Reginald Hudlin ’83, the director of films such as House Party and Ladies’ Man and co-author of the novel with Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, gave a presentation that drew both laughs and concerned nods from the audience and panelists.
“Freedom and liberty haven’t traditionally jumped in the laps of black people,” Hudlin said.
Birth of a Nation, which takes its name from a 1915 D.W. Griffith film about the Ku Klux Klan, is a graphic novel—a sort of long-form comic book—about a black community in St. Louis that secedes from the United States to form “Black Land” after too many of its citizens are denied the right to vote.
In the story, a group of black Ivy League students “committed to change” form the New African People Party (or “NAPS”), but get distracted from their mission by a plate of cookies. Meanwhile, the daughters of the book’s president—who closely resembles a certain resident of 1600 Penn Ave.—spend spring break in Black Land, where drugs and gambling are legal.
Despite the humorous tone of the novel, Birth of a Nation confronts issues such as poverty and violence in cities like East St. Louis, which Hudlin said result from governmental problems that require extreme solutions.
“What you realize are these problems are systematic, national,” Hudlin said. “The solution is going to take a radical approach.”
In the novel, the solution is secession.
The book’s treatment of these issues sparked energetic and passionate discussion from the rest of the panel, which was moderated by Department of African and African American Studies Chair Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.
Lani Guinier, Harvard Law School (HLS) Boskey Professor of Law and the first black woman tenured at HLS, urged blacks in the audience to “take control of your environment” and to confront issues such as the lack of a constitutional provision—as opposed to just an amendment—that grants all citizens the right to vote.
“You can’t have a democracy with two parties and one is about disenfranchisement,” Guinier said, referring to reports of Republican suppression of minority votes.
Professor of Government Michael Dawson said that the country was racially divided on the issue of disenfranchisement.
“Forty percent of white Americans said [black disenfranchisement issues] were fabrications of democrats or liberals,” Dawson said, but that 80 percent of black Americans disagreed.
Panelist Michael Flaherty, the co-founder of Walden Media, said that Birth of a Nation would have a much greater impact on middle and high school students than other media such as New York Times op-eds.
“It is a great opportunity to use pop culture to get people excited about [issues],” Flaherty said.
Kwame Owusu-Kesse ’06, president of the Black Men’s Forum (BMF), said he thought that the book was an effective way to reach black youth.