Birth of a Nation: Images & Symbols

(Unedited) Images. Symbols. Birth of a Nation is sooooo full of images and symbols. Images and symbols that I continue to process. There is no linear way of writing this and if I wait for that to come, this will never get written. So what is this? This is me dumping my thoughts and reactions on a page. Making connections. Questioning intent. Recounting and reacting.

I was torn. I hadn’t planned on seeing the movie. Well, put it this way, I was NOT going to pay for it. I figured I would see it at some point when someone gave me a circulating copy as acquired through the informal, street economy.

But that all changed when I was at work one morning. I was in a history teacher’s classroom distributing reminder passes to my gyrls for their group session, and he got me: “Do you want to chaperone a trip to see Birth of a Nation.” All eyes on me: “Um, let me check my calendar.” “Okay, I’ll put you down.” Bruh, I said I’d check my calendar. Shout out to this teacher, cos he teaches our students about themselves, their cultural her/history!

I thought long and hard, about why I’d go, or not. After getting feedback from other sista-friends and helping professionals, I decided I would go.

I would go to support the 74 high school sophomores who were going. I’d heard that there were several implied and/or referenced sexual assault/rape moments. I went to help hold space, and be there to give youth the option to exit if they needed to. So I went. I put aside all that I thought and felt about Nate Parker. I tried that adulting stuff and compartmentalizing the artist from the art. But yeah, not really.

Birth of a Nation : what I saw, what I felt and what it evoked:

                           SLAVES FOR SALE
  • Ritual, propheticizing, speaking life and greatness into our children. Have we gotten away from this? They spoke of Nat’s greatness when he was a boy.
  • Not looking white men in the eyes. The camera honed in on this. Today, do we look white men in their eyes? Do we question them? Do we fear, them?
  • Noose aka leash aka lasso aka tha fugg did I agree to watch. Noose around a lil Black gyrls neck as she played with a lil white girl who pulls her and they run, skip and frolic. Nooses reappear in hangings after the revolt. But really, the revolt wasn’t fully portrayed. Only presented in a Hollywood way. Only presented in a way where white people had the last say.
  • cotton-rows-120720131Rows of cotton.
  • The Bible: I know a thing or two about Black liberation theology. As Cone explains that at the core of Black liberation theology is an effort — in a white-dominated society, in which black has been defined as evil — to make the gospel relevant to the life and struggles of American blacks, and to help black people learn to love themselves. It’s an attempt; he says “to teach people how to be both unapologetically black and Christian at the same time.”
  • Audre Lorde said “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Whose “tool” is the Bible? Nat Turner, who was really a fictitious character cos this movie was soooo loosely based upon Nat Turner that I receive it as a truth, just not Nat Turner’s truth. A powerful scene was Nat, going back and forth with the white preacher verse-for-verse . Every verse the white preacha used to justify slavery, Nat recited one that negated it. For every verse that supported submission, Nat had a verse that supported our freedom. David, Gideon and Samson.

I’m torn. Even as I write this. The movie was formidable and commanding, but was it Nat Turner’s story? No, but it wasn’t a lie either. It was a truth, of slavery. Just like years ago when I asked, the then head of, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture if there was really a dude named Willie Lynch. I was told no, there is no evidence he existed. I say: his existence, or not, does NOT make the “Willie Lynch letter/theory/syndrome” any less “real.”

The most unnerving and disturbing aspects of the movie were the portrayal of Black gyrls and womyn. The language rang in my ears: “wenches.” Black gyrls/womyn on and off the auction block. We were hyper-visible in the midst of being hyper-silenced. Much comparison has been made to 12 Years a Slave and Django. For me, Birth of a Nation was far more haunting, though we do not need to compare messedupness. Here’s the thing, for a person like me who has an active mind and imagination, passive aggressiveness and to imply something is far worse than to smack me in the face with explicitness. My mind is more contained in explicitness, vs. implied. Implied gives me poetic license to put all my knowings into the implication and where my mind will go is far worse than just telling me straight out what you wanted me to get from the scene.

  • Chary’s trauma response after Nat convinced his “owner” to acquire her. Our trauma narratives as Black gyrls/womyn have a legacy in this country. It’s the same trauma response that we saw in The Women of Brewster Place when Lorraine was raped in the alley and her trauma response was in her killing old man Ben cos she thought he was gonna hurt her too, but all he was tryna do, was console and comfort her.
  • I was reminded of the “you are beautiful” stickers that I see all over the city. Often in random places. I once took a picture with one in the bathroom of a UIC ladies room. When Nat thanked his mother for cleyou-are-beautifulanin’ and fixin’ Chary up to be the white woman’s attendant, his mother’s response: “No matter what happens in our life, you are born beautiful.”
  • Black love. Jumping the broom. Intimacy.
  • 2 references to trees: “You got the right to the tree of life.” I was reminded of Solange’s cd. There is a level of intimacy and touch, which we must maintain as Black people. Second tree reference: During the revolt, when Nat had to remind his men that they had to stay focused on the “root, not the branch.” Well and there was a third, always a third. The poplar tree. Nina Simone voice rang out “Strange Fruit.”
  • Iron muzzle over mouth. Muzzle removed. Teeth knocked out. Funnel in mouth. Head tilted back. Mush poured down throat. The visuaslavewithmuzzlel was repulsive. Blood mixed with what was supposed to be nourishment. Control at any expense.
  • “A nigga baptizing a white man on my property.” Nat baptized a white sinner man. I was reminded of the Church of Latter Day Saints. Not until 1978 was the racial limitations end…their leader had a revelation. A man-made decision of Black folk being in the church. Is it true that Gladys Knight is a Mormon?
  • God of love. God of raft. There is a difference between freedom/liberation, and vengeance/retaliation.

rosalee-v2-lIn seeing Birth of a Nation I realize why I love the TV show Underground so much. The sistas are not passive victims in the show. We are there for more than to be saved by Black men. We have agency. We resist alongside, and separate from, the brothas. Our freedom is just as important as theirs. But watching Birth of a Nation, it was like watching a Tyler Perry movie. You know Tyler got it bad writing us, as if we need saving by Black men.

Birth of a Nation troubled my spirit because of the persistent objectification of Black gyrls and womyn and them not having a voice. The constant gazing upon, touching, tugging, grabbing, patting and preying were far more prevalent in this movie than others, or maybe I just felt it more cause we were so voiceless—present, but not present. Our sinking, crumbling and falling into the arms of Black men. And I don’t know if I felt all of this because of the looming presence of Nate Parker the person, not the actor playing and directing, Nat Turner, the movie.

Black womyn tending to men, both Black and white; the being “fetched” by white men, but the granny. She wasn’t silent. She was the most strategic. She resisted. She was the cultural worker, not simply the keeper of the his/herstory. I am reminded of James Baldwin’s words as interpreted by Maya Angelou: “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.” Black gyrls/womyn, those sistas before us done paid for it!

Image: Nat’s grandmother sewing…literally using needle and thread to sew his skin back together after being lashed with cowskin. Skin sewn as if sewing leather. She spoke into him as sewed and laid hands on him about his grandfather, and then she died the next day.

  • Nat’s grandmother enshrouded in white cloth indicative of Muslim funerals and burials.
  • His mother reminded me of Oprah’s character, Mattie, in The Women of Brewster Place (Gloria Naylor, blessings to you having now joined the ancestral realm). Mattie coddled Basil. It was something ‘bout how Nat’s mother, Ms. Nancy, reacted to him…how she tended to him it seemed coddle-like.
  • Gabrielle Union’s character, the most silent. She without a name. Not quiet, but fully silent. I NEEDED TO HEAR US, BLACK WOMYN, AND TO SEE US FIGHT, literally and figuratively.
  • Even after knowing her name was Madison, Abigail’s daughter, Nat still emmett_till-mergechose to call his wife, Chary. And the visual of Madison after the gang rape and beaten by slave patrollers conjured the image of Emmett Till after he was beat and killed. Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley demanded an open casket funeral for her son. This, an act of courage.
  • A fourth reference to trees. 10 paces from the tree-line. White men in the movie always tryna justify harming us. Chary was 10 paces from the tree-line and for them, they justified her alleged “misplacement” of her body too far away for her “owners” estate as reason to gang rape and beat her. Nat went to his plantation owner saying, “Chary been hurt real bad.” There is power in naming a thing, a thing. Chary was raped and beaten, but Nat didn’t name it when asking the plantation owner if he could go see about his wife.

I needed TO SEE more Resistance in this movie! We’ve seen the brutalization of Black people over and over again, but we have not seen rebellion. The movie was not about the rebellion itself, it was about what led to the rebellion, but that story, we’ve seen and continue to experience in many iterations, time and time again. Granted, there is no single narrative, I get that, but this was an opportunity to actually show us the planning and execution of liberation. The revolt was weak in the movie. It was at the end. It was not really how it happened either. Reading other historical documents about Nat Turner and the Revolt, what I was shown, wasn’t it. I sat in my reclining seat in the Ford City Theatre, in the last 15-20 minutes,  saying to myself, “This is where the movie should have began. Parker could have built the movie from here and included  flashbacks of the backstory, where need be. The movie was suppos’n be about the Revolt, right.”

I really dislike movies that are marketed as based upon a “true” story, they’re rarely ever, right; but, like I said, it is a, truth, just not the truth I was told I was going to get.

The intentional parallels to today were explicit, and therein lies the relevancy and poignancy of this piece of work. For instance, in the 19th century we weren’t calling ourselves Black, but to hit home that the movie was made to deal with the represent day lynchings and killings, Chary discarded 19th century language when she told Nat: “They’re killing people everywhere, just for being Black!”

  • I was reminded of Korryn Gaines and her son. Many have criticized Korryn for how she was rearing her son to be a warrior. During the scene where the men gathered to plan the insurrection, I thought about her son, Kodi. In the scene, one of the insurgents told a boy who’d come to the planning gathering to get away because he’s just a boy and “this was grown folks business.” In response Nat said, “So was David {just a boy}.” Korryn’s, Kodi was like David, maybe. In the movie, maybe Kodi represented the boy hanging, but with the butterfly to represent life. Kodi is still here, a piece of him may have died with his mother, but he is still alive and he has a powerful ancestor, his mother, in her corner.
  • byroncrop1There was a level of moon consciousness as the prayed for sign to proceed with their plan was, the moon. The crescent, another Islam reference, that through it’s moon phases became a solar eclipse ring.
  • After Nat was caught, and put in jail, the light coming into the window of the jail cell evoked Nelson Mandela surviving imprisonment.
  • In an attempt to get all Passion of the Christ, Jesus-like, the boy being Judas was overkill and a Hollywood touch.
  • ruby-bridgesOnce “recaptured,” Nat’s walk through the sea of white hatred and anger to the platform to be hanged, reminded me of Ruby Bridges walking through anger her first day of integration, at the white school.
  • And of course there can’t be a Black movie without a white savior. The womon who taught Nat how to read reminded me of carceral feminists who maintain power and control by thinking they know best. She’d convinced herself that she knew what was best for Nat. She too, claiming to know the calling on his life. She thought it would be best if he was separated from his family and stayed in the big house to learn to read by using the Bible, he wasn’t allowed to read the “white people books” that lined the big house’s walls. Just as the Bible was used to maintain slavery, I am reminded of the history of social work in this country. white womyn caseworkers thinking they know best. I am reminded of the domestic violence movement where white womyn think they know best. Their best, is the removal of Black male abusers from their communities, instead of attempting a restorative approach.

Carceral Feminism: Relying on state violence to curb domestic violence only ends up harming the most marginalized women.

As it relates to cinematography, the end was well done. Though it lackluster as it relates to historical fact. In many ways, the end is a supremacist tool of reminding Black folk not to revolt, cos you’ll end up dead, which the irony is that throughout her/history we’ve ended up dead anyway.

Once again, was Birth of a Nation, Nat Turner’s story?

NO!

But it was a truth. The movie was a “call to action” for brothas, the unfortunate and disheartening thing is that it was done by silencing and rendering Black gyrls/womyn voiceless. It often plays out like that, Black liberation on the backs and between the legs of us, sistas. This is not about Black male bashing, this is about, “we too resist!”

My first thought when I saw Nate Parker, as Nat Turner’s reaction to when his wife, Chary was ganged raped by the slave patrollers. His response and actions thereafter was possibly an admission of guilt and his apology to what happened Aug. 21, 1999. In holding multiple spaces, I can say this: Parker acted his arse off in this movie. There will be Oscar buzz.

Anyhoo, I’m still processing it all…

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