AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 7

 - Migration and Urbanization

Overview

In this lecture, Professor Holloway documents the “Great Migration,” beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century and continuing with increasing pace until the mid-1920s. During this time, black Americans relocated from the rural South to the urban North. This general shift in the population marked a moment of self-determination for African Americans, demonstrating that they were prepared to leave behind the lives they had made in the South for better opportunities elsewhere. It is important to see these migrations as a form of social protest against the limited political and economic opportunity in the South, racial violence, and the KKK, which was reborn and flourished in the early 1920s. As Professor Holloway reveals, urban life in the North was frequently cruel and often difficult, but it was also a life forged of free will and absent a regional and cultural history of forced bondage. The remainder of the lecture focuses on how whites’ racial anxieties were manifested in the cultural realm, using D.W. Griffith’s popular film Birth of a Nation.

Warning: This lecture contains graphic content and/or adult language that some users may find disturbing.

 
Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video
html

African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 7 - Migration and Urbanization

Chapter 1. Sterling Brown Poem: “Old Lem” [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  I want to start with a poem, play the audio of it for you. You should listen–you should be able to hear it pretty–pretty well. The poem is called Old Lem by a man named Sterling Brown, one of the great poets in American letters in the twentieth century. He writes the poem after–you know, we’re talking this week about the first decade and a half or so of the twentieth century. This poem was written after that, written I think in the nineteen–late twenties or early thirties. I don’t remember off the top of my head. But it speaks to the experiences, the rural experiences and the social and political experiences of African Americans. And it certainly is, as you’ll hear in the poem, it gives you sort of a context behind why people might not want to stay in the South. The poem is called–called Old Lem.

[Tries to get audio working]:  Good grief.

Sterling Brown: Old Lem

“I talked to old Lem
and old Lem said:
‘They weigh the cotton
They store the corn
We only good enough
To work the rows;
They run the commissary
They keep the books
We gotta be grateful
For being cheated;
Whippersnapper clerks
Call us out of our name
We got to say mister
To spindling boys
They make our figgers
Turn somersets
We buck in the middle
Say, ‘Thankyuh, sah.’
They don’t come by ones
They don’t come by twos
But they come by tens.

They got the judges
They got the lawyers
They got the jury-rolls
They got the law
They don’t come by ones
They got the sheriffs
They got the deputies
They don’t come by twos
They got the shotguns
They got the rope
We git the justice
In the end
And they come by tens.

Their fists stay closed
Their eyes look straight
Our hands stay open
Our eyes must fall
They don’t come by ones
They got the manhood
They got the courage
They don’t come by twos
We got to slink around
Hangtailed hounds.
They burn us when we dogs
They burn us when we men
They come by tens…

I had a buddy
Six foot of man
Muscled up perfect
Game to the heart
They don’t come by ones
Outworked and outfought
Any man or two men
They don’t come by twos
He spoke out of turn
At the commissary
They gave him a day
To git out the county
He didn’t take it.
He said ‘Come and get me.’
They came and got him
And they came by tens.
He stayed in the county–
He lays there dead.

They don’t come by ones
They don’t come by twos
But they come by tens.”

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  Again, that’s Sterling Brown, poem named Old Lem, talking about forms of southern justice. If you dare to speak back to somebody, if you’re black and spoke back to somebody who was white, they might come after you. They would not come by ones or twos; they’d come by tens. What I want to talk about today, having set that really uplifting context for the day’s lecture, is talk about the Great Migration and take us forward into the nineteen-teens with the film called The Birth of a Nation. Essentially what I want to do in today’s lecture is look at the beginning of a fundamental shift in demographics of black America in–as far as geography’s concerned. Black America is still overwhelmingly a rural population, and is overwhelming–overwhelmingly southern. That begins to change and change rather quickly during the Great Migration.

Chapter 2. Organizations that Focused on the Quality of Black Life [00:04:39]

Now I ended last week’s lecture talking about the founding of the NAACP, 1909. And I want to point out, the NAACP is not–was not the only organization founded at that–at this time that focused on the quality of black life. Another such organization was the Young Men’s Christian Association, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. Both groups are highly segregated, but they still played in–a central role in making space available for blacks, particularly black travelers. Housing was provided, hot meals will be provided, community organizing. These become sites of community organizing, much like black churches were playing, still to this day of course, but before that. In fact, with the YMCA, I was on an internship right after college and the internship leader–this is 1989, 1990–the internship leader was talking about when he was coming through L.A. in the 1960s, traveling there for the first time, every black man knew that he had to go to the YMCA if he wanted to find a place to stay. So this is not just the history of the nineteen-aughts and the nineteen-tens and teens. It goes forward all the way and through really the systematic desegregation of society, or at least sort of structurally in the 1960s and seventies.

Anyway, aside from the NAACP, and in addition to the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations, you have one of the most important betterment organizations being founded in this area, and that’s the National Urban League, founded in 1911. Now whereas the NAACP dedicated itself to a legal and intellectual strategy, trying to find ways to seek justice for African Americans through legal means and through the idea of sort of civilizing, uplifting society, through the Talented Tenth, the Urban League was explicitly concerned with labor, finding jobs for blacks, sometimes at any cost. The Urban League was chiefly concerned with finding jobs for blacks who newly arrived to urban northern centers. The Urban League was, from the start, less radical than the NAACP. Now to even think of the phrase NAACP and radical going together may sound strange, but it really was sort of an avant garde organization in many ways at its founding. Urban League wasn’t in that regard. Some will claim, as you’ll see later on, that the Urban League was really quite the opposite, a conservative force in the back pocket of corporate interests, and willing to bust unions in order to put blacks into jobs of any kind.

Chapter 3. The Great Migration [00:07:23]

Now the issue of jobs here can’t be overemphasized. Jobs are important in any era to any people, of course, but when you have a large segment of the population, of a socially identified population, black folks in this case, in great flux, jobs become that much more critical. Blacks were that population. They were in profound flux in the first decades of the twentieth century, and it is their mass migration, what is referred to in this era as the Great Migration, and the events that surround that, that form the basis of this week’s lectures. Now I want to start with just a clarification of the title, the name of this phenomenon, the Great Migration. At this moment in time, roughly early years of the twentieth century to roughly the start of World War I, this was the greatest internal migration of a people in U.S. history. However, and we’ll get to it in a couple of weeks, the migration of African Americans in the 1940s and early fifties way outstrips the migration I’m talking about now but the–in terms of number. But the naming is–the naming convention is such that this early period of migration is called the Great Migration, just to be clear about that fact.

Now aside from naming conventions, I want you to also realize that when I think of the Great Migration, I think of–I think that it needs to be understood as a political movement, that migration itself was a political act. Was it organized in the ways that we think of in terms of high politics or even grassroots protest movements?  No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t. But it was profoundly political and I wanted to delineate those reasons over the next little bit. It’s important to first start to look at the southern black situation at the turn of the century. That’s why I played that clip for you, to get a, sort of a sense, at least artistically rendered, of the stakes, of the narrow room within which African Americans could move and move safely in the South.

Blacks who had the option of staying in the South left during the Great Migration because all the political privileges that they had enjoyed during Reconstruction had been systematically stripped away. And I’ve been talking about this the last couple of weeks. Blacks who had the resources to leave, and that’s a big issue, if they had the actual means to get out of town, they might have left just for the fact that, you know, any hope of their having the right to vote and all the other political benefits that come along with that just weren’t in the mix any more, not after Redemption, not after the systematic stripping away of the black voting presence. The men couldn’t vote any longer. State funded education for blacks was functionally nonexistent. Social segregation was only increasing and there of course was always the looming threat of lynch law.

So lacking even the most basic political rights, some blacks just up and left. Black farmers might have left simply because of the sharecropping system, something else alluded to in this poem by Sterling Brown. Sharecropping, as you already know, a form of employment that looked all too much like slavery. It was a dead end. Better opportunities, the bedrock of any sort of political philosophy, awaited black sharecroppers in the north; at least, this was the thinking. So you have the combination of maybe a little dramatic political death in the South as an option. That’s not very viable, so blacks might want to leave. An economic system that’s determined to keep them in second class citizenship status. So we think of–of the forces in the South that, or the  reality, the daily lived reality on the ground in the South, you can see that just the determination to leave, to get out, was a response to the political and economic situation. And in that way, the decision, I think, is–can be rendered as sort of a political decision.

And it’s interesting if you think about it, sticking on this issue of, you know, the politics of the situation, it’s interesting to think about how whites reacted–southern whites reacted to black exodus. At first, in some reg–in some regions, whites were thrilled. “We can finally get the so called negro problem”–this was a popular phrase of the age–“the negro problem would leave once blacks left town.”  But rather quickly they realized, “Wait a second. This is our bedrock labor force. This is the force that keeps whites–poor whites placated, because at least they’re not black.”  The social order was based on color cast and it was being destroyed by black ex–exodus. So whites begin to threaten blacks if they make plans to leave. It sounds completely nonsensical, but this is just the state of the case. And there were white northerners coming down who were labor agents, and white municipalities start charging these labor agencies–I’ll explain more about them in a second–exorbitant fees to register to try to get blacks out. It doesn’t matter. Labor agents have the resource. Southern whites started seeing their socio–socioeconomic political system, the foundation upon which so much of it was built, starting to crumble with black exodus.

Now historians talk about push, when it comes to the Great Migration, push-pull factors. There’s debate whether that’s a useful model or not. I’m not going to worry about, sort of, that debate, but I am going to talk about a series of different factors that were at play, that really combine in such a way that make this migration so powerful, so large. You have an infestation, is one of the ways that makes this migration so important, the boll weevil. A little pest that comes up from Mexico, sweeps across Texas and into southeastern US. The boll weevil is a little bug that gets into the boll. cotton boll, B-O-L-L, and destroys it. Cotton wasn’t the only crop in the South, but it was the main crop. It was so much of the bedrock of the southern economy was in that agricultural product. Cotton crops get destroyed. There’s no work for blacks. They’re working the farms. If you can’t find work, what’s the point of staying around?  I already mentioned political disfranchisement. This job scarcity in the South is also an economic–and the South is essentially an economic colony of the North, and then the North has a decreasing supply of immigrant labor, as you move forward into the twentieth century, as a result of state conflict in European theaters, heading towards World War I. Just take these things together, there’s a decreasing reason to stay in the South and the lure of jobs in the North.

Assisting this, or abetting this process even more, are the individuals I mentioned before, labor agents. These are essentially job recruiters employed by people who own factories and mills, mines in the Midwest and the North, who would travel South, since the labor supply was drying up in the North and come into a town–and I’m making up the numbers here–come into a town where there’s a, you know, a lot of blacks looking for work and say, “Look, in the North you can own your own house or an apartment. You can vote, sit where you want to on the bus. We’ve got a job here. The job’s going to pay you three dollars a day,” unheard of amounts of money. Being able to own property or at least rent property where you want to and ride on the bus, sit where you want to, unheard of possibilities in the South. And they go well we–They said, “Well, we can’t afford the train fare to get up to, say Chicago or Cincinnati or Cleveland.”  He says, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll pay for it, and you can work it off.”  Or, “Don’t even worry about it. I’ll just pay for it.” 

So labor agents are coming down and signing up a black labor force to come to work in the mines, and factories, and mills. You have, of course, informal lines of communication, people who make, you know that first person to make the trip up to Chicago and saying, “My god, I am making three dollars a day, and I have my own apartment,” and writing letters back, or saving up a lot of money and driving down, you know, at the end of the year in their own car, dressed in their fanciest clothes. Talk about the, sort of the quote, land of milk and honey up North. This certainly inspired others to travel. And then you have a very important newspaper, the Chicago Defender, the most important black newspaper of the time. Chicago Defender, of course based in Chicago, but circulated heavily throughout the South. Bags of the Chicago Defender would be bundled up, thrown on trains, and they would appear in say Montgomery or Huntsville or, you know, other southern towns. And they’d be read by who knows how many people.

Now the Defender made it almost a sport talking about lynchings happening in the South. Most often they were about true events. It was an–this was an era of newspapers where you just, you know, made stuff up still. So most often talking about true events in the South and horrible events. And there’d be letters to the editor, sometimes true, often fabricated, but still they were there, written by blacks, written in dialect, but talking about the opportunities in the North and–and reminding folks of the degradation in the South. Chicago Defender’s incredibly important as a tool to help people find the courage, or find the resources, or the determination to move north. And then you have service organizations, like the National Urban League, founded in 1911, dedicated to improving the quality of life or life chances for blacks migrating North.

So you have, just in the first two decades, sort of an astonishing convergence of all these different forces that really help fuel this migration. And the numbers are really quite striking. Just between–this is just to get a sense of things. You’re not going to have to know this for the–for the like an exam or anything. But looking at a few major northern cities, between 1910 and 1920–it’s so funny when I say you don’t have to know this for the exam, the tapping stops. That’s hysterical. Anyway, you take New York City, in 1910, the population–the African American population is around ninety thousand. Within ten years, it’s one hundred and fifty thousand, an increase of sixty-six percent. In Chicago, the population increases by one hundred and–almost one hundred and fifty percent from fortry-four thousand to one hundred and ten thousand. In Cleveland, population soars from eight thousand to thirty-four thousand, an increase of three hundred percent. And in Detroit, the population goes from five thousand to forty thousand,  population–an increase of six hundred percent. So radical changes in just a ten year period of time. This is the era when Harlem becomes known as a black enclave.

Now, so we know what was getting people out of the South. What did they find when they got to the North?  Yeah, they could have their own apartments, certainly. Owning homes would take a little while for most migrants, but they would find segregated housing, de facto. Not de jure, de facto. And segregated housing was bad housing, low quality, poorly maintained, sites of high levels of crime, vice, public health hazards. Anybody know Washington DC that well, sort of the area?  Well Georgetown used to be, you know, a sort of slum in–in the docks, but getting around say Dupont Circle and heading that area, a lot of townhouses around there, row houses. And where I’m talking about, you would go behind the row houses to the interior of the block and these alley dwellings. I mean pestilence, horrible sights, horrible locations. This is where a lot of migrant blacks lived in the alleys in Washington DC, sort of the invisible to the public, but certainly there.

Migrants to the North would find native black resistance, people who’d been there already for generations who thought these black migrants talked funny, dressed strangely, cooked food that smelled wrong, and were loud and boisterous and acted out in public. All these kind of racially coded things we certainly still live with, but you have long term black communities deeply unhappy about these migrants coming up. You’d have people who had migrated just ten years earlier unhappy about the new migrants, because “they’re just making–they’re embarrassing us,they’re making increasing job competition.”  Coming up was–was filled with challenges. You would also have, you know, an Urban League trying to find people jobs. You would have African Americans being brought up to a factory where a labor union, which blacks weren’t allowed to join, and the union being on strike, and the Urban League working with the company that owns the factory saying–the factory owner saying, “Look, if you can get me one hundred black men to work in the factory, that would be great. I’ll give them jobs.”  Well, they’re hired as scab labor, so they are vilified by white labor workers. It’s a job, certainly, as long as the labor union stays on strike. But it’s a job at some pretty serious costs, as we’ll see in this week’s readings and in Wednesday’s lecture.

So life wasn’t easy and you have to think about this tension between, sort of, black autonomy, the real power in being able to make a decision to leave town. You can’t discount that. That’s important, sort of life changing in a sense, just to get up and go. You have to weigh that against the reality of like life when you got to your destination might be pretty horrible as well. Certainly different than anything you expected. Yeah, you got paid more, yeah, you had your own roof over your head, but the tenements in which blacks were living were just, I mean, horrible. I mean the stuff beyond your imagination in so many ways. Sure, you could ride where you wanted to on the bus, but there are still costs or risks involved in acting out, shall we say. Again, we’ll see more of this in the next lect–in the next lecture.

Now one thing I–I also want to make clear before moving into the next phase of the lecture is thinking about, as we’re trying to unpack what migration really was, it’s important to realize that migration wasn’t just blacks working on the southern farms, all of a sudden, you know, in a week’s time, they’re working in a mill in Chicago. No, it wasn’t that. I mean migration was, among the many things, at least–I mean it was at least very complicated. So you might have some working in the farm. The boll weevil attacks; there’s no more opportunity to work. You’d–you’d go to the city, a southern city, trying to find a job, something. Cities became crowded. This is where labor agents would really steal–quote, steal. You would find a lot of people, hire them up to the North.

But would they always go all the–all, quote, all the way to north to Chicago or New York City?  No, they wouldn’t. They might end up in the coalfields in West Virginia, or in Ohio, or in Kentucky. And they might work there for, you know, six months and then go back home to Montgomery, just pick a place. And then they might leave the next year for three months and then come back. Migration was not literally from field to factory in one straight direction. People were going back and forth often. They might get up to, you know, the mines–the coalmines in Kentucky, be there for a couple years and then make it to Chicago after that, and who knows how long they would stay?  So you need to understand that–that–that migration is doing–moving in many different directions at once, although it was generally from field to generally to factory.

Chapter 4. D.W. Griffith Film: “The Birth of a Nation” [00:26:02]

One thing that’s not ambiguous at all during this era is what I’ll say, the commerce of racism. Remember, whites didn’t want to have blacks leave–or whites wanted blacks to leave at first, then realized, “Wait, this would mess up our system,” then don’t want blacks to leave at all. Yet they still treat blacks pretty shabbily in their southern towns and in their southern fields. One thing that is incumbent upon this sort of commerce of racism is control. Who’s in control of society?  It’s a word I’ve used before. And society becomes destabilized by blacks moving on their own or with the help of labor agents, you start seeing a real rise in white resistance to the challenge to this system. White resistance to black autonomy becomes palpable. I already mentioned southern resistance to labor agents coming down. It’s important to understand there are other things that were developing within white America–white southern America that complicated the nature of black-white relations in the South, and that–the most important force is the Klan, the KKK.

Now the Klan, you’ll remember, was destroyed at the national level during Reconstruction. It starts to creep back during Redemption, but it’s really, you know, as terrible–terrifying as it is, something happens when you get to around the height of the migration, around 1915. The popularity of the Klan skyrockets, I mean skyrockets. The fact that it’s happening at the same time blacks are trying to leave the South, in a real outflow, is no coincidence. There’s no doubt also that a large part of the Klan’s popularity, reborn popularity, is a film, D. W. Griffith’s film called The Birth of a Nation. This movie is based on a novel by a guy named Thomas Dixon–Dixon, a novel called The Clansman. The book as well as the movie, and I’ll only be talking about the movie, is a depiction of Reconstruction, but from a point of view that was entirely sympathetic to the southern community, southern mentality. The film was immediately controversial. It was explicitly racist, but there’s no denying the fact that it was cinematically revolutionary.

Let’s cast inside the subject matter for a moment. It may be the most important film, most important American film of all time, for the way it changed what was possible from a technical point of view. We have large outdoor scenes, the tracking shot, cat’s eye lenses, fade ins, color, or more like tinting, but still color, night photography, panning, close ups, high angle shots, and so forth. It was also the first feature length film in American motion picture history. So technically, it’s an astonishing accomplishment. When it’s shown at the White House, Woodrow Wilson, southern Democrat but also a scholar of some merit, declared that it was, quote, “history written in lightning.”  He lauded it for its bold and accurate depiction of the past. Now for the record, its only accuracy came in the fact that it represented a type of hysterical psychology that captivated southerners who felt that they were victims of a war of northern aggression.

So Woodrow Wilson celebrates this thing, this is, you know, this is an incredible historical document. It is an incredible historical document, but not for what it shows on this–not for the story it tells, but for how it captures a mentality in the nineteen-teens, and how it excites a populist, I guess, I guess a populist base in white America and helps elevate membership numbers in the Klan. I mean the film is hailed–and speaking of two sides, from the technical standpoint, Spike Lee, ever the controversial artist, talked about it as the most important film that he’s ever–I mean it was so–the most important film for him. On the other side of it, in terms of, you know, what the film was really about, it’s still used by the Klan today as a recruiting tool. So it’s not just this interesting silent movie from the nineteen-teens. It’s still being used today.

Now the basic storyline tracks the rise and fall of the South, as told through the experiences of two different families. You have a family called the Stoneman the Stoneman family from the North, and the Cameron family from the South. So lifelong friends, both very powerful families, but divided by the Mason-Dixon line. A little bit of Romeo and Juliet to the story, in that the different sets of Stoneman and Cameron children are in love with each other. So the love crosses the–the Northern and South divide. And so the Stonemans and Camerons stand in as metaphors for the entire North-South division. These are divisions that–these are parts of the country that should love each other. They are in one spirit in some way, but there’s a fundamental rupture and we need to solve that rupture.

So the premise is that the Camerons, these are the southerners, give three sons to the war. Only one survives, a guy named Ben, who then avows–vows to avenge southern dishonor, but he also happens to fall in love with–this makes it complicated–one of the Stoneman daughters, northern daughter. So the sole surviving southern male of the Cameron clan falls in love with the Stonemans’ daughter. On the northern side, the Stonemans lose one son to the war, and the other son remains in love with the Cameron girl, so you see this crossing. After the war, Austin Stoneman, the family patriarch and member of Congress, comes down South and puts the power hungry and corrupt Silas Lynch–that’s his name. It’s not a subtle film in any stretch of the imagination–Silas Lynch happens to be of mixed race, but has a particular craving for white women. He puts Silas Lynch in charge of the liberated slaves in the Camerons’ home town of Piedmont, and the Piedmont blacks, now having the right to vote, raise all sorts of trouble for the local whites, and especially affected were the Camerons, these southerners.

The film tracks this history, the rise of Reconstruction governments, run by unprepared and unqualified blacks. It depicts blacks’ social and political intransigence and the systematic disenfranchisement of southern whites. And Birth of a Nation also gives us a cautionary tale of what happens when black men are freed and find themselves around white women. We’ll see this most clearly in the actions of Gus, a properly mannered servant for the Camerons prior to emancipation, who becomes a leering threat with the conclusion of the Civil War. Despite Ben Stoneman, the surviving young man in the southern family in the Civil War–despite Ben Stoneman’s warnings to Gus to leave his family alone and despite Ben’s warning to his younger sister Flora to stay in the house and thus remain safe, tragedy strikes.

Gus stalks Flora when she leaves the home to get water from a stream in the woods. Flora sees Gus stalking her and runs for her life, knowing–and this is all very clearly implied in the film–that if Gus caught her, she would be raped. Flora finds herself at a cliff’s edge, while calling for help, as Gus–Gus inches closer. She avoids certain rape by leaping to her death. She dies in her brother’s arms, and Ben, already determined to restore the South’s honor, goes after Gus. It will come to no surprise to you, I think, that Gus is lynched. The castration scenes in the film were actually cut in the final print. And Ben, already inspired about how to create a gang of southerners to avenge the South’s honor, organizes the Klan in an–in an explicit move to social control, the protection of white womanhood and–and the Redemption of the South.

Now the story isn’t just about the tangled love relationship that spans the Civil War. It’s also about representation of blacks and their quest for full citizenship rights and the real object that defined that quest, which was the white woman. It’s also a story about romanticizing and justifying the rise of the Klan, the role in the salvation of white womanhood and therefore southern dignity. Now spliced together, I was doing–giving you all this background so you’ll make sense of what you’re about to see. I spliced together three different scenes from the movie to help you get a better understanding of what’s at stake here. You should not look at the movie–the film so much for its interpretation of the fall and rise of the South. That is patently false. What’s worth thinking about is the particular interpretation of blackness, of dignity, of citizenship, of intelligence, objectification, etcetera,. how they all became an object of fascination when it was released. The movie was a runaway hit, played to sold out audiences around the country, even though it charged what was then the exorbitant price of seventy-five cents to two dollars a ticket to get in.

<>

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  This is the Stoneman family coming down to the South to recuperate from bad health, and the Stoneman and the Cameron children see each other, greet each other. And yes, they’re in black face when they are appearing black. That’s Ben Cameron on the right, with his love in the middle and his sister, the young one who kills herself, on the left. That’s the first clip. I don’t–I confess, I don’t know what happened. I was playing it this morning, getting it ready, and there’s no sound for this. So it’s just–it’s just music playing in the background. Down here it says, “an historical facsimile at the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870, after a photograph by the Columbia State.”  Basically, blacks are now in control and this is what happens.

You’ll see the fade in. This has technically never been done before. You’ll have a mix of characters here in black face and actually black actors. A depiction of the morality of black representatives, drinking on the floor, eating either a turkey leg or a large chicken leg, not knowing how to comport themselves. You know, these are the things that are important to black representatives. White have to salute. There’s general chaos. They’re not properly behaved. But there are some representatives, and you can see them there, sitting there quietly. The close in shot like that, again, brand new. Blacks and whites in the gallery. You start seeing here a depiction of what the actual desire of black representatives happens to be, and their reaction. That’s Silas Lynch in the middle, and at the bottom of the screen there for a second you saw him. A mixed race man that’s come down to take control of the South.

And this final clip right here. His sister’s already died, died in his arms. This is Ben Cameron. He sees these young white children playing with the black children, dressed up as piccaninnies with their hair and such. And it’s hard to see on the screen, but their eyes get bug eyed, and they’re terrified. Like I said, it wasn’t the most subtle of films. And so you see your depictions of black depravity, of desire for white women. You also see, of course, the loyal servants who are, sort of, the Mammy figure, the–the heavyset black woman, again these characters–these main characters in black face. You didn’t see much of it, Silas Lynch. I pointed him out to you, but the mixed race individual, that’s northern–appointed by a northern representative to come down and take control of the South, and he desires white women. Gus, the servant, who made eyes at the Mammy figure, is the one who desires white women, once he’s armed as a member of the northern militia.

 The fear embodied in this film, the anxiety, is what I really want you to take away from it, and the fact that the film was terrifically popular. It wasn’t just popular as a–as an organizing tool for the Klan. It was the top grossing film. I mean I don’t know if this statistic is still true in our Avatar age, and some people actually see connections to Avatar and the kind of racial logic of a film like Birth of a Nation. But the film, off of seventy-five cent and two dollar tickets, earns over ten million dollars in its first release. Unbelievable amounts of money. And it also earned the specific attention of the young–of the young NAACP, which lauded–which issued a forty-seven page pamphlet titled Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of the Nation. They would hold rallies at the theater, wherever the film was being shown, protesting its screening. And it famously referred to the film as “three miles of filth.” 

This is the state of the–the culture at the moment. Black Americans in–in flux, migration not happening in a uniform direction or at a uniform pace, but happening, clearly. Detroit’s black population blossoms by six hundred percent in a ten year span. Black enclaves in places that didn’t–they just simply weren’t there before are now there. So the reorganizing, repopulating of black America is beginning here and continues in earnest until around the 1970s when the–when the population numbers begin to settle–settle down, the migration–migration numbers settle down. And actually, we’re in an age where the migration is reversing for the first time since this–since the start of the twentieth century. We’re not exactly sure why yet as far as demographers. We’re dealing with a radical shift of population and, and related to that, a radical rise in social anxieties and a determination to control it. And we’ll see how that control is manifested beyond the Klan and Birth of a Nation on Wednesday’s lecture. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]