Graduation Year

2014

Document Type

Thesis

Degree

M.A

Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.)

Degree Granting Department

Africana Studies

Major Professor

Abraham Khan, Ph.D

Co-Major Professor

Laurie Lahey, Ph.D

Committee Member

Laurie Lahey, Ph.D

Committee Member

Andrew Berish, Ph.D

Keywords

Black, Film, Racism, Supremacy, White

Abstract

Early American film scholars often critique the relative ineffectiveness of a single literary work, protest movement or silent film to achieve racial vindication following the release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Thomas Cripps, for example, examines a relatively ineffective isolated attempt to counter the notions of White supremacy promoted in the film. This study makes the case for applying a non-traditional tri-level analysis when measuring the effectiveness of such attempts. The paper focuses on efforts to redeem the image and the potential of African Americans after 1915 in the Black public sphere in three concurrent vehicles: the written word, the activism of individuals and progressive organizations and the production of silent films. The study defines and distinguishes between racism, anti-racism and racial vindication. Racial vindication is the method used by the men and women that this study focuses on.

The paper begins by documenting how notions of White supremacy and Black inferiority were at the root of America's socio-cultural atmosphere during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This set the stage for D. W. Griffith's movie. The study then looks at how contemporary scholars in the 1910s and 1920s -- writers, visual artists, civic and community leaders and film makers -- attempted to counter Griffith's propaganda through various means. I argue that there is considerable merit in analyzing the combined efforts of these outspoken men and women to attempt to rescue the humanity of African Americans from Griffith's clutches in three broad arenas. My argument does agree with many film scholars that no one single act of racial vindication sufficiently challenged the effectiveness of The Birth of a Nation. We use as a case study the silent film The Birth of a Race (1918). When this film is considered in isolation, it does have a minimal affect on stemming the tide of racism in America. This is precisely the point of this thesis.

No prominent Griffith scholar has published a comprehensive study that considers how literature, sociopolitical activism and silent film all worked in concert to combat the impact The Birth of a Nation had on America. This paper does so. It contributes to the historiography of early American silent film and the racial vindication movement by calling for a triangular analysis and validation of the cumulative impact varied forms of resistance had on representations of White supremacy in The Birth of a Nation. Chapter III and the study's conclusion comment on the benefits that such an analysis contributes to future studies of racial vindication in response to artistic expressions deemed to be racist.

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