[image above: Queer college student Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) reading Ebony and Ivy in Justin Simien’s film Dear White People (2014)]

This invitation is so illuminating! I appreciate the attention to distinct yet related forms of accumulation, and especially the conceptual and materialist interventions into thinking about history, temporality, and memory. The focus on labor is vital. In short, this is a brilliant and generous piece that makes space for multiple kinds of companion thinking.

With this response I foreground histories of white nationalism on campus. In my forthcoming book, University Babylon: Film and Race Politics on Campus, I also start with Wilder’s work as a prologue to the story of US universities in the early 20th century.

I further build on Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, Cedric Robinson’s film history, to analyze  the symbolic and institutional collaborations between Hollywood filmmak­ers and university administrators. Together, cinematic and educational institutions have promoted a synthesis of misogyny, racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and deference to authority under the umbrella of white nationalist respectability.[1]

A key example is Birth of a Nation, a product of the white old boys’ collegiate network. In the wake of Black protests over its racism, the film only became a success when its author, Thomas Dixon, asked his college friend, Woodrow Wilson, to screen and praise it. The first film shown at the White House, Birth’s historical accuracy was publicly affirmed by the former president of Princeton.[2]

Birth also became the template for early 20th century college films, a genre which marginalized women while representing Black, Indigenous, Asian and Mexican male college students as rapists and criminals.

Birth further served as an important impetus for the establishment of university-based film studies. It was one of the first films hailed for its educational value, making it a central object of academic analysis, which affirmed and/or reified its racism. Its director, D.W. Griffith, was a founding faculty member in USC’s film school, which was established by Hollywood’s first couple of white nationalism, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and USC president Rufus B. von KleinSmid, the former director of research and superintendent at the Indiana Reformatory and a prominent eugenicist.

Finally, Birth inspired and supported university based race science. Research on racial conflict at the University of Chicago was partly organized around surveys of white and Black student responses to the film during its 1930 re-release. At the same moment, in addition to Griffith, the first faculty in the USC film school included Emory Bogardus—the founder of the sociology department at USC, president of the American Sociological Association, and a eugenicist who researched the film viewing habits of Black and Mexican youth.

By contrast, contemporary university based filmmakers have reflected on Birth’s destructive centrality to film studies, and, more broadly, to white nationalism on campus.

See, for example, this scene from John Singleton’s Higher Learning, based on his years in the USC film school.

And this scene from Justin Simien’s film Dear White People, which rearticulates Birth so as to represent the experience of being a Black student at a PWI (starting at 1:36) :

And finally this clip about Birth from Ava DuVernay’s 13th:

13th is problematic in a number of ways, but I read DuVernay’s engagement with Birth as a revealing reflection on histories of white nationalism on campus, in part because the director from Compton first encountered Griffith’s film in her classes at UCLA.[3]

All of which is to say that contemporary “attacks on and infiltrations of higher education under the guise of ‘free speech’ by fascists and their apologists” (13) form part of a mode of accumulation with a much longer history than imagined in most accounts of white nationalism in higher education. At the same time, centering histories of white nationalism as accumulation in the study of universities provides a revealing retrospective vantage on different university based moments of complicity and resistance.

The example of the university cinema industrial complex (UCIC) suggests not only that we might think about multiple vectors of institutional juxtaposition, but also about differences between points of conceptual and practical similarity, on the one hand, and direct material/institutional connections and collaborations on the other. The UCIC, for instance, is composed of multiple such connections and collaborations—as a shorthand, consider the fact that in the 20th century, the University of California has been administered by two governors who were former Hollywood actors. In terms of universities and prisons, I think of college investments in prison industries; the production of criminal justice knowledge and workers; and FBI, CIA, and BP recruitment at HBCUs and Hispanic serving institutions.[4] 

White nationalism presupposes racialized gender/sex hierarchies so I would look forward to further discussion of about how such hierarchies factor into the university as a site of accumulation.

I also anticipate discussions about citizenship and migrant labor. UC research has historically helped agribusiness corporations ramp up production and expand the exploitation of farm workers (which is one context for UFW protests against the UCs). Davis and other UCs have also propped up Israel’s occupation wine industry and the expanded exploitation of Palestinian farm workers (often on land that used to belong to them).[5] Historically, eugenics research in Southern California institutions (USC, Cal Tech, UC Riverside, the Huntington Library and Gardens) was aimed at controlling Mexican workers.[6] It’s not surprising that films made in such contexts vilify Mexicans and, in particular, the Mexican college student, a uniquely abject figure in the college film genre.

[1] Marez, University Babylon: Film and Race Politics on Campus (Berkeley: University of California, 2020), https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520304581/university-babylon

[2] Dixon enrolled in a graduate program in political science at Johns Hopkins in 1884, where he became friends with his class­mate Wilson before dropping out to pursue a career in journalism. Years later, “after an exchange of college reminiscences,” Dixon asked his col­lege friend to endorse Birth by appealing to him “as a former scholar and student of history and sociology.” After the White House screening, Wil­son recalled that Dixon had been instrumental in the awarding of an honorary degree from Wake Forest. “Apparently,” Dixon wrote, “the honor had come to Wilson at a moment in his life when he had been dis­couraged by the progress of his career and it had a cheering effect on him, as he remembered now: ‘I want you to know, Tom, that I am pleased to be able to do this little thing for you . . . because a long time ago you took a day out of your busy life to do something for me.’ ” This scene of reciprocal collegiality between Dixon and Wilson sharply contrasts with an earlier moment when, as president of Princeton, Wilson effectively barred the son of a prominent local Black minister, William D. Robeson, from enrolling at the university.

[3] The scholarship on Birth of a Nation is vast. For a recent account of its contemporary relevance, see Robin D.G. Kelley, “Birth of a Nation: Surveying Trumpland with Cedric Robinson,” Boston Review (Winter, 2017), http://bostonreview.net/race-politics/robin-d-g-kelley-births-nation.

[4] See Roberto J. González, “Militarizing Education: The Intelligence Community’s Spy Camps,” and Julia C. Oparah, “Challenging Complicity: the Neoliberal University and the Prison-Industrial Complex,”  The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, eds. Piya Chatterjee and  Sunaina Maira  (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[5] Marez, “Of Almonds and Olives: Land, Labor and the Limits to Academic Freedom in the University of California,” unpublished paper.

[6] Alexandra Mina Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).

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