Meeting David Wilson
The least talked about subject by far, in the incessantly gabby culture that characterizes America, is that shameful buried past of slavery, and the social and family blood ties that intimately connect the two races but whose relationships with one another have long been buried and unacknowledged. So young Newark, New Jersey born filmmaker David Wilson made the very emotional, painful and quite courageous decision to search for the white people down South that once owned his family.
And oddly enough, David discovered in his research, the older North Carolina descendant of the family that enslaved his ancestors, a man who also bears the name David Wilson. The ensuing revelations, which included his forbears’ dismal slave quarters and cemetery on the former plantation property, along with a subsequent journey back to Africa to seek spiritual closure, had such a profound impact on the younger David, that he created an extraordinary documentary about that entire experience, Meeting David Wilson, which will air on MSNBC.
I contacted both David Wilsons by phone, to talk about their remarkable encounter. In this joint interview with them, they are identified as DNJ (David Wilson in New Jersey) and DNC (David in North Carolina).
PRAIRIE MILLER: David, why did you not only want to go on this journey, but also make a documentary about this very personal experience?
DNJ: Well, when I first started the journey, which is really looking into my family’s past, I had no actual intention of making a documentary. I’m really more of a behind-the-scenes type of a guy!
But as I started making these discoveries about my family’s history, I felt, this is a story that I have to tell, and that so many people would benefit from. But it took me awhile to really see that.
PM: Now, what were the reasons that it was important for you to discover this history, for better or worse, because it could have turned out a lot worse.
DNJ: I always say, that this is a journey that started for me when I was a little kid. I was born in Newark, and I always wondered how and who I came to be in life, along with my family. And so, I always had this burning interest and desire, to know about my family’s past.
And when I started learning all these things about my ancestors, and about the other David Wilson, I realized that all that low self-esteem and low self-worth that I had experienced as a child, had I known all this information about my ancestors – all their strengths and the things that they went through, it would have made a great impact on the way I perceived myself. And my chances in life.
And so I realized, this could be helpful to a lot of other black kids, who were born into the same environment that I grew up in. And this is also a way that we can encourage a national conversation, a different conversation about race.
You know, not one that’s divisive. But one that says okay, how do we move forward from here, and where do we go. We understand history and we understand what happened, but where do we go from here.
PM: And how do you see this film as both a search for ancestry, and a search for identity?
DNJ: I think once you understand who your ancestors are, and you understand their strengths, then you realize that you are the sum of your ancestors. And if they had the strength to go through all the things that they experienced in life – from the slave ships and plantations to segregation and Jim Crow – then that sends you a message.
And that’s, hey listen, by extension I have that same type of experience with race. And I can overcome whatever problems I have today. And that gives you a greater sense of self-worth.
PM: Now David, why did you agree to be part of the other David’s film? It must have been a really strange request, and that you never got anything like it before in your life.
DNC: Well, nothing exactly like this! It was a call I got at my restaurant about two years ago, and it was David saying that he thought my ancestors once owned his ancestors. But it did get me interested, knowing that my ancestors had property in the area where David was from.
And the more I talked to David, this just sort of evolved. So the more David and I talked, the more interested I became. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that David was genuine, and that his motives were too. And, you know, not just trying to be sensational, or that type of thing. And that he was interested in finding his ancestry. So it just sort of evolved into a good relationship.
PM: Well, if you received that call now, it probably would have been a lot less shocking, what with all the DNA revelations recently about whom the presidential hopefuls are relatives of, including Barack Obama being related to Dick Chaney and Robert E. Lee.
PM: So talk about that whole experience of getting that phone call from David asking to meet you, and your emotional reaction.
DNC: Basically, I didn’t even know if it was serious, because it was completely out of the blue. But I was certainly not offended by it. So my first reaction was curiosity, and it just evolved from that.
PM: And David, what was it like making that call?
DNJ: That telephone call to David was probably the most awkward call I ever experienced in my life. And probably ever will have. You know, I called him up after I finally got the courage to do it.
I said to him, are you David Wilson? He said yes. And I said, well I’m David Wilson too, and I believe your family once owned mine. And he paused for a second and said, well that could be.
And that was very uncomfortable, and also very confusing to me. Because I always say, for every situation in life, there are people who are in your life, elders, who can tell you what you should expect to experience and feel.
But there was no such blueprint or advice with this, you know? So I was really in uncharted territory. And it was just such an awkward conversation, for both of us.
And we ended up having a really brief conversation. We talked about the weather or something! But we did agree that one day, we would like to meet each other.
PM: Do you feel that meeting one another changed you in any way?
DNC: I think it encouraged me to think more deeply about the period in time in which I grew up, in the 1940s and 1950s. And that I was more or less naive to the racial situations. The community I lived in was of course segregated.
But it wasn’t later on, until the ’60s, that things became more vicious. So the phone call from David and the progression of this documentary, I think it did cause me to re-evaluate, and look at things.
But I don’t know that I look at things really differently, Prairie, since that phone call. I grew up with black friends and played with them in the rural setting that we grew up in, even though we weren’t in school together. So I never felt that I was ever biased or strongly against any ethnic group.
DNJ: For me, I actually learned a lot about white America. And even about whites who were slave owners. This experience gave me nuances, you know, instead of people as caricatures.
So in meeting David Wilson, I learned that white America is very interested in the issue of race. But there’s no forum for them to feel comfortable in talking about race. And that’s one thing that really surprised me.
PM: And do you feel your encounter changed the other David in any way?
DNJ: I think it’s changed David, in that he has opened up and started to see a lot of things. And he’s started to send me articles about race issues in America.
DNC: It probably changed both of us. I don’t like to speak for David, but I think by opening up dialogue, we both were able to appreciate each other’s point of view.
And throughout this whole experience, I have never felt – and I don’t think David has either – that there were any confrontational situations. I think it was just a mutual dialogue, where we were trying to understand one another’s perspectives. And I think it worked out very well.
PM: Yes, I think it’s quite interesting the way this whole process evolved and changed. Because at first you both confront one another rather uncomfortably, standing outside on the lawn, talking. Then you end up later on conversing together after settling into rocking chairs, in a very intimate and trusting way.
DNJ: Ha! Well there is an evolution in our relationship. At first, you don’t know how to respond, because it was very awkward then. At that particular moment, I was feeling a whole bunch of emotions, that I couldn’t identify with. I mean, literally.
But the more we began to talk, I felt that there was not just a burden on me, but I also felt the burden of my family, of my people, and the burden of my ancestors. So it was very nerve-wracking. But eventually, we really felt comfortable around each other.
And that helped us to talk about these very tough issues, that nobody wants to talk about. So there was an evolution in our relationship. And I’m proud and happy to say that our relationship still exists, and keeps getting stronger.
DNC: I think that just came out of opening the dialogue. And being able to listen as well as speak, and understand where each of us was coming from. And I think the conversation from both sides, came from our hearts, and not from any past negative experiences, or that type of thing.
PM: In Meeting David Wilson, you also go on a journey to see if you’re blood related. What mixed emotions between relief and disappointment were you feeling about that beforehand, maybe thinking about a brutal buried history of a family secret, or on the other hand, ending up disappointed that you might not be related to a man whom you had come to feel close to?
DNJ: You know, David says something in the film, even before we discover whether or not we’re blood related – but we don’t want to give that away to people who haven’t seen the film ! – and I think it’s so poignant and powerful. And that it speaks to the greater point of this film. He said, even if we’re not related by blood, we’re related through history.
And I thought that was such a powerful remark. Because it shows that yeah, we are all Americans. And we are all related in that regard. So what affects you, affects me. And that made whether or not we are blood related, less significant. And it shouldn’t matter, why should it matter. Because we’re all Americans.
PM: Did you gain any insights into stereotypes, misconceptions or preconceived notions? Because in a sense, the other David also bears the burden of his family history and the burden of that history in general, of which he’s not personally responsible.
DNJ: Oh yeah, there was this sense that when I went down there, I didn’t know what to expect. I talk about this in the film, that I was thinking I could meet some, you know, straw-chewing guy on his porch in a rocking chair. And that he was going to be some sort of pro-Confederate type of guy.
But David turned out to be the complete opposite, even though he’s a Southern white conservative. He also had an interest in race. And that was one of the biggest discoveries that I came upon. And that is, that many white Americans are passionate about the issue of race.
However, because of where we are with political correctness in our society, there’s really a fear to talk about race in the way that it needs to be talked about, in an honest way. So rather than really talk about the tough issues, they shy away from it.
But David didn’t do that. He says in the documentary when I ask him, do you feel responsible for what happened in your family’s past. And he said, no I don’t. But I do feel responsible, in the sense that my job is to help find a solution.
And I thought that was fair, I honestly do. I think we all need, as Americans, to try to find a solution. Because what’s happening in the black community isn’t just happening there, it’s happening in the American community. So we need to see the world and each other that way.
You know, nobody wants to be dubbed a racist or a bigot. But I think right now, there’s a real hunger for a discussion and a conversation about race. And I think that in the past, those conversations were divisive, and that they stopped at a certain point.
Like we’d talk about reparations and affirmative action, which would have people going their separate ways. But I think the conversations we want now, are more unifying. We know our history, and we know there’s a lot of divisiveness in our history. But where do we go from there.
PM: So what do you feel you learned about history through the experience of being part of this film, and the often quite strange intersection of the individual and history. And also the burden and impact of history on the individual, that is not necessarily of his own making?
DNJ: Well, I think that history is very important, in that it’s the one reference that we have to ourselves, that exists beyond ourselves. Most black kids only learn about their history through the prism of oppression.
You know, we only learn about our history through the prism of slavery and segregation, and not about the great African civilizations. And that has an impact on the way in which we see ourselves. And the perception that we’re born into a world that is stacked against us.
But one thing that I also learned in this, is the strengths that our ancestors had, in going through all the things that they went through. So I want to turn that negative into a positive, and show black children that our ancestors were not just victims, but victors, in their overcoming and their survival.
And then they can use that as a reference in their own personal lives. So yes, I think that awareness of history is extremely important on a personal level. And so now I put a premium on the value of history, more than I ever did before.
DNC: This may not answer your question, but I think the focus of David’s documentary and what it will reveal, is that you see two people from completely opposite backgrounds and in our history, who are able to sit down together.
And I think from David’s perspective with this documentary, he was able to generate within the black community, a sense of history. Also, that black Americans have survived a lot of turmoil and abuse. And that there’s a lot of strength and character in their survival.
And that this would give hope and encouragement, not only to black youth, but I think that it could apply to whites too, and other ethnic groups. But me and my family, we’ve all come to know David, and to admire what he is trying to accomplish. And we respect him for that.
PM: David, you’ve said that you accepted segregation in your youth, because it was such an ingrained part of the social fabric back then. Do you feel you would have also accepted slavery if you had lived at that time?
DNC: I don’t know that I could answer that truthfully. There are things that people do, whether they are right or wrong, that they may not realize the difference at a particular time in history.
You know, you can look back and see what was done, and think that it was not a good institution and that it was against Christianity. But at the time that it was being done, I cannot say that I would have reacted against it at that time.
And looking back, it was certainly not a good point for our history. But to say how I would have reacted back at the time, and being placed in that time, would be hard to give an evaluation on.
PM: What about the discovery in the film, of those slave quarters under the overgrown woodland, what was your reaction?
DNC: No, I knew that they were there. But Prairie, just being honest, I would not have had the same emotional reaction that David had, in reflecting on all of that.
So to be completely honest, I don’t know that I had any real reaction to that. But I did have a reaction to the way David felt about that experience. And I could certainly understand his very emotional reaction.
DNJ: For me, that experience of being there in that physical space, where I know that there were tears, I know that there was bloodshed, I know that there were prayers, you know, that one day things would be better for their children, for me to return there, knowing the life and the liberties that I have, there’s just no words for it.
PM: How so?
DNJ: Like just a great feeling of gratitude. And appreciation for who they were, and the work they’d done to make sure that my life is what it is today. So it was a really powerful experience.
Like you know what, these people worked so hard. And I really do wish, and I really hope, that it does put them to rest and to peace in some way. And that’s why going to their slave cemetery was so important for me. It was just so overwhelming.
PM: I can see it was. Did the process of making this film change in any way your perception of the meaning of race?
DNJ: Yes it did. Because it’s so silly, all the stock we put in race. And I discovered some surprising things. For instance, many white people didn’t believe in slavery back then.
But it was their way of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ And to be as well off as their neighbors, by owning slaves to be their workers. You know, most of us are decent and honorable people. But a lot of us, we do not have the courage of our convictions. That is, to say, ‘this is wrong.’
And I think that’s what happened with a lot of white America during slavery. And I feel that racism, saying somebody is inferior because they have a different complexion, helped to ease the anxiety and the doubt that many whites had about that awful system.
And unfortunately, those stereotypes have been perpetuated, and really affect young black people today. So the unfortunate thing about race, is that it was used to justify this capitalistic exploitation, which was free labor.
PM: What do you hope your film conveys to black audiences on the one hand, and to white audiences?
DNJ: I think for black audiences, if we can understand the strengths our ancestors had in overcoming, then we can have those same strengths. And we can overcome the culture of violence, the drugs, imprisonment, and the culture of anti-intellectualism. We can overcome all those things that plague our community today.
And I think for a broader America, I’m saying listen, let’s have a conversation. Let’s begin to have an honest dialogue. Our future is together. And it’s far more important than our divided past.
PM: I guess people in your town will be tuned in to the documentary when it airs.
DNC: They certainly will! But everyone will certainly not view it in the same manner, I’m sure. But I feel that there’s a great message there. And I think it will impact both blacks and whites, very positively in the long run.
PM: What was your own reaction when you saw the completed film?
DNC: Very emotional, I was very emotional. I told David right after I saw it and called him, I said to him, you’ve hit a home run! And I think he did. I think he’s done something that will touch the fiber and the nerve of many people.
PM: And I think you were very brave, to come forward and to be part of this documentary.
DNC: Well, thank you. But I don’t feel about it that way. I expect both positive and negative responses to the film. But I think that what David has tried to do, will make it all worthwhile.
PM: Do the two of you still stay in touch, and do you consider yourselves to be friends now?
DNC: We do stay in touch and communicate, and have dialogues two to three times a month now.
DNJ: We talk about everything from politics and religion, to everything else. So this is something that has certainly evolved. And I think we’ve each gained a friend.
For more information about Meeting David Wilson and its upcoming DVD release, visit: MeetingDavidWilson.com.
PRAIRIE MILLER is a WBAI film critic, and host and executive producer of The WBAI Arts Magazine. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.