Within Our Gates (1920)

“Getting Recognized More and More”: Donald Trump and Within Our Gates

within our gates lynching

“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” These are the incredible words of the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. To compound the horror of it, President Trump delivered this profoundly anti-intellectual inanity on February 1, the first day of Black History Month. The President’s historical ignorance is of profound significance in a country which has never quite figured out how to extricate itself from the legacy of the ill-treatment of African-American people, from slavery to Jim Crow to the present.

As an educator, my first instinct is to suggest that Trump should have spent a lifetime learning History as a way of preparing to become the most powerful leader in the world. It should of course be required for every American to read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the 1845 autobiography that desperately argued for Abolition well before the onset of the Civil War.

Lesser known but equally important is The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbia Exposition, a pamphlet co-authored with Ida B. Wells. The rich white folks responsible for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, in multiple ways the foundation of American modernity, at first banned Black folks from entering the aptly named White City, the expo’s purported celebration of the excellence of American civilization. Douglass argued for entering the fair by any means necessary, which he did as the former ambassador to Haiti. That’s right, one of the most famous Americans of the 19th Century was only able to attend one of America’s most important cultural events through his association with Haiti, one of the most impoverished regions in the Western hemisphere. For her part, Wells stood at the gates protesting, refusing to have anything to do with the sham fair. The fair’s organizers reluctantly relented, allowing Black folks in for one day late in the fair. That’s conservative America for ya: too little, too late.

Even more crucial reading is The Radical and the Republican, historian James Oakes’ examination of the complex relationship between two of the most important Americans of the 19th Century, Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. At first, Lincoln found Douglass an Abolitionist radical, and refused him entry into the center of American political life. However, by the Civil War, Douglass had taught Lincoln a great deal about the realities of life in America. Lincoln invited Douglass to the White House on three separate occasions. The transformed relationship speaks volumes as to what Trump must do, sever himself from the radical Right and invite a wide array of advisors into his inner circle. In an act of great intellectual acuity, Lincoln surrounded himself with former political rivals such that he might make the best decisions in the interest of the nation writ large.

Now, I realize that asking Donald Trump to read books is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, so let me offer a more sensible solution. My suggestion is that Donald Trump should watch a movie. What, you say? The President is an avid media watcher? He follows Arnold Schwarzenegger ratings on The Celebrity Apprentice, a network show for which Trump himself serves (possibly illegally, and certainly unethically) as an Executive Producer. He tweets vitriol about Saturday Night Live and Hamilton, elegant forms of satire, and emblems of Constitutionally-protected (for now) free speech. And, most egregiously, he watches Finding Dory amid self-inflicted chaos over an ill-conceived and rushed immigration ban over an otherwise sleepy January weekend, praising a film which is, of course, about the plight of stranded immigrants.

Such is not the film watching this media scholar prescribes. Instead, I suggest Within Our Gates, a 1920 Oscar Micheaux film about the horrors of Jim Crow culture. Screening the film would go a long way to undoing the wretched history of film exhibition in America’s house. Most egregiously, on March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson (who should have known better, having served as the President of Princeton University) bestowed D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation the honor of being the first film ever screened at the White House. Wilson enthused, “It is like writing history with lightning.” Despite desperate riots against the film, and an NAACP boycott, the film toured the United States, with ticket prices topping $2, equal to the price of a seat at an upscale Broadway playhouse.

The Birth of a Nation forwards a false story of Reconstruction, depicting a world of African-American power run amok, necessitating the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, decades after the initial formation of the Klan, The Birth of a Nation was successfully used as a recruiting tool for a reinvigorated white supremacy movement in the United States, an echo of which we are currently witnessing in Trump’s “America First” ideological nightmare.

Industrious African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux designed a cunning film that is in so many ways an inversion of The Birth of a Nation. Where Griffith simplifies history, Within Our Gates complicates it. The plot concerns Sylvia, who wants to help a Southern school for poor Black folks. She travels North to raise money for the school, only to encounter a would-be rich white benefactor who opposes women’s suffrage because it would allow Black women to vote. However, a fellow rich white woman is horrified by her colleague’s behavior, and pledges $50,000 to the school, an order of magnitude greater than what Sylvia initially proposed.

Within Our Gates does not reduce American history to a false White vs. Black dichotomy. The representation of the Black characters is equally complex: Micheaux posits Sylvia, an educated woman interested in social justice as the hero, but surrounds her with other Black characters of dubious morals: Efrem, who believes, incorrectly, that spying on his Black neighbors will keep him from getting lynched; and Ned, a blowhard preacher who advocates that his Black parishioners accept their inferior place in white supremacist America.

Within Our Gates climaxes with one of the most powerful sequences in American silent cinema. Micheaux cross-cuts from Sylvia being sexually assaulted by her sharecropping family’s corrupt white overlord, to the lynching of Sylvia’s mother and father. The sequence indicts the fear-mongering of Jim Crow culture, a hysterical worry about Black men attacking White women, the very plot of The Birth of a Nation. The fear of Black men was of course a classic case of sociological Othering, designed to deflect from the actual history of the 19th Century, rife with White men raping powerless Black women.

In short, Donald Trump, and his incompetent nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos are in desperate need of a history lesson. Given his woeful ignorance, and her legacy of defunding public education so that we might have a Born Again nation rife with Christian charter schools, I hold out no hope for their reading the historical facts. But perhaps the Reality TV president might be persuaded by a masterful piece of cinema. Maybe then Trump might declare, “That Oscar Michaeux is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

–Walter Metz