Saturday, April 12, 2008

Meeting David Wilson

MSNBC presented a major event last night, a film that every person in America who has the capacity for rational thought needs to see. It was called Meeting David Wilson. David A. Wilson is a 28-year-old black man from New Jersey with a passion for exploring and understanding his culture, to include illuminating his family's life in America. Through careful research he was able to locate the plantation where his family, then slaves, had acquired the surname Wilson from their masters. Further research lead him to find a contemporary descendant of his family's white masters, David B. Wilson, a 62-year-old restaurateur in North Carolina. The two David Wilsons joined together to explore their past and to talk extensively on the subject of race in America.

This film was amazingly well done. The two Davids met at the old North Carolina plantation house which had been abandoned since the 1950's. Later David A. Wilson fought his way through brush and brambles and succeeded in locating one slave cabin that was still standing. As he explored the barely standing shanty, it was unclear whether David was absorbing his ancestors, or they were absorbing him. It was beautifully done.

There was an engrossing segment where David A. Wilson's extended family of one hundred plus members met David B. Wilson's wife, children, and grandchildren. They spent a day picnicking and getting acquainted, and attended a church service together where the two Davids sat next to each other while taking communion.

David A. Wilson had his DNA tested as a part of this project to see if he was related by blood to the white Wilsons (he wasn't) and to learn where in Africa his family had originated. He learned from that test that his roots were in Ghana. He traveled to Ghana and saw firsthand the prison where his ancestors were kept before being sent in shackles to America. In one of the most moving segments of the film, David told the ghosts of his ancestors in that prison that he was there to let them know that their prayers had been answered and their descendants had finally achieved freedom and dignity.

This film premiered to a packed house at Howard University in Washington, DC. Howard University is a predominately black institution of higher learning that produces more black doctoral degrees than any other university in America. There was a raucous standing ovation for the film as it concluded, followed by ninety minutes of a panel discussion among prominent individuals who discussed the film and its implications. The panel was hosted by NBC news anchor Brian Williams and included a wide range of individuals, both black and white.

The panelist whose words touched me the most was Malaaka Compton-Rock, the wife of comedian Chris Rock. She is a social activist in a poor section of Brooklyn. When the topic of reparations for slavery came up, she commandeered the conversation and lobbied hard for allocating more money toward educating black youth and providing libraries and computer labs equivalent to those that most white youth take for granted.

Every child needs access to good libraries, and all libraries (and schools, and churches) need to have a copy of Meeting David Wilson. If we are truly to understand one another, the process must begin in childhood - and this film is a good place to start the conversation.

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