President Obama and “The Birth of a Nation”: Race and White Racial Hysteria

Someone in my Facebook discussion group recently posted Shelly Banjo’s September 14, 2012 Wall Street Journal  article entitled “Gun Sales Hinge on Obama Re-Election.” The title reeks with sensationalism and some of us might disregard it, thinking the article innocuous. Actually, the article is far more profound than it seems which warrants that we critically analyze the article. It does not suffice to simply post such powerful and compelling information without raising key questions: What does this information mean? How does this affect us? What angle of thinking or perspective does it reflect? What lessons do we as Black people take from these revelations?

The crux of the article is the revelation that Cabela’s Inc. and other white gun shop owners in America anticipate huge sales if President Obama is re-elected in November. This is a logical sentiment given that upon Obama’s election in 2008, news agencies reported skyrocketing sales of guns and ammunition throughout the country. One CNN article cited a gun shop owner from Virginia whose sales tripled; the FBI noted nearly a 49% increase of requests for background checks on gun purchasers during the first week of November 2008. In her more recent article Shelly Banjo attributes this white gun-buying hysteria to the likelihood of Obama regulating and therefore making the purchase of guns more difficult. I suggest another meaning. One that depicts the people involved in a less noble and more racist light. No American President on record has faced more death threats or clandestine assassination plots; Obama’s beefed up security measures and foiled plots are by now well known. But why? Why does President Obama so scare and intimidate some whites to the point of stimulating such a frenzied hysteria to purchase firearms? What precisely is it that they fear in him? What exactly does his political presence as America’s leader represent to them?

I submit that this cautionary feeling goes back to the Reconstruction and Post Reconstruction eras in American history. Therefore, bear with me as we take a trip backwards in order to go forward. From 1865-1877, Black people, “Radical” Republicans (the original so-called party of Black people) and liberal elements of the citizenry set about the task of symbolically and literally “reconstructing” a nation recently decimated by a civil war which divided families and claimed between 600,000 to 700,000 lives. This enormous task had four important dimensions: 1. to reconstruct mostly southern infrastructure (bridges, roads, schools, businesses, farms) destroyed by war  2. to reconstruct national morale and a common sense of nationhood between North and South  3. to begin the process of reconstructing state and local government by setting criteria by which disloyal former confederates could become government leaders again  4. To provide newly freed slaves unrestricted access to political and economic power and equality.

This last task proved the most difficult and controversial of them all. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments recognized respectively, the abolition of slavery, along with Blacks’ citizenship rights, and their right to vote (at least for Black men). For the first time in America’s history, Black people ran for political office and in fact some 1,500 became officeholders during Reconstruction. Blanche Bruce and Hiram Revels for example, became U.S. senators from Mississippi, John Mercer Langston was elected to Congress from Virginia, and P.B.S. Pinchback became governor of Louisiana. But Black empowerment was not restricted to the political arena. Both W.E.B. DuBois in Souls of Black Folk and Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 provided ample evidence that Black people – with assistance from sympathetic whites and the Freedman’s Bureau – established scores of America’s first Black colleges. Some Blacks became land and property owners and business owners. Powerful Black churches emerged, along with prominent Black newspapers.

Naturally, former slave owners were not appreciative of seeing their former slaves rise to power in ANY arena. Our only role as they perceived it, was to be their servants, workers and entertainers. The 1877 Hayes-Tilden Compromise led Northern troops to withdraw from the South and gave Southern state leaders the power to govern their territories as they saw fit. Almost immediately, whites’ resentment of Black empowerment became evident. White supremacist vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan burned down Black churches, schools and businesses, lynched Black men, and intimidated Blacks from voting at gunpoint. Black elected officials were literally run out of office and Black voters were prevented from exercising their franchise through having to pay fines they could not afford, or being forced to read complex passages when the vast majority of them were illiterate. So-called “Black Codes” were instituted which severely curtailed Blacks’ mobility, freedom and integrity. Blacks had to cross the street when a white person approached; curfews were mandated; we couldn’t look white’s in their eyes when they spoke; just looking at a white woman was grounds for imprisonment or death; Blacks could not testify or bring a case in court, nor own property. Also, it was during this time that the Jim Crow society of racial apartheid became law in the South. Yes, actual law. Hotels, schools, businesses, restaurants, churches, etc. were rigidly separated into white and Black provinces, with Blacks relegated to the very worst of each.

A color poster of the movie The Birth of a Nation
A color poster of the movie The Birth of a Nation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then in 1915 a cultural bombshell dropped; white supremacist D.W. Griffin produced his silent movie “Birth of a Nation,” which justified whites’ anti-Black brutality and systematic stripping of Black empowerment. The movie depicted the Reconstruction as an ill-advised failure; allowing Blacks to become elected officials destroyed American government; newly freed Black men were portrayed as violent, potential rapists of white women. Additionally, the KKK was portrayed as a “heroic” group whose repression and murder of Black people restored the nation to its rightful owners, white people. We cannot underestimate the impact of this movie. Far from being rejected, the movie became America’s first blockbuster movie, earning up to $50 million and ranking as the nation’s highest-grossing film for some 24 years until it was beaten by “Gone with the Wind” in 1939. The virulent racism of “Birth of a Nation” became nationally endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson allegedly said the film was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The Ku Klux Klan used the film as a recruiting tool. But more importantly, “Birth of a Nation” embodied, justified and promoted the false equation of Black empowerment with white decline and the resulting hysteria such a belief created.

The white hysteria represented in the Wall Street Journal article therefore is much more complicated and deeply rooted than a simple fear of whites’ not having the right to purchase guns under Obama’s administration. In fact, this paranoia predates Obama’s rise within the Democratic Party. This white flight to purchase guns actually represents the same psychosis white people experience every time they suspect that their world of privilege and power is ending. What they feel -and in this age of pseudo-political correctness – are not likely to reveal, is a fear that Blacks will become thoroughly empowered and as a result will become more assertive, less tolerant, and likely to “do unto them” as they have collectively done unto us. Running parallel to these fears is the belief that Black empowerment equates to white decline, white unemployment, debilitated white quality of life or the “destruction of white civilization” as it were. This fear is represented not only in whites’ increased purchase of firearms, but also in the Tea Party’s call to “Take America back,” coded language for “take America back from these Blacks, Latinos and other undesirables.” Among the more fundamentalist whites, this fear manifests itself in the re-emergence of racist militia groups calling for their brethren to stockpile weapons and food and prepare for “race war.” This fear was manifested perhaps, in George Zimmerman’s unwarranted suspicion and murder of Trayvon Martin. This fear is even evidenced in the unprecedented death threats and assassination plots against President Obama. Toby Harnden noted in a 2009 The Telegraph article that President Obama at that time received 30 death threats a day, or four times the amount of his predecessor. More recently, four American soldiers purchased $87,000 of weapons and equipment in a plot to kill the President.

Perhaps this “Birth of a Nation syndrome” – which I describe as whites’ psychotic resentment and fear of Black empowerment – is ample evidence that post-racial America is indeed a myth. By and large, white people of various stripes, ideologies, and political affiliations are still locked into racially proscribed notions of freedom, safety and empowerment. Until that racial hysteria is addressed, the term “United States” is a mockery. And these issues I submit, represent the true significance of Banjo’s article, and of anti-Obama resentment.

Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

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