Gone With the Wind was inspired in part by a narrative developed in the early 20th century by, among others, the novelist Thomas Dixon. His notoriously racist, The Clansman, was transformed by the director D. W. Griffith into the equally racist film Birth of a Nation.
In the same period, historians from Columbia University, educated under the tutelage of William Dunning, reinforced key elements of the tale in history books published over the next several decades.
In this "lost cause" narrative, in an idyllic antebellum South, slave masters are noble and slaves content. The Civil War is a war of "Yankee" aggression where slavery has little to do with the Confederacy's casus belli. And the Reconstruction era is a time of subjugation of Southern white men and women by plundering Northern white carpetbaggers and former slaves seeking vengeance.
The story ends happily when the heroic Ku Klux Klan arrive upon the scene to cast out the carpetbaggers and lynch any black person who does not know their place.
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Historians W.E.B. Dubois, Eric Foner, John David Smith and J. Vincent Lowery chronicled the biases of the Dunning School's historiography. The novels by the virulent racist Thomas Dixon made their way out of public discourse long ago. And even though Birth of a Nation premiered 100 years ago in the White House East Room where President Woodrow Wilson (a former classmate of Thomas Dixon) declared that "it is like writing history with lightning" — the centennial has passed without any fanfare.
And yet the underlying story endures, thanks in part to Gone With the Wind.
From its opening credits, the film plants in the mind of the uncritical viewer the image of the slavery era South as an Eden of peace and tranquility with the help of Max Steiner's melodic score, golden-hued images of slaves picking cotton in a field and the title scroll that speaks fondly of "the Old South" as a "pretty time." The introduction concludes: "Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind...."
Throughout the story, slaves are content to remain in bondage and even willing to support the Confederacy. The truth is that 200,000 black men fought against the Confederacy and there were countless slave rebellions and escapes — the impetus for the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Numerous slave narratives and primary-source materials recount the brutality and terror of the slave system.
Novelist Margaret Mitchell acknowledged the influence of Dixon in a letter she wrote to him in 1936: "I was practically raised on your books and love them very much." Mitchell fondly recalls her adaptation of a Dixon novel that she staged in her Atlanta living room with fellow neighbor children playing members of the Klan. She recounts with delight the interruption of the reenactment of a hanging so that the Klansmen child actors could take a bathroom break.
The Klan is depicted in Mitchell's novel as saviors avenging the attempted rape of Scarlett O'Hara: "Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan, and Ashley, too, and all the men we know." In the film, the men engage in the raid but there is no mention of the Klan and no appearance of Klan regalia.
The notion, however, of heroic vigilantism, protecting white women from black rapists, is the same. This stereotype is evident throughout Dixon's novels, Birth of a Nation and was the asserted justification for scores of lynchings across America during the Jim Crow era.
Indeed, "you rape our women" were the words apparently uttered by Dylann Roof before he opened fire on his African-American victims.
The critique of the lost-cause narrative and Mitchell's novel is not new. Dubois, the NAACP and many others decried the racism and historical inaccuracy of the works.
Gone With the Wind should not be banned. But it is long past due for these narratives to be exposed as false and insidious — and shunned.