Why Black Men Still Need to Watch ‘The Birth of A Nation’
By: Ahmad Greene-Hayes
Last week, I saw the NYC pre-screening of “The Birth of A Nation.” I left feeling invigorated by the same Holy Spirit that called Nat Turner to lead a slave revolt in 1831. My excitement soon diminished, however, when I learned that Nate Parker, the film’s lead, is a rapist.
I’m a Black man like Nate, but I’m also a survivor in community with far more survivors than I can count on my ten fingers. And though many have run to Nate’s defense, I am left wondering who will cry for those who have been assaulted? Who will stand with the Black women whose DNA holds psychic scars of racial-sexual terror? Who will believe survivors, even when the rapist is a Black male athlete, actor, and humanitarian? Who will listen to the voices and the silences of survivors who are no longer with us, who took their lives because the pain was too much?
Selective support kills me. We supported Pac, Mike Tyson, Kobe with their rape charges but not this one. Why? https://t.co/xfp9z1Y3Mm
— Charlamagne Tha God (@cthagod) August 17, 2016
Sadly, Black women are often our only anti-rape activists. Earlier this year when I attended Black Women’s Blueprint’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than 95% of the attendees were Black women, standing tall and firm, and raising their voices against sexual violence, with far few Black men in the space ready and willing to listen, to be held accountable, and to act.
The archive shows that not many of us—Black men—are willing to deal with patriarchy, and we are rarely fully present to discuss consent and rape.
In 2001, black feminist historian Beverly Guy-Sheftall and the late Rudolph Byrd, renowned scholar of African American Studies, published Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality. A groundbreaking text, it was the first of its kind to anthologize black male voices wrestling with patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, and internalized anti-blackness. Thought leaders such as Dr. Cornel West were paired with black gay cultural worker Marlon Riggs. The text merged academic essays with personal notes excavating black men’s journeys towards “healthy masculinity,” or an allegedly healthier form of masculinity. Guy-Sheftall and Byrd argued, “Traps maps the evolution of thought among African American men whose viewpoints may serve as the foundation for the emergence of a new politics as well as new theories on gender and sexuality.”
However, a close look at Nathan McCall’s essay in the anthology, “Men We Just Don’t Get It,” for instance, reveals that “healthy masculinity” is an oxymoronic concept, especially when a “reformed rapist” still does not understand “rape.” Indeed, how can something so toxic (i.e. masculinity) ever be transformed into a life giving and affirming force of good? I have never seen a man* who does not exude patriarchy, even as I have seen individuals who are not men also performing masculinity. No number of bell hooks books or Alice Walker quotes can save men* from ourselves. We consistently re-invest in ideologies that do not serve black women, or us, even as we memorize black feminist literature. Doubtlessly, we are trapped in ideological closets trying to be the men we were told to be, instead of the men who question why we were called “men” in the first place. But as Essex Hemphill asked us so long ago, “[are we] eager to burn this threadbare masculinity / this perpetual black suit / that we have outgrown?”
I am convinced that Black men cannot do the work of standing with Black women, femmes, and girls, until we are willing to confront ourselves, look in the mirror, and take off our suits. The suits that constrain us into respectability, hypermasculinity, homo- and transphobia, sexism and misogyny, and sexually violent behaviors. Pants that emphasize what Dr. Tamura Lomax calls, “unchecked phallocentric lordship,” and suit jackets of “toxic masculinity,” which as Esther Armah points out, “silences the pain in particular ways and allows us to privilege the aggression or wrap it in [a] kind of wonderfully eloquent rhetoric.” Indeed, we must take off the suits, even our shirts and ties, and get to the heart level of our investments in patriarchy.
Surely, if we did a side-by-side analysis of McCall and Parker’s words, we’d quickly learn that not many of us are willing to burn the suits we prize. Alas, McCall said a slight variation of what Parker said, just fifteen years earlier. For McCall, stories of sexual assault “hurt” him with almost as much severity as the women he had raped or came into contact with, and for Parker, “the pain he experienced” outweighs the pain that led to his victim’s suicide.
…So what do we do when Black men create major films depicting black liberation, but they are also homophobic and rapists?
As a black male survivor, I contend that we need not throw away the art, but we should critically access the images proffered, as they reveal the machinations of black patriarchy.
To be clear, though, I do not believe that Black women should be shamed into seeing “The Birth of Nation,” because as Dr. Regina Bradley rightly points out, “Nate should not be paid to trigger anyone.” However, I do believe that Black men should see the film—not to forge a black male liberation army, as Assata Shakur has long challenged, but rather, to look at ourselves introspectively and to see the sexually terroristic images, or “the historic outline of dominance,” as Dr. Hortense Spillers notes, that we have idolized. Once we have seen these images, we must divest from them, and invest our time and energy into anti-rape organizations, like CONNECT NYC, Black Women’s Blueprint, and A Long Walk Home. We must also bring more brothers to this work—at church, in our barbershops, at home, everywhere, every day.
We must also confront the mirages of male-centered revolution that we force feed down Black women’s throats.
We must reckon with the patriarchal freedom dreams we have conjured in the name of Nat Turner, even as we dismiss Harriet Tubman, the great prophetess, herbalist, and midwife, or Mary Turner, lynched while pregnant.
We must watch “The Birth of Nation” in theaters so that we can see our patriarchal selves on screen, then we must go home and watch Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ No! The Rape Documentary in order to pick up the pieces to the mirrors we broke when we slammed the door on our sisters.
We must gather in our living rooms and discuss what we will do to stop rape in our communities, with Elridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice in one hand, and Darlene Clark Hine’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” (pdf) in the other.
We must reflect on how killing white rapists falls flat when we are black rapists at home.
We must consider what it would have meant if we’d seen Gabrielle Union’s character, Esther, and Aja Naomi King’s character, Cherry, raped by both enslaved men and white masters. Indeed, our griots and ancestors have long told us that white masters weren’t the only rapists.
And finally, we must denounce the lies patriarchy makes us tell to ourselves; lies that tell us to force black women into birthing nations against their consent; lies that have us denying our own victimization and assaults; lies that have us dying inside even as we harm others.
Photo: YouTube screenshot/The Birth of A Nation Trailer