You have to feel sorry for the panelists at Howard University. The group, moderated by NBC News anchor Brian Williams, recently discussed the documentary, “Meeting David Wilson.”
It is about a young black man, David A. Wilson, journeying from New Jersey to North Carolina, looking for answers to his questions and issues about his ancestral slave past. He meets up with David B. Wilson, a white man and descendant of the slave master at the plantation where A’s antecedents had been in bondage.
The responses to challenging questions may not reconcile the burden of an ancestral slavery past, but it’s at least direct talk. Their post-traumatic stress has persisted after seven generations. They represent why each new black-and-white chafing reminds us about hate, anger and hurt in everyday life.
Because of the recent dust up over Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former minister, black rage-white guilt was called up again to the public eye. To many this was the call for another public discussion about race. But for most people there is little if anything new to say about it. The discussion continues stuck where it was.
What continues undiscussed is important. Isn’t Barack Obama, as the first black president, intended to signify the end of a level of race prejudice? But did he not run away from race until the Wright episode forced his hand? And doesn’t he really represent mixed race, black-and-white, and not of a slave ancestry? Why could he not become the first mixed-race president? Is there a constituency for that?
What about Hillary as the first woman president? Where is the women’s perspective on society and governance in the post-birth control world. By extension, what is the women’s perspective on the future of children and families? Does it all just boil down to a few liberal programs that don’t take a woman to advocate?
And what about John McCain? Isn’t the idea that this white man of war knows the road to peace and security better than others? But instead we get somebody who proposes endless war with no peace in sight? Is this Dr. Strangelove coming to haunt us?
Are they big symbols and small substance? Or, to put it as a political cliche, “Where’s the beef?” The public was set up for a paradigm shift and there was none.
That’s why the panel discussion following the Wilson documentary was so disappointing. If the presidential candidates are behind the times, at least the public discussion didn’t have to be. But it was.
The group included columnist Mike Barnicle, entrepreneur Malaak Compton-Rock, author Michael Eric Dyson, radio host Tom Joyner, writer Kevin Powell, Rev. Buster Soaries, screenwriter Kriss Turner and Tim Wise, director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education.
There were no black Latinos in that discussion, nor white Latinos, nor mestizo Latinos (Latinos are of all races), no Asians, no Native Americans nor people of the many other variations of humankind — representing an alternative to the black-white conundrum. So it wasn’t a “conversation about race,” certainly not one for the United States of the 21st century.
To her credit, audience member Lisa Rawlings, 33, a graduating Ph.D. student at Howard — herself originating from St. Kit in the West Indies — could see through it. About the documentary itself she volunteered, “it wasn’t really substantial” because the two David Wilsons “didn’t challenge each other enough.”
There was a moment in the documentary when some Latinos were working in the tobacco fields “probably in pretty similar conditions to the ones the slaves were in,” she said. While the two Wilsons engaged in their own dialogue about their races, they “acted as if they (the Latinos) were invisible,” she said. “It seemed to be like the next wave, like the system of exploitation, was reinvented with a new group of people.”
That’s how even a panel conversation becomes an inward-turned monologue. All this talk and such little depth about what we should learn from the slave past.
(Jose de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)