Saturday, April 16, 2011

Booker Wright Tells the Truth

David sent the film to me today.  I am definitely feeling a sense of goodwill with this guy.  He could’ve tried to convince me to wait to watch it until he could get my reaction on film, but he sent it to me without the slightest hesitation.  I asked him to send it because they're not coming out to meet with me this week, maybe sometime next week.  I started to feel nervous that somehow the opportunity to see this film would slip away.  I just couldn't wait anymore.

My grandfather starts talking about a minute into this video.  

I’m still trying to digest what I just watched.  Every element of this film amazed me.  Seeing the interior of Booker’s Place, seeing Booker Wright the man, hearing what he had to say, the very sound of his voice, and his smile.  Vera has talked about how amazing his smile was.  Now I get it.  It is both captivating and reassuring.  Somehow, across time and space, through this old, long lost film, Booker Wright manages to radiate warmth, joy, and heartache. 

I always thought that Booker was approached on the street and asked if he’d be interviewed.  That’s why I called him an accidental activist.  I thought he just blurted out his honest feelings without thinking about the consequences.  After watching this film, I get the impression that there’s a lot more to this story.  He isn't speaking on the fly.  He is measured and intentional.  He knows exactly what he’s doing.  This moment was no accident. 

I am swelling with pride for him.

I can’t really describe how I feel about what he said.  I am so very sad for him that he had to live through that.  It must’ve taken a great strength to quietly endure that kind of daily humiliation.  What amazes me about him is that he still had joy.  He doesn’t seem bitter.  There isn’t a hint of self-pity. 

I am facing the reality of history.  I wish that he’d been born in a different time.  I wish that he’d never had to deal with being called the "n" word.  I wish that he’d been allowed to go to school.  But we have what we have today because of the have not’s of yesterday. 

Four years ago I wrote a fictionalized account of Booker’s story as I knew it then.  I was really interested in trying to uncover the thoughts of a "sympathetic racist".  It seemed to me that we’ve spent so much time vilifying the people who worked against civil rights that we’ve failed to acknowledge that many of them were everyday people, people that we would’ve had dinner with, let our children visit with, etc.  

I have long thought that if we only focus on the extreme racists that people today with milder versions of race-based bias may never actually see their views as problematic.  In other words, if we as a society agree that the only people who have problems with race are those who burn down black churches and lynch people, then we’re giving a pass to all the other people who have issues with race but who aren’t prone to violence.

All this to say that the film my grandfather appears in is not just a gem because I finally get to see a moving, living image of him, it’s also amazing because it captures the "sympathetic racist". 

There is a man in this film who talks about why it was difficult for some Mississippians to accept that the heritage and legacy their forefathers left for them was built on the exploitation of blacks.  He says:

"To be told all of a sudden that what you've been doing, what you've been believing in, the way you've been living all your life and the way your parents lived before you and your forebears is not only wrong, but immoral, is quite a shock.  It's easy to understand why the attitude of the white people in Mississippi to this new order of the day, this new change, was one of inflexibility and one of defiance."

Certainly some people held onto a warped view of blacks because the truth would force them to rewrite their own family’s history.  I know how much family means to me.  

I am exhausted and elated all at the same time.  


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