While perusing the Internet, I recently discovered the following 2012 essay by Daniele Watts, whose name I recognized as the actor who played the slave Coco in the movie Django Unchained. I was intrigued to learn that Daniele is a direct descendant of Civil War guerrilla Newt Knight and Rachel Knight (the former slave of Newt’s grandfather) through their daughter, Augusta Ann. I was equally intrigued by the manner in which she used this discovery to delve emotionally deeper into her role as a young slave in the Old South. Daniele graciously consented to my request to publish her essay here on Renegade South.
Vikki Bynum, Moderator
Bringing My Family’s History into Focus through the Lens of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained
By Daniele Watts | December 25, 2012
It was a hot, rainy New Orleans night . . . the kind of humid where you can feel the history hanging in the air, spirits occasionally wafting in through the windows—or they would have if I had windows that could open. I was on the 7th floor of the crew hotel, and though my quarters lacked the lavish balconies of the A-list talent, I was thrilled to have the chance to spend my days acting opposite Oscar-nominated heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio—the first icon to ever grace the walls of my childhood bedroom. We were steeping ourselves in the Old South: his character to play was Calvin Candie—the heir to a large cotton plantation—and mine was Coco, his doting servant, kept like a pet in a cupcake-like French-maid outfit.
I’ve always loved the research that goes into creating characters who lived in the past. My father led the way, enchanting the wide-eyed little girl version of me with awe inspiring stories of his growing up poor in Los Angeles, with nine brothers and sisters, sniffing glue and stealing bikes to survive the 1960s Watts Riots. Staying true to the overachiever I’d been reared to be, my Jamaican mother’s words echoing in my ears, “black people in this country have to work twice as hard to get what white people get,” and backed by a sincere desire to contribute both to my acclaimed scene partners and our much lauded director, Quentin Tarantino, I found myself researching my family genealogy on that lightning-filled night in New Orleans. My surroundings were transformed by my imagination and the excitement of the historical moment from a modest hotel room into a mystical excavation site!
I was following a lead my father had admonished a few months prior. Something about our families’ connection to a white man—a Mississippi legend—Newton Knight; “It’s important for you to know about this stuff—it goes way the heck deeper than you think!” He was enthusiastic as usual when it came to telling me stories, but at the moment, the grown-up version of Daniele was oh-too-gleefully distracted by the sugarcoated frivolities flashing on the Christmas-saturated television screen to pay attention.
Now in New Orleans, wishing I had listened, I was searching voraciously for any information that would give me something interesting to talk about on set the next day. I began Googling my supposed distant relative, Newton Knight. Expecting a tedious hunt for a mundane historical figure, my jaw began to drop as I immediately found pages upon pages of Google hits—for a man to whom I soon became very anxious to see how closely I was related.
Captain Knight is described as having pale blue eyes fixed in an “eagle-like gaze”, with long white hair that hung around his shoulders. A backwoodsman, a Mississippian, who in 1862 “walked off in disgust” from his Confederate army unit, and came home to form a band of renegades that, like “swamp-foxes,” defied capture. He is mythologized as a figure, sanguine as Robin Hood, who fought to keep Jones County Mississippi free from the oppression of the Confederate troops—or what he called “a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight.” In Knight, I found a white man who was anti-slavery, freed his black lover, Rachel, and formed a collaboration with her that forever changed the face of Jones County history. She helped with supplies and food, and may have played a pivotal role in his band’s ability to evade Confederate troops in the dark swamps of Mississippi’s Piney Woods. And when it came time for them to die, he left instructions for her to be buried next to him—at a time when it was illegal for blacks and whites to be buried in the same cemetery. I found that I was related to a controversial figure who honored his mixed race children, and unlike for children of most “tragic mulattoes” of the time, gave them his last name— Knight—providing for them “as though they were white”. Numerous books and articles have been written—including a major motion picture adaptation, Tap Roots, directed by George Marshall, former President of the Screen Directors Guild—honoring his legacy. (Research Courtesy of Free State of Jones, by Victoria Bynum; Introduction to Tap Roots, by James H Street; and the Desoto Times Tribune, book review by Bill Minor).
In my hotel room that night, this man took the form of a spirit flying in the face of all my unchallenged subconscious assumptions that if I had any ‘white in me,’ it must be because one of my grandmothers was raped by an ‘evil plantation master’ hundreds of years ago. This white man was actually showing up on my computer screen as a hero; a caretaker who set up his black lover with a house of her own, and unlike many white men of the time who were keeping “open secrets,” he did not hide their relationship—despite the discomforting ripples this created for local residents both black and white. How is it, that in all these years, I never knew that I was the descendant of two verifiable legends? Up until that point I had just assumed I was the descendant of slaves, not exactly something to brag about! I experienced a strange moment of awakening that night when I began to realize we are all the product of a fascinating and complex legacy.
In an effort to make the myth more real for myself, I imagined my own grandfather, who was always calling me “little miss star,” looking up to this white man, his mother’s father, and calling him “Grandpa”. Indeed! This legendary figure was actually my great-great-grandfather! What magical synchronicity, and a testament to the transformational power of the arts that I experienced this life changing revelation because of my love for movies—which are nothing more than a grand exercise in make-believe! The call to artistic expression was prompting me to use my imagination and intelligence to understand myself, and where I come from, more deeply. That understanding allowed me to express myself as Coco, a slave girl who feels something close to love because of the attention she receives from a charming, ruthlessly violent, white man. I wondered how my grandmother Rachel must have felt to be cared for by one of the most powerful white men in all of Mississippi.
Now that I’d found such a juicy connection to real history, it became even more exciting to understand Django Unchained as it relates to the America we live in today. I looked at the evolution of black Americans, from the more community-focused ancestors in Africa, to the combative conditioning reflected in the words of the “Willie Lynch letter: Making of a Slave.”* I considered the subsequent black-on-black conflict caused by the creation of the “Uncle Tom” archetype—or someone like the character Samuel Jackson plays—a black person benefiting over other black people because of their relationship with “the white man.” My own grandmother Rachel, and the fictional character of Coco, are not far from that archetype. I reflected on my own life, and the somewhat uncomfortable knowledge that I have been treated more graciously, because of an easier assimilation into so called ‘whiteness,’ than black folk who have not had it as easy. The words of Calvin Candie and his assessment of “the exceptional nigger” began to ring hauntingly in my head. It feels a bit disgusting to even admit this, but it is cathartic to know there is now an international piece of cinema that examines these ideas without getting trapped in the ‘poor me,’ victim version of the story. This knowledge helps me to have faith in the possibility that black folk and white folk can come together to release these limiting beliefs, and even laugh at ourselves a little in the process. When I listen to the resounding theme evident throughout Django Unchained, I am inspired by human beings who continued to pursue love even as they walked the dirty road of survival.
These ideas initially energized me and I was eager to share an inspiring story of the love between my grandfather and grandmother—two heroes who, against all odds, found love in the midst of oppression. But as I dug deeper, I realized there was also a dark side to my grandparent’s legend. Some accounts say that Newton was an imposing figure who would kill people just because he didn’t like them. Other accounts say that he ran his home in a harem-like fashion, having sexual relationships with his own daughter, George Ann**; and his white wife, Serena. And as for Serena, wasn’t she publicly degraded by her husband’s relationships with other lovers? Was my great-grandfather an emancipator, a chauvinist, a lover of black women, or nothing more than a rapist? And was my great-grandmother a progressive abolitionist who looked past Newt’s whiteness, and saw a compassionate human being, or was she merely taking advantage of the attention she was receiving from “the white man?” The more research I did, the muddier the story became.
Would it be shortsighted for me to describe my grandfather as a hero when his legacy is a bit questionable? And if it’s possible that I am a descendant of a morally ambiguous past, then isn’t it also probable that we all are—not just the oversimplified hero stories we’ve been digesting of the honorable founding fathers or the struggling, god fearing slaves? Though these may seem like obvious questions, I find it interesting that most films about this era of American history tend to gloss over the more gritty and revealing possibilities—but not Django!
The films drops us off on the dark side of American capitalism, and casts one of the most charming movie stars in the world as the source of our oppression. Even though Mr. DiCaprio is on the record as saying he didn’t identify with his character, I believe that his performance speaks to the role that the ancient Shaman played in restoring balance to a community in need of healing. He channels and exorcises dark spirits, from such an authentic place, that we can see a part of ourselves even in that darkness. During the three weeks I spent with Dicaprio, as Calvin Candie and Coco, his character became a window for me to understand why people do the ‘unimaginable’. There was always a gleam of humor behind his eyes—a genuine feeling that he was present to the experience. The love and attention that he brought to the role shone a light for me on the power of storytelling.
His performance calls out to a country that is afraid to look closely at its shadow—or the darkest parts of our history. Through close attention, I was able to trace the evolution of this shadow, and try to understand the root of the unbalance. Now instead of Calvin Candie’s slaves, mint juleps, and cotton plantations; we have credit cards, cable tv, and The Tea Party. Instead of distracting myself with material pacifiers, I was faced with the challenge of being present—Tarantino didn’t allow for the distraction of cell phones on set—which forced me to look deeper, and experience a life-opening realization as a result. I began to see that I have the choice of dismissing America’s history as morally incomprehensible—and thus our current state, and certain factions of white and black America, a bizarre and shameful continuation of that—or I can use my empathy and sense of humor to accept ‘the other,’ and understand more fully why these unbalanced dynamics continue to exist.
There is a West African word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the movie; “Sankofa”—which essentially means that one must go through the past to move forward. In this context, I appreciate the clarity that I’ve gained from my subsequent research. My curiosity took me beyond slavery to rediscover a young America that rebelled against its parent country, and in trying to prove its independence from Great Britain, developed its identity through material wealth—the verifiable bragging rights of success. I can recognize how the institution of slavery was born of this materialistic competition, and why the slaves to this society have developed self-concepts based on their own pursuit or denial of material independence. The psychological conditioning of American slave times has set off a chain of events pushing an entire country, both black and white, into a competitive modality.
When I finally attended the cast and crew screening, after months of these ideas marinating in my subconscious, it was thrilling to experience a film that activates history on so many levels! It was also the most brilliant artistic reflection of American violence that I had ever seen in a film; evoking fascinating shades of grey, or ethical ambiguity, which is often sidestepped when movies are pandering, and easy to swallow. The film takes us through the volcanic emotional arch of what happens to a ‘dream deferred.’ And in the carefully placed juxtaposition of hard hitting rap music against scenes of retribution, the film draws parallels to how the dark side of the America dream has found a voice in the ‘any means necessary’ mentality of urban gangs and today’s power hungry hip-hop. I found myself enraptured by Django for the same reasons that I was attracted to my father’s stories of the Watts riots; instead of encouraging an impulse to do something violent, it gave me a deep feeling of release—even celebration—to have my feelings acknowledged through a masterful story.
As uncomfortable as this journey has been at times, I now see the value of tracing through these unexamined parts of my heritage. The violent acts that America has perpetrated against black people, and people of all colors, will continue to show up as self-imposed mental slavery unless we dig deep and unchain ourselves. It’s been exactly a year since my father first told me about our connection to Newton Knight. And now rather than dismissing history with ignorant assumptions—which inevitably left me as the victim of an ‘evil’ past, I have gained wisdom through this process of activating my empathy for America’s history. I believe that when we accept this country’s messy tale, and find a way to accept our part in that mess, rather than judge ‘them’—‘the other,’ we are one step closer to being free of the hold this history of hate and oppression may have on us. Now, I feel empowered by the understanding that I have a choice of what story I want to tell myself.
More than anything, I am releasing the part of myself that has to choose a side. I’m finding myself learning from other cultures—of the ancient Chinese symbol for unity, the yin-yang; of the Indian goddess Siva, who represents the balance of creation and destruction—and finding hope in these beautiful metaphors for the light and dark extremes of human nature which alchemize to create our experience of life! Life happens, its complex and mysterious, and those contradictions find their way into our family histories. It takes brave artists, like Quentin Tarantino, and challenging works of art like Django Unchained to help us see this in ourselves … so we can use that clarity to create a new history, together . . . one that we can all feel proud of.
*On the historical inaccuracy of the “Willie Lynch Letter,” see the African Holocaust website—vb.
**Newt Knight was surely no saint, but neither was he the father of George Ann Knight, by whom he had several children, as is sometimes rumored. George Ann was born in Georgia to 14-year-old Rachel at least a year before her purchase by Newt’s grandfather, Jackie Knight—vb.