Saturday, March 17, 2012


There is a house in Mississippi that is deeply connected to my past.

The longer I walk down the path of discovering who and what whales are, the more convinced I am that they can provide us with a greater understanding of who we are, where we came from, and new and beneficial ways to invent our future.

This gradual appreciation from my work with whales triggered the need to better understand my own origins. My mother had told me about Travelers Rest, the plantation where her father, Richard Wright, was born in 1908. His grand father was a slave on that plantation, and the family stayed on as share croppers, as far as I understand, after slavery ended. That is how baby Richard came to enter this world on that plantation, and went on to rock the world with his autobiographical story Black Boy – most people’s first genuine notion of what it was really like to grow up and become a black man in a deeply racist, exploitative and intellectually stagnant environment.

I sometimes thought about Travelers Rest the way people tend to think about making a family tree… a passing curiosity with very little to connect it with the more pressing concerns and interests of the moment.

But Whale Like Me changed this. In strange and synergistic ways that all came to spell the same message: the time had come to find Travelers Rest.

The first connection came from a dim but growing awareness that the aspect of whales that resonates so strongly in me is that, though they possess the characteristics of persons: self-awareness, complex and subtle social behavior, culture, abstract thought, etc… they are not recognized or treated as persons by human beings. Their official place in our system remains that of a resource, to be exploited in various ways. Yes, conserved and protected to a certain extent, but not in a way that recognizes their actual nature. The protection we confer to them is of the kind we might extend to a possession, rather than to a person.

When the awareness bloomed into its full picture: I saw as clear as day that because many of my own ancestors had been treated in this way, an unconscious bond with whales existed. Unconscious until that moment.

Not only the Africans taken from West Africa to become slaves in the Southern states of the USA, ancestors through my mother’s father… but my father’s ancestors, Africans who endured the colonial era in West Africa; my mother’s mother’s family, Polish Jews who endured the Holocaust; and my grandfather’s grandmother’s family, Native Americans who endured the theft of their land and the eradication of their culture.

If slavery had not been abolished, what would my life be like today? To who do I owe the chance I have been given at a relatively charmed existence complete with freedom, food, respect, a roof over my head, education? Complete with rights and the inherent recognition of my personhood: the value of my individual essence as a valuable component of the greater society?

The answer can be a long one if we were to trace the thousand – perhaps millions – of people of all colors and creeds who in various ways helped weigh against slavery and segregation. Even longer should we include all those who saved their families from, and fought and resisted against Nazi Germany. Even longer if we consider those Native Americans who found ways to survive in the New World forced upon them, and the people who extended a hand of friendship to them.

There is a shorter, more direct answer if we remain focused on the heritage I identify most with and the core elements of that thread: my grandfather, and before him the people who started the process that culminated in recognizing the personhood and rights of Africans in the USA.

Abolition has its roots in a philosophical question: one that might sound quaint to us today. The question was: do Africans have souls? The people who questioned the ‘common sense’ of the time started a ball rolling that has culminated in the relatively enlightened state of play today. I owe those thinkers a debt of recognition for their forward thinking and the courage to speak out against the absurd 'wisdom' of their times.

More personally, I owe my grandfather the legacy of education, truth-seeking, and risk-taking in pursuit of that truth. These things were more important than anything to him, and made him one of the most celebrated American authors of all time, at home and overseas. His words have profoundly affected the history of his country, and the lives of countless people for whom his experience resonated strongly.

The moment I fully realized the connection between my curiosity about whales and my own family history was a moment of powerful gratitude, to all my ancestors, and all the truth-seekers who helped my ancestors survive their trials… and in the same moment, I knew this was something that had to be paid forward. I had to follow in the footsteps of those to whom I owe so much, and give to another that which had been given to me.

Today, the modern equivalent of the question “do Africans have souls?” is “are whales persons?” It is the same question about the essence of beings that are very different, and yet essentially the same as us. It is the same attempt to properly define the relationship with that Other, as we begin to see the reflection of our own essence in its existence.

Realizing this threw a sudden and compelling perspective on my journey into the world of cetaceans. Everything fell sharply into focus and from that point on, I no longer felt like I was wandering blindly, following clues towards who knows what. The end result remained unknowable, but the path itself had become reassuring and familiar – as the road home from somewhere new does, when the first moments of recognition set in.

So naturally the plantation, where my ancestors had been slaves, jumped from being a passing curiosity to a central piece of the puzzle I was grappling with.

Then there was the plantation’s name. Travelers Rest.

During the production of Whale Like Me, I have been around the world four times, spread my life over three continents, taken so many stratosphere-polluting flights that making the film a game-changer has become a question of karmic balancing just to offset the harm my flying has done. I’ve gone a fair distance towards learning Japanese, spoken and written. Due to budgetary constraints I’ve performed the jobs of nine people at various times, and depending on the size of the actual crew at any given time, on average the jobs of four people simultaneously, for the past 3 years – always ensuring that the end-result met a required standard of quality. And this not only without pay but while draining my own financial resources relentlessly and to breaking point, to make things happen, supplementing the generous but sporadic support of others.

The growing sense that the result of these efforts will be well worth it all cannot create energy and resources indefinitely – there comes a time when the tank really is empty.

By the time I reached Traveler’s Rest three years after starting production on Whale Like Me, I was running on the last fumes available to me. Would I find relief there?

Locating Travelers Rest was a quest in and of itself, and with only 24 hours to spend in Mississippi and no map to the place, the success in finding it ultimately sprung from synchronicities I cannot begin to explain.

Accompanied by M, a dear friend who had recently lost her mother, and J, a cameraman referred to me at the last minute during the couple of days I had in Atlanta before heading south – we drove slowly around the long, circular driveway to the front of the plantation house.

For more, best wait to see the film.