by Wanda Sabir
Thursday, Nov. 10, Nate Parker visited historic McClymonds High School for a screening of his film, “Birth of a Nation” (2016). His visit and the screening were a part of Supervisor Keith Carsen’s Community Empowerment Forums which, hosted that evening by Elaine Brown, former Black Panther Party chair, are to create spaces for public discourse and problem solving.
In this case, the topic was the importance of knowing one’s history. Two days after the elections, while most of the nation was left reeling, the auditorium was full – parents with children, teens and elders cheered Nate Parker’s Prophet Nat as he organized and resisted the enslavement of his people. The message is clear: We are not victims then or now.
Ms. Brown said: “This is my first time seeing the film and I can hardly breathe at this point. I am so amazed that such a beautiful thing has been done for our people.” She then turns to Parker, seated next to her, and asks him to “tell the people why (he) did it and how (he) did it.”
Nate Parker: “Thanks for having me here at such a wonderful school in a wonderful city. Sister Brown reached out to me a few days ago and said, ‘I’d like to bring your film to our young people.’ And I said, let me see what I can do.
“No one had a copy of this film, except you all right now. (Applause.) This is where the film needs to be seen. I am not going to go as far as say, go bootleg when it comes out. What I will say is this: If you’ve got to see it, see it. This comes from a person who raised the money to make it.
“I am not tripping on no money. This is legacy (inheritance, Black Power)! This is for our children and our children’s children.
“What inspired me to make the film?
“I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. Although it’s considered the South, many people would consider Oakland the South considering the way we are treated sometimes. And the miseducation goes from coast to coast in this country. It’s not specific to any particular place.
“If you are a person of color in this country, it means that you are being miseducated. Education is a defining characteristic of your growth. I did not have Nat Turner (to study in school). I had Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry. I had Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.” Parker said none of these men or these histories spoke to his ancestry or to his roots in this land or to the cultural narrative that addressed his peoples’ liberation and freedom.
Ms. Brown said: “This is my first time seeing the film and I can hardly breathe at this point. I am so amazed that such a beautiful thing has been done for our people.”
So when the director learned as an adult about Nat Turner, he says it was uncanny considering he grew up 42 miles east of Southampton County. “I grew up within a 35-40-minute drive from where this revolt happened, yet I never heard of Nat Turner until I went to college 2,000 miles away.”
Parker continued studying and says, “I learned about (Haitian Gen.) Brother Toussaint. I learned about Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, David Walker’s appeal. I felt so misguided.
“(This education) gave me a real aversion to patriotism in this country. I can sing many songs about America; that’s what we’re taught. I put my hand over my heart to say the Pledge of Allegiance. We didn’t have a choice; it was a conditioning forced or instilled in me. I didn’t know anything about anyone who looked like me. I definitely didn’t know anything about the continent (Africa) or the Diaspora.”
Dr. Amos Wilson affirms Parker’s feelings when he writes in “The Falsification of the Afrikan Consciousness”: “(Black people) must look at the lessons that history teaches us. We must understand the tremendous value of the study of history for the regaining of power. If our education is not about gaining real power, we are being mis-educated and misled and we will die mis-educated and misled.”
Parker says that with knowledge came responsibility. He said when he “learned about this history and became an artist, I made a decision I would only participate in the types of projects that did not denigrate my people. Naturally, when I wanted to tell the Nat Turner story, no one wanted to help.
“I was very clear to say this is not a slave film, not at all – this is a story about liberation and freedom. This was about self-determination. This was about not waiting for anyone to liberate you. It’s about becoming the liberator in the name of God.
“So, I asked everyone who looked like me in Hollywood. No one responded, so I had to go on this begging tour around the country. It was humbling. I had to run a legacy rather than a profit margin funding campaign, if that makes sense.
“You can’t sit in front of people that don’t look like you and say, ‘Hey you’re probably not going to make a lot of money from this film; you’re probably going to be attacked – the film project labeled dangerous – but we should make it, because our children need it.’ It’s a hard pill to swallow. I asked my investors: What do you want your children to think about you when you’re gone?
“It’s like when you ask your uncles, ‘Where were you guys during the Civil Rights Movement?’ and they just give you that blank stare. When my kids think about me and what I was doing, I want them to say: My dad made the Nat Turner movie.
Parker said when he “learned about this history and became an artist, I made a decision I would only participate in the types of projects that did not denigrate my people. Naturally, when I wanted to tell the Nat Turner story, no one wanted to help.”
“I am a filmmaker. I feel really blessed to be able to make films. I hope you have an opportunity to see this film, you know, again. I had an opportunity to write it and there was no one over my shoulder telling me what I could and could not do.
“That’s the problem, right? People want equality, but only to a point, it seems. People want freedom, but only to a point, right? Someone has to have the audacity to step over that line and say, ‘It’s OK; I’m good. I’m bringing it to the people whether you like it or not.’
“My hope is not for an award. My hope is that this film stands the test of time, not because it’s a classic in the traditional sense, but you can say, ‘Man, I can’t wait for my kid to turn 11 so I can show him or her this film.’
“Explain police brutality in the context of Nat Turner. It’s a whole different meaning. When you talk about liberation theology and Christianity, or whatever your faith, within the context of Nat Turner, it takes on a completely different meaning.
“It’s hard to understand liberation theology, real liberation movements, like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which started in Oakland, within the guise of the mis-education of the oppressor.” He told the youth in the audience that it is the artist’s job to articulate this unspoken reality.
If Elaine Brown was speechless, one can imagine the children were impacted by the images on screen that evening, yet there was no mention of the trauma experienced by our ancestors and the impact such trauma has on all present, particularly after reliving the tragic and horrific events that shaped Black consciousness then and now.
Dr. Wilson continues to point out in “Falsification”: “(S)imply because we choose not to learn of a traumatic history and a history that may make us feel ashamed does not mean that that history is not controlling our behavior. Simply because we don’t know our history, and may not have heard of it, does not mean that the history does not control our behavior.”
How had the absence of this knowledge affected the trajectory Parker’s life took? How is lack of knowledge of self impacting Black youth today? Hopefully, “Birth of a Nation” will spark within viewers’ minds a desire to know more.
However glorious Prophet Nat’s few days of fame, the brutality of enslavement paints the horror vividly, the teams uneven, if body count is any indicator. Profit over morality set the ethical tone then and continues to set the tone now. Trump is antithetical to Obama. It is as if someone died, perhaps her name is democracy, and the mirrors have been turned over.
A nation now mourns.
Present within the audience that evening at the high school were healers who could have led the assembly in meditation or breath work, which would have been the first step in releasing the anguish, fear, rage and other emotions seeing ancestors gang raped, whipped and otherwise tortured incites. I hope at other screenings Parker supports, the mental health of those present is considered.
In the hallway there were many people who chose to skip the film for these reasons. I saw other people leave. I wondered why one father took his infant into the auditorium to the screams and cries of characters suffering. The trauma experienced during the preverbal stage of development lodges in psyche, yet since it is preverbal, the person is often unable to locate what is shaping his or her behavior because there are no words for it. We have to be careful what we expose ourselves and our children to.
Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” is an ashay moment – the screening a visual libation for an ancestor and ancestors who dared demand justice. On the 185th anniversary of insurrection leader Nat Turner’s state sponsored execution, Nov. 11, 1831, Black Oakland considers its past as a way to better move in the present and future.
The director, whose 36th birthday was just a week later, on Nov. 18, remained fired up seated between panelist Minister Christopher Muhammad of the Nation of Islam and moderator Ms. Brown. Bernard McCune, deputy chief of post-secondary readiness for the Oakland Unified School District, and Jumoke Hodge, Oakland School Board member sat to their left and right.
Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” is an ashay moment – the screening a visual libation for an ancestor and ancestors who dared demand justice.
“Birth of a Nation,” released on Nat Turner’s birthday, Oct. 2, also celebrates the 40th anniversary of “Roots,” the 1997 mini-series based on Alex Haley’s family, which is going to air Nov. 16-20 starting at 9:00 p.m. ET on Bounce TV each night. The complete mini-series will air for an all-day binge-watching marathon on Friday, Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET.
Clearly moved, Oakland Unified School District officials Mr. McCune and Ms. Hodge stated that they would make a commitment to developing curriculum for Black empowerment starting with “Birth of a Nation.” The Black Panther Party’s Oakland Community School and other independent Black schools, like Muhammad University and Sister Clara Muhammad School, are models for a public education where children are encouraged to think, to challenge and to actively dismantle systems of power which do not best serve their needs.
Young Gifted and Black, a poetry ensemble, performed before the panel discussion. Afterward, Mr. Parker was quite charming as he took pictures with audience members, answered questions and gave information about his foundation, http://www.nateparkerfoundation.org/.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.