Write Up: Meeting David Wilson

by Latoya Peterson

Last weekend, while channel surfing, I was flying through my channel line up when my remote paused on a program I had heard about for quite some time – Meeting David Wilson.

The MSNBC site describes the documentary:

David Wilson was a 28-year-old African-American man from Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in a tough, urban neighborhood, but managed to navigate his way out of poverty and into the world of news production in New York City. Now, meet another David Wilson: a 62-year-old white man from rural North Carolina. He grew up in Caswell County, where his ancestors once farmed tobacco. He now operates a small chain of BBQ restaurants in nearby Reidsville. Although they have never met, the two men share more than just a name…

Coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., MSNBC premiered “Meeting David Wilson,” the remarkable and inspiring story of a young man’s reconciliation with his ancestors’ history as slaves. The world premiere of “Meeting David Wilson,” was hosted by “Today” Correspondent Tiki Barber and followed by a 90-minute live discussion of racial issues in America.

I had heard of this story on NPR, the black man who tracked down his ancestors and the descendants of the family that owned them. I was intrigued. But Meeting David Wilson is so much more than just a meeting, or just a story of two families – it is one of the few documentaries I have seen able to dig deep into the issues that have resulted from race and slavery in an accessible, humanized way.

I came into the story a little late, so I missed the opening scenes as discussed in the trailer above. By the time I tuned in, David’s journey to the South was already underway. He explains that his family worked on a tobacco plantation, and chose to spend a day harvesting tobacco the old fashioned way. A white tobacco farmer helps him on this part of the journey, and explains to him how the process is done as well as how it used to be done.

David Wilson also visits his family graveyard and talks to one of the town elders about his family and the history that she remembered. The story is fleshed out with lots of historical references and benefits greatly from David’s narration. After spending the day on the tobacco farm, and the night finding out about the lives of his ancestors, David Wilson prepares to meet the other David Wilson in the morning.

At this point in the documentary, the question is posed: What does David Wilson (white) owe David Wilson (black)? Random samplings of people on the street were asked how they would react to meeting the descendants of an enslaved family or slave holding family, depending on their race. Most people are too confused to really comprehend the idea.

Of the white respondents, one tries to explain the situation away (“blacks live better here than anywhere else”), another deflects entirely (“I don’t owe anyone anything!”) and a third honestly describes discomfort (“If had done something that wrong to someone, I wouldn’t want to meet him.”)

For the black respondents there were a lot of questions and anger, but not so much at David Wilson (w). It was the situation itself they reacted to strongly. Most people were just amazed that this could happen. The town Elder mentions that she thinks David Wilson (w) owes him nothing. She reminds David that the history books have shown who the victors of that particular part of history were – African-Americans are now free, and are able to move forward. She encourages David (b) not to expect anything of David (w), but instead to turn inward and work within the community.

At this point, we meet David Wilson (w) who is open an willing to discussion.

While walking and talking on the grounds of the plantation, David asks David Wilson (w) about the racial climate in the South. They discuss segregation. David (w) is a little nervous but discusses frankly his memories of segregation. “It was the way it was,” he eventually states. David (b) asks: “Did it ever bother you that you could play with your black friends, but not go to the same school?” Uncomfortable silence prevails. David (w) admits he never thought of it in those terms. He also mentions that you never know what you are missing when you never know anything different. Interesting.

DW (b) asks about the last name Wilson and what it means to David (w). David (w) mentions history and legacy; David (b) brings up slavery and family connection, as well as the loss of the original family name.

David Wilson (w) breaks in and asks point blank if slavery didn’t help blacks out of the inescapable poverty of Africa. Taken aback, David (b) mentions that America, too, might have been impoverished if it were not for the free labor of blacks. Both men shift back into uncomfortable silence.

At this point, it strikes me how brave both these men are. This conversation is really uncomfortable, and it would be difficult to have with a close friend, let alone a stranger. And yet, they are finding their way through.

They both enter into the plantation (which is now referred to as a “Stately Southern Mansion” by relators). David (w) explained the slave quarters and how land was parceled. David (b) goes to try to locate slave quarters. He finds one in an overgrown section of the woods and went inside. It is dilapidated and small – it brings to mind the idea of a rustic cabin. David (b) is profoundly moved – he feels like he is the manifestation of the prayers for freedom that took place in that space. He is what they hoped for: he posses a free life to do as he will.

I must admit, I started to tear up a bit.

Both David Wilson’s ancestors lay claim to Christianity as their chosen religion, so the Davids had a conversation about religion and slavery. David (w) believes that owning others and being a Christian is a state in conflict, but he also mentions that at the time the norm, slave holding was the norm. David (w) also believes that hypocrisy is inherent to the human condition. DW (b) seems frustrated by the answer – perhaps he wanted a stronger condemnation from DW (w).

DW (b) brought up reparations as a hypothetical. DW (w) does not feel that what was done 150 years ago is something that he is responsible for correcting. He believes he can kind of help with the other kind of work, like educating about history and fighting racism. He asks what would reparation money to be used for, and if it would have any help at all. DW (b) agrees, and thinks that financial may or may not help. He thinks that schools need to provide a wider understanding of history and African Studies should be widely taught.

After the conversation, they had dinner at DW’s (w) restaurant. The men bonded over Southern Style Barbecue.

David Wilson (b), notes: “I began to see less and less of the descendant of a family of slave owners, and more and more of a decent human being.”

Later on in the evening, the two men talked about what they would tell the slaves/slave masters respectively. The slave masters would be told about the impact on history. The slaves would be told that their suffering was not in vain.

The segment ends with an MLK quote from the “I Have a Dream Speech:”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Talk about speaking truth to power.

The documentary continues with DW (b) completing a DNA test to see if he and DW (w) were blood related. While David (b) is waiting on the results, he invites DW (w) to go to his family reunion. (Later, it is determined that David Wilson’s origins are in Ghana, and he and David (w) are not related by blood.)

David Wilson’s (b) family is shown undergoing ritual where they all held cowrie shells, to be returned to Africa on the next leg of David’s journey. After the shells are collected, David Wilson (w) pulls up in a town car, having brought some of his relatives as well. The porch was full of members of David’s (b) family – and they all watched David (w) pull up and step out of the car.

David (w) cracks: “I didn’t know whether we were being received or deceived – but it was a great day.”

The reunion seemed like lots of fun. The two familes shared, sang and danced together.

In the morning, DW (w) and DW (b) went to church together.

David Wilson(w) was not too concerned over the results of the DNA test: “David and I are not related in blood, we are related in history,” he said.

After visiting with his family, David (b) hops on a plane and goes back to Africa.

This segment has African-American children talking about Africa. The conjure up images of dark people, poverty, AIDS, and jungles. But David flies over a beautiful landscape and ends up in a vibrant city. He went to a store called “African Royal Fashion,” and proudly walked out wearing a full outfit – only to be looked at strangely by a young guy in western street clothes.
(Later, David pairs his new shirt with jeans.)

David travelled outside of Ghana to visited two slave forts, as well as “The Door of No Return.” His hired guide explains that the door site is where they lost contact with their ancestors forever. David also toured the slave dungeons and spent a very cold night there.

When he returned to Ghana, the people held a ceremony to welcome David Wilson and heard his story.

Finally, David wades into the water off the coast of Ghana and scatters the cowrie shells he collected earlier.

Moving into the last segment, David states: “People asked me what I learned in this journey. I learned to be African and American.”

After a short reflection, David is shown giving a talk to school children. He reminds them that the struggle of slavery resulted in African-Americans coming out as the victors. The ancestors have overcome, and now it is our turn to carry on their legacy.

David asks the class if anyone has questions.

Every child raises their hand.

The final scenes show that both David Wilson’s are still friends, who email and call each other on a regular basis. The series ends on a hopeful note, with David Wilson stating what we would all do well to remember:

“Our future together is more important than our divided past.”