Friday, April 15, 2016

Moving Midway: A Documentary From My Home Town

I watched Godfrey Cheshire's terrific documentary "Moving Midway" twice. Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic. He started his career around here when he founded a weekly newspaper in the '70s called The Spectator and published his film reviews in it. In 1991 he moved to New York City and began writing for larger publications up there. It's obvious he learned, in the process of writing about films, how to make one.

Midway starts out as a personal story. Midway is a big plantation house, built in 1848 as a present from a father to a son. It was one of a number of plantation houses situated on a gigantic plantation, 26000 acres I believe the film states at one point, which lay in eastern Wake and western Johnston counties. Hundreds of slaves did the work. This area of central North Carolina has suffered an explosion of population growth starting in the 1970s, and what was once a rural landscape has become, at the time the film begins, an urban hodgepodge of four lane highways, new subdivisions, and shopping mall after shopping mall. Already just across US 64 (once and still called the Tarboro Road by the folks who live in Midway by inheritance) a big mall has sprung up, and fifty-five thousand vehicles pass the front gate daily. The current owner of Midway, Charles Silver, decides, he tells his cousin Godfrey Cheshire, to literally move the house and some of the outbuildings away from this impending juggernaut. One part of the story, then, is a literal engineering marvel: moving such a building successfully from where it sits to... somewhere else. When the story begins, the end point is not known, and one of the chapters in the tale involves the actual negotiation and successful purchase by Mr. Silver of a piece of land close enough and big enough to make the move possible. A feature of this move becomes something more remarkable in the process: the move is to some degree overland, not down a handy paved highway.

(This sort of move was accomplished back in 1999 down on Hatteras Island, when the Hatteras Lighthouse was successfully moved away from the encroaching Atlantic Ocean. In that case they used the same sort of hydraulic jacking system, and of course the structure itself was even heavier than Midway house. The best part of that move, however, was that they were able to lay rail and moved the lighthouse, inch by inch, on a path that was already engineered level and plumb, which limited the danger of wracking to an absolute minimum. It was a remarkable move documented in its own right. As I was driving down Hatteras to the Ocracoke Ferry on a semi-weekly basis back in those days, I could personally note the changes as the lighthouse made it's journey, across the horizon and the line of the road.)

So this is one part of the Midway story. But it turns out that it not the deepest part. That part belongs to the massive and ongoing denial which the South's white culture maintains, even today, and since the beginnings of this dark foundation stone of America: slavery. After Mr. Cheshire's initial engagement with his cousin Charles Silver and Mr. Silver's decision to move the house, he meets one Robert Hinton, a black professor of African American Studies at NYU who grew up in Raleigh and started his educational journey by graduating from Raleigh's segregated Ligon High School in 1959, two years before I graduated from Raleigh's white segregated highschool, Needham Broughton. As Hinton remarks, "I didn't have the money for psychoanalysis, so I studied history." He wrote his dissertation, from Yale, on the transition from slavery to agricultural labor in the South. Hinton, it turns out, is the descendant not only of slaves who worked on the Midway Plantation, but literally the descendant of the owner of Midway, who had a sexual relationship with the black cook. Hinton and Cheshire, Hinton and Charles Silver and his two younger brothers, are cousins.

As Silver's mother, and her sister Cheshire's mother, also relate: "I am certain we treated the slaves kindly. We are not a cruel family." Across this chasm stretched a tightrope, which the film pretty successfully negotiates. Robert Hinton is credited as the documentary's historian, as he should be. Just like Jackie Robinson, he sees the world aright. It turns out that there are black Hintons galore in the Midway area. Another is Algia Mae Hinton, a Piedmont blues singer and guitarist who was accompanied for many years by Libby and my friend, the blues artist Lighting Wells. Her music underscores the documentary, and there's a nice little "extra" included in the DVD featuring her singing and playing, with Lightning appearing behind her.

Cheshire also chooses to tell the story of the Southern "Plantation Myth," as part of the larger context for Midway Plantation. He reminds the viewer of Gone With the Wind, a film still given great prominence in our critco-historical story of American Film, and probably watchable sometime this year on TCM. He reminds the viewer, too, of Birth of a Nation, which memorialized all the myths of segregation and the southern fear of black people, which justified and indeed exalted lynching and the general terrorism under which black people lived once they had achieved "freedom" in 1865. Birth of a Nation, another extra notes, has been banned from view in some American cities including Los Angeles.

The documentary is riveting at every level. Towards the end, Robert Hinton admits that he doesn't care at all about whether this house is saved, and would like to see all of North Carolina covered with asphalt, as a memorial to the slave labor his people endured. He says, to Cheshire, "I'm kinda sorry I like you, it would have been easier to hate you."

It might be remarked that quite a few notable Republicans (and certainly some Democrats as well, even now) believe the convenient myth that black people were "happy" and well-treated back in those antebellum days. Cliven Bundy, point man for the mining industry, comes to mind, and also Sarah Palin. There's an ongoing battle right now in many places in the South to finally remove statuary that exalts Civil War "heroes" such as Robert E. Lee, not to mention Nathan Bedford Forrest.

[a hat tip to Lawyers, Guns and Money, who posted this picture]

That's part of an ongoing effort to deal with Robert E. Lee at the University of Mississippi. These myths, which perpetuate denial on a multi-generational basis, continue. Last year I got into an email conversation with some guy who was a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, on the question of whether slavery was the "cause" of the Civil War. He never budged. I finally thanked him for his time and gave up. When you quote long passages straight from the mouths and writings of the people who started the war and even then Southern apologists refuse to change their minds, you have reached the land of the clinical. I guess it's harder for the children of the slave owners to see what's true, but I really don't know why that is. Thomas Jefferson knew he had black children. White America didn't know until someone sleuthed it out with DNA study. His black descendants knew all the time, through all the generations. This question is even explicitly broached by Cheshire when he goes to a big reunion of the black Hintons. "Why didn't our families meet long ago," he asks. The black widow of a Hinton who had done a lot of research on the subject of his ancestors shrugs. "Well, we live in the South, what good would it do."

You can rent this film via Netflix or Amazon, or buy it for less than $12.00. Every one should see it. It explains a lot.

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