Birth of a Nation: the Image of White Purity and Black Corruption

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Ethnic Notion is a documentary based on the origins and consequences of African American culture. It explains the deep-rooted stereotypes of African Americans from the 1820s to the Civil War period. This documentary explains the origin of the popular depictions of African American stereotypes such as Uncle Tom, the Sambo, the Mammy, the Coon, the Brute, the Pickaninnies, and the Minstrels. Pop culture took a toll on African Americans by undermining race relations. The bigotry propaganda misrepresented African Americans and thus, the evolution of their culture resulted in the prominence of racism.

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In 1843, a group of white performers who used blackface called themselves The Minstrels. They emerged at the same time as the abolitionist movement and became known as America’s first form of national popular entertainment. Most minstrels were Irishmen performing black characters, often performing coon songs and jokes. These minstrels exposed white Americans to African American music and dance. This began in 1828, with the creation of “Jim Crow” by Thomas Rice. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that African Americans started to portray slaves in minstrel performances. The evolution of people into a theatrical workforce at the same time a preservation of a stereotype. It became a dilemma for African Americans performing on the minstrel stage as portraying themselves in exaggerated make up to make themselves the stereotypes in order to achieve better opportunities.

In the late 1820s, Thomas Rice introduced another stereotype: the happy Sambo in American theaters. Through a group of blackface performers who were called the minstrel caricatures, prevailed the belief that slavery was good for the slaves. They represented the Sambo as a goofy irresponsible man who would laugh at everything. He was also a “natural” dependency because he has the willingness to serve. In popular literature and entertainment before the Civil War, it was expressed that for many Americans, the myth of the Sambo resolved the moral and political conflict of allowing slavery in a land founded on free human equality.

Birth of a Nation introduced the Mammy stereotype. The Mammy’s description was a fat, pitch-dark woman who was stripped of sexual attraction. The Mammy should never be seen as a sexual being, she would be a threat to the white women of the house. She was the poster girl for the ‘Old Southern times’, where it would be hard to imagine a happily obedient slave to her master while being the one who’s in control in her family. The Mammy was a good-humored slave who stays in the household of her masters even after the war caring for the young white girls while helping to save the family from disgracing their family’s reputation. The Mammy’s representation represents two concepts: gender and race in an antebellum society.

The Zip Coon was another stereotype that was introduced as the Civil War was approaching. The Coon was portrayed as a lazy, unintelligent man who was inarticulate and easily frightened. The coon was paired to beside the Sambo in the South. The minstrel caricatures used the Coon to reflect the alleged threat of expanding the black labor force. His attempts were to imitate white people who mocked the notion of racial equality. He represented proof of African American’s failure to adapt to being free from slavery.

The Pickaninnies were African American babies who became the dominant misrepresentation of African American children. The pickaninnies were shown as victims who evoked not sympathy but the suggestion that African Americans were subhuman. This stereotype had exaggerated features such as bulging eyes, unkempt hair, and red lips. The symbolism in pickaninnies disappearing one by one in violence comically often portrayed as nameless victims, pickaninny’s were on the river, on the ground, or in a tree usually being chased or eaten. This portrayal suggested that young children were seen as savages, a miniature version of the coon. The white population used pickaninnies to suggest that they needed to get rid of them in the New World. By suggesting that these children were savages would make it easier to justify the threats that represented in having animals pursue them as targets.

Racial hysteria was being more common in every aspect of popular culture. Due to the political debate about racial equity, the white public had a fear for the newly emerged freed slaves, who were also described as the “black menace”. The argument was that African Americans who were no longer the guidance of white were reverting to violence. They were thought to have no emotions and were considered daring. The Brute was referenced to African American males. Old stereotypes were adapted to the new politics, it was a variation on the old theme: African Americans could be childishly entertaining and at once vicious brutes. Slaves were rarely portrayed as brutes because that may have become an awareness of themselves. This could have been easily interpreted as rebellious slaves wanted to be free, so this wouldn’t have helped in the defense of slavery. The Brute represented that African Americans were submissive in antebellum times. The Brute’s trademarks were dice, gambling, and a fondness for razor blades.

The Uncle Tom stereotype was introduced in 1919. This stereotype had become popular during the Great Migration when freed slaves from the Southern states moved to the Northern states. Uncle Tom posed no threat, he served for the purpose of entertainment with the Mammy. Uncle Tom’s characteristics was a submissive, obedient slave who was in the constant desire for his master’s approval.

Southern white men’s stereotypes signified purity, innocence, and goodness. Although the South loses in the civil war, the southern white embodies honor and nobility. An example in Birth of a Nation are the Camerons, a Southern slave-holding family. Ben Cameron is symbolized as a man of principles by his immoral agenda. The KKK was depicted as heroes. Southern white women are portrayed as helpless victims. In Birth of a Nation, there is a scene where there is a young white woman exploring the woods, while she collects water in a bucket, she is approached by an African American captain who wishes to marry her. She runs away from him and ultimately, resorts to jumping off a cliff in order to escape from marrying him. It isn’t until the woman commits suicide, which is celebrated in a quasi-religious KKK sacrament, that the KKK interprets her suicide as a sacrifice on the behalf of civilization which could have been threatened with interracial sex.

An example of Northern white men and women in Birth of a Nation are The Stonemans, a northern abolitionist family. Elsie Stoneman is portrayed as pure and delicate as an angel. By wearing a white nightgown with flowers on her head. Elsie is an ideal sentimental figure who symbolizes the purity and beauty that both sides are trying to defend in the Civil War. Northern white women’s innocence stands strong distinction of sexuality. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as being sympathetic to the Southern way of life. Lincoln is Christlike to the Northern men and women.

The Birth of a Nation’s theme of white purity and black corruption was the film’s driving force. Birth of a Nation’s images were guaranteed to incite racial violence and justified it. This film cemented racism in a very visual way that has impacted even leading to the resurgence of the KKK as a major force of terrorism. It helped molded three white supremacist ideologies that: (1) Fear, aggression, and desire on African American men and women associating social integration with rebellion; (2) Psychosexual preoccupation with African American male sexuality and fears of mixing the races and; (3) the portrayal of African Americans in political life as a threat to democracy.

The bigotry propaganda misrepresented African Americans and thus, the evolution of their culture resulted in the prominence of racism. There were two-pronged attacks on African Americans: (1) the harmless singing slaves who were part of the “good old times” before the Civil War, who wanted to revert back to slavery, and (2) the alleged new generation of freed slaves who were considered ‘vicious, brutal, violent, and aggressive’. Many racial stereotypes were used to create an understanding of African American people that helped to maintain the system of white dominance in America. The pop culture resulted in consequences such as violence, Jim Crow segregation, and mob terror became acceptable methods of social control. 

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