and incarceration owing to drug- and gang-related violence, during a time when the posturing of rappers such as Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Doggy Dogg as "ganstas" reinforced the media view of black masculinity as criminal, and at a time when racially charged debates on issues such as welfare reform, affirmative action, and the prison industrial complex were widespread. Simpson's place in the national consciousness as a metonym for black pathology, as Morrison suggests, is in keeping with the historical ideological construction of blackness in the United States. Furthermore, while depictions of black masculinity such as the one of Simpson featured in Time magazine may register now within the national pantheon of raced, sexed and gendered stereotypes, we need to recognize that contemporary media propagandistic representations of black men have a looming and paradigmatic precedent in the South's myth of the black rapist.

The Klansman is also intriguing in relation to the public discourse on O.J. Simpson in light of its compelling implications for both his supporters and detractors alike. For Garth, on the one hand, represents the quintessentially victimized and violable black male subject within a white-supremacist context whose protections even under the law are tenuous. On the other hand, that he goes on a killing spree, once finds refuge in the back of a sport utility truck, and in the end gets away with murder are details that are surely not lost on those who would be eager to suggest ways in which Simpson's life may have imitated his art. It is Big Track who ultimately vindicates Garth. At one point, during the climactic battle scene on Stancill's mountain, they turn their guns on each other. However, both men drop their weapons, implicitly because they have been fighting the same enemy. Garth is released to go his way into the night, even though it is clear that Big Track suspects that he has committed the recent rash of Klan murders.

Historically, anti-miscegenation law was in part designed to regulate white female sexuality and registered anxiety that some white women might transgress social decorum to marry across the color line or consent to sexual unions with black males. It is telling that Nancy Poteet is alienated and becomes a "leper" and an "Untouchable" in the Ellenton community after her rape, and that white residents of the town eventually begin to perceive her as having had a consensual sexual encounter with a black man. What happens to Nancy Poteet, in her isolation on Stancill's mountain, is not unlike the fate of Jean Toomer's Becky in Cane (1923), "the white woman who had two Negro sons" and who is labeled by "white folks' mouths" as a "Common, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench": "White folks and black folks built her a cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who'd put His cross upon her and cast her out." (37) Inscribed with the mark of Cain, Becky's ultimate fate for having fallen from the pedestal on which Southern womanhood has been exalted within the historical racialist ideologies of the South, is burial under her cabin, which functions as a symbolic mound. Nancy Poteet is perceived to be "tainted," contaminated, and less pure as "white" by virtue of association with a black male body in much the same way that Viola Liuzzo was looked upon by her assailants for having dared to transport a black male in her car. Liuzzo's crime in their eyes was the sex that they fantasized her as having had with him, and the attendant threat of miscegenation. In such instances, the view of black men as inherently bestial and oversexed is mapped onto white womanhood in a way similar to how Angela Davis describes this ideology's construction of black women as "'loose women' and whores" (p. 182). As Ruth Frankenberg points out, "white women who choose interracial relationships are presented as sexually 'loose,' sexually unsuccessful, or (at the least negative), sexually radical." (38)

The marking of a white femininity--or a perceived white femininity--as "bad" when attached to a black masculine subject in an exogamous, amorous relationship was to some extent implicit, for instance, in one of the interview questions that talk show host David Letterman posed to the actress/singer/dancer Jennifer Lopez when she appeared on his show early in 2000, weeks after her boyfriend at the time, the African-American entertainer and rap mogul Sean Puffy Combs, was indicted for his alleged role in a New York night club shooting incident on New Year's: "What is a good girl like you doing with a bad guy like Puffy?" Letterman was clearly confused and shocked by Lopez's insistence on supporting Combs and on remaining in the relationship, as well as by her obvious persisting affections for the rapper. The panic about her relationship with Combs perhaps becomes more understandable if we recognize that, though Lopez herself is strongly invested in her Latina identity, because of her status as an entertainer widely admired by white men and her stylization (i.e., her fair skin, her long, straightened blondish hair), she has perhaps undergone a symbolic whitening that is consistent with historical patterns of ethnic absorption and mainstreaming in the United States. This is a phenomenon that may allow her to signify to some extent as a "white" woman in the American cultural imagination. Interestingly, Lopez ended the relationship with Sean Puffy Combs on February 14, 2001, partly at the behest of her family and her managers, who feared that her association with his "bad boy" image would hurt her career. (39)

Of course The Klansman has important implications for the discourse on O.J. Simpson, too, because it addresses the theme of interracial sex, the specter of which was arguably most significant in having made O.J. and Nicole objects of ongoing fascination in the national media during the course of the murder trial. Even more specifically, I want to suggest that the film, in its treatment of ways in which notions of fallen white womanhood are linked to interracial sex, can help us to understand the politics of Nicole Brown Simpson's explicit and implicit raced, sexed, and gendered representation in the media during the course of the trial as a "bad girl." This imaging sometimes even obscured her status as a murder victim. The critic Ann DuCille has related Time magazine's mugshot of O.J. Simpson to what she perceives to have been the "browning" that Nicole Brown Simpson underwent as a result of politics that construe white femininity as deviant when linked amorously to black masculinity:
 Nicole Brown Simpson had ceased to be a white woman once she married
 a black man.... Her dead body may be worth millions in civil court,
 but Nicole Simpson had little surplus value in "real life," except
 perhaps her decorative female sexuality itself and the financial
 benefit for her marriage to a black man of means and property
 brought--indeed, continues to bring--her white family. Her awful
 murder can be appropriated for a national campaign against domestic
 abuse that figures a bestial black man as the signifier for all male
 violence, but she herself is a lost cause, a disappeared daughter,
 curiously written out of anything other than a metaphorical role in
 a national narrative that might well be called "The Rebirth of a
 Nation," in dubious tribute to D.W. Griffith's hugely successful
 1915 film. In the film, as in The Clansman, the novel on which it is
 based, the need to protect white women from the sexual threat posed
 by lusty black bucks serves as the rationale for the rise of the Ku
 Klux Klan. (40)

DuCille suggests that if the body of Nicole Brown Simpson was embraced and championed in death, it had been expendable, invisible, and stigmatized in life in the racial imaginary of the United States by virtue of Brown's exogamous marriage. Tellingly, a Guess Jeans ad that appeared during the 1995 trial featured look-alikes of O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson in an erotic pose, with the female looking vampish in black leather and the caption reading, "If you can't be good, be careful." (41)


Like other films of its time such as Tick Tick Tick (1970), which starred Jim Brown, The Klansman highlights a small-town Southern context where corruption in law enforcement and vigilante violence persist, along with racial bigotry and hostility. The film reminds us that though we may assume that the most egregious forms of racial terror are behind us, the black body has sometimes remained vulnerable in the South, as we see in the lynching of Henry and in the rape of Loretta. Furthermore, the rape of Loretta upon her return to Ellenton seems cautionary given the film's release at a time when rates of African-American return migration to the South were beginning to escalate, inaugurating a reversal of the pattern of outward migration that had been dominant since the waves of the Great Migration to the urban North earlier in the twentieth century. In more recent years, films such as A Time to Kill (1996) have addressed the seemingly anachronistic social polarities that have persisted in some areas of the South into the post-civil rights era, along with the continuing reality of racial terror, while acknowledging the Ku Klux Klan as a lingering specter.

As a novelist, part of William Bradford Huie's mission in attempting to examine Birth of a Nation and The Clansman is to assess their ideological impact during the civil rights era, and to disarm them during a time when they were continuing to serve as wellsprings of racial propaganda. By focusing on a setting a century after the post-Civil War era that these works highlight, Huie has given us what has perhaps been their most provocative revision in literature. As Toni Morrison so ably underscores, because traces of these productions linger in the nation to this day, there can be no complex understanding of the interplay of race, sexuality, and gender in the United States without an understanding of Southern history. Her critical work also suggests the importance of understanding the national ideology of black masculinity as rapacious and criminal that emerged after Emancipation as a converse to prevailing ideologies of white manhood, which played the most decisive role in shaping notions of citizenship and belonging in the United States from the Enlightenment. (42)

In the end, the film The Klansman does little or no justice to the epic and richly complex proportions of Huie's novel. As Richard Combs notes, much of the compelling detail of the novel is omitted in the film. (43) However, at the very least, both the novel and the film versions of The Klansman give us more recent historical contexts in which to think about Birth of a Nation and The Clansman, along with the public discourse on O.J. Simpson. Furthermore, this film and novel allow us to ponder further the historical role of the South in shaping racially and sexually inflected ideologies of masculinity and femininity and attitudes about miscegenation. Issues in more recent history, such as the fact that Taylor County High School in Butler, Georgia, sponsored its first integrated prom in 2002 (and in 2003 went back to segregated proms), attest to the lingering resistances in the South to the idea of dating and marriage across racial lines. Perhaps nowhere else have the persisting anxieties in the South about miscegenation been more evident in recent times than in how narrowly a 1901 constitutional ban on interracial marriage in the state of Alabama was defeated in the November 2000 election; the measure, which had been the last such law on the books in the South, was upheld by fully 40% of voters in the state and by twenty-four of the sixty-seven counties.

Though we might take him to task for the politics of his investigative style, William Bradford Huie deserves some credit for uncovering information as journalist during the civil rights era that might not have come to light otherwise. He should go down in history as one of the most persistent and tireless cultural workers of the twentieth century. Often assuming the mantle of race traitor like his own Breck Stancill, Huie was never one to shy away from controversy, braving various forms of intimidation, including cross-burnings, as a consequence of telling what he saw as the truth about the South. We cannot afford to forget the lessons that he attempted to teach us through works such as The Klansman, a novel whose power is perhaps best exemplified in the myth of its Pulitzer Prize. We cannot afford to forget Huie either, who succumbed to heart failure in Guntersville, Alabama, on November 22, 1986. To be sure, there is a lot more that we can learn from his legacy in Southern literature and culture.

(1) An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Modern Language Association Convention in Washington. D.C., in December 2000 in a panel discussion entitled. "Re-forming Southern Literature, Reforming the South," which was organized by Katherine Henninger and also included William Andrews and John T. Matthews. I received many useful comments on this paper in the Davis Humanities Institute as a 2002-03 fellow. I am thankful that I was able to examine resources related to the film at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Finally, I thank Jon Smith, Clarence E. Walker, David Barry Gaspar, Carl Jorgensen, David Van Leer, Scott Simmon, Nahum Chandler, Cathy N. Davidson, Joanne Richardson, Desiree Martin, and Ifeoma Nwankwo for their insights at various stages of this piece's development.

(2) Toni Morrison, introduction to her anthology entitled Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), pp. xxvii-xxviii.

(3) Brent Davis has offered the most thoroughgoing examination of Huie's life and career in the documentary entitled I'm in the Truth Business: William Bradford Huie, which was produced by the University of Alabama Center for Public Television.

(4) See Huie's He Slew the Dreamer: My Search with James Earl Ray for the Truth about the Murder of Martin Luther King (New York: Delacorte, 1970), Did the F.B.I. Kill Martin Luther King? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1977), and Three Lives for Mississippi (New York: Whitney Communications Corp., 1965).

(5) William Bradford Huie, The Klansman (New York: Delacorte Press, 1967), p. 8.

(6) Chinese implications are clear, for instance, in the following passage from the novel: "You heard Old Long Ears [President Lyndon B. Johnson] go on the television and get all hot in the collar about Ku Klux killing this pore innocent woman. But he didn't tell it all. He just told what suited him to tell. When we stripped this woman we took off a dress and a slip, and she was wearing some kinda little old girdle up here around her hips. But her crotch was bare as a possum's ass. She wasn't covered up between her legs like a decent white woman's supposed to be. She was bare-legged, bare-assed and bare-cunted, and she was in that car at night with a stiff-peckered, Freedom Now, black buck setting right up next to her" (pp. 10-11).

(7) Charles W. Eagles examines the life and death of Jon Daniels in Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993). For a similar biographical treatment of Viola Liuzzo, see Mary Stanton, From Selma to Sorrow: The Life and Death of Viola Liuzzo (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998).

(8) The novel describes such "rape shows" as a favored pastime in the county: "Well Lightning Rod has made money all his life by white boys getting him out in the woods, or behind lumber piles, and paying him to show 'em his long blacksnake. They still do it. And on a Saturday afternoon, in the woods, when a white gang is paid off and the boys start to drink a little before they go home to their wives, or down to Awful Asmie's, they been known to have a little fun with Lightning Rod. They catch a nigger gal somewhere, or they hire one for a lay without telling her what's gonna happen then they form a circle in the woods, put the gal in the circle, and turn Lightning Rod in on her. I ain't never witnessed it, but the boys tell me it's a show better'n anything on TV" (pp. 63-64). This white male voyeurism is evocative of that in the "Battle Royal" of Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel Invisible Man (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), pp. 15-33.

(9) See Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Vintage Books 1983), p. 182. Also see Valerie Smith, Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings (New York: Routledge, 1998); Charlotte Pierce-Baker, Surviving the Silence: Black Women's Stories of Rape (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998); Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1985); Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Bantam Books, 1984); Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Daughters of Sorrow: Attitudes Toward Black Women, 1880-1920 (Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1990); Darlene Clark Hine, "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance," in Unequal Sisters: Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History, ed. Ellen Du Bois and Vicki L. Ruiz (New York: Routledge, 1990) pp. 292-297; and Tera W. Hunter, To 'Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women's Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

(10) See "Violence Comes to a Southern Town: New Movie, The Klansman Examines the Anatomy of Black-White, White-White, Relationships." Ebony, 30 (December 1974), 148-154.

(11) I am indebted to the film scholar Mark Reid for sharing his recollections of the film's moment of release.

(12) Vincent Canby, "Screening 'The Klansman': A Deep South Melodrama," New York Times (November 21, 1974), p. 54.

(13) Roy Frumkes, "The Klansman," Films in Review, 26 (June 1975), 46.

(14) "The Klassman," Variety, 276 (November 6, 1974), 20.

(15) Valerie Smith offers perspectives on interracial rape in Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings.

(16) These issues come to the fore in the scene in which Garth surprises Breck and Loretta at gunpoint in the back of Breck's truck as Breck transports Loretta from the hospital. Garth attacks their liberal approaches to the race problem in the county. Even the triangulation of their bodies, with Garth in the back seat and Breck and Loretta in the front, also seems to give some play to the longstanding myth of black female-white male collusion.

(17) Garth's insensitivity to Loretta's rape and his view of her as apolitical are clear where he remarks to her that "If I was a honkey, I'd want all niggers to be just like you, marching them dumb ass marches and mouthing them dumb ass slogans.... What good is a peaceful meeting? That's for them bourgeois Negroes. When you gone learn anyway that all that marching is going to get you is what you got--screwed?"

(18) Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (Washington. D.C., 1965).

(19) The film's investments in validating and vindicating black male subjectivity are perhaps most evident in its replacement of the Willie Washington described in the novel as a sexual philanderer who prefers sex with married women and who is revealed by the narrator as having committed the assault for which be was lynched with a Willie Washington in the film who remains undeveloped as a character, who is never ascertained as the rapist, and who is released due to lack of sufficient evidence. It is also significant that the film opts to foreground the lynching of an innocent black man.

(20) By the third point here, I mean to suggest that Garth remains autonomous and unattached in the film (i.e., he is never linked romantically to Loretta).

(21) To the contrary, the fate of Loretta in the novel is grim: "When he was a mile from the southernmost shacks, Breck saw firelight. From a quarter of a mile h e saw that three shacks, including Loretta's, were wrapped in flames. From two hundred yards he saw the silhouette of a man between him and the flames. From a hundred yards he saw the front door of Loretta's shack open and Loretta come through the doorway with her mother in her arms. At the same instant Breck saw the mail raise a gun and fire two shots at Loretta. From the back of the running horse Breck fired three shots at the man and saw him go down" (pp. 235-236). When Breck attempts a rescue, he discovers that all is for naught, for "Loretta was dead. The buckshot had struck her in the eyes and forehead, all but decapitating her" (p. 236).

(22) The reference here is to the white abolitionist John Brown, who led the raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. In the preface to his biography, W.E.B. Du Bois views him as "the man who of all Americans has perhaps come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk." See W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, ed. David Roediger (New York: Modern Library, 2001), p. xxxv.

(23) For an overview of these movements, see Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1992). A slightly different edition was originally published by Random House, Inc., in 1967. Also see Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

(24) See Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., 1995). See also Robert F. Williams, Negroes with Guns (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998).

(25) New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

(26) Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), p, xiii. For additional perspectives on resistance among black Southerners, see Chapters 1-5 of Kelley's Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994).

(27) For an overview of tenets of the blaxploitadon film genre, see Darius James, That's Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude (Rated X by an All' Whtye Jury) (New York: St. Martins, 1995). Ironically, as the Ebony article points out, "The Klansman didn't qualify for backing as a black exploitation film; the two main characters were white" (p. 149).

(28) From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989), p. 189.

(29) Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interprise History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum Publishing Company. 1989), p. 243.

(30) Interestingly, the December 1974 Ebony feature story on the film makes an association between O.J. Simpson's history as running back and his desperate run through the woods with Henry prior to the lynching scene.

(31) "Black American Cinema: The New Realism," in his edited volume entitled Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 3. For a comprehensive critical overview and general discussion of the film Birth of a Nation, see The Birth of a Nation, ed. Robert Lang (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994). Among the other important treatments of the film in relation to the question of African-American representation are the following: Thomas Cripps, "The Reaction of the Negro to the Motion Picture Birth of a Nation," Historian, 25 (May 1963), 344-362, and "The Year of The Birth of a Nation," in his Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1906-1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); John Hope Franklin, "Birth of a Nation--Propaganda as History," Massachusetts Review, 90 (Autumn 1979), 417-434; Clyde Taylor, "The Re-birth of the Aesthetic in Cinema," Wide Angle, 13 (July-October 1991), 12-30; Jane Gaines," The Birth of a Nation and Within Our Gates. Two Tales of the American South," in Dixie Debates: Perspectives on Southern Cultures, ed. Richard H. King and Helen Taylor (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1996), pp. 177-192; Richard Dyer, "Into the Light: The Whiteness of the South in The Birth of a Nation," in Dixie Debates, pp. 165-176; and Linda Williams, Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

(32) Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1970), p. 39.

(33) See Frederick Douglass, "Lynch Law in the South," North American Review, 155 (July 1892), 17-24.

(34) See the chapter on lynching in Robyn Wiegman's American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995).

(35) Among the most valuable resources on the topic of lynching are the following: Ida Wells-Barnett, Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws in All Its Phases (New York: Age Print, 1892; reprinted by Arno Press and New York Times, 1969); Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells, Lynching and Rape: An Exchange of Views, ed. Bettina Aptheker (New York: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1977); James Allen, et al., Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twin Palms, 2000); Phillip Dray, At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (New York: Random House, 2002); C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); James Cameron, A Time of Terror (Milwaukee: T D Publications, 1982); Sandra Gunning, Race, Rape and Lynching: The Red Record of American Literature, 1890-1912 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); James Weldon Johnson, Lynching, America's National Disgrace (New York: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1924); George C. Wright, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule and Legal Lynchings (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); Laura Wexler, Fire in a Canebrake: The last Mass Lynching in America (New York: Schribner, 2003); Trudier Harris, Exorcising Blackness: Historical and Literary Lynching and Burning Rituals (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); Ralph Ginzburg, 100 Years of Lynching (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1962); Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929); Leon F. Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998); and Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (New York: Basic Books, 1998).

(36) We might compare the former comment to Walter White's report that a prominent senator in the South once remarked that there is no such thing as a "virtuous colored girl" beyond the age of fourteen. See White's Rope and Faggot, p. 66.

(37) Jean Toomer, Cane, ed. Darwin T. Turner (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1988), p. 7.

(38) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 77.

(39) As David Leverenz has pointed out to me, it is also provocative to wonder whether a photograph in the October 28, 1991, issue of People magazine that showed Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, sitting on a sofa with a Bible positioned between them also spoke to the historical taboos against interracial sex by producing a sanitizing effect as much as it seemed meant to suggest Thomas as virtuous in the face of Anita Hill's sexual harassment accusations during the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Wahneema Lubiano has provided a revealing analysis of the photographic archive of this cultural moment. See her "Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means," in Toni Morrison's anthology entitled Race-ing Justice, Engendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), pp. 323-363.

(40) Ann DuCille, "The Unbearable Darkness of Being: 'Fresh' Thoughts on Race, Sex, and the Simpsons," in Toni Morrison's Birth of a Nation'hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case, pp. 297-298.

(41) On the other hand, black female identity, beyond its embodiments in O.J. Simpson's mother, Eunice Simpson, his daughter Arnelle Simpson, and his ex-wife Marguerite Simpson-Thomas, remained invisible or marginal throughout the trial. Yet, this moment was no less generative in terms of the ideologies that it yielded in relation to black women, particularly in the condescending critiques of the intelligence of the predominantly black and female jurors who acquitted Simpson, and in the feminist portrayal of black women as insensitive toward and uninformed about the issue of domestic violence in the aftermath of the trial. Traces of these stereotypes are evident in a 1999 critical piece in the journal Critical Inquiry, in which James A. W. Hefferman remarks that black women have "an unusually high tolerance for spousal abuse." Hefferman goes on to argue that the view of the jurists, as well as that of black women in the United States who widely supported Simpson, was shaped by the specter of lynching, and that they ultimately failed to empathize with Nicole Brown Simpson because rather than the cry of a battered woman in the 911 tapes, they heard "the voice of a white woman aiding and abetting the voices of a police force whose record of racist contempt and brutality ... evoked the merciless cries of a lynch mob." This argument is shortsighted in its simplistic casting of black women as uncritical supporters of black men in crisis, and as women who, in light of the details of historical memory, are led to prioritize, in a knee-jerk and reactionary way, matters of race over gender. My own misgivings about Simpson's innocence emerged early and remained throughout the trial and in the aftermath of the verdict.

Assumptions of black female complacency in the face of spousal abuse also fail to recognize how a culturally specific rhetoric on domestic violence sometimes shapes the view of the issue among some black women. This rhetoric, which overstates black female strength and agency (i.e., to fight back) in the face of domestic violence, was evident, for instance, in Marguerite Simpson-Thomas's comment in an interview that if O.J. Simpson had ever attempted to hit her, she would have knocked him out with a frying pan. An excellent example of the phenomenon that I am describing is illustrated also in Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purplein a scene in which the character Sophia (Oprah Winfrey), who is known for her strength, courage, and fighting spirit, tells Celie (Whoopi Goldberg), "Girl you better bash Mr.'s head in and think about heaven later!" Furthermore, while Sophia and her husband are perceived by their community to be "fighting" and "beating on" each other, the reality is that she is a victim of domestic violence, which ultimately ends her marriage. See James A.W. Hefferman, "The Simpson Trial and the Forgotten Trauma of Lynching: A Response to Shoshana Felman," Critical Inquiry, 25 (Summer 1999), 806. This piece addresses a 1997 essay by Shoshana Felman that appeared in the journal, entitled "Forms of Judicial Blindness, or the Evidence of What Cannot Be Seen: Traumatic Narratives and Legal Repetitions in the O.J. Simpson Case and in Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata," Critical Inquiry, 23 (Summer 1997).

(42) By this I mean that it is useful to consider Toni Morrison's introduction to Birth of a Nation'hood in relation to her larger conversation about the politics of race in the American literary canon in works such as Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Vintage Books, 1993). As Dana Nelson points out in examining the development of the concept of citizenship beginning in the antebellum period, white manhood "worked symbolically and legally to bring men together in an abstract but increasingly functional community that diverted their attention from differences between them--differences which had come alarmingly into focus in the post-Revolutionary era" (National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men [Durham: Duke University Press, 1998], p. 6).

(43) Monthly Film Bulletin, 42 (June 1975), 139.


University of California, Davis
COPYRIGHT 2002 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Richardson, Riche
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Previous Article:A symposium: new Souths.
Next Article:"The degeneration of nationalism": colonialism, perversion, and the American South.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |