Tuesday Morning, April 15, 2008
Somewhere I got the idea that watching The News legitimizes the watching of television. Thanks to the new fangled Digital Video Recorder, which we’ve had for years now, we watch what we want, when we want. Someone might say that we’ve been deprived because we don’t watch commercials anymore. I guess if the whole country was like us, commercial television would go out of business.
At this stage in my life – with the benefit of DVR technology – news programming, educational programming, history and the arts would be our selection. So-called reality shows annoy me, probably because I’m past the stage where I’ll ever have that kind of chiseled, tanned body that would prompt me to remove my shirt for the cameras. Because we don’t record them, we don’t know the name brand characters for the sit-coms or the season-long story lines of contemporary dramas, either.
But The News is hardly a better place these days. The long, drawn out contest between the two “historic” Democratic Party candidates for President has descended into the mire of personality and character attacks; the very strategy that just a short time ago all parties gave a solemn oath to avoid. But here we are; making headlines that smack of Elitism, Sexism, Racism, Plagiarism, Favoritism and just plain old run of the mill Schism.
I’m thankful to live in a culture of Free Speech. The alternative is no improvement. But in the process, we must endure those who exercise the Freedom – and those who exploit it. In that context, there is a cultural phenomena that has me tuned in these days – it’s the issue of race in America. When Jeremiah Wright appeared on YouTube on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it opened the floodgates to a whole new level of conversation. Not all of it comfortable.
David A. Wilson, born in 1980, grew up in the forgotten streets of Newark, New Jersey. Crime and police raids and helicopters flying overhead were a way of life. But he had support. He learned to learn. He was a reader. Curious. Somehow, he managed to avoid the habits that may well have caused him to become a street thug, like many of his peers. He looks back now and remembers the friends who were gunned down in the streets and carted off to prison where they will probably spend the rest of their lives. Someone gave David college dreams, and the belief that he could make it.
It was there, at college, he began to pursue the study of his roots. He learned that he was just two generations from slavery. More investigation led him to the plantation in North Carolina where his relatives worked in the tobacco fields of a family named Wilson. More investigation put him on the telephone with a descendent of that family – a fifty-something year old man named David B. Wilson. Two David Wilsons. Both descendents. On either side of the Master/Slave divide. David A. Wilson – college student, black. David B. Wilson – grandfather, restaurant owner, white.
As the story unfolds, David A. sets out to meet David B. It’s a journey from the mean streets of Newark to the tobacco fields of North Carolina. From New Millenia enlightenment to pre-Civil War slavery.
Along the way, David A. finds aunts and uncles and cousins living near the old Wilson Plantation. It’s a ninety-seven year old woman, the oldest living member of Ebenzer Baptist Church named Daisy, who has some life-changing advice for David. She takes him to church. Back home on the couch in the sparse living room, she asks him, “Do you sing?”
“Uh, no… I don’t,” he says with a shy smile, not really understanding the point of the question.
“You’re a WILSON,” Daisy says. “You gotta sing. You shoulda heard your Grand-daddy. Oh, he could sing, that big voice, ‘there’s a storm passing through, it’s nearly gone, hallelu..’ he’d sing it big. Really big. My my. He could sing.”
David smiled at the story. “You can’t sing because you won’t,” she said and then she laughed out loud. He told her about his plans to meet the descendents of the family who owned their ancestors as slaves.
“Do you think they owe us something?” he asked the old woman.
“Owe us?” Daisy responded, stunned. “Why no, they don’t owe us anything. You just get that out of your head right now.” And then she thought for a minute after the rebuke that could only come from a sweet woman approaching her hundredth year.
“Here’s what you gotta do,” she said with the conviction of a prophetess. “You spend your life helpin’ our people stay off drugs and outa jail and live their lives with joy and purpose.” And then she laughed some more. And hugged him.
So David continued his journey. To the tobacco fields. To find a surprising friendship with David B. He found the slave quarters, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church founded by his great-grandfather after the Civil War. He went on to Ghana and walked through the Gate of No Return at the port in Senegal. And in the journey, the young man from the streets of Newark learned to sing.
The powerful documentary, “Meeting David Wilson” (MSNBC) ends with David A. in a classroom of young students back in Newark, teaching them the song of freedom and hope and reconciliation.
And in the laughter, you heard the voice of a ninety-seven year old woman. David found his voice.
It’s Tuesday morning. You are a leader. Do you sing?