“What did you think?” Frankie asked as she and Susan rose from their seats and joined the crowd flowing toward the lobby.
“It was…” Susan bit her lip. “It was wonderful. And awful.”
“Exactly,” Frankie exclaimed. “And now I don’t know what to think. About whether it should be banned or not, I mean.”
“I know,” Susan said. “Before I thought every movie should be available to everyone, but after seeing something so cruel and untruthful…I’m not so sure.”
They walked out onto the street and paused as the crowd spilled out around them.
“Do you see a clock anywhere?” Susan asked, using her hand as a visor.
“I think there’s one on a bank nearby,” Frankie said, scanning the crowd, but then she met the gaze of a Negro girl about her age who was coming out of the movie palace behind them with her mother. Time stilled as the knowledge of what they’d both just seen flowed between them, and Frankie froze, held captive by the pain in the other girl’s eyes. There was fear there too, and also something Frankie had never seen. She could only describe the emotion as what she imagined a scream might look like. It was desperate, aching, and full – like a dam about to burst – and then suddenly, she realized what it was.
It was a story.
This girl had a story inside her, a story that hadn’t ever been told. They’d both just witnessed a story about her people and her past, but neither she nor her people had told that story – white men had. The story wasn’t hers, and that’s what was screaming – her untold story – and Frankie now understood the true problem with The Birth of a Nation, and – in fact – the problem with the whole country and maybe the world.
Everyone had a story, but not everyone got to tell it. The stories of the powerless either got twisted and skewed by the people in power or silenced and stamped out completely. The Birth of a Nation was terrible, but not as terrible as the crime of oppressing people’s stories, and it seemed to Frankie the argument over whether or not to ban The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the issue. Banning stories wouldn’t solve the problem; only allowing the silenced to finally tell their stories would.
“There’s the clock. It’s after five,” Susan said, and Frankie turned back to her. “We’d better get to the station. If we catch the six o’clock train, we’ll make it back before Mamma for sure.”
They took the next trolley and did arrive at Union Station in time. The sun began to set as they neared Lawrence an hour later, rocking along in their seats with the rhythm of the car.
“Are you glad we went?” Frankie asked, as Susan had been quieter than usual since the film. She blinked, waking from thoughts Frankie couldn’t read on her face, but then she smiled and took her hand.
“Yes, I’m glad,” she said. “I had a wonderful day with you.”
Frankie smiled back. “Me too.”
No matter what disturbing things she’d seen or learned that day, she was happy and grateful to have done it all with her sister.
“I almost laughed at that final scene,” Susan said after a moment.
“The one with the giant Jesus?”
“Yes.” She chuckled. “It was so strange.”
The final scene of The Birth of a Nation showed a group of angelic-looking people – all white, of course – wearing flowers and flowing robes and dancing before a giant, superimposed image of Christ. The title card before it had read, Dare we dream of a golden day when bestial war shall rule no more.
“You’re right. It was strange,” Frankie agreed. “The people in those robes looked like they were drunk. And also in Greece.”
Susan snorted and Frankie laughed too and rested her head on her shoulder. They continued on to Lawrence as the sun set over the plains, and after a while, Frankie found herself “daring to dream.” Not of drunken Greeks, but of a day when every person had the power to tell their own story. That would be the real birth of a just and equal nation.