Within the black community, these revelations have provoked sharp debate and sour feelings. Parker’s movie concerns itself with black liberation, but the question of who gets to be the herald of this mobilization has long been a contested issue. In this sense, Parker’s personal life is inextricable from the message of The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner is a symbol of liberation through rebellion and Nate Parker has chosen himself to be the vessel through which to tell this story. But the revelations around his personal history illuminate the extent to which this liberation isn’t and hasn’t been equal for black men and women. Parker’s history of Nat Turner revolves around a particularly powerful presentation of black masculinity—one that reflects how the subject of liberation so often puts black women in a difficult bind.
While Parker was found innocent in a court of law, for many, the details surrounding the case are too disturbing to ignore. According to Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, an organization that sought to sue Penn State for its handling of the case in 2002, Parker and Celestin not only publicly identified the female student who accused them of rape, but also harassed and stalked her, without any serious repercussions from the university. According to a recent BuzzFeed report, the scandal divided the campus over issues of race and gender. Some believed the university didn’t do enough to protect the alleged victim. Some believed that Parker and Celestin were being protected because of their role in the school’s athletics program (both had wrestling scholarships, which they kept while they were suspended and awaiting trial). Others believed that Parker and Celestin were being treated unfairly in being accused of raping a white female student. It’s the last of these suspicions that is the most complex, and that continues to pit some black men and women against each other while discussion of Parker’s career and The Birth of a Nation continues.
One theory, as proffered recently by the radio presenter and TV personality Charlamagne Tha God, is that this unpicking of Parker’s history is nothing but a conspiracy to derail a star on the rise. His skepticism is fueled by history—for centuries in the U.S., black men have been lynched because of rape allegations made by white women. According to news reports collected by BuzzFeed, the jury at Parker and Celestin’s trial was entirely white with the exception of a single woman of color, leading many, such as Assata Richards, a graduate student and member of Penn State’s Black Caucus at the time, to believe that the system was unfairly stacked against them. Many black Penn State students expressed concern that Parker and Celestin didn’t have a shot at a fair trial.
Throughout American history, the supposed hypermasculinity and sexual appetites of black men have been stereotyped and fearmongered as a threat to innocent white women. Awareness of this is presumably what compels black men to believe, and therefore protect, other black men at any cost. As Bill Cosby has been accused of rape by an ever-increasing number of women, many high-profile black actors including Eddie Griffin and Damon Wayans have discredited the victims, and dismissed their stories as malicious attempts to slander Cosby’s illustrious legacy. This kind of response often makes black women believe that they have to choose between their blackness or their womanhood when they’re partaking in these conversations.