Our discussion of the shooting of black men by white police can be enlightened by considering why the non-violent techniques of Martin Luther King succeeded in the 1950s and 1960s. To understand those successes, we need history of deep culture, of the roots of America’s Western myth. The bottom line: racial conflict is the DNA of our national narrative.
Those roots date from 1682 when one Mary Rowlandson published a narrative of her captivity by Indians. Her little book, A Narrative of the Captivity . . . of Mary Rowlandson, established the first American literary genre, the Captivity Narrative. It established a number of enduring narrative elements. 1) It treats the Indians as the personification of all that was fearful in the vast American forests, 2) frequently identifying them with the Devil. 3) It treats Mrs. Rowlandson’s captivity as a divine testing of her religious faith, which she of course passes, making the Captive a vessel bearing fundamental values. 4). It treats her return to the English community as evidence of God’s continued active blessing on the New English project, later to become Manifest Destiny. 5) It established three main actors in the American story: the Captive, the Savage Captor, and God the Rescuer.
This was the American story until the Revolution. The problem then was that in the Captivity Narratives the captives were mostly passive victims. The active characters were always the Indians as the Devil’s agents and God as Rescuer. The captives were pawns in the cosmic drama between God and Devil, Good and Evil. A newly independent people needed a story with a properly active human hero.
Over time, through the reported lives of actual Americans–Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and William Cody were the most prominent–and through the imaginative works of others–most notably James Fenimore Cooper and the myriad of writers who imitated his “Leatherstocking Novels,” and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody whose “Wild West” was hugely influential in shaping the idea of American history not only in the United States but in Europe as well—the Rescuer role played originally by God was taken over by the cowboy or by the nation itself. The dramatic interest shifted from the internal experiences of the Captive to the exploits of the Rescuer. By the end of the 19th century, the modern Western had been born. Its ties to the Captivity Narrative are not apparent, but its psychological and emotional roots nevertheless lie in racial conflict.
The Captivity Narrative both reflected and shaped Americans’ understanding of national experience. After the Civil War the great challenge was to fit the freed slaves into the national narrative of a reunited country. Before the war they were Captives. After the war, what were they? Early Southern histories of Reconstruction cast white Southerners as the Captives and blacks as Savage Captors, but they had little influence on Northern perceptions, which were shaped more by spectacular lynchings or the continuing influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Because of the inherently racial character of the Captivity Narrative, this ambiguity about the role of the freed slaves created serious instability in the way Americans thought of themselves. The problem was that there was no national narrative of blacks as Savage Captors. In the propaganda battles leading toward civil war, both North and South were invested in images of slaves as kind, gentle, happy people. It took a long time to create a narrative with blacks as Savage Captors. By 1915, the task was completed with the release of The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation was probably the single most influential element of popular culture in the 20th century. It was seen by millions upon millions of Americans, and it solved the problem of the role of the black male: he was the Savage Captor. The identification of the black male with that role is underscored by the film’s development of Western motifs from Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West.” Before doing Birth Griffith had made dozens of short Western films, in many cases working with men who had ridden in Buffalo Bill’s show. One of the grandest scenes in that show was “The Raid on the Settlers’ Cabin,” an Indian attack on peace loving white settlers. The grand climax of Birth is a version of “The Raid on the Settlers’ Cabin,” but with blacks in the role of the Indians. Blacks had become the Savage Captors of this new national narrative, and White America was the nation that had been born.
King’s movement had little momentum until May of 1963, when Birmingham’s Bull Connor revised our narrative. The national impact of the images of white officers turning police dogs and fire cannons on children and then hauling them off to jail reversed the roles: blacks became the Captives; white men became Savage Captors. Freed from the narrative of White America, that fall King could capture Americans’ imaginations with a new national narrative free of racial conflict.
The inspiration was sustained through the assassination of John Kennedy into the summer of 1964, when the great Civil Rights Act was passed.
Then in the spring of 1965 the spirit of Bull Connor reasserted itself at the Pettus Bridge in Selma. Again, on national television, the nation saw the white Savages beating unresisting black marchers. Before the end of the summer, the Voting Rights Act had been passed.
By 1968, as in 1868, reaction had set in. In many ways our racial DNA reasserts itself: in failing schools, in mass incarceration, in white police killing black males. So far, however, we have no new Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s America and King’s America struggle for control.