"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)

Article excerpt

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. …