Wednesday, February 11, 2009


February 12, 2009, is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP. An early campaign by the group came in 1915, when they built a boycott against director D. W. Griffith's vile celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, the movie Birth of a Nation. Speaking, as is my wont, of art and politics, this film is a great example of the racism and hypocrisy of the arts establishment in this country. To this day, the movie makes lists of the greatest ever. Its apologists insist that it is an unparalleled artistic achievement and that its content is beside the point. The courageous protesters of 1915 knew better. Lynchings were rampant throughout, though not limited to, the South, and Birth of a Nation was propaganda to justify this crime. Twenty-four years later came another piece of "art" that emulated the Griffiths opus, a movie that is still celebrated by film historians and critics, to their shame. That was the technicolor ode to the slaveocracy, Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell, the author of GWTW the book, always said Birth of a Nation was her favorite movie.One of the NAACP's founders, and editor of its magazine Crisis for the next 25 years, was the great historian, writer and activist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. I highly recommend the biography of Du Bois by David Levering Lewis. OK, I admit I've only read part one, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race, but it was truly fascinating and I plan to read part two. The works of Du Bois himself are many, widely known, and beyond commentary by the measly likes of me. Except to say that his magnificent 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America is in my opinion one of the great works of Marxist history in English--even though he wouldn't join the Communist Party for another 26 years, which he did in 1961 at age 93. Du Bois's masterful research, his mustering of factual information, is put to brilliant analytical use in exploring and explaining the breathtaking rise and shattering fall of Reconstruction. The only other work I've read that's anywhere near comparable in scope, ambition and scholarly achievement in service of the class struggle is E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which was published in 1963, the year Du Bois died. I wonder if Thompson studied Du Bois's work and learned from his methodology. I'd be surprised if he didn't.