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‘I WILL BUILD A BLACK EMPIRE’: THE BIRTH OF A NATION AND THE SPECTER OF THE NEW NEGRO

  • Davarian L. Baldwin (a1)
Abstract

In the penultimate scene to D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, the normally composed and gentlemanly mulatto Lieutenant Governor Silas Lynch can no longer contain himself. He has become the leader of a rising “black South.” “[D]runk with wine and power,” his maddening ambition for political dominion seethes over into the ultimate desire that seems to drive any black male quest for authority throughout the film: Lynch exclaims, “I want to marry a white woman!” True to the deceptive nature of the duplicitous mulatto, he does not want to marry just any white woman but Elsie, the daughter of his abolitionist mentor, Austin Stoneman. Though Elsie comes from a lineage of radical advocates for equal rights, a proposal of marriage goes too far and she jerks away, offering him only a “horsewhipping for his insolence.” Lynch is outraged. Her rejection sends him into a lecherous frenzy, determined to abduct Elsie if she will not come willingly. For a moment, he regains some composure and with a snide veneer of arrogance, saunters over to the window and pulls back the curtain to reveal white residents cowering in fear to an overwhelming and bloodthirsty reign of black terror. Lynch points outside and proclaims: “See! My people fill the streets. With them I will build a Black Empire and you as a Queen shall sit by my side.”

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Copyright
Corresponding author
email: davarian.baldwin@trincoll.edu
References
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NOTES

1 Thomas Cripps. Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Films, 1900–1942 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 27.

2 Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 14.

3 New York Times, September 24, 1906. Thanks to Lynn Lyerly for this citation.

4 Quoted in Michael Rogin, “‘The Sword Became a Flashing Vision’: D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation” in The Birth of a Nation: D. W. Griffith, Director, ed. Robert Lang (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 279.

5 Quoted in Rogin, 267.

6 Lang, 97.

7 Lang, 102.

8 Quoted in Rogin, 279.

9 Quoted in Davarian Baldwin, “‘Our Newcomers to the City’: The Great Migration and Making of Modern Mass Culture” in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890–1930, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 166.

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • ISSN: 1537-7814
  • EISSN: 1943-3557
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-gilded-age-and-progressive-era
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