Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Crack in America

My meeting with Raymond and David is fast approaching.  I know I should feel excited about the possibility of making a movie about my grandfather. Everyone in my life who knows about this is excited.  I'm not excited.  I'm worried.

To be fair, neither Raymond or David has said or done anything that would make me think I can't trust them.  The problem is that I know my family.  Disappointment, alcoholism, a lust for money - it's all part of the family brand.

As much as I respect the filmmakers, we're obviously coming at this with different agendas. In one of my very first conversations with David he said that if their research revealed things about my grandfather that were less than stellar, he and Raymond may need to address them in the film.  He was up front with me from the beginning.

I'm just not being upfront with myself.  The truth is that as long as I'm doing this research on my own I can choose not to explore avenues that may tarnish my view of my grandfather.  If I invite Raymond and David on this journey with me, I'm forfeiting that choice.  I know that I need to reconcile this in my mind before I meet with them because they're not going to use my emotions as a compass for this film.

That's why I've had such conflict about this research.  I want someone in my lineage who I can feel proud of, someone who my young sons can look to as an example of character, hard work, and all that stuff.  But, I'm seriously afraid that in the end, I'm going to find out that Booker Wright was a terrible man who had one good moment.

My deepest desire for this work is to find a place where I can stand and look at my grandfather's legacy with untarnished pride.  Even I know that's unrealistic.  The more that we know anyone the more that we see the flaws that make them human. I want to know him more, but I don't want to know him more.

So, what can I really expect?  If I work with Raymond and David I can make sure that my family doesn't experience anything like that funny, yet terribly sad moment from the movie the "The Fighter."

In that movie, Christian Bale's character is a washed up fighter who really had a shot at greatness.  He lost his career because of an addiction to drugs.  During most of the film Bale's character is followed around by a camera crew.  He tells everyone that the crew is making a documentary about him and some of the great moments from his career as a fighter.  The night the documentary aired on HBO his family and friends are all sitting together ready to watch their loved one receive honor and glory.  

The documentary starts and the title is something like "Crack in America".  The documentary wasn't about this guy's life as a fighter, it was about his life as a crack addict.  Of course, his family is devastated and completely humiliated in front of their friends and their entire community.

If I go down this road with Raymond and David, I won't be able to control what happens but I can at least make sure that my family doesn't find out something terrible about Booker Wright at a premiere party surrounded by all their friends.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Call with Dr. Roen and Vera Made Me Cry

Dr. Duane Roen, an expert in family history writing and family writing ethics, took a few minutes today to chat with me about the information I learned from Margurite. He said something that struck me as interesting and insightful.  He said that just because people don't want to talk about the past doesn't mean that they want it to remain hidden.

So often when I've tried to bring things up about Booker with my family I hear silence on the other end of the line.  Yet, they seem to be on board about my research.

Dr. Roen also reminded me that the filmmakers probably have the resources to uncover whatever they want about my grandfather.  I can work with them and, at a minimum, keep my family in the loop on what we're finding.  Or I can work against them and have a "Crack in America" moment.

I just feel uncomfortable being in the position I'm in.  Who am I to call my mom and my aunt and reveal information to them about their father?  Who am I to alter the way that they remember him?  They can't call their dead father on the phone and ask him why he may have kept secrets from them.

I just don't want to be the one to do the "grand reveal".  But if I don't do it, then who will?

So, I called my aunt Vera today.  We chatted for a few minutes and then I told her to sit down.  I told her what I learned about Booker from Margurite.  Not only did Vera already know, but she made a really sweet joke about it as well.  Phew.  Then I called my mom and learned that I actually only had half of the story!

When I spoke with Vera we had a very candid talk about how the filmmakers may find things that we don't want exposed.  As a family we're going on a journey to uncover as much as we can about Booker Wright, and the odds are that some painful things will come out as well.  We just have to be prepared for that.

Then, Vera made me cry.  She told me that what I was doing was good and that she was proud of me.  She said that if Booker had met me he'd be proud of me, too.  She said that every time I walked into his cafe he'd stop what he was doing and tell everyone in the room that I was his granddaughter.  She said he'd brag on me and tell everyone he knew how beautiful, wonderful, and special I am.  She said that we should have no regrets about embarking on this journey to honor him.  I hope she's right.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pot of Trouble

Today I was able to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with Margurite, Booker's half sister.  Margurite grew up in Chicago and would often travel to Greenwood to visit Booker and to work in his cafe.  Since she was not from the South, she was struck by certain differences along racial lines.  Margurite remembers that she and M.W.'s daughter would often go places together.  Booker would always tell M.W.'s daughter not to allow Margurite to speak to white people.  He was concerned that she would say the wrong thing and get into some trouble.

Margurite shared a story with me about an occurrence that has stayed with her all these years.  One day she was working in Booker's Place with M.W. and another female employee.  Booker was not there at the time.  A white police officer walked into Booker's Place straight through the restaurant and into the kitchen.  He walked over to a pot of food that was simmering on the stove.  He put his bare hand in the pot, took out a large piece of meat, leaned against the stove and ate it.  Margurite remembers that as he stood there, juice was running down the sides of his hand and dripping onto the floor.

What Margurite remembers the most is that no one said anything.  M.W. did not say a word and neither did the other employee.  When the officer finished eating the meat, he turned around and simply walked out of the cafe.  Immediately, M.W. took the pot of food, opened the back door, and tossed it onto the grass.

When Margurite told me this story it sent chills up my spine.  It seemed like someone was sending a message to Booker's employees...that no matter how successful they thought they were, they were not beyond this man's grasp.

Surprising New Information

Towards the end of my call with Margurite she shared something major with me, something about Booker that I didn't know and that I've never heard from anyone in my family.

What do I do with this new information?  Do I tell David and Ray without telling my family?  Maybe these pieces aren't relevant to the film.  I really think they're not.  But what if David and Raymond find this information out on their own and use it without our knowledge?  Can I trust that they'll tell me about it if they do find out on their own?

The other thing I'm wrestling with is that Vera seems so fragile.  She hasn't heard the audio from the video yet, and I don't know if she really even wants to.  She actually said that it was painful enough to just see her father on screen.  She expressed that hearing his voice may just be too much for her.  I'm grappling with trying to figure out how to be sensitive to the pain that remembering seems to be causing her, while trying to collect and organize as much data as I can so that I can work with David and Ray on making a great film about my grandfather.

Can I justify hurting the living in my search to understand the dead?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Man Who Murdered Booker Wright

This is him, the man who murdered my grandfather.  His name is Lloyd Cork and he was 22 years old when he shot Booker Wright.  He's been in prison for 38 years.

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.  

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

David Zellerford

Today was a rough day.  I knew before I woke up that it would be.  For years I've had a hope for my family and tonight we were supposed to start the journey that would fulfill that hope.  But we didn't start our journey.  The start date is indefinitely delayed.

I woke up several times through the night last night.  I didn't want to face today.

All in all the day was fairly routine.  This morning my kids and I met their grandma (my mother-in-law) at The Farm at South Mountain.  We had breakfast there and walked past their garden.  My kids studied their chickens and their cacti.  We were there for so long that we ended up buying lunch to go.  Then the kids and I went to the splash pad to hang out with their pals.  I hoped that staying active would make it easy for me to maintain a happy face.  My oldest son can read me like a book.

In the end it was a long, hot, wet, and fun day.  After Milt came home from work I went to run some errands.  When I came back I had an email from Sherry Rankins-Robertson and one from Donny Whitehead.  Before I could finish reading the emails, Sherry was calling me on the phone to tell me that earlier that day she was contacted by a man named David Zellerford who said that he has film footage of my grandfather.

I was elated and numb at the same time.  I knew in an instant that while today most likely marked the end of one hope, it was going to be the realization of another.  

I emailed David, he emailed back and told me to call him anytime tomorrow.  I couldn't wait so I called him tonight.  It's the film.  He has the film of Booker Wright talking to the NBC news crew.  He didn't send it to me because he wants to film my reaction.  I don't know why he'd want to film my reaction, but I really don't care.

I can't believe this is happening.  I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see the film, if it really even existed.  It feels like my fate is rising up to meet me when I really need it the most.