Rebirth of a nation: White Supremacist Violence, Myths and Catharsis

I decided to write this short article partly as a reflection on the massacres by white supremacists and partly as a response to Bin Hamid Ali’s tweets excusing and sanitising said massacres. ‘Rebirth’ is a slight misnomer because it supposes that white supremacy is not a continuous phenomenon that has existed before and since the 1915 film, The Birth of a nation. In some important ways though, in the Trump era ‘Rebirth’ is appropriate. Both seek to reinforce white nationalist myths and both glorify and incite to violence against coloured (predominantly black) bodies in almost identical ways. Besides, it fits in well narratively what with the original film coming out 100 years before the beginning of the Trump era and what’s a bit of narrative symmetry between friends? The Birth of a Nation was a three-hour epic directed by D. W. Griffith in which white fantasies and anxieties are shamelessly committed to celluloid. The Birth of a Nation is a KKK fanfiction and was almost singlehandedly responsible for the Klans revival.1 The story centres around how valiant KKK members supress violent and predatory black men (played by white men in blackface).

One of the most striking similarities between the two events is the creation for the pretext and justification for violence, the means by which white supremacy exclusively solves its problems. In a New York showing of Birth a man became so impassioned and unable to contain himself he drew his gun and shot at the black man on the screen.2 In a more heart-breaking example a man in Indiana shot and killed a black teenage boy the same day he viewed the film.3 The danger to Mae Marsh in Birth was imaginary and conceived solely by a white mind. The reactions to the violence they themselves imagined were real. By the end of the year over a hundred lynching’s would take place.4 To be extremely clear, these weren’t misreading’s of history nor were they exaggerations. The threat of violent black men was completely and totally fabricated.

Patrick Crusius’ manifesto was replete with fabrications by Trump, in particular the idea of invasion by Mexicans. He took 22 lives.5 Trump’s presidency has been defined by the lies he has told about immigrants, Hispanics, Black folks and Muslims. These fabrications not only cast blackness, muslimness and hispanicness among others as legitimate sources of fear they also cast whiteness as the only thing capable of stopping the aforementioned evil groups. In particular it is an anglo-saxon/aryan form of whiteness which is embodied by the antebellum south. This was so because the antebellum South conducted its race relations properly, i.e by enslaving Black folks. The other feature of the antebellum that made this an attractive proposition was white unity. In Birth Conflict was not just between white and black folks but also between Southern whites who wanted to maintain the status quo and Northern whites who wanted to grant slaves freedom; this formed the double threat of changing race relations and disuniting white folks. Birth captures this conflict and provides a solution in the form of brave Klansmen dressing up as scooby doo villains to scare everyone. Apparently ineffective white men that get unmasked by a gang of hippies and their dog is the Aryan ideal.

Woodrow Wilson, who was president when Birth came out was of the opinion that the Civil War had rather than divide the nation, united it. Moreover, in his mind the Civil War allowed a proper nation to emerge from what he called ‘… an aggregation of jangling, discordant antagonistic sections…’6. This draws easy parallels with the Trump slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Both seemingly appeal to a history that didn’t happen while also trying to historicise racial hierarchies. This is also the thesis of Birth, whose author said it was only once the slavery issue had been settled that the country could unify.7 In other words, it was only once racial hierarchies had been re-established and agreed that white America could once again unify. White America had a need to define itself as a unified whole over and against blackness. It is this same need that is present in the slogan Make America Great Again.

Both Birth and Trump criminalise blackness and in the case of Trump all others. Their only crime is to become competitors against white folks for land, money and the affections of white women. The criminality is not, as some suggest, the erasure of white culture or conservative Christian values. Whiteness supposes that it should be above all other races, therefore any act which seemingly creates parity between whites and others is ipso facto criminal. Black people buying property is theft, inter-racial marriage when it is a black man and a white woman is not marriage it is rape, and Muslims and Hispanics are not expats, citizens or in the American tradition, pioneers, they are invading hordes. The other is criminalised for activity that is legal.

The only way that white America can heal itself from this contradiction is through the catharsis of violence. This catharsis is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, because the law is the law except when it comes to the coloured other, then it isn’t the law. This necessitates that white people call the cops on black folks for things as varied as, cleaning their driveway, having a BBQ, selling water, sleeping, swimming, using coupons and sitting. Whiteness needs to heal itself from the spectacle of black and coloured folks doing things white people do by conducting acts of violence. This is what, in essence Jim Crow segregation was all about, denying freed black people the same status as white people. Secondly, and I cannot stress this enough, the very fears that whiteness jumps at are constructed from the mind of whiteness itself. Whiteness must purge itself of its own fears.
In Georgia 1904 two black men Paul Reed and Will Cato are dragged from a courthouse and burned alive. Shockingly, the newspapers were fully apprised of the lynch mobs plans before a verdict was even reached but nothing was done to stop them.8 This echoes with mass shootings today were shooters will often post their plans and manifestos online before they go and conduct 21st century lynching’s. This implies a level of complicity by law enforcement, in the case of Cato and Reed court bailiffs actually aided the lynch mob. After weeks of build up the lynch mob had gathered in numbers at the courthouse, their intention was clear. It doesn’t take much to draw corollaries to the mobs gathering at Trump rallies calling for violence.

Through the burning of Reed and Cato the white lynch mob found peace. The description Amy Louise Wood gives in her book ‘Lynching and Spectacle’ is almost funfair like. After the burning spectators broke up the chains that bound Reed and Cato and distributed them as souvenirs, one person even took a bone.9 The literal burning of the manifestation of white fears brings catharsis to the white psyche and can therefore be celebrated. In a similar fashion, Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, is celebrated by white supremacists. The gun he used to murder Martin, a souvenir of whiteness vanquishing imaginary enemies, was sold at auction for $250,000.10 The Christchurch shooter too was celebrated too. Not only was the livestream he did shared, white people also posted videos to YouTube literally celebrating him.11

A lot of what has been discussed in this article to this point is not completely unique to Trump. In fact, Trayvon Martin’s murder was committed before the Trump era. What Trump really has in common with Woodrow Wilson and Birth is the emboldening of far-right acolytes of white supremacy. This is why Rebirth is so pertinent; Neo-Nazi’s are undergoing exactly that under his tenure and attempting to recreate ‘America’ in the image of the antebellum South. Despite American History X’s best attempts to teach us that Neo-Nazis are naughty people because they throw extravagant rock parties and commit prison rape, Trump has labelled them ‘very fine people’. It makes it worse when you know that he was defending neo-Nazis who were at a rally in support of the continued memorialisation of Robert E. Lee, a confederate general.12 Trump is doing for modern neo-Nazis what Birth and Wilson did for the KKK. These are not people who are desperate to defend themselves and their conservative Christian values. They are people who adhere to racial hierarchies and have constructed nightmares that they purge on coloured bodies. To say otherwise is to completely misunderstand white supremacy.

This is where Bin Hamid Ali and others like Daniel Haqiqatjou make their most egregious errors. By supposing that white supremacists are protecting Christian values that they believe to be in line with Islamic values they fail to understand what white supremacy actually is. White supremacy would gladly accept any other non-white, pro-LGBTQI, non-Christian person or movement as long as they adhered to the racial hierarchy which is its central pillar. Ben Carson now fully supports Trump and white supremacist rhetoric.13 Milo Yiannapolous is an openly gay alt-right darling, he’s not the only one, the alt-gays are growing movement.14 This is consistent with the antebellum South where Black slaves would live on the white masters property, prepare the white masters meals and nurse the white masters children. Meaning that white slave owners had no problem with being in close proximity to black folks nor was their any fear of them when they understood their place. It was once the race dynamic was changed that segregation became enforced and lynching’s became more widespread. That is why the alt-right is acting violently against coloured, LGBTQI, feminists, Muslims et cetera, not because of Christian values or desperation.

  1. https://www.history.com/news/kkk-birth-of-a-nation-film
  2. David Rylance, ‘Breech Birth: The Receptions to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation”, Australian Journal of American Studies, 24, (2005), p. 3.
  3. Ibid, p. 7
  4. Ibid.
  5. https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-s-anti-immigrant-invasion-rhetoric-was-echoed-el-paso-ncna1039286
  6. Arthur Lennig, ‘Myth and Fact: The Reception of “The Birth of a Nation”, Motion Picture Making and Exhibiting, 16, (2004), p. 120.
  7. Ibid
  8. http://originalpeople.org/paul-reed-will-cato/
  9. Amy Louise Woods, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America 1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, 2011), pp. 19-21.
  10. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36354206
  11. https://news.sky.com/story/youtube-removes-videos-continuing-to-celebrate-new-zealand-mosque-attacks-11669478
  12. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2019/apr/26/context-trumps-very-fine-people-both-sides-remarks/
  13. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/08/05/ben-carson-defended-trumps-racist-tweets-heres-how-that-affects-his-reputation/
  14. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/11/magazine/gay-conservative-trump-era.html

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