“Birth of a Nation”: Racism Then and Now

Nate Parker in "Birth of a Nation". Photo courtesy the Sundance Film Festival.
Written by BU News Service

By Crystal Milner
BU News Service

Negroes,
Sweet and docile,
Meek, humble and kind:
Beware the day
They change their mind!
Wind
In the cotton fields,
Gentle Breeze:
Beware the hour
It uproots trees!

“Warning” was written by Langston Hughes in the early 1900s, yet racism in America is still not resolved, and there is only so much a person can take. Black America is exhausted.  

Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in 1831. He was exposed to the experiences of other slaves as he traveled from plantation to plantation delivering sermons to them. He was only allowed to teach the parts of the Bible that reinforced and justified what slave owners were doing. Day in and day out, he witnessed the brutal treatment of slaves on other plantations and began planning the revolt began.

“The Birth of a Nation” tells Nat Turner’s story. The film by actor, producer and director Nate Parker tells the story from Turner’s perspective. The original film premiered in 1915 and was titled “The Clansman” for about a month. The film told a highly subjective story about the Civil War, Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The 1915 version of the film is explicitly racist. Parker flipped the script and told the slave’s narrative.

Fast forward to Feb. 26, 2012 – the day Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager, was shot and killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. This tragedy unveiled the ugliness and dysfunction in America’s justice system. Zimmerman was found not guilty and continued his life as a free man, while 17-year-old Martin lay six feet under.

Say their names: Ezell Ford, Michael Brown Jr., Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Samuel Dubose, Gregory Gunn, Alfred Olango. The list is long and continues to grow.

The increased popularity of social media allowed us to grieve with the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grannies, papas, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of these victims.

Fortunately, it also opened our eyes to how often innocent black people are killed in America.

Jordan Davis was shot and killed on Nov. 23, 2012, at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla., just for playing loud music. The death of Jamar Clark followed; he was shot while handcuffed. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, was shot and killed in the park because he had a toy gun.

In the movie, Cherry Turner, Nat Turner’s wife said, “They killing people, for no other reason than the fact that they’re black.” This line resonated with me because in 2016, this is still the case.

In 2013, Black Lives Matter was founded. According to the group’s website, “Black Lives Matter is an international activist movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people.” The organization could not have manifested at a more needed time. Zimmerman was found not guilty of murder in Martin’s death on July 13, 2013. Anger and outrage were felt across America. Tears were shed, streets were trashed and businesses were broken into.

“All Lives Matter” quickly became the defense. This phrase only ignores the root of the problem, points the blame back on black America, and yet again, nothing gets resolved. Yes, all lives matter, which is why we are asking for equality across the board. The challenges black people face in America are real. They are not make-believe — as if I want to be oppressed and discriminated against.

Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” played in the film as scenes of black people hanging from trees moved across the screen. Black people are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Then, our bodies hung in trees for public consumption. Now, we lay dead in the street for all to see.

Turner asked God to send him a sign. One day while out in the cotton field, Turner, among other slaves, looked to the sky to witness an eclipse. It was time.

No longer willing to be a victim of circumstance, Turner displayed great courage in cultivating a plan of rebellion. Like Turner, black America is no longer waiting docile. In the words of the late Gil Scott Heron, “The revolution will be live.”

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