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I’m doing an independent study this semester, and if you have come within 50 feet of me this past month I’ve probably already told you all about it (whether you wanted to hear about it or not). It is on “memory,” which may seem a little odd to anyone not studying history. Memory is usually rather straightforward — things happened, we know about them, we remember them. Luckily for my research project, it is much more complicated than that.
My choice of thesis resulted in a conversation with an unwitting acquaintance. While I had my captive audience — literally captive, they were forced to wait at a bus stop with me — the conversation took an interesting twist. “How can we judge Birth of a Nation?” they asked. “It was a product of its time.” For those who haven’t heard of Birth of a Nation, it is the first feature film ever. While movies preceding it were around 15 minutes long, Birth of a Nation is an astonishing two hours. It pioneered cinematic techniques that we now take entirely for granted. It was the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind in 1939. It also facilitated the refounding of the Ku Klux Klan. The film is racist in the extreme. Using blackface to depict the rape of white women and the takeover of the “civilized” South by its Black population is undoubtedly repulsive, but did my unwitting companion have a point? How can we with modern hindsight judge the past with our modern standards?
Dismissing something as the work of yesterday’s racists ignores the impact that it still has on us today.
One month into my independent study, I’m here to tell you it is not as complicated as you might think. Firstly, we have to do away with the assumption that we can ever look back at history objectively. No matter what we do, we are never going to be able to use some sort of magical machine that will instantaneously remove all of our modern biases and experiences. We are human and thus inherently biased; the best we can do is to recognize that. If we can never be fully objective, then defending historical documents or figures as a product “of their time” is a position in and of itself and it is not necessarily one to be proud of. The argument is almost exclusively used as a way of justifying past behavior instead of understanding it. It is also a way of steering a conversation away from exploring impact. For example, Birth of a Nation was not a negligible piece of cinema. Claiming to be historical documentation, it sparked huge amounts of deadly racist violence and developed prejudices that still haunt us today.
Dismissing something as the work of yesterday’s racists ignores the impact that it still has on us today. It portrays modern times as all around “better” than the past, but history is not so simple. Progress is not linear; we go through periods of backlash all the time, sometimes due to media just like Birth of a Nation. To say that oppression was acceptable in the past is to claim that we have somehow transcended it in order to look back and judge it.
To assume something is “of its time” is to also disregard the hard work of people in that period who were trying to enact change. There is never global consensus on anything. In a sample of 20 you are going to find dramatically different answers to the benign question of best pizza topic, let alone something as contentious as racism. Claiming something is the product of its environment is to paint that entire period with one racist brush, and completely ignore activism and diversity.
I am not claiming that we should do away with historical context (and I would be a very bad history student if I did), but we need to accept the fact that we can appreciate things from the past without endorsing them. Call it whatever you want, maybe your “problematic fave”, but at least admit that there is — and was — a very real problem. Sure, D.W. Griffith was handy with a camera, but I am not going to praise his cinematography without recognizing the impact that it had. We should be using historical context as a means of understanding past actions, not excusing them.
Photo Credit: Indiana U News