For those who haven’t seen the seminal film The Birth of a Nation, it remains to this day revered by some as a significant cinematic achievement– because of its usage of technical innovation– the usage of lighting, editing and close-ups was ahead of its time. It’s also despised for its graphically stereotypical portrayals of Black people, as everything from sex-crazed beasts, to mammies, sambos and toms.
Quite frankly, I cannot quite grasp the technical achievements of the film, due to the overwhelming urge I get to wretch every time I see one of Griffith’s black characters cross the screen. But in unearthing this American “classic” over the weekend, I noticed one particular black character– whose motivation and behavior in the film conjured a host of metaphorical imagery for me relating to today’s political culture: His name was Silas Lynch.
In Griffith’s tale, Silas Lynch is the dastardly villain– the man who almost single-handedly destroys the way of life that white people enjoyed– before the civil war ripped the union asunder. Lynch is given all of the trappings of a maniacal despot: He thirsts for power, indulges heavily in alcohol consumption, is wracked with seething rage and animalistic blood-lust, and suffers from an uncontrollable, deviant sexual appetite. In the film, the Lynch character appears in its second half–after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination– to seemingly symbolize a clear, calculated distinction between good and evil.
Lynch, as a black man, represents everything that is destructive and wrong about post Civil War America. He is free to act upon his desires– and he desires power, the subjugation of the white race, voting opportunities for blacks, and the legalization of interracial relations. In short, he aspires to be equal– which is anathema to the America Griffith has created. There is one more fascinating aspect to Silas Lynch though. One that is the impetus for this story: Silas Lynch was biracial.
It was a relatively innocuous observation on my part. Until I actually thought about it. It began five days ago with the release of the Republican National Committee’s fundraising document. The RNC’s game plan– using fear to generate money to fight our country’s precipitous slide into socialism– was not shocking in and of itself. The images used to project this fear were. Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander-in-chief, is of mixed parentage. The son of a white mother and a black (Kenyan) father– President Obama has reveled proudly in his biracial heritage– extolling it in books and countless speeches. But in this flyer, you have Barack Obama– the black President of the United States– portrayed as a ghoulish spook in white face.
A black man in white face. This was the same image we’ve all seen in the last year and half–produced by crazies mostly out of the mainstream. But this time it’s different. This time, this image was circulated by the Republican National Committee– the legitimate fundraising and organizing arm of the national party. The party hell-bent on turning Barack Obama into Silas Lynch.
In the last year and a half, I’ve watched as opponents of the president have painted him as everything from a Nazi, to a Marxist, to a Socialist, to an illegitimate citizen of Kenya who stole the election, to a rabid fomenter of anarchy– using the Constitution as toilet paper in his quest to usurp power. The strategy of fear. This is the re-invention of Silas Lynch in modern times. President Obama has become the evil tragic mulatto, out to destroy the country and the white race.
In Birth of a Nation, Griffith portrays the biracial Lynch as a divider, not a uniter. His bronze skin is literally and figuratively symbolic of black -white relations, and the disunity it brings. It is Lynch’s very existence that is tainted and foul–he is not just black, he is the product of a union between black and white– and this was considered corrupt and against God. The mulatto was the chaos bringer, thought to be power-hungry and salaciously conniving and evil. Silas Lynch has morphed into Barack Obama.
Fear is a powerful deterrent to change. Fear is projecting Barack Obama as the divider, whose ideals and methods are contrary to what a unified nation should be. This goes to the heart of republican dissent today. In essence, the incessant fear-mongering and that subsequent RNC document has accomplished its goal. The injection of fear has successfully immobilized rational debate, and paralyzed leadership in Washington. D.W. Griffith’s prophetic racist vision has provided the backdrop for this new strain of political theater.
Perhaps this is some new, dangerously upgraded version of the Southern Strategy. Whatever the motivations of those engaged in this reckless approach, it proves that the color of fear remains. And Silas Lynch lives on in American politics, reborn in the 44th President.