Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Semantics of Racism, and Why Conversation Can Change Everything

“I talk to David Wilson a few times a month. I actually talked to him yesterday,” David Wilson, a MSNBC documentary filmmaker said during a lecture at UMass Boston.

He was talking about the subject of his first film, his new friend David Wilson, a 62-year-old white man from rural North Carolina, who grew up in Caswell County.

The film, Meeting David Wilson, is a story about race relations, redemption, and a conversation between the great grandson of a slave and the great grandson of a slave-owner. It’s about the fallout from segregation.

Race matters deeply to the filmmaker David Wilson, who grew up in Newark New Jersey, in a district where neighbors rob their neighbors and children struggle just to make it through high school. More than two thirds of the friends Wilson grew up with are now either dead or in jail.

“Living in that context you begin to think that that is what it is to be black,” Wilson said. “In this film I wanted to explore what causes this insecurity in the black community.”

“For me, to be an African American was to be in this state of limbo. You have these perceptions of Africans as tribal savages or as Sally Struthers’s bloated children… And I never really felt like an American,” he said.

The desire to understand his ethnic identity brought Wilson to North Carolina, to a big white house on a former tobacco plantation, owned by another David Wilson who runs a chain of BBQ restaurants in Reidsville.

“I thought it was a mistake. I thought she’d written down my name and read it back to me,” Wilson said.

Filmmaker Wilson was visiting his great-aunt Sarah, who lived through World War Two and the Civil Rights Movement, when he discovered the plantation where his great grandfather had been a slave. In curiosity he called the city to find out who owned the property, and the woman who answered the phone gave him his own name.

David Wilson, the great grandson of John Jiles Wilson a slave owner on a plantation in North Carolina, had never heard of David Wilson before.

“We’ve been pitted against each other. He’s white. I’m black . . . We’re stuck discussing the semantics of racism.”

David Wilson, from Newark, got a phone number for David Wilson, from Reidsville, but he sat on the information for several months, nervous about what to say if he called. And when he built up the courage, the conversation went exactly as he thought it would.

“It was probably one of the most awkward conversations you can have. We talked for twenty minutes about the weather,” Wilson said.

But the phone call spawned the idea for the documentary.

“I wanted to show that you could have a conversation with someone about very uncomfortable things. And I wanted to show that the problem of low self-esteem is still prevalent in the black community,” Wilson said.

So David Wilson went back to North Carolina, and called David Wilson, the plantation owner, again.

As a child Wilson thought about race in the context of sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes – a show where a white man, Mr. Drummond, adopts two black children and raises them in a middle class neighborhood.

“That seemed like the perfect life to me, and I spent my childhood waiting and wishing that somehow there would be a Mr. Drummond who would come and rescue me,” Wilson said.

These childhood fantasies were not a condemnation of his family but of the way he perceived his own skin tone, and David Wilson described them as a manifestation of his insecurity.

David Wilson’s family supported him, as he was one of the only people from his neighborhood to go to college on a scholarship. When he graduated, he landed a job in journalism at MSNBC.

While working in television he shot footage for Dateline and other documentary type shows. And as he matured, his personal interest in his ancestry multiplied.

Early on while filming his documentary, Wilson imitated Kenneth and Mamie Clark Place’s social experiment, placing a black baby doll and a white baby doll in front of an African American toddler, and asking him or her, which one would make a better playmate. The results were depressingly similar to the tests done in the 1940s. Each child would start the interview laughing, and after they chose the white baby doll as the better toy, they each looked as though they were about to cry.

“That was one of the most difficult scenes to shoot because you just wanted to go out from behind the camera, give the children hugs and tell them that they are worth so much more,” Wilson said.

David Wilson’s film discusses everything from civil rights to reformation to reparations. While filming the documentary, David Wilson said his perception of American history changed.

“Poverty, disease and ignorance, these are our enemies . . . the discriminating factor is money. Wealth,” David Wilson said. “One thing I realized while filming this movie is that our history, American history tells the story of triumph. It is not the story of the oppressed. It is the story of the victor.”

Meeting David Wilson, an MSNBC documentary is available for purchase at

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