The New Yorker cover dated June 28, 2004 features a eulogy for Ray Charles. His smiling face, complete with dark sunglasses, is substituted for that of Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill and although his passing was marked by radio and TV presentations, he was generally overlooked in favor of Ronald Reagan death coverage.
Admittedly, an entertainer’s legacy is probably less influential than that of a president. But the week-long national vigil for Reagan, which was equally eloquent and pornographic, left little space for remembering anyone else, especially someone as beloved as Ray Charles.
Birth of a Nation
Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin with illustrations by Kyle Baker
Are these misplaced priorities or whitewash to footnote Charles, a blind black musician, behind the hysterics paid in homage to Reagan, a sighted white politician?
As partial answer, there is a current groundswell of creative activity concerned with these very same issues of priority, racial or otherwise, and the play of civic power. Birth of a Nation, written by The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder and filmmaker Reginald Hudlin, and illustrated by Kyle Baker, taps into this groundswell and is well worth the read because it teases out inter- and intra-racial attitudes that determine citizenship in these United States. Also historically situated, given the authors’ lifting of titles from the D.W. Griffith feature film of the same name from 1916, it’s necessary to recognize distinctions, or at least the layers of interpretive difference, between now and then.
McGruder’s and Hudlin’s story begins, not in the hate-filled times of Reconstruction, but on the day Fred Fredericks, the activist black mayor of East St. Louis, is improperly purged from voter roles during a presidential election. After much constitutional bickering, he responds by founding a new nation. Called “Black Land” with Fredericks as president, East St. Louis is transformed into an offshore bank through the influence of billionaire black businessmen John Roberts. Responding to this threat in a caricature of the Bush administration, the US federal government begins organizing an invasion. Knuckleheads from all over the country pore into the fledgling state, thinking it a safe haven. Public services are cut off and Black Land becomes the focus of international media coverage. So facing external violence and badgered by internal strife, Fredricks’s grand experiment teeters on the knife’s edge of selling-out versus the greatest racial uplift in American history.
Various coups d’etat ensue, each targeting Fred as the embodiment of righteous outrage, first for being disenfranchised by the federal government and then for becoming a powerful leader. Roscoe, the gangster-turned-head of the Black Land military, turns on his commander in chief after first stealing Fred’s girlfriend. Then Habib, a 7-11-owning Arab and sleeper terrorist, courtesy of OPEC, reluctantly takes up a sniper rifle to murder his friend. But finally it’s a failed CIA black ops assassination that concludes Birth of Nation, whereby Fred’s goodness and dream of fairness succeeds.
The truth will out? Not entirely, but the point of this entertaining story is less the plausibility of a city’s secession than the implication of downtrodden people wielding the tools of transnational capitalism.
Pop cultural banter, cinematic story organization, and a stylized cartoon style propel Birth of a Nation. Too, the occasional sexual innuendo and a broad lampoon of the Bush administration give the book ballast. Though filled with stereotypical characters, from barbers, b-boys, baps, pimps, ministers, matriarchs, and uncle toms, it’s the verisimilitude of the novel’s parallel universe that really sells Birth of a Nation.
Drawing from all manner of counter-factuals, not least the “what if” of an Al Gore presidency taken to a different extreme, the novel is social satire with optimism enough for a utopian ending. Along the way Fred’s constituency is lovingly detailed. Thus East St. Louis is a poor little city with rampant corruption, extraordinary crime rates, a proportionally high number of welfare recipients, and a vast black majority encircled by the oft-mythologized whiteness of the American Midwest. Much humor stems from this contrast of the inner city with the wider country, or the black sub-culture separate from the white-dominated mainstream.
As in: Fredericks assumes his “people” will respond to community participation, meaning Black Land’s flag features a white Jesus, since the only attendees at community meetings are old black Christians beholden to a traditional, though racist, representation of their savior. Or: Good Times is given new lyrics as the national anthem because everyone knows the tune. Or: heated arguments about which black celebrities should be commemorated on Black Land currency (see the Ray Charles cover mentioned above) with due consideration given to Will Smith, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Brown.
Poking fun at modern black politicos and the hip-hop generation’s complacency in the face of material comforts is an underlying theme throughout. At heart, though, Birth of a Nation is an effective and light-hearted exploration of the 2000 election leading to a radically different present than what we’ve actually experienced.
That depicted events are farfetched is beside the point. McGruder and Hudlin’s novel plays with “what if” demonstrates a savvy awareness of urban life, largely because, as Hudlin’s introduction points out, he grew up in East St. Louis, a place of remarkable contrasts and dewy-eyed attitudes about future happiness.
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