Friday, April 11, 2008

MSNBC: Meeting David Wilson (film and discussion at Howard University)

MSNBC tonight aired the documentary “Meeting David Wilson” (Official Pictures) (website), directed by David A. Wilson. The film ran for 90 minutes including commercials carefully chosen to support the theme of the film. Were it to be released theatrically, it would probably be distributed by Focus (which belongs to NBC Universal).

A 28 year old African American man, who has grown up in the ghetto in Newark, NJ, tracks down his ancestry to slaves (back three generations) who worked on a North Carolina plantation, and finds that the family that owned the slaves was named Wilson, and that a man named David B. Wilson owns the land now. He arranges a journey from Newark down to the plantation and meets relatives of his own ancestors, including a 97-year-old woman in amazing shape, and then actually works a day on a tobacco plantation. The journey is interesting also in that a white man (Dan Woosey) drives him down (since David does not drive) and he says to his white friend, “You are my reparation.” David finally meets the (white) Mr. Wilson, and they have a conversation, where they confront the idea of reparations. There is a point where David A says, "your family owned my family." Then David A. goes to Ghana and sees the countryside from which his ancestors came, and sees the two slave ports on the coast.

There are lots of conversations about the morality of the circumstances. Slavery is said to be America’s “original sin.” One white woman says, “I don’t owe anybody anything.” Another person says “I wasn’t around then.” There are stills of lynching scenes, and various scenes of police abuse against civil rights protestors.

The white Mr. Wilson is asked what it was like to grow up in the 50s, and he does mention that everything was segregated, and most people didn’t “think about it.” They talk about the hypocrisy of their behavior when compare to the Bible, but the social structure isolated people from any feeling of personal responsibility outside of the context of the family. The white Wilson says that every society has plenty of hypocrisy and people who do things that are wrong and refuse any intellectual awareness of what they do. He also points out that, had the African Americans not been brought over, they might be living in poverty in Africa. It can be argued that the sacrifices of several generations of slaves (even the brutality of the Amistad) enabled eventually a better life for their dependents in America.

The scope of the tobacco farming that still goes one was disturbing. I wondered how much biofuels could be grown if the land were converted to that use, or even ordinary food, since food prices have risen sharply recently.

The film was followed by a ninety-minute panel discussion at Howard University in Washington DC, led by Brian Williams. There was mention of “concentrated poverty” in black neighborhoods that poor white people usually don’t experience. There is the moral question, underneath the affirmative action debate, about starting behind in line. Starting positions on tracks are adjusted according to the geometry of the track. There was also mention of the point that over 40% of African American women will never marry.

The film does stir up the urge to reduce these moral debates down to everyday simplicity. To wit, “what do I owe?”

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