by Sherry Rankins-Robertson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
On October 11, Booker’s Place will be screened on the UALR campus. Yvette Johnson will speak about the film that documents her search to discover her grandfather and the stories surrounding his death.
The heart of this film is the universal desire that we have to unearth, understand, and honor the heroic acts of our ancestors as they fought to give us a better life than their own. Booker’s Place is the story of an everyday man who was an activist for civil rights in his community. Director Raymond De Felitta has captured a powerful and moving story of not only Yvette’s journey to learn about her family, but also about his own father’s 1966 decision to include Booker Wright in his film—in what proved to be a life-altering decision. It is a documentary about two people who want to know the truth and learn about the impact of their family members’ brave and stunning acts against oppression.
Yvette Johnson’s search for her grandfather began in the summer of 2007. I was teaching a family-history writing course at Arizona State University, and Yvette was one of my students. On the first day, I asked all students to write a letter stating what they would like to accomplish, and Yvette said, “I’d like to know about my grandfather, Booker Wright.” She knew that he lived and died in Greenwood, Mississippi. She didn’t know much else.
For the first writing project, the biography, she interviewed her Aunt Vera. Among the details of his life, she learned that her grandfather was a business owner. Folks hung out dancing, eating southern food, and socializing at his restaurant, Booker’s Place.
In the following writing project, the profile of a location, I asked students to write about a place that was no larger than one square mile and existed prior to the date of their birth. After reading Yvette’s first project, I encouraged her to write about Booker’s Place. She said, “I don’t think the place still exists,” but I pushed her to look around. Diligently, she contacted as many sources as possible who had once visited Booker’s Place, including a U.S. Senator. For this project, she recreated the location that she much later learned was the scene of Booker Wright’s murder.
At the end of that semester, Yvette wrote a metacognitive reflection about what she had learned during the course. She accounted for the monumental details of her grandfather’s life. One of those details was that he was a black business owner in the South in the 1960s; however, the most significant thing I recall from her reflection was a statement about how searching for her grandfather had changed her; she said she now has tremendous pride about her heritage, which was not the case prior to the class.
After that semester, Yvette continued her research and writing through independent course projects. Even after her graduation, we worked together for the next few years. She interviewed family members, community members of Greenwood, and scholars of civil rights and race; she slowly pieced together the details of her grandfather’s life. She has come to know, respect, and love a man she has never met.
Yvette found during her research that her grandfather appeared in a 1966 NBC documentary called A Mississippi Portrait, directed by Frank De Felitta. She contacted everyone associated with NBC that she could find, but had to continue her work without the footage. (Watch Mississippi: A Self-Portrait in its entirety.)
In the spring of 2011, I received an e-mail from film producer David Zellerford requesting contact information on Yvette. I forwarded the message, and then I picked up the phone. I heard her usually chipper voice, “Hey there…”
“Honey, New York is looking for you.”
“What?” she asked.
“Check your e-mail.”
With that she began a relationship that resulted in Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story, a 2012 Tribeca film.
A few months ago, I was at a writing conference in New Mexico; I sat alone in my hotel room on the edge of the bed while my colleagues assembled for dinner. Lester Holtz began the July 15 episode of Dateline: “Tonight we will follow a woman on her journey…” and the camera moved to Yvette standing inside her grandfather’s former juke joint. My mind shifted back to a conversation that she and I had at a coffee shop when she returned from Tribeca in March of 2012. I asked her, “What is your goal in all of this?” She paused and her eyebrows rose as she said, “That people in this country know his name.” Watching her on national television tell his story, I realized that her dream had come true.
Most faculty members hope students are able to grasp the concepts of a class in a meaningful and significant way—that the knowledge can be used in other classes and in the world outside academia. What started as a writing assignment has evolved into a celebration of the life of Booker Wright, and it has changed the life of his grandchild. Along the way, Booker Wright became the real teacher in this story. Yvette uncovered lessons through her research, and Booker’s most powerful message that “The meaner the man, the more you smile.”
Yvette has inherited her grandfather’s smile and his ability to project an optimistic outlook on life. She has inherited his grace and persistence. She has inherited his courage to go into the unknown and speak out. In a couple of days, Yvette and I will get into my car and drive south through Pine Bluff and into Mississippi to continue her search to learn about her grandfather’s death. Our destination is the prison in Meridian where Lloyd Cork has been housed for the past thirty-eight years for killing Booker.
It has been an honor to witness this story unfold. The content continues to spill out into Yvette’s blog entries and the pages of her book that will be published in 2014.