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Digging Up the Past

A wrenching investigation of racism, resentment, and reparations

In Banished, Marco Williams investigates, with even-handed and nuanced precision, the shameful and suppressed history of white communities banishing African-Americans from their homes between the end of the Civil War and the 1920s. Exposing a Gordian knot of racial injustice, Banished shows the descendants of the dispossessed as they wrestle with themselves and with those who now inhabit their ancestral property over questions of collective memory, statutes of limitations, and reparations.

In the interlocking tales of three communities (in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas) where black folks, under threat of death, were forced to leave their homes, property, and livelihoods, a pattern emerges. Time after time, expulsion was preceded by the frequently unsubstantiated accusation that a black man had raped a white woman. Lynching was not enough to quell the thirst for vengeance. And so, to appease the hysterical fear of black male sexuality, African-Americans were driven out. (In truth, this was as much about white resentment of black property owners as it was about the specter of black carnality.) Through the testimony of elderly African-Americans who were children at the time of these ejections, a dual effect emerges. Not only did white communities erase the existence of their black residents, and their histories, but many African-Americans stigmatized by the ordeal of banishment were shamed into silence.

Williams enhances our understanding of the past by exploring its reverberations in the present. When brothers Charles and James Brown learn that their entire family was expelled from Pierce, Missouri, in 1901, they also find out that their great-grandfather was buried in Pierce shortly before the banishment— and remains in an unmarked grave. Pierce's current mayor and coroner gradually agree to allow the brothers to disinter their great-grandfather's remains and move them to another cemetery. However, the symbolic moment of reckoning is abruptly short-circuited when one of the brothers requests that the town pay the costs of reburial. The ensuing contretemps speaks volumes about white bred-in-the-bone entitlement, and the gnarly complexities that emerge when African-Americans view reparations as a moral and social responsibility, and whites as a favor.

As the film's on-camera narrator, Williams's very presence in the all-white communities he documents is a canny litmus test. When he asks a woman in a senior facility about the town's former black residents, we are confronted with the spectacle of a meltdown as she frantically scans her lexicon for an inoffensive term. "Colored," she offers with a flourish of relief.

It doesn't matter that Williams is Harvard-educated, or that he's articulate and hip. As our director sits at a kitchen table in Harrison, Arkansas, listening to the local Klan leader matter-of-factly disclose his disdain for blacks, it's painfully clear that in many small (and large) towns throughout America, the legacy of banishment remains: Black people are not only unwelcome, but unsafe. Just ask the Jena 6.

 
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