Tillet on How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Silences Black Women | @NYTimes

Salamishah Tillet writes:

“Ms. Union, who wrote of being raped at gunpoint when she is right to point out that black women who have been sexually assaulted have been silenced throughout America’s past and present. And yet, in a film about coming to terms with the nation’s founding sin of slavery, restoring Turner to his rightful place in the pantheon of American revolutionaries, and providing a mirror to our contemporary racial protest, the representations of rape here feel eerily retrograde. It is a throwback to an era before rape victim-centered stories like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) or Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (1982), to a time when the sexual assault of black girls and women and their resistance to it was off limits.

“There should be a better understanding of the sexual economy of slavery — one that pushes us beyond simple patriarchal notions of black men’s inability to protect black women,” Crystal Feimster, a Yale history professor, said. Rape, she added, “had everything to do with sexual exploitation of enslaved women’s productive and reproductive labor.”

Their silence also has another function in “The Birth of a Nation”: It mutes their ability to act, rendering their rebellion virtually nonexistent in a film about revolt and freedom. In denying these women their revolutionary gestures, Mr. Parker risks making them objects that he, and only he, can freely move around the screen. By contrast, WGN America’s breakout hit “Underground” offers a more nuanced look at a woman’s resistance: The slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) kills a white overseer who tried to attack her, and she eventually becomes an abolitionist.”

Read it all: How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Silences Black Women

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