Stuff 4: The Family Boxes March 13, 2017

What do you do when you discover a vile and racist book in your boxes of inherited stuff?

Burn it? Compost the pages on the principle of beating swords into ploughshares? Throw it in the garbage where it belongs?

I’m speaking of The Clansman, a novel written in 1905 by Thomas Dixon, the basis of the early D.W. Griffith silent movie, Birth of a Nation, which Dixon co-wrote.

It’s bizarrely appropriate that the book surfaced right now: Brown-skinned people detained at airports even when they’re U.S. and Canadian citizens, Jewish gravestones overturned, the overall surge in racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic incidents both in Canada and the U.S. following the election of the Donald Trump south of the border—whose father, by the way, was arrested at a Klan rally when he was 21.

The genie is exploding out of the bottle, and now even our Toronto home was being spattered with venom.

Yet just last month, the wonderful film Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars: a film that stands in astonishing contract to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, in which African-Americans are portrayed by white actors in blackface. Moonlight is set entirely among black Americans grappling in nuanced ways with issues not always connected to race, a film peopled with good men and women, with bullies and homophobia, with pain and gentle acceptance.

Ours is a complex and divided world. And it’s a complex question: what do you do when a racist book turns up in your house?

The temptation is to shove it under the carpet and try to pretend you never found it, denying history and trying to prettify the past. But first of all, someone in the family bought it, read it and kept it. There it was, emerging from one of the boxes of inherited books and papers I’m finally starting to clean up. And I can’t help wondering what finding something like this means.

So my first reaction—not my final one—is to try to grapple with the thing.

The book belonged to my husband’s grandfather when he lived in the U.S., having moved down from southwestern Ontario as a young man before the First World War to take a job in his uncle’s machine shop. He wrote his name on flyleaf and a couple of addresses in Springfield, Ohio, along with the date Feb. 1 – 18.

He didn’t write the year, but his copy came out after 1915 when Birth of a Nation was released, since it contains stills from the movie, and he must have bought it before 1917, when he joined the U.S. Army and shipped over to England for the final months of WWI.

I remember Granddad as a tiny and genial man, a sweet-natured elf just a few inches over five feet tall. He was long retired by the time I met him in Toronto. He’d come back to Canada with his English war bride in the early 1920s and spent most of his working life as a tool-and-die maker at the Canada Wire and Cable plant in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto. I knew him as a strong supporter of the Liberal party who had done an unusual thing during the 1940s, supporting his two daughters through university at a time when most people felt education was wasted on girls.

I don’t remember Granddad saying anything even faintly racist, although my husband remembers one instance when he was a child, and only one, probably during the 1960s. His grandfather began a story by saying that after enlisting in the U.S. Army, he and some buddies went on leave to Coney Island, where he started talking to a couple of men. Except he said, “I was talking to a couple of nigg…”

My husband’s mother cut him off, horrified, telling him not to say that word. It was an awful thing to say. Wrong. Prejudiced, as they said at the time. He couldn’t say it in front of the children.

My husband doesn’t remember his grandfather’s reaction, although he remembers him continuing his story, which might have involved a pair of rubber-soled shoes he famously disliked.

Granddad loved striking up conversations with strangers on trains and streetcars, in ticket line-ups, just about anywhere, and people responded to his openness, telling him all manner of things. The story seems to have simply involved something interesting the two men had said. He said nothing awful about the men themselves, nothing racist aside from the opening. To my husband, the story shows that the n-word was in such common use among his grandfather’s generation, his Granddad thought nothing of using it.

He didn’t think, which of course is a problem, and speaks to the popularity of The Clansman.

The book was enormously influential when Granddad was young. Thomas Dixon wrote a play based on the book in 1905 as well as co-writing Birth of a Nation, and both were far more influential than the book itself. Yet taken together, they helped spur the rebirth of the Klan, which had been supressed during the 1870s. Other racist groups were active afterwards, but the Klan only re-emerged as a formal organization in 1915, once the movie became amazingly popular.

By 1924, membership in the Klan is estimated by scholars to have reached six million in both the northern and southern states of the U.S. In the North, the book appealed not only to anti-black movements, but to anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic sentiment based on its glorification of white Europeans—specifically mythical Scots clansmen, but also Anglo-Saxons and “Aryans” in general.

As Dixon writes in his introduction to the novel, “How the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland, went forth… against overwhelming odds, daring exile, imprisonment, and a felon’s death, and saved the life of a people, forms one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race.”

It’s a bone-chilling quote, given the connection between the word “Aryan” and fascism not only in the Nazi past, but today.

It’s also chilling to learn that scholars estimate fully one-third of white men in the state of Indiana joined the Klan after its rebirth. Granddad worked in Indiana as well as Ohio, and since Springfield is only about 100 kilometers from the Indiana border, he must have been steeped in talk of the Klan for years.

Of course, The Clansman also spurred protests, with the play banned even in a couple of cities in the South, the NAACP seeking to have it banned nationwide, and demonstrations greeting both the staging of the play and screening of the movie throughout the U.S.

So Granddad must have know about the protests, too. It would be nice to think he bought the book simply to see what all the fuss was about.

Bu the question arises, what did he read?

To be continued.