The Birth of a Nation: a narrative that shaped history

UCSD historian Michael Parrish has a great respect for the power of narrative. In lecture 6 of his current The United States in the 20th Century(feed), he takes time out from his own narrative of events to consider how early 20th century Americans viewed their own past.

In particular, Parrish looks at D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular and wildly racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. In this film the hero is a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and the villains are African American scoundrels who lust after political power and white women.


The Birth of a Nation: theatrical poster. Image credit*

It’s hard for us today to understand how anyone could have taken this storyline seriously, but Parrish contends that the film profoundly influenced mainstream views about race and the history of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era. In fact, the movie, which was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman, in turn owed many of its ideas to A History of the American People a book by Dixon’s former college classmate, Woodrow Wilson.

Indeed, because of Dixon’s personal relationship with the president, Wilson had a private showing of the film at the White House in 1915.

In a nutshell, the film was an apology for white supremacy,  contending that African Americans were not capable of responsible participation in voting and government.

Parrish devotes much of his lecture debunking the ideas presented in the film, but it is sobering to realize how influential the film’s ideas were at the time. As Parrish notes:

This is a very powerful lesson about history. Because those who dominate the historical narrative can then also dominate the historical present. Because of course the past is never dead.

Note: Most UCSD courses disappear from the website at the end of the quarter (roughly mid-June).  So, grab this course while you can.

*Image credit: Wikipedia. Public domain.
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One Response to The Birth of a Nation: a narrative that shaped history

  1. baxter wood says:

    Just started this. Excellent.

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