‘Birth of a Nation’: The New Propaganda of Race Hatred’ by Paul Kennaday from New Review. Vol 3 No. 5. May 1, 1915.

Helping to revive and legitimate the Klan’s ‘Second Wave,’ D.W. Grifftih’s racist, revisionist, epic and the protection of white ‘womanhood.’

Socialist Party member and a white founder of the N.A.A.C.P., the radical lawyer Paul Kennaday writes on D.W. Griffith’s racist epic ‘Birth of a Nation.’

‘Birth of a Nation’: The New Propaganda of Race Hatred’ by Paul Kennaday from New Review. Vol 3 No. 5. May 1, 1915.

THE easy and popular business of stirring up hatred and contempt of the Negro has assumed a new and profitable form. D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a film play based on Thomas Dixon’s outrageous Clansman, has for two months been running to packed houses at the Liberty theatre in New York City. With scarcely an exception, the press has been filled with the usual sort of copy that passes for dramatic criticism and the public twice a day has been giving every indication of pleasure and satisfaction at paying out its money for “history” reeled off before its eyes to the accompaniment of the regulation throb music. The history is a bit askew, to be sure, but with so much precedent for so writing it, it would be hypercritical to object to so picturing it.

But the “Birth of a Nation” is more than the portrayal of Reconstruction from “a point of view,”— the South’s point of view. It is because of its open, deliberate and intended insult to the whole Negro race, because of its portrayal of the Negro race as one of drunkards, of harlots and of rapists; because of its praise of lynching and its glorification of mob vengeance; because of its downright and barefaced appeal to race hatred, that the right to continue the production of the play has been challenged.

It is not yet clear how out of-the Board of Censors’ “censoring committee” membership of over a hundred, a sub-committee of ten could have been selected that without one dissenting vote could pass the original “Birth of a Nation” film and mark it, “morally, educationally and artistically excellent,” while the general committee itself, upon appeal made to it, insisted by an overwhelming vote upon the cutting out of certain scenes in the first half of the play and the suppression of practically the whole of the second part. But the wisdom of this National Board is inscrutable. Quick upon its wholesale disapproval, it reversed itself again after the cutting out of some few of the vilest portions of that second act, which first had been fulsomely praised and then had been sweepingly condemned. Certainly a board of less weight and position would find it difficult to hold so firmly to its judgment when its decisions against plays have no more immediate effect than the association of producers choose to give to them, and when the secretary and executive force of the board have their salaries and expenses paid wholly by that association.

Protest at revival of ‘Birth of a Nation.’

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who have appealed to officials and to the Board of Censors in an endeavor to have the “Birth of a Nation” stopped, have been accused of favoring the suppression of free speech. Free speech is wanted by us, we are told, only so long as speech may be free to us, not while it is exercised by those who do not speak as we do.

But we who have deliberately brought upon us this accusation claim extenuating circumstances of a wholly unique character. We are fighting in the most unpopular and unequal combat in all the world —for the equality of all races. Rich and poor, capital and labor, women and men, are arrayed against us. Courts back up legislatures in depriving Negro citizens of rights guaranteed them by the fundamental law. Outcast and degraded everywhere by race prejudice, because of it, in many places, any one of them -man, woman or child- may be shot, burned and hanged with impunity. This “Birth of a Nation” goes far beyond any mere question of the right to speak against the constituted authorities, to advocate views of industry, government, or morality not accepted by the majority. The play deliberately fans the flame of race hatred, making one man say, “kill the n***r” as for fifteen minutes a little white girl is pursued through bush and woods, up and down hill, until finally from a precipice she Jumps to her death. It is a play of which another said, “It makes me feel that I would like to kill every n***r in New York.” It is a play that, it is acknowledged by its friends, would cause race riots in the South and which, wherever it is seen, must have the effect which Dixon, Griffith and their backers have spared no pains or money to produce against a race which fifty years after slavery, is years yet from the day when it will know how to protect itself.

The New Review: A Critical Survey of International Socialism was a New York-based, explicitly Marxist, sometimes weekly/sometimes monthly theoretical journal begun in 1913 and was an important vehicle for left discussion in the period before World War One. Bases in New York it declared in its aim the first issue: “The intellectual achievements of Marx and his successors have become the guiding star of the awakened, self-conscious proletariat on the toilsome road that leads to its emancipation. And it will be one of the principal tasks of The NEW REVIEW to make known these achievements,to the Socialists of America, so that we may attain to that fundamental unity of thought without which unity of action is impossible.” In the world of the East Coast Socialist Party, it included Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Herman Simpson, Louis Boudin, William English Walling, Moses Oppenheimer, Robert Rives La Monte, Walter Lippmann, William Bohn, Frank Bohn, John Spargo, Austin Lewis, WEB DuBois, Arturo Giovannitti, Harry W. Laidler, Austin Lewis, and Isaac Hourwich as editors. Louis Fraina played an increasing role from 1914 and lead the journal in a leftward direction as New Review addressed many of the leading international questions facing Marxists. International writers in New Review included Rosa Luxemburg, James Connolly, Karl Kautsky, Anton Pannekoek, Lajpat Rai, Alexandra Kollontai, Tom Quelch, S.J. Rutgers, Edward Bernstein, and H.M. Hyndman, The journal folded in June, 1916 for financial reasons. Its issues are a formidable and invaluable archive of Marxist and Socialist discussion of the time.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/newreview/1915/v3n05-may-01-1915.pdf

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