Monday, April 14, 2008


So this Friday I watched the documentary Meeting David Wilson on MSNBC. It was about this young Black man, David A. Wilson who was researching his family history and came discover not only his own family history but that of the white Wilson family who once owned his own. Turns out there was a guy still living in the same town where the plantation was who was also named David B. Wilson. David A. calls up David B. and says something along the lines of, “Hi, I think your family used to own my family,” and David B. says, “Well that could be.” They then proceed to have a short conversation about the weather. Eventually they decide to meet.

This was one of those documentaries that tore me apart. I couldn’t turn it off but I couldn’t stop crying. Slavery really messes with my head. I cried because he found this guy. I cried because he wanted to meet him. I cried because he went down to the plantation and found an old shack in the slave quarters and stood inside thinking of the joy and the tragedy that must have happened inside. I cried because the two Davids got along. I cried as they got both Wilson families together for a mini reunion even though DNA showed no relation (that didn’t make me cry though, it made me happy). I cried as David A. went further back in his roots and traveled to Ghana, as he stood inside a slave castle looking at the “Door of No Return” and thinking of how long it took him to go back to his ancestral home. Mostly, I cried because I never could have done it.

As I mentioned, slavery really messes with my head. I get incredibly angry. When I get angry I cry. I could imagine myself having that conversation. It would have been full of cursing, name calling, shouting, and tears. I probably would have been hung up on. Then again, I probably wouldn’t have ever made the call because I already know how the conversation would go. It wouldn’t be healthy for anyone involved. It would bring back the recurring nightmares I had as a child of being chased through dense woods by dogs. Whatever poor white person I called and went crazy on would have nothing positive to think about and would probably look down on Black folks and think we were raving crazies after our interaction.

The Davids touched on a question that I have heard so many times. Although I think that it was worded less offensively than I am doing here in the film, “Do you think you have more opportunities living in an affluent society here in America than if your ancestors had never been brought here as slaves?” David A. gave an awesome answer, “America wouldn’t be the affluent society it is if it hadn’t been for slaves.” That comment was one of the few things in the film that made me smile.

1. Well they say that birds do it/ Bees do it/ Time the freak Money B gets to it. The Freaks of the Industry. Digital Underground.

2. If the music make you move/ Cause you can dig the groove/ Groove on/ Groove on. Do Your Thing. Isaac Hayes

3. Went down to the mountain I was drinking some wine/ Looked up in the heaven lord I saw a mighty sign. One More Saturday Night, Greatful Dead.

4. What’s the matter/ Why don’t you answer/ What’s the matter with me. Stockholm Syndrome. Yo La Tengo


Anonymous said...

I too was very impressed by this movie but it raised in my mind a few questions that no one seems to have addressed.

(1) Who was it in Africa that built these fortresses and imprisoned the black families and shipping them to other countries (not just the US) in the first place?

(2) Who specifically should be held responsible? All whites? Why? My direct paternal grandparents came from Ireland; my direct maternal grandparents came from Canada all in the late 1800's and early 1900's. How did we have any culpability in what happened to the black community in the South during the time of slavery?

My ancestors also had very difficult times when they first arrived to this country to avoid certain death in theirs. They were relegated to panhandling and sweat shop work to avoid starving, and were considered fortunate to have one room for a whole family to live in.

My Indian ancestors were stripped of their homeland, dignity and then murdered. Are we also due retribution and special attention for our prior hardships? Granted perhaps they came out of choice, but their other option was almost certain death.

(3) Why do we not acknowledge that whites from the North (and a few from the south) fought and died to assure that slavery was abolished under a white man called President Lincoln?

While I agree that more can be done in our educational systems to inform our future generations of these horrors of our past. We must also let go of such assumptions that somehow someone is owed something in order to make it all better. None of us are indeed owed anything at all, David's Aunt was right we will all be held accountable, each of us on our individual judgment day with a much higher power.

Until that time, we should focus on the fact that we live to change our future. We should and can do that through peace and dialogue.

Blog Antagonist said...

That sounds like a very powerful piece of journalism. I can't appreciate it from your perspective, but from my own, the idea slavery is pretty horrible. There's a plantation we visit in Charleston, that has some of the oldest slave dwellings in the United States. It always awes me to think that entire families and sometimes even several families lived in those buildings. They're no better than glorified doghouses, really. I was worried that the boys wouldn't get the full impact that they are meant to impart, but I think they did. At least as much as 9 and 13 year old boys can.

Natalie said...

1) The slave castles in Ghana (the ones in the film) were built by Portuguese and Swedes to be used as trading posts and were later co-opted by British and Dutch colonials. If people don't know that slaves were shipped all over the world they need more than this documentary to educate them.

2) I never said anyone should be held responsible for slavery. What people should be held responsible for is continuing to heal the divides that exist in our country. No your family may not have held direct culpability for slavery but simply being white in this country they enjoyed the benefits of what the system built. People need to realize that.

I always hear the "my ancestors had hard times here too" thing and frankly it makes me sick. All immigrant groups have hard times but none (except for the indentured servants here and there who were allowed to work for a definite period of time until freed) were subjected to a lifetime of work without pay and then moved into a vicious debtor cycle like sharecropping where there was only the most insignificant of chances to get ahead.

Native Americans do share in the hardship and their struggle is an entirely different problem. However, albeit riddled with flaws, Native Americans have gotten some form of retribution in reservations. Then again, I have read MANY news stories of whites of Native American descent nulling the link to the tribe for Blacks of Native American descent to shut them out of casino profits.

3) Who doesn't acknowledge that Lincoln emancipated the slaves? But also, who that knows their history truly believes that the Civil War was fought to end slavery? It was about preserving the union and keeping the south economically crippled after the war. Freeing the slaves ensured the the South would not be economically viable for some time. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel states. Abolition was a result of the war but not the cause for it.

What I think people are owed is equal education, community programming and activities, economic revitalization of suffering neighborhoods, etc.

BA- When I took my students to visit the Gullah Nation in South Carolina we saw many such buildings. It was a very hard trip but also it was nice to see how the community there has come together and truly embraced their history and culture to make something wonderful.

Katrina said...

Sounds like something I'd very much like to see.

I'm in the same boat as anonymous, at least as far as I know anyway. My family has always been in the north and never had anything to do with slavery. I do know some fought in the civil war for the north though, which I just learned.

Anyway, it's still a touchy subject and as said, I'd like to watch it. I'll have to see if there's going to be a rerun or if it's available for renting/buying somewhere.

Katrina said...

"It was about preserving the union and keeping the south economically crippled after the war."

I know, it's amazing how many people do not know this. Either because their history teachers never taught it or skimmed over it. I don't ever remember being taught this in any social studies or history class over the years. It wasn't until I met HD and he told me. I asked him where he learned that and he mentioned some history books he had read after high school. He also didn't remember ever being taught it. Which is pretty damn sad.

Natalie said...

Katrina- I haven't heard about it being shown again but check MSNBC, they showed it twice that night. I also think that it is available to rent/buy.

Anonymous said...

You state "I always hear the "my ancestors had hard times here too" thing and frankly it makes me sick."
With these types of comments you shut down dialogue and the possibility of any chance of healthy communication.
This whole stance of "any white persons family history doesn't count because no one has suffered as much as my ancestors" is what will always divide this country. The issue of anyone's suffering is not insignificant nor is it strictly a black issue.
Truth be told you too have enjoyed the benefits of what the system built.
It would appear that until martyrdom is put aside in favor of an appreciation of each others diverse history we are assured of a division in this country that will truly never be healed.

Natalie said...

Anonymous- Frankly I never said the experiences don't count. Nor do I necessarily feel the need to have a conversation with people who I believe have a lot of ignorance on the subject. That can be someone else's fight. I'm too tired.

The thing is when I typically hear that "my people had it hard too," argument it has undertones of, "if my people made it past our hard times why can't yours," and that is an incredibly ignorant argument. One thing white immigrants could do that Black people couldn't is assimilate into the dominant society within a few generations as accents changed. They became accepted into the majority culture much quicker. My family left Russia and came to this country and eventually became business owners and successful members of the society. I'm not saying they had it easy at all but they could come and work and start with nothing and build something. That was much harder for Black people.

Mom said...

A few comments. Our family members came from Russia (and the Ukraine and probably other nearby areas) and pretty quickly (the children of the ones who immigrated) were able to become business owners and successful members of "mainstream" society. (Although there are still some people who will never accept Jews as fully equal.) I wouldn't consider reservations to be "reparations" for the atrocities perpetrated upon Native peoples in the name of our government. These lands might be better than nothing, but they don't even begin to compensate. And atrocities continued on. Yes, different particulars in the hardship but some of the result -- people who are excluded, mistreated, discriminated against, etc. -- is sadly similar.

After "Meeting David Wilson" and the follow-up discussion aired, MSNBC showed a documentary about bringing to justice two men who had participated in a lynching in the 1960s. In this documentary, lynchings were clearly identified -- by government agents as well as the filmmakers -- as terrorism.

David A. Wilson talked about feeling anger as he pursued his search, but he didn't show much of it overtly in the movie. It was a powerful piece and I'm glad I saw it. And it looks like this blog is contributing to the dialog that needs to happen. Thanks, Natalie, for being willing to write on difficult subjects. As I recently heard an African American scholar say, "Be the healing."