|Frontispiece to The Clansman|
Dixon depicts black people as inferior based upon their intrinsic immorality, intellectual dullness, and physical appearance. He argues that the black race never advanced culturally, technologically, or governmentally except under the immediate influence of white people, and that American slavery was a boon to black people in that it exposed them to the fruits of "four thousand years of white civilization." He blames blacks for the Civil War and repeatedly asserts that "a drop of nigger blood a nigger makes," by which he meant that, "It kinks the hair, flattens the nose, thickens the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
The evil white characters in Dixon's book (carpet baggers and scalawags) manipulate the voting system to install equally evil, but far less intelligent, blacks into office in order to become rich through crooked governance (blacks won the vote in 1870), while the good white characters fight against corruption, and discuss what to do (once they have regained control over their black neighbors) with millions of recently freed illiterate people, hence the term "the white man's burden." The first goal is to disenfranchise black voters, and then to decide whether to keep them in the country or send them someplace where they would have the advantages of such civilization as the white race had been able to impart. Those who favor keeping them in America debate whether to put them to work in the various trades or restrict them to agriculture. Everyone agrees that education for blacks is undesirable because it couldn't alter their inherent inferiority while it would lead them to imagine themselves equal to whites.
Dixon's position has several fatal flaws as I see it, all of them built upon the common human error of deciding what one wants to believe, and then looking for proof that it is true. To whit: (1) He never clearly defines the concept of innate black inferiority, and such evidence as he offers is self-serving and anecdotal. (2) He acknowledges that there are differences in individual potential within the white race, and he holds that every white person has the right to realize his unique potential to the fullest, but by lumping all black people together as being but a step away from savagery, he goes so far as to feel justified in relegating a genius to a life of manual labor without regard for that person's desires or abilities (I often pictured Neil DeGrasse Tyson while reading Dixon's books). (3) Dixon blames the problems that the black race had with assuming leadership during Reconstruction upon innate inferiority, while completely ignoring their problems with illiteracy, inexperience, and centuries of slavery. (4) Dixon is resigned to the fact that nothing short of terrorism can effectively keep an entire race of people in a condition of eternal subservience. (5) By holding the black race as barely human, Dixon is able to rationalize their oppression and exploitation as coming from a place of superior morality.
Dixon portrays the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction era as a idealistic endeavor that was forced into existence in order to protect white Southerners from the combined vengefulness of the freed slaves and the U.S. military occupation. If it is true that the situation during the Reconstruction era was as desperate as Dixon described it, I too would have joined the Klan because I would have seen it as my only source of help and safety. That said, the circumstances that gave birth to the Klan ended when Reconstruction ended, and so it was that Dixon adamantly opposed the reconstituted Klan that his writings inspired. He wrote that it had little resemblance to the original Klan, and that its members tended toward stupidity and corruption. He also complained of its anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.
Dixon's writings are yet another reminder of how woefully unschooled I am in regard to my nation's history despite the fact that the period of which he writes is a fourteen year segment of the much longer period (1865-1929) in which I am the most interested. He has also shown me how ignorant I am of the history of the KKK, a plethora of organizations with similar names which I imagined to have always been composed of sadistic ignoramuses who were proud of their ignorance and contemptuous of the educated. By contrast, the Klan which Dixon describes was a haven for men who were cultured, courageous, and idealistic. Even allowing for hyperbole, I am convinced that what I thought I knew of the Klan--and of America's Reconstruction era--was insignificant even where true.
Dixon has also reminded me of a personal deficit which lies increasingly heavy on my mind, namely that there are so very many things that interest me greatly, but that I hitherto ignored (thinking I would pick them up later) and now don't have time to learn. I had imagined that, by limiting my reading to a few decades of the largely forgotten literature of a single nation, I could at least become a passable scholar in regard to that period, place, and literature, but my mistake was akin to that of a person who looks at a slide of microscopic pond life and imagines it possible to learn everything that is known about something that is, after all, so small. If I could do my life over, I would probably strive for scholarship in the fields of American history and American literature, but where does that leave me now that my time is so short and my ignorance so vast? The walls are closing in upon me, and they find me as desperate to learn as I am paralyzed by the thought of how little time I have to learn. As Mme du Barry (mistress of Louis XV) expressed it as she stood on the scaffold, "Life, life, leave me my life. I will give all my wealth to the nation. Another minute, hangman!"