Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The House the Cooleys Built

This past Sunday, my last day in Greenwood from the first trip out with the film crew, my aunt Wilma took me to the house that my mother grew up in.  This house was built by my mother's mother's father, a man named Lonnie Cooley.  This photograph is what I found when I pulled up.  

I still remember visiting this house when I was a little girl.  My sister and I spent one hot, mosquito-filled summer here with my Grandma Doris.  My beautiful Grandma Doris had long silver hair and smooth, delicately soft brown skin.  The house seemed so big when I was a little girl. I remember the odd feeling of having the wood floors move beneath my feet when I ran across them.  I remember my Grandma Doris and how she made every meal for me and never let me clean one single dish.

Several years ago I came back to this house after my Grandma Doris died.  I’d traveled to Mississippi for her funeral.  My mom and I stayed in a local Greenwood hotel because, at the time, my aunt Dani was living in the house.  It seemed so small to me as an adult.  It was really only two rooms and a kitchen the size of a powder room.  I had no idea how seven children and three adults lived there. 

This house was the last house on a very short street.  There are dark woods on one side of it and a large industrial building across from it. 

I called my mom tonight to ask her to retell me a story she told me once when I was a little girl.  When she says "Grandma," she's referring to her Grandma Cooley.  Here’s what she shared.

“When we were growing up the only game that we could really play was baseball.  The four of us (mom, Vera, Nadeen, and Dani) were out playing baseball.  There were these men in a car who would drive up and down the street watching us play.  Then they would come back at night and drive up and down the street some more.

At night they would knock on our door and pretend they were the police.  I always thought they were the KKK. 

One night Vera Jean was doing laundry and she went to the back porch and saw a white man just standing there.  Vera screamed and came back in.  Grandma told her that no one was out there.  She got up and opened the back door and she saw the man standing there.  She started screaming for all of us to help her hold the door shut. 

When you’re little and something like that happens to you it stays with you.  The house was isolated and those men were coming all the time.  They used to try to break in on us.  They wanted the young girls.  I used to be scared in that house.  Every time I closed my eyes, I thought I would see something in the dark.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coming Out of the Fog

I keep wondering whether or not I should delete my late night post from Saturday, June 25.  That was a really, really long day.  

I was feeling guilty about all the time I’d lost the day before with the car accident so I really pushed myself to get as much done as possible to make up for it.  I took a call from someone who went on and on about what a terrible man my grandfather was.  Then, I sat down with a woman who not only told me that Booker Wright was a terrible man, but who also told me that if people weren’t telling me the truth it was because I wasn’t asking the right questions.  Little did she know how dirty I felt from asking "the right questions".

Then, I spent 90 long minutes in a debate with someone who felt strongly that all of these perspectives needed to be included in the film.  I kept trying to explain how I felt like a fraud because I’d convinced my family to participate in a film to “honor” grandpa, and that these perspectives could be hard for my mom and my aunt to swallow.  By the time that I got back to my hotel I felt alone, exhausted, and seriously irritated. 

To compound matters, I’d been away from my kids for 10 days and, to my horror, my family did perfectly well without me.  They missed me, but dinner was served, people got where they needed to be, and they even went camping all while I was away.  This is good news, yes.  But, I’ve constructed a life for myself that is largely defined by my immediate family and our daily happenings.  It was kind of humbling to realize that they were getting along fine without me.  While I, on the other hand, I had driven my car off the road

To put it plainly, when I wrote that post I was feeling a lot of things about a lot of things.  It was easier for me to label all of those feelings as “Booker’s a bad guy” than to actually face them. 

In the days since I wrote my emotion laden post, I’ve cuddled with my 4 year-old, slept in my own bed, and felt my husband’s arms around me.  Maybe I just needed time with my own living, breathing family to help me process the stories of the dead. 

Working on this film and researching my grandfather’s life has been the treat of a lifetime.  The most amazing thing is that there is a team of really smart, hardworking people who’ve committed themselves to gathering as much data about my grandfather’s life and death as possible.  I would never, ever have been able to collect this much data in so little time on my own. 

I still think my grandfather rocks.  He cultivated a successful life for himself during a very difficult time in a hate-filled place.

And he adored his children. When we interviewed Vera and my mom, Vera described how the two of them would run down the sidewalk and they’d both jump into Booker’s arms and he would swing them around and around.  This is just one of the many faces of my grandfather.  

Today I’m officially resolved about all the differing faces of Booker Wright.  When I started this process part of me was hoping to look upon him the way that an 8 year-old girl would, with wide-eyed innocence, missing the meaning of dirty jokes and not noticing the strange brew he sold. 

I thought my search for him would heal some childhood wounds of mine.  I opened up the envelope of my girlhood heart and stood like an idiot on McLaurin Street thinking that somehow I could fill it up with what it missed out on. 

That didn’t happen and the search continues.  I was able to confirm yesterday that my grandfather also ran another club called 225 or Club 225 which sounds like a darker and seedier version of Booker’s Place.  Yesterday I mentioned this to David, the producer, fully knowing that I was offering him an invitation to go deeper down the rabbit’s hole. 

Going forward I hope to be more removed.  I need to look at Booker Wright with two different pairs of shades.  The first pair will ignore and filter all the bad stuff so that I can imagine myself running and jumping into his arms while he spins me around and around.  The second pair will sniff out every lead and will closely examine every piece of data, because that’s what a good researcher does.

If you're looking for my emotional, self-pitying post from Saturday, I deleted it.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Goodbye For Now

I’m parked on the side of the road on my way to the Jackson airport.  I really didn’t want to come to Greenwood and wouldn’t have if not to make this film.  There isn’t a Starbucks here or a Sephora.  There’s no Target, no place to get a good wax or even a movie theater.

Today is my last day here and I keep catching myself trying to come up with reasons not to leave.  I know somehow that Greenwood is not finished with me.

As I sit by the side of the road, parked next to a sea of green that stretches as far as the eye can see – I have to admit what has always been true…this is what I came here to find – a place to belong.  Greenwood will always be a part of the dense tapestry of my life.  I neither understood nor appreciated it before – but it has called me home.

I can’t describe how conflicted I feel about leaving here.

I remember when I was a kid I thought the name “Greenwood” sounded so lame.  It sounded country and backwards.  But it’s perfect.  There really is no other appropriate name for this emerald forest.  It feels like someone tucked it away from the noise of the malls and the brightness of big city lights.  Finding it requires intention.

I regret not appreciating my Greenwood heritage before.  I feel so grateful that now my eyes can see the beauty of these lush hills that are so green and so vibrant that they radiate life.

Driving along these roads is an experience.  They are so narrow and the trees that line them are so tall that they seem to touch the sky.  It feels like these dense trees are momentarily parting to make a way for me to pass.  I keep looking into my rearview mirror to see if I can catch them coming together again. 

There is magic here.

Aunt Wilma

I woke up this morning still feeling really stupid about being in an accident and wanting to get as much work done as possible.  I had a laundry list of stops to make and people to reach out to before heading to the airport. 

I took flowers to M.W.  Her car was parked out front, but no one answered the door.  I left the flowers on her doorstep.  When I drove by about an hour later they'd been picked up.

I stopped by my aunt Wilma’s house unannounced.  That's her in the middle.  She retired last year after a lifetime of hard work.  I’ve spoken with her a few times over the last several months.  Every time I called her it was to solicit her help in tracking someone down. I always asked her how she felt since she’d had a cancer related surgery sometime late last year and I wanted her to know I was thinking of her.

When we screened the ’66 film my aunt Wilma was there.  When I talked to her that night I promised that, once the film crew left, I would come over for dinner and that we’d get some extra special time together.  Wednesday, after the crew rolled out, I wanted to go to the Voter’s League to find M.W.  I didn’t know where the meeting was.  I called my aunt Wilma for help and learned that she lives down the street from where they meet.  She gave me directions and then sat on her porch to point the way for me.

When I arrived at my aunt Wilma's today I suddenly wished I'd brought her something, like the flowers I'd just left for M.W.  She was still delighted to see me, of course.  We sat and talked, I could tell that she was tired.  She changed out of her night clothes and we went across the street to visit my aunt Edna.

Edna had lots of questions about the film.  I shared with her how well the filming had gone and mentioned some of the people we’d interviewed like Alix Sanders and Silas McGhee.  Wilma mentioned that her late brother had often gone with Silas to try to integrate the movie theaters. 

Somehow, from out of nowhere, my aunt Edna said that a friend of hers was there when Booker was shot.  I knew the name from my childhood.  I asked her if she knew how I could reach him.  She grabbed her phone, pressed two buttons and had him on the line.  Let's call him G.L. 

She asked G.L. if he’d talk to me about what happened the night Booker died and (big surprise) he said “no.”  Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about it?  (I’ll save this for another post.)

G.L. agreed to speak with me over the phone.  Before I could even ask a question, he told me that he didn’t want to talk about it.  I expressed my eagerness to learn about my grandfather and how I wanted to understand his life and his death.  After a little persuading, G.L. acknowledged that he was there and agreed to sit down with me at a later date to share with me all that he remembered from that night. 

Aunt Wilma and I left.  She took me to my Cousin Cassandra’s house, we call her “San.”  San was also there on Thursday night for the screening.  She's been very supportive of my work.  She actually drove out to Silas' house several weeks ago in an effort to track down his number for me.  We chatted and her youngest daughter and I played a silly game.  Then we left.  I took aunt Wilma back to her house.  I hugged her, thanked her for her help, and promised to spend more time with her when I come back with the crew in several weeks.    

Then I made several more stops and inquiries regarding my Booker Wright research.  I went to a Catholic church where I met a woman named Ms. Bessie who has volunteered in the Greenwood community since 1952.  She helped publish a paper called ‘The Center Light” that, among other things, chronicled the happenings in the black part of town during the decades when Booker Wright owned his cafĂ©.  She told me to call her with specific dates and promised to pull archived issues for me.

She also remembered my grandfather.  She pointed out a few other women who knew him as well.  One of them is a woman named Betty Smith.  Apparently, she not only knew Booker, she frequented Booker’s Place and was good friends with JB Yates and Lloyd Cork.  She told me that Yates died last year in Greenwood Leflore Hospital after having his foot amputated because of diabetes.  She was a patient there at the time that he died. 

I went to the post office and mailed my real letter to Lloyd Cork.  I don’t expect to ever hear anything from him.  But reaching into space and offering a connection still left me feeling slightly exposed.  He’s a murderer.  He has my name and, even though I used a PO Box, it lists a Phoenix address. 

I left the post office and went to the Alluvian to treat myself to a delicious lunch only to find that their restaurant was closed.  I decided to eat in Jackson.  I typed “Jackson International” into my iPhone map and started out of town.  Then I remembered that I still needed to visit Rena, my cousin who is also Wilma’s daughter. 

Rena is such a nurturer.  She’d picked a bunch of Mississippi wild blueberries for me because she knows how much I love them.  She fed me and made me a fresh pot of coffee for my drive.  She also told me that Wilma has Stage 4 cancer that's spread to her lungs and her liver.  The prognosis does not look good.  Rena, who is always so strong and so stable, shared all of this with me with great simplicity.  She did not editorialize.  Instead of mimicking her bravery, I sat in her dining room and cried. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I Got to Visit Oxford, MS!

I went to Oxford yesterday and had dinner at a restaurant that's got black and red checkered floors and terracotta colored walls that are adorned with Christmas lights even in the middle of June.  The restaurant was called Ajax Diner and the food was divine.

I had a cornbread stuffing with a not-too-sweet cranberry relish that took me back to the obligatory annual late-November meals of my youth.  The green tomato casserole sang with a tangy cheese sauce that made me never want to leave the Deep South.

My plan was to head into Oxford to meet a friend for lunch.  I left my hotel around 1 in the afternoon and, according to my GPS, the trip there from Greenwood would take about an hour and 45 minutes.  It actually ended up taking closer to six hours.  I had a little detour. 

It sounds overly dramatic to say that I hydroplaned, but that’s the only explanation I can come up with.  In one second I was driving down the freeway, in the next one I was skidding sideways.  

Here's what I can piece together.  It was hot and humid when I left Greenwood.  About an hour into my drive it started to sprinkle, and then it started to rain.  I noticed that the rain was getting more intense and it was harder to see what was up ahead.  Next I noticed that my car was slowly veering into the lane next to mine.  I tried to correct it and was suddenly perpendicular to the road.  It felt like someone had taken the SUV, violently yanked it to the left, and was then awkwardly dragging it down the freeway at about 50 miles per hour.  In the skid I could almost feel the SUV trying to not flip over.  I know that I'm making it sound as though I skidded for a long time, but it was probably a second or two at most.

The skidding seemed to lessen but I was now headed off the road.  Again, I tried to straighten out.  Again something seemed to angrily jerk us (me and the SUV) to the side and then drag us down the road.  This happened one more time and then my car went into a ditch. 

In the ditch I swerved to avoid a wall of massive green trees.  I drove in the ditch next to the freeway, or kind of drove in the ditch.  It was bumpy and, even though my foot had long since come off the accelerator, I was probably still going fairly fast.  The SUV bounced up into the air like a ball and then slammed back into the earth again and again.  Every time it was in the air I could think for a split second.  I would tighten my grip on the steering wheel and try to sit up straight and then BOOM!  It would crash into the ground.  I screamed.  I cried out to God.  Then it occurred to me to apply the breaks.  After much skidding and more screaming, we finally stopped.

I've never been in a car accident before.  Maybe someone else would've known exactly what to do, but I couldn't seem to get a grip on how alarmed I should be.  Was the car okay, would it drive?  Would someone pull over to come get me?  Was I supposed to sit there and call the police or continue driving to Oxford?  I wanted someone to lend me their brain and just tell me what to do.

My husband, who is usually the first person I think of when I need a brain loaner, was camping.  I knew that he was miles away from cell phone coverage so I didn't even try calling him.  Plus, my battery was quickly fading and I didn't want to waste any of its juice.

I called the production coordinator, but our calls kept getting dropped.  In the few minutes we were able to talk she said I sounded lucid and I agreed with her.  It was still raining really, really hard.  The cars were flying past me.  In my state of lucidity I realized that I was starting to feel afraid and somehow a little suffocated.  I know myself.  I'm worthless when I'm really scared.  

I was in a ditch, visibility was low, and I had 3% battery life left on my phone.  I looked up the freeway and saw only a long stretch of road.  I looked the other way and saw the same thing.  I had to get out of that ditch.

I knew that the longer I sat there the harder it would be for me to muster the guts to drive out onto the slippery freeway and merge with the semi-trucks that were zooming past me.  Without thinking any more about it I started to drive. 

I don’t know long I drove before I saw the first freeway exit.  What I do know is that there was a Wal-Mart there and I figured I could get a charger for my phone.  I went in, found a phone charger and went to the register to pay for it.  Every step seemed to introduce some new pain: my neck, my back, my shoulder, my arm.  The woman at the register looked at me sideways and asked me if I had a pinched nerve.  I told her I’d been in an accident.  She said I needed to get to a hospital.  I told her I didn’t know where a hospital was.  She told me that I was right next to one.  Thank God. 

It turns out that I was in a little town called Batesville that's about 30 minutes outside of Oxford.  The production coordinator called an oral historian from Oxford, not to record the intricacies of my crash, but to meet me at the hospital and make sure I was okay.  The three of us ended up going into Oxford for dinner.  They wanted me to eat a decent meal before taking my muscle relaxers and pain killers. 

That’s how I ended up at Ajax Diner.  Although it took awhile to get there, Oxford did not disappoint.  It felt like a youthful, happening oasis of activity tucked away in the quiet woods of Mississippi.  It’s a place that's appreciated.  Many of the towns I’ve visited in Mississippi seem untouched by outside influence.  Oxford is not one of those towns.  In a really good way, it’s clear that Oxford is treasured.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

For Erlene

When I started this journey I knew that at least part of it was about loss.  Four summers ago I was sitting at my desk and asking Vera about her recollections of her father, Booker Wright.  The more that she talked about him, the more that her voice changed.  It was like hope, love, and immense loss were all bound up together and riding on her words.  I remember feeling disappointed because I wanted to bottle up her sound, her emotional resonance and share it with the world.

About a year ago I was getting deeper and deeper into the story of Booker’s life.  I’d learned about his separation from his mother and I was beginning to perceive just how lost he’d felt all the years of his life before he finally reconnected with her.  I can’t remember where I was, but I remember the pit in my stomach and feeling suddenly breathless when it dawned on me that Booker’s mom lost him twice.  She lost him when he was taken from her as a child and then again when he was murdered 44 years later.  Many times I’ve thought about fictionalizing the moment that Rosie learned about Booker’s death, which was days after learning that her other son had committed a triple homicide.  My plan was to write my way through it so that, at least for a moment, I could walk that walk with Rosie Turner.  I could carry a particle of her pain and leave her a little less alone.  I still haven’t had the courage to do it. 

Today, I learned of another pathway of loss in this story.  I sat down with Lloyd Cork's mother, her son murdered my grandfather.

I sat on my mark and waited for her to come in.  The plan was for me to sit across from her.  I asked David, the producer, and Ray, the director, if I could please sit next to her.  I’m a person of touch and I knew that if and when the interview became painful I would want to touch her hand or her shoulder just to make sure that she knew I was not out to do further damage to her.  I lost the argument, I think in order to film both of our reactions I needed to sit across from her.  In the end, I think placing me across from her was the most honest.  I kept leaning as close to her as I could, partly because she couldn’t hear me and partly because I just didn’t want to seem so far away. 

But I couldn’t reach her.  I couldn’t reach her hand and I couldn’t seem to reach the core of who she really was.  When she sat down and I introduced myself, it was clear that she was not expecting to sit across from Booker’s Wright’s granddaughter.  I found out later that her niece, the one who worked with the production team to pull the interview together, didn't tell Lloyd Cork's mother the true purpose of the interview.  Her niece knew that she never would've agreed to do it.

For almost the entire interview Lloyd Cork's mother kept her memories and herself at a distance.  There was one moment when the veil seemed to momentarily drop.  It was when I asked her if she still thought about her son everyday.  She looked at me with wide eyes and then quickly dropped her face. 

I know that by most accounts the interview didn’t really yield any new info in the search.  But as I sit here in my room, I can’t stop thinking of her.  I’m convinced that we sometimes become who we have to become in order to survive the heartache of life.  Her son is gone.  He spent his life in prison, wasting away.  About four years ago he asked his family not to contact him anymore.  Since then he hasn't responded to any of their letters. 

I’m thinking of my own two boys.  I just called home to check on them and they were playing in the mud.  I often worry about them.  I worry about whether or not they’ll love to read the way that I do, I wonder if they’ll find a true love for God, I worry that they both may be lifelong slobs.  I don’t worry about them getting angry one day and shooting someone in cold blood.

Where does that come from?  When does a human being go from suckling at the breast to murdering people?  How many times would a mother retrace every conversation and every act in search of the moment when it all went wrong?  Whose fault was it?  What turned Lloyd Cork into a man who had so little value for human life that he killed my grandfather in front of multiple witnesses?  

She has some interesting ideas about what happened the night Booker was murdered.  I don’t want to challenge those ideas.  As a matter of fact, I would encourage her to hold onto them for the rest of her life, because they might be the only thing that gets her through it.  

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Two Daughters Remember Booker Wright

This morning we sat down with my mom and Vera at Doe’s Eat Place.  I honestly think it was the best interview we’ve had so far.  They were both quite relaxed.  We talked all about Booker and what they remembered of him. 

Before the shoot Vera was recalling how excited I was when I called her to tell her that Booker had done something special and that people were interested in him.  She said that she didn’t want to make me feel bad because she could tell that I was so excited, but at the time, she thought that they had the wrong person because her dad was just a regular guy.  And now, here we are. 

It was amazing to hear their recollections of him.  Taking the time to really go back and remember their daddy was clearly cathartic and healing for them both. 

When I was growing up my mom never really talked about Booker.  Actually, she simply never talked about him….period.  It’s weird to hear her talk about him now with such love and affection. 

She loved him.  I think the reason she didn’t talk about him at all when I was a kid was because she was afraid of the pain.  It was devastating for her to lose him the way that she did.  I think it broke her heart. 

Maybe she wasn’t able to give her whole heart to me when I was young because she was still reeling from the pain of Booker’s death.  Maybe I can let her off the hook. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Childhood Story Revisited

Today during our interview, my father shared a story with me that I'd long since forgotten.

To be honest, I can't remember exactly what he shared on camera today, I was still kind of reeling from visiting Booker's Place for the first time.  But I do remember the story as my dad told it to me as a child.

When he was about 14 he was walking down a dirt road and he got into an argument with some white boys.  They were making fun of him and he picked up something and threw it at them.  This landed him in jail.  My dad is really tall, he's 6'8 and has was about this height even at 14 years old.  The cops assumed he was a grown man.  They threw him in jail and beat him.  Every hour or so they would come back and beat him some more.

When my father didn't come home that night, his stepfather knew something was wrong.  He went looking for my dad and found him at the police station.  He was able to convince them that my father was only 14 years old and they let him go. When I was a kid this story always scared the heck out of me.  I didn't really understand how much can change in just a few decades, so I was always really afraid of Mississippi.  It seemed like a place that still had nothing but dirt roads and white cops who'd beat you to death if they had a chance.

Ironically, when my dad shared this story on camera today, he credited this event with saving him from a life of crime.  He realized how unfair and horrible incarceration of any kind could be and he started working harder to keep his nose clean.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Littles

I already miss my kids.  My oldest vowed to stay awake all night, but he was asleep within a few minutes of laying down for the night.  I kept going in to check on him, half hoping that he'd wake up and that I could get just one more hug.  My plan for the night was to get some quality time with my little guys before heading off for 11 days.  Instead we ate a rushed dinner at Pita Jungle, went to Nordstrom's to pick up a pair of jeans I was having altered, hung out in the mall parking lot while we searched for my van, and then went home.  

The minute we walked in the door we all went our separate ways.  My youngest wanted his shirt removed so that he could do his business -  it's a quirk, I think it's adorable.  My oldest was upstairs reconnecting with his toys and I was checking emails.  The doorbell rang and it was a neighbor boy from down the street wanting to play with my kids.  I chatted with his mom while the boys played, then they went home and I realized that it was almost time for my littles to go to bed.  We only had about 20 minutes to cuddle on the couch and read a few chapters of a Magic Treehouse book.  

My oldest son is so warm these days, he's so open about his feelings.  He's not afraid to be vulnerable which is HUGE for him.  My youngest can never get enough cuddles, kisses, and backrubs.  I simply enjoy them.  I wish I could've scooped them up, put them in my luggage and brought them along with me on this journey.  

I keep wondering what it would mean to me if Booker Wright had blogged about his life and his thoughts.  This is actually one of three blogs that I maintain.  Hopefully one day my children or even their children will be interested in my thoughts and adventures.  I write this for them, to bring honesty and humanity to their memories of me.  

I Missed My Flight

In case you didn't catch the title of this post, I missed my flight.  The flight that's supposed to take me to Greenwood, MS (technically Memphis) so that I can make a documentary film about my grandfather, or my search to find him, or a film about education in America, or whatever the filmmakers decide to do.

I've been complaining, loudly complaining, about how I can't believe all the ways that my family members (and M.W., Booker's lifelong companion) are making it difficult to get this project off the ground.  They agree to be interviewed and then they back out at the last minute.  Now, here I am missing my flight.  I couldn't decide who to call or text. After what happened last night I was definitely not calling David Zellerford.  I sent a text to the person who's supposed to pick me up from the airport.  I offered her $1,000 if she'd agree not to tell David that I missed my plane.  I think she's considering it - seriously.

There's actually a little more to this story that I probably need to disclose.  David and I have had several conversations about luggage, clothes, and make-up.  These conversations usually end with him saying he has to go while I'm still in the middle of a sentence.  They don't ALL end this way, but most of them do.

For this trip David thinks I need one checked bag with minimal amounts of clothing.  I think I need one bag for shoes, one for hair styling tools, one for skirts, one for get the picture.  In my defense, I still feel somewhat in the dark about what we're actually going to be doing.  I want to make sure that if I end up walking through snake infested grass with my dad out in the country that I'm wearing more than a pair of shorts and sandals.

Plus, I have no idea how often I'll be on camera. Will I be sitting down to do interviews or will I be sitting in a back corner with a notepad watching while Raymond does all the interviews? Option two would require shorts and t-shirts. Option one requires a lot more than shorts and t-shirts.

At some point in the last few days I realized that my airline charges a fee for checked bags.  My desire to bring a lot of luggage kind of became a tension laced joke between David, his assistant and me.  So, I felt like a champ when I figured out how to arrange my clothing so that I'd only need to check one bag.  It's the size of a small car, but I still felt like I'd accomplished something great.

I'll give you one guess as to why I missed my flight?  I didn't get to the airport early enough to check my bag.  The woman at the counter actually said that if I was willing to leave it that I could still make my original flight.  Needless to say, she put me on a later departure and changed my connecting flight as well.

So, I'm sitting in the airport feeling somewhat overdressed.  I'm wearing a pink dress and high heel shoes.  I'm dressed like this because I have no idea how long after arriving in Greenwood I'm going to be expected to be on camera or if I'll even be on camera at all today.  The first thing on the Thursday morning calendar is an interview with Senator Jordan.  I was hoping to at least arrive during the interview so that I could see him and thank him for his help all those years ago.  Now, I'm just hoping that I haven't royally screwed up any critical production plans for the day.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

And We're Back On

I barely slept last night.  This morning I have to convince my aunt Vera to be interviewed with my mom and me at Doe's Eat Place this Sunday in Greenwood, MS.  After last night I can't even think about calling David to tell him that she's a definite "no".

When I spoke with Vera last night I got the sense that she was looking for a way out.  Is she nervous about being on camera?  As I think through my conversations with her over the last several months, there is one thread that was always present - a concern that her Daddy would be poorly portrayed.

Something changes in Vera when she talks about him.  He is still larger than life for her.  She remembers him as being almost glorious.

I've never had someone close to me die.  I get the impression that people who experience a loss as devastating and as unexpected as Vera did when Booker Wright was murdered, may spend years sifting through old memories until they can find a safe spot from which to perch.  They probably sit in that safe place and look over their valley of memories, making sure that the wonderful ones are getting the most sun.

People must move on.  They can't relive every memory over and over again.  Vera did that work and she probably did it decades ago.  She reconciled her memories of her father into a neat file so that she could go on with her life.  When she pulls out the file she remembers his smile, his love, his warmth, and his magic.  The bad things just never make their way out of the file.

I know, I'm mixing metaphors, but I'm really grasping at anything to help myself understand.  I want to know what she needs from me to help her feel comfortable moving forward.  Would a film that focuses on the negative side of Booker somehow send her back to the day he died?  Would it rob her of the image she's constructed, the one that gives her peace and helps her cope?

How can I help her see what I see in Raymond and David?  They want nothing more than to tell the world just how great and bold my grandfather was.  I keep thinking about Frank and how meaningful that meeting was for me.  I realize that I need to take Vera there.  I need to explain Frank's journey to her and help her understand that the people involved in this are all motivated by good will.  Booker's story is safe with them.

I call Vera and tell her about Frank De Felitta.  I tell her about what he saw when he visited the concentration camp and how it made him feel.  I tell her about the article he read that made him want to make a difference.  I tell her about how he didn't just interview Booker, but how he spent time with him.  I tell her that Frank offered to delete Booker's scene from the film.  I tell her that newspapers all over the country wrote articles not only about the film, but about what Booker said in it.  I tell her that in all these years Frank De Felitta never forgot Booker Wright.  I tell her that Ray's love for his dad is so strong that it's almost palpable.  That Ray would never make a film that tears down Booker because of what it would do to his own father.  I talk for so long that I'm actually out of breath.

"Okay, you can fly me to the conference."

She told me that she didn't need a call back, either.  She trusts me.  I can have David buy her a ticket, arrange a car service for her and she will be there on Sunday to sit down with me and my mom to remember Booker Wright.  Praise God.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

And sometimes it hits the fan...

My aunt Vera called tonight to tell me that she probably can’t be interviewed this Sunday because she’s planning to be on a bus headed to an out-of-state conference during the time that she’s supposed to be on camera.  I told her the producer could fly her to her conference after the interview.  She said she wasn’t willing to drive in a strange city.  I told her they’d get a car service for her.  She said she wasn’t comfortable with that.  She then said, “Can’t Kat just represent the both of us?”


At a few minutes before midnight New York time, I called David Zellerford, the producer.  He sounded exhausted.  As plainly and as calming as I could, I told him about my call with Vera. 

After two beats of silence he said, “Well, that just f---s everything up.”  He went on to express his frustration with a raised voice, more choice profanity, and an in-depth explanation of his ability to deliver anyone, to any major city in the world, at any time.    

I just sat there holding the phone and wishing that a gust of wind would suck me into a hole in the space-time continuum and deliver me to any other moment besides that one. 

Thankfully, oh, thankfully, David worked it out before I had to respond.  Like always, he started thinking of solutions.  They could film my mom, my aunt Vera, and me late Saturday night.  He thought of creative ways to convince my aunt to let us fly her to her conference.  If we couldn't interview her he said that maybe that’s the story.  Why won’t anyone talk about Booker Wright?  We could focus on family and its complications.  Maybe a camera follows me and my cousin around while we try to get someone, anyone to talk to us about my grandfather. 

Then he started explaining that he wasn’t upset with me and so on.  But he didn’t have to explain.  I get it.  He’s spent countless hours figuring all this stuff out.  His staff made arrangements, calls, etc.  Before a single plane ticket was purchased I had a solid yes from M.W., from her daughter, from my mom, my dad, and my aunt.  Now it was looking like only two of these people were going to be interviewed.  I’m frustrated and embarrassed.  I promised that I could deliver my family, now it seems that I can only deliver myself and a whole bunch of cancellations.  My stomach is in knots. 

By the time we got off the phone, David's concern over possibly having upset me was much more prominent than his frustration over the fact that he’d made so many plans around this interview and now it was falling to pieces.  I always tell people that I adore him.  This is one of the reasons why.

Even though David is exhausted and knows that he won't be going to sleep tonight - I think he has to catch a 4AM flight and he was still packing when I called to dump this pile of mess on him – we managed to get off the phone laughing.  I am so lucky to be working on this project with such amazing people.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


It's 1:20 in the morning and I can't sleep. My stomach is in knots and I can't seem to get a deep breath. My head is foggy, things seem unclear. Hopefully, I can write my way out of this. I'm trying to wrap my mind around a question. It's a big one, a game changer.

Did someone encourage Lloyd Cork to murder my grandfather?

Wow. Was Booker's death more than random? Was it more than just one angry guy making the worst decision of his life in a moment of alcohol induced stupidity?

I feel sick. Physically ill. I want to get in my car, drive to the airport, get on a plane and go to that prison RIGHT NOW.  Maybe if I could stand there, on the grass outside the prison walls, I'd find the truth wafting in the air like a scent left just for me.  With one deep breath I'd know the entire story of my grandfather's murder.  

Part of me desperately wants to sit down with Lloyd Cork. Part of me doesn't even have the courage to imagine meeting him.

Okay, I'm going to try to pull it together so that I can get some cohesive thoughts down. Several weeks ago I received a copy of Lloyd Cork's file from the Leflore County Courthouse, a 210 page set of documents.  It was strange at first, to read the eyewitness accounts of Booker's death. I originally asked for it because one of the producers of the documentary made a comment that brought into question whether or not Booker threw Blackie out for the reasons I'd always been told.

As we all know, memory can be funny. Often times oral history can be a more dramatic, more colorful version of actual events.  I needed to know for sure.

In that first reading, I scanned every piece of paper in the file. There were handwritten notes from Cork and other pieces that gave me pause. Then I got to the trial. It was surreal to read the eyewitness testimony of people who, not only were there when my grandfather was shot, but who were standing so close to him that they themselves were injured. I was relieved to read testimony that described Blackie as coming in and going straight to a table where two whites were eating. What the argument was about isn't mentioned, as a matter of fact, I can't recall if it was even asked.

Through this whole documentary film process I've told myself that I'm committed to the truth. Whatever comes up, whatever we find, we won't be dishonest about it.

But, I think out of loneliness I allowed Booker to become almost mythical in my mind. I was in a really sad place when I first learned about him. I felt lost and insignificant within my family of origin, like no one could really see me.  I believed that my life was not really important to people who I desperately wanted it to be important to.

Thinking that someone like Booker Wright was part of me brought me so much peace and hope. When I first started talking to people about him I remember I always felt really nervous that I would hear something that would diminish the greatness I perceived in him. The opposite happened. Person after person, interview after interview reconfirmed with beautifully described details a warm, generous, smart, and very brave man.

Someone working on the documentary started saying that all of the stories need to be vetted. Which of course they do, but I started to fear that maybe my hero was made of sand and that, when this whole process was over, I'd be left staring at a few dusty little grains in my hand, the rest of him blown away by the "search for the truth".

Anyway, I'm off point. I initially thought that I'd gotten what I needed from the docs about Cork and I tried to just go into work mode. It was a piece of valuable research for this documentary and I tried to think of it as nothing more. But I felt protective of it. I took it with me when we traveled. I kept rereading it. There were some things about it that just didn't sit well with me.

Then, the other day, the producer mentioned that maybe there was more to Booker's death than what we know, maybe Cork didn't act alone.

Honestly, I keep thinking that I need to finish this post, but just writing it out is making me feel more at peace. I don't have any control over what happened all those years ago. He can't disappoint me because he never met me. I have the film and I have the memories he left of himself. If someone else intentionally had him murdered, I hope they pay for that. Probably not in this life, but definitely in the afterlife. I can't get too jumbled up in this. I can't let myself get wrapped up in looking for vengeance...I can't lose my breath.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Email I Just Sent to David

I just got off the phone with Margurite Butler.  For the first time she and I talked about Erby Butler.  Without any prompting from me, these were some of the things she mentioned.  

She said that she never understood where the gun came from that Lloyd Cork used to kill Booker.  She said that Cork was with a friend that night who had a pick-up truck and that the gun was in the truck.  I don't know where this information came from and it's too late for me to call my Greenwood contacts right now.  And I probably won't have time to do that until late tomorrow afternoon.  Anyway, she makes a good point.  Nowhere in the 210 pages of transcripts is a gun mentioned.  They also don't mention the types of crimes Cork had committed before.  Was he even in a position to secure a weapon like that?

I asked her if she knew anything about Erby attacking Blackie in prison.  She said that she'd always believed that the whole thing was set up.  She just blurted that out the minute I mentioned it!  She said the people in the prison knew that Blackie had murdered Erby's brother and that it made no sense to have them in the same population.  And you know what, I agree with her.  

Okay, so I am just sort of beside myself..I guess I'm freaking out a little bit.  What if someone arranged for this to happen?  I feel like I am going to come out of my skin if someone else is walking around, living their life, thinking that they got away with murdering my grandfather.  I know the odds of us ever getting to the "truth" are unlikely.  Sorry to be so emotional, this is just really, really fresh.  

I just keep putting little pieces together:

1. Not a single witness was called in his case.
2. No defense was presented.  And I'm not saying "no defense" for dramatic effect.  His attorneys literally did not put forth any sort of an argument at all.
3. Cork was not mirandized, his attorneys failed to mention this as well until the appeal.
4. Then they put him in prison within reach of his victim's brother, a known murderer.  

Maybe there's a simple explanation for all of this...I almost hope that there is.  The alternative turns my stomach.  I'm going to bed, I'm too upset.  I'll sleep on this.  Maybe it's nothing, maybe I'm just too close to it to see that none of these individual pieces make a whole.  

What do you think?

The Problem with Dates

Another gem from "I've Got the Light of Freedom" by Charles Payne.

The following quote appears on page 217:

"Silas’ skeptical attitude towards the 1964 Civil Rights Act is worth noting.  He felt that there had been laws before, there had been court decisions before, and they had not necessarily meant anything.  Legislation serves our need to render history understandable by giving us convenient benchmarks, and we may therefore be tempted to exaggerate its significance.  The bill is taken to be a great watershed.  The bill in itself, though, may have been less important than the willingness of people like the McGhees to insist that it be enforced.  That insistence, I would argue, is the crucial break with the past, not the legislation itself.  There is nothing about the record of the postwar federal government, the Kennedy administration not excepted, to suggest that Washington was going to enforce any more Black rights than it had to enforce."

It reminds me of what I was trying to express with this post.  When we look back on history, we oftentimes utilize the dates to mark the end of something that was much too great to actually stop on a dime.  Mass hatred, genocide, abject poverty and ideas that inhabit and inform cultural norms cannot be done away with when a law is passed.  

The McGhees

I just read a wild story about the McGhee family in "I've Got the Light of Freedom" by Charles Payne.  Mrs. McGhee, a black woman living in Greenwood, MS during the civil rights movement, was actually physically aggressive towards white police officers - but only when they really deserved it.  Once at a rally a cop tried to hit her with his nightstick, she grabbed the nightstick and the officer!

She had three sons, Silas, Clarence, and Jake.  All three of them shared her enthusiasm for their basic rights and her fearlessness in their pursuit of them.  They were financially harassed and their house was routinely attacked by firebombs.  When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Silas and his brother Jake decided that they wanted to start exercising their new right by integrating the movie theaters.  Their efforts to enjoy a movie in theaters that had once been "white's only" caused riots and arrests for both Silas and his brother.

One afternoon Silas got into an argument with a white police officer.  Later that evening he was shot in the head at close range.  The book says that immediately after he was shot "he could hear a woman's voice over his car's shirt-wave radio: 'They got the n-----! They got him!'"

They took him to a hospital in Greenwood and, according to Bob Zellner (a legendary white civil rights worker) Silas was not offered medical treatment.  Once inside the hospital "no one made any effort to help him.  'It was like that wasn't a question,' says Zellner.'"

The story of the McGhee family is comical and frustrating at the same time.  I think theirs should be a household name.  Not only did they show bravery and courage, but they showed a gut level understanding of their rights as Americans.