We recently saw an arresting documentary film entitled “Moving Midway,” a story about saving an old North Carolina plantation house and discovering the family histories behind it. Midway was a plantation founded near Raleigh in the 1840s. The old house and outbuildings (not as pictured in Gone with the Wind, by the way) were now surrounded by a busy highway and encroaching shopping malls. The owners, direct descendants of the founder, decided to sell the ancestral land and move the house and buildings a few miles away. As the plans got underway, a cousin in New York stumbled across a professor of African-American studies at New York University who seemed to be descended from this same founder. As the story of moving the house unfolds, so does the discovery of the ties of the family with a whole network of descendants from the widowed founder and his cook. In the process we delve into the plantation myth that has warped our collective memory and blinded us to our common heritage. The movie has a fine website, www.movingmidway.com, where you can also buy the DVD. The film can also be seen on PBS stations (especially here in North Carolina!).
Among the many themes emerging in the movie is the different meaning the land has to the descendants. For the descendants of slaves, the land is a memorial to toil, loss, and brutality. It would be better paved over to salve the wounds. And indeed, in the end it is. For the white descendants it is an attachment to a productive enterprise and gauzy memories of ancient nobility and gallantry, scarcely blemished by slavery and exploitation. But the land and house effect a kind of reconciliation as well, as the professor says to the cousin-filmmaker words to this effect: “I wish I hadn’t liked you, ‘cause then I could have heaped all sorts of guilt and invective on you.” Indeed, the film becomes a collaboration in which the goal is discovering and acknowledging the truth about their pasts. Reparations for past injustice are to be re-forged into common purposes for the future of a people who are of one blood in the way the racist theories and practices of the past could never imagine.
This discovery of this single cloth of our common humanity within the torn fabric of a genocidal century is going on everywhere, thanks not only the DNA and internet archives but to a new will to understand the unity of life within a fragile and endangered ecology. Either we affirm and work through our common humanity or we shall all perish.
Recently, my editor-friend Sara Jenkins alerted me to the existence of one such act of linkage called “Coming to the Table” (www.comingtothetable.org), which exists to “acknowledge, understand, and heal the persistent wounds of the U. S. institution of slavery.” Check it out. Let me know if you know of other efforts like this and share it with others in this network.
These two efforts at reconciliation come to our attention just as the country is going through a wrenching transition from an electorate dominated by white males, some of them with myths of heritage, gallantry, and noblesse oblige, some of them with visions of the self-made man, magnanimous industrialist, or cowboy loner. We see both the stuttering efforts of people like myself to lift up the best of our past and let go of false privilege, as well as the frantic ravings of the gun-obsessed, the Obama-and Hillary- haters, the super-nationalists and rebels of lost causes. In the midst of this, we need to come to the table, dig up our past, and move along. As we start this new year I am vividly aware of this task. It is doubly vivid because in ten days we go to South Africa and Namibia for seven weeks to renew friendships, enjoy some summer, and take the pulse of a country whose past and challenges so mirror our own. I’ll try to put up some posts as we move through this experience.