ANCHORAGE - February is Black History Month, of course, and a program at UAA on Friday will take an Anchorage audience back deep into the South at the height of the often bloody civil rights movement.
I talked today with the co-producer of a documentary about a man who might have been a martyr of the movement -- and in doing so found a bit of a parallel with my own life.
There are several connections here.
The film's co-producer, Yvette Johnson, who will present the film Friday night, is telling the story of her own grandfather, Booker Wright.
In the film, the director, Raymond De Felitta, has revisited a documentary by his father, Frank, who originally told Wright’s story in 1966 -- a film appearance that some suspect was behind Wright’s murder seven years later.
Booker Wright had a dual life in Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1960s: He owned his own restaurant, Booker's Place, which catered to the town's black population, even while he worked on the side as a waiter in a whites-only establishment across town at the height of Jim Crow.
In 1966, his two-minute appearance in the made-for-television documentary "Mississippi: A Self Portrait" caught national attention.
"Some call me nigger,” he said into the camera. “All that hurt, but you have to smile. If you don't, what's wrong with you? Why you not smiling?"
Johnson, of Phoenix, Arizona, said Wright did not use the rhetoric of the ascendant black power movement.
"But what he did do instead was he said this is how I feel when I lay in bed at night, this is how I have to act when someone calls me ‘the N word’ -- I have to pretend I don't mind. These are the worries that I have for my children. And so he connected with people not as a black man but just as a man, as a father."
Johnson knew little of her grandfather until about seven years ago, when she started doing some genealogical research to give her young sons a stronger sense of their identities as African Americans.
In the resulting chain of events, she started a blog, published some essays, coproduced a movie, and is starting a nonprofit foundation and writing a book.
"I mean, you know, the book is sort of, it's the story of why I needed to find my grandfather in the first place, sort of that feeling of -- which I think a lot of people of color who grew up in my generation have had similar experiences -- I mean, we sort of grew up after the civil rights movement was over, but in this time in our country that's not post-race. And what that feels like, to know that you're different, but you're not supposed to talk about it."
The new movie, “Booker's Place: A Mississippi Story,” takes Johnson back to Greenwood, which she left when she was two years old, to learn more about her grandfather's life.
Wright was shot to death in his restaurant in 1973 by a young black man, whom some Greenwood residents think was hired for the assassination, possibly by police.
"When I heard the story and initially learned about my grandfather and learned about his murder, I didn't really have any questions about it; it all seemed to make sense to me. But the more research I conducted and the more that I dug, the more questions that came up."
Hearing Johnson’s story reminded me a bit of my own.
When I searched for my biological family 20 years ago, I discovered they had a strong connection to the civil rights movement.
My grandparents, Herbert and Jane Newton, had as a houseguest the famed author Richard Wright while Wright was working on his landmark race-relations novel “Native Son.”
Jane is said to have served as a sounding board for Wright and also as the likely inspiration for the character Mary Dalton.
She became a figure in the civil rights movement herself when in 1933, as a white woman married to a black communist, she gave birth to my mother, triggering a national scandal and an insanity hearing at which Jane was declared “not only sane but brilliant.”
America just inaugurated its first black president for a second term.
So I asked Johnson why these stories are still relevant.
She said, "I think we're still as a country -- I think it's very difficult for people to talk about race. And in some ways I think that the job of dealing with racial issues today is much more complicated. A), we have people who are politically correct; they just don't say the wrong thing, they're not to say exactly what's on their mind. But also I think a lot of the racial issues that hold our country back or that create that tension are a lot more subtle."
It’s not as black and white as it once was, in more ways than one.
“Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” will be screened Friday evening at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the UAA campus.
There will be a reception at 6 p.m., the film will be shown at 6:30 and then there will be an audience question-and-answer session with Johnson afterward. The event is free.