Rather than share the Klan-glorifying poster for The Birth of a Nation, I thought I’d offer this depiction from The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.
There’s been lots published this weekend about the 100th anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation — about how its technical greatness and unprecedented box-office success were at least matched and arguably surpassed by the vileness of its racist depictions of African Americans.
By one way of reckoning, this week — February 8, to be exact — can be called the 100th birthday of the medium that many of us have spent our lives enthralled with: the feature film. But don’t expect any parades, fireworks, grand speeches, or other shows of celebration. That’s because the film that premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on February 8, 1915, was D. W. Griffith’s The Clansman, soon to be retitled The Birth of a Nation — the most virulently racist major movie ever released in the U.S.
From A.V. Club:
Birth Of A Nation is the movie where many of the values associated with American filmmaking—complex intercutting, massed crowds of extras contrasted with close-ups of actors, carefully edited suspense and chase scenes—get their first really clear, fully formed expression. It’s also unquestionably white supremacist and racist. It represents a key point in the history of American art, and is animated by some of the ugliest rhetoric America ever produced.
From the BBC:
The film is credited with reviving the racist KKK, who adopted it as a recruitment tool. “The Ku Klux Klan had been kind of a dead organisation by 1915, but when the film [came out and became a hit] the KKK was refounded, capitalised on [the film’s success] and in the 1920s became a massive organisation at the peak of nativist fervour in the United States,” says Paul McEwan.
From The Record:
“The Birth of a Nation” was the last straw for [William Monroe] Trotter. A proud intellectual (Harvard’s first black Phi Beta Kappa student) and a proud “race man,” Trotter was appalled, like many African-Americans, by Griffith’s film. And he was appalled that President Woodrow Wilson, whom he had rallied black voters to support, had screened “The Birth of a Nation” in the White House — the first film to be shown there.
And from The New York Post:
What makes “Birth’’ most offensive is its depiction of its black characters — all of the prominent ones performed by white actors in blackface — during Reconstruction. Griffith depicts defeated Southerners being terrorized (and even disenfranchised from voting) by illiterate, corrupt and uncouth former slaves (seeking interracial marriage) under the influence of white Northern carpetbaggers. (A view still held by many 1915 historians, but long ago discredited).
“Long ago discredited,” yes, but still at least indirectly influential. Modern historians have given Reconstruction a bit of the attention that it deserves, but there’s been exactly one hugely commercially successful depiction of that period in the American story, and it’s Griffith’s movie.
Whether audiences at the time of The Birth of a Nation‘s release accepted Griffith’s vision, or whether they were repulsed by it and just wanted to forget the whole thing, it’s not hard to see how those attitudes could get passed along — through families, and through our schools, and through our culture in general. And with no competing mainstream force to counter the impressions left by such a film, what’s to stop them from lingering among us?
Which brings me to The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch. More specifically, it brings me to a period in Lynch’s long life not covered by the main text in my upcoming book with Don Tate.
Our book focuses on his early years — his rise from slavery to the U.S. House of Representatives in just ten years. But after his stints in Congress, and after his service as a major in the Army during the Spanish-American War, Lynch became a historian. He had a central goal in mind: “placing before the public accurate and trustworthy information relative to Reconstruction” in the wake of much misinformation about that period.
From the timeline in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch:
1913 — Writes The Facts of Reconstruction to correct racist distortions put forth by white historians.
1915 — The Birth of a Nation, a Hollywood film misrepresenting Reconstruction and glorifying the Klan, becomes wildly popular and warps Americans’ views of history for generations to come.
His timing, you can see, wasn’t great. And, more crucially, and his medium was no match for Griffith’s.
But John Roy Lynch had — and has — history on his side. And I remain optimistic that his vision can ultimately win out.
The back matter for The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch includes a historical note, a two-page timeline, my author’s note, Don Tate’s illustrator’s note, suggestions for further reading, and a couple of maps.
With all that Eerdmans Books for Young Readers did squeeze into those final pages, it’s not surprising that there wasn’t room for us to include a bibliography of the sources I consulted for the book. So, I’m presenting them here (along with a shout-out for Douglas R. Egerton’s 2014 book The Wars of Reconstruction, which came out after my text was finished but which I’m currently reading and finding fascinating):
The American Experience: Reconstruction: The Second Civil War. Produced and directed by Llewellyn M. Smith and Elizabeth Deane. DVD, 2003.
Bell, Frank C. “The Life and Times of John R. Lynch: A Case Study 1847-1939.” Journal of Mississippi History, Volume 38, February 1976.
Campbell, Tracy. Deliver the Vote: A History of Election Fraud, an American Political Tradition — 1742-2004. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
Carey, Charles W. Jr. African-American Political Leaders. New York: Facts on File, 2004.
Christopher, Maurine. Black Americans in Congress. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976.
Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress: 1870-1992. New York: Amistad Press, 1992.
Davis, Jack E. Race Against Time: Culture and Separation in Natchez since 1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001.
Davis, Ronald L. F. The Black Experience in Natchez, 1720-1880. Mississippi: Natchez National Historical Park, 1993.
Dray, Philip. Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper Perrenial, 1990.
Foner, Eric. Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Gerteis, Louis S. From Contraband to Freedman: Federal Policy Toward Southern Blacks 1861-1865. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1973.
Graham, Lawrence. The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Holzer, Harold. Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008.
“John R. Lynch and the Reconstruction,” The Chicago Defender, November 18, 1939.
Jordan, Winthrop D., editor. Slavery and the American South. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003.
Kennedy, Randall. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
Knox, Thomas Wallace. Camp-Fire and Cotton-Field: Southern Adventure in Time of War. Life with the Union Armies, and Residence on a Louisiana Plantation. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.
Lemann, Nicholas. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
Lemire, Elise. “Miscegenation”: Making Race in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.
Lynch, John Roy, “Speech on the Civil Rights Bill,” accessed at http://www.blackpast.org/?q=1875-john-r-lynch-speech-civil-rights-bill on May 3, 2013.
Lynch, John Roy, edited by John Hope Franklin. Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Lynch, John Roy. Letter to Dr. William R. Johnston, December 27, 1937. William T. Johnson and Family Memorial Papers, Mss. 529, 561, 597, 770, 926, 1093, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge.
Lynch, John Roy. Letter to Dr. William R. Johnston, September 16, 1934. William T. Johnson and Family Memorial Papers, Mss. 529, 561, 597, 770, 926, 1093, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge.
“Major Lynch Buried with Military Rites,” The Chicago Defender, November 11, 1939.
“Major Lynch Will Be 89 on Thursday,” The Chicago Defender, September 12, 1936.
Mann, Kenneth Eugene. “John Roy Lynch: U.S. Congressman from Mississippi.” Negro History Bulletin, Volume 37, April/May 1974.
Martis, Kenneth C. The Historical Atlas of United States Congressional Districts, 1789-1983. New York: Free Press, 1982.
McLaughlin, James Harold. “John Roy Lynch, the Reconstruction Politician: A Historical Perspective (Thesis).” Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, 1981.
Menn, Joseph Karl. The Large Slaveholders of Louisiana, 1860. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing, 1964.
Middleton, Stephen, editor. Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Montgomery, Frank A. Reminiscences of a Mississippian in Peace and War. Cincinnati: The Robert Clarke Company Press, 1901.
Morris, Robert C. Reading, ’Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Nelson, Stanley. “Black, 15 & free in 1863: John Roy Lynch & Mary Reynolds,” Concordia Sentinel, May 4, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “Civil War in Vidalia: Views of 1863 battle from Rosalie mansion, Tacony quarters,” Concordia Sentinel, April 27, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “Despite deathbed promise, Lynch & family return to slavery,” Concordia Sentinel, April 6, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “John Roy Lynch: Love at Tacony, heartbreak at Whitehall,” Concordia Sentinel, March 30, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “Natchez in Union hands; John Roy Lynch leaves Vidalia to reunite with mother,” Concordia Sentinel, April 13, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “Plantation life, burning cotton and slavery’s end in 1863,” Concordia Sentinel, May 11, 2011.
Nelson, Stanley. “The Greshams come to Natchez; Lynch is free at 15,” Concordia Sentinel, April 22, 2011.
Newton, Michael. The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010.
Office of History and Preservation, Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2008.
Oliver, Nola Nance. This Too Is Natchez. New York: Hastings House, 1953.
Power, Steve. The Memento: Old and New Natchez, 1700-1897. Natchez, Mississippi: Myrtle Bank Publishers, 1984.
Rabinowitz, Howard N., editor. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
Roberts, Evangeline. “Major Lynch Tells of Days in Congress,” The Chicago Defender, May 12, 1928.
Rose, Willie Lee. A Documentary History of Slavery in North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Scarborough, William Kauffman. The Overseer: Plantation Management in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966.
Schafer, Judith Kelleher. Becoming Free, Remaining Free: Manumission and Enslavement in New Orleans, 1846-1862. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.
Schafer, Judith Kelleher. Slavery, the Civil Law, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Sewell, George Alexander. Mississippi Black History Makers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Townsley, Luther. “Major John R. Lynch,” The Chicago Defender, April 29, 1939.
Turkel, Stanley. Heroes of the American Reconstruction: Profiles of Sixteen Educators, Politicians and Activists. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2005.
Wayne, Michael. Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wayne, Michael. The Reshaping of Plantation Society: The Natchez District, 1860-1880. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1983
Winters, John D. The Civil War in Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963.
This month’s edition of Bartography Express features a Q&A with Trent Reedy, author of the second book in the Divided We Fall trilogy, Burning Nation (Scholastic). It also includes a giveaway of a copy of Burning Nation — please see the newsletter for details.
The formatting of my newsletter made it unwieldy to include Trent’s complete answers to my questions, so I made a few edits for space. As I promised my subscribers, though, I’m including the full text here.
CB: What drew you toward the story you’re telling in the Divided We Fall trilogy?
TR: I wrote the Divided We Fall trilogy because I love stories about nightmare futures where everything we rely on to maintain our safe, comfortable lives fails us: government, law enforcement, food distribution, the electrical grid… Stripped of these systems we’ve come to depend on, would our society descend into total violent chaos, or is there enough kindness in humanity to offer hope? These sorts of narratives are great venues for action and adventure, but they also raise fascinating issues about the human condition and the nature of our contemporary society.
Some of my favorite post-apocalyptic/dystopian stories are The Walking Dead, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Giver — just to name a few. But the thing about these books and TV shows is that we usually don’t see much of the story about how the world arrived in such a dire situation. I wanted to do something different, where the focus was on what led to the collapse and on the collapse itself. So I decided to write the story of the fall of the United States.
I was also inspired to write the trilogy by watching the news, so much of it bad. I think many Americans are frustrated with a political system that seems to celebrate arrogant, divisive partisan politics more than it seeks to work toward compromise and solving our collective problems. I think many believe that if they can only help their party to defeat the other, then America might be saved, but I’ve come to believe that this rivalry, the divide itself, is America’s biggest problem. I’ve written Divided We Fall and Burning Nation to show what happens when the bitterness over that divide is carried out to its most disastrous potential.
CB: Tell me about the kind of kid you think Burning Nation will appeal to the most.
TR: When I began writing the trilogy, I thought that most of my readers would be high school students. However, I have received letters from readers as young as ten years old and e-mails from readers in their forties or fifties. I’ve heard from girls as well as boys. Veterans. Children of veterans. Teachers and librarians.
Burning Nation maintains an exploration of a lot of the socio-political issues in Divided We Fall, but it cranks up the action even more and runs the protagonist PFC Daniel Wright and his friends through even harder circumstances.
When I was a combat engineer in the Army National Guard, I learned a lot about weapons and explosives. I brought that knowledge to my work during my year in the war in Afghanistan, and now, I’ve used it to bring authenticity and visceral details to this trilogy. So I’d say that readers who are interested in action or military stories would enjoy Burning Nation.
But Burning Nation isn’t merely an action story. As a veteran who is writing war stories marketed toward younger readers, I am acutely aware of my responsibility to avoid glorifying war or violence. I try to be as honest as I can about war and its effects on the soldiers and civilians trapped in the middle of it. We Americans are used to thinking of war as something we’re rather distanced from, even though we’ve been at war now for over a decade. Divided We Fall and Burning Nation bring a recognizable near-future war to our back yards.
It’s an action story, a war story, but it’s a thinking-reader’s war story, a cautionary tale for us all, and a reminder of the need to get better at working together to overcome our shared problems and to bring unity to our country.