Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS


American Love Stories

Press Info
Dig DeeperStoriesDialoguesTV Series


Press Contact: Fisher Company
914-674-6164

WHAT'S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?

by

KAREN WILSON AND BILL SIMS

After 30 Years and Two Children, the Interracial Couple at the Heart of
AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY

Still Don't Know What All the Fuss is About

"The word 'interracial' sounds foreign to me. It's just not a word I use, because it doesn't say anything about who we are," says Karen Wilson, a corporate manager, wife, mother of two, and matriarch of AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, the new 10-hour documentary series that chronicles the joys and hardships of a multi-racial family in Queens, New York. "Maybe it's too simple, but I think it would just be so much better if people didn't look at color. Period. And it could just be about people dealing with people, and they dislike you because you're a creep, or they like you because you're a loving human being. I don't know why color has to get into it."
Karen's husband, Bill Sims, a blues musician and dedicated father, agrees. "I wanted to do this film to show people that we're not a threat to their way of life; that our way of life is the same, you know? We're only trying to master our own world, just like they are. And besides," he adds, explaining why he and his wife agreed to allow filmmaker Jennifer Fox and her tiny crew to live with and film their family for 18 months, "we thought it would be an adventure and a good experience for the kids."

Indeed, Karen and Bill, as well as their daughters - Cicily Wilson, now a 26-year-old director of development and communications at a music school and Chaney Sims, an 18-year-old college student - stress repeatedly that the moral of this unique blend of cinéma vérité, onscreen interviews, music and media images, is that they are first and foremost a family - and a happy, easy-going one at that. And when the series debuts Sunday, September 12, 1999 through Thursday, September 16 from 9 to 11 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), viewers may be surprised by how little race has to do with the day-to-day dynamics of life together for this unconventional, but equally ordinary, American family.

Parallel Lives
From the beginning, Karen and Bill's relationship was unusual. After meeting through a mutual friend in 1967 at a summer resort where Bill was performing, the Ohio natives who lived in neighboring towns spent two years becoming friends before romance ever entered the picture. "We just hung out together, going for rides, talking on the phone," Bill recalls. "We talked about life and what we wanted to do with our lives. We liked each other. And we come from very similar backgrounds, even though we're different races." "That was a big link between us right from the start," echoes Karen, noting the blue collar struggles and sensibilities, as well as what are now called "family values," which defined their respective households. "His mom and dad both worked, and so did mine, and his dad helped with the raising of the kids and my dad did, too."

There were other parallels. Bill's parents had been sharecroppers in Georgia before they moved up to Ohio, where his father worked in a factory and his mother worked as a domestic. Karen's grandparents had been sharecroppers in Michigan before moving to Ohio; and when Karen was growing up, her mother was a grocery clerk active in the union and Democratic politics, and her father was a handyman and inventor, a familiar and popular figure around town. For both families, work was the ethic and family was the hub.

Most important, "Both our parents raised us to believe that everybody was the same, so that's what they had to stand behind," says Bill. "I don't think her parents or mine were totally thrilled about [our getting together] because they knew the pains and dangers we would have to face. But our families were always accepting of us as people. I went to Karen's house just like any other guy might go there, and I was totally welcome - and that in itself was shocking..."

Towns Without Pity
...But not nearly as shocking as the response of Karen's exclusively white and very small hometown to Karen and Bill's romance. And things got even worse after the birth of their first daughter, out-of-wedlock. "I just had no desire to get married. It was the times, I guess, the sixties, the old 'we don't need a piece of paper...' thing," says Karen. She and her family were snubbed to the point of being ostracized, and Bill was routinely pulled over by the police when he was driving with Karen and taken to jail. All this for no reason except the audacity of being involved with a white woman. They wouldn't even release him into his father's custody; Karen's mother was made to bail him out and vouch for him, time and again. "And they never even pressed charges!" says a still-incredulous Karen about the repeated police actions.

And it got even uglier. During the years Karen and Bill lived together in Ohio, their dog was killed, their car was set afire, and the windows of an old building that Bill and his band used for rehearsals were shattered by tossed bricks. "I'd never been faced with things like that," says Karen, also recalling the friends who abandoned her and the years of small, deliberate slights that assailed her at every turn. "I was very surprised. And people were very mean to my dad, very mean, and I didn't know about that until years later," she says wistfully about the unconventional father who "made friends with the Hell's Angels when they came to town, and let me help him build a jeep, and taught me how to jump the rails with the hobos."

In 1976, the couple decided they'd had enough and moved to New York City, where they hoped life would be easier for them and their young daughter. "It has been easier, and I don't know if that's the result of location or time passing," says Bill, "because, when we got here, we found that when we had to deal with people, and with authority - policemen, people in business - it was pretty much the same as Ohio. We still got the stares and the vibes; we still get that, even now. There are just so many more races and different kinds of people here, and it seems like everybody doesn't like everybody else!" Indeed, Bill's New York experience has been as hard won as his Ohio history; he still smarts over the days he held a civil service job and his position as union rep was yanked when co-workers found out about him and Karen. "I was a pretty well-liked guy around the office, you know, but when they met Karen, everything totally changed," he says. "They voted back in the guy they had voted out as union rep, because they hadn't liked him! That was ten years ago, but I'm not so sure it would be any different now."

The Power of Love
Still, New York has offered Bill and Karen many comforts and opportunities. Since her arrival in the city, Karen has worked in various capacities for the same large, private company and says co-workers and superiors have been consistently kind and supportive. "It's more like a family," she says of the office where she proudly displays a photo of her husband and daughters, and which "threw me a big shower when Bill and I got married, and another one when Chaney was born - and I really felt everyone was sincere about it."

Even greater camaraderie has been found in Bill's world of professional music and experimental theater - and in turn, the Wilson-Sims household has become a frequent home-away-from-home for artistic pals in need of a place to stay. "One of the reasons having the filmmakers around was no big deal is that in our house, there's always someone around," says Bill. "I have a large family and the family is always coming, and they send their kids to us when they get out of control. We're the home for wayward children." Their own children, however, have never fallen into the wayward category. "They're just lovely; they're really nice kids," says Karen with unabashed maternal pride.

But perhaps most of all, Bill and Karen have each other and a relationship that has endured not only extraordinary travail but the ordinary erosion of time and humdrum domestic distress. "From the time we got together, we understood that we were going to make some mistakes, but that it was a relationship worth saving," says Bill. "Our credo has been: work it through. I get mad, you get mad, whatever: work it through. When two people really like and love each other, beyond romantically, you just can't throw that away over a mistake. And it's selfish, too, because after a certain period of time it's like: I don't want to have to get to know anybody else that well again - and I don't have the time!"

Karen concurs, and brings the conversation back to the series. "I think of this as a family film," she says. "It's about: pay attention to your kids, and pay attention to your marriage. If something goes wrong, it's easy to give up, but you can't do that. You have to work things out as a family, get past the disappointments, make a go of it. What is it about if you're not in it together? I just don't get it." For Karen Wilson and Bill Sims, what matters is love, loyalty and family. As far as they're concerned, it's as clear as black and white.

# # #

Media Relations:

Fisher Company
914-674-6164 phone
914-674-6145 fax
fisherco@aol.com e-mail

Station Relations:

Bunny Tavares/ITVS
413 628-4067 phone
413 628-4656 fax
btavares@crocker.com e-mail

July 1999


Additional Press Materials:

PRESS RELEASE

PHOTOGRAPHS

PROGRAM DESCRIPTIONS

A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER FOX

WHAT'S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
by Karen Wilson and Bill Sims

BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX
by Cicily Wilson and Chaney Sims

LAWS OF THE LAND
A Brief History of Interracial Marriage and Race Classification in America

LOVE, HOLLYWOOD STYLE





Partners   Produced by Web Lab

Copyright © 1999 by Zohe Film Productions and Web Lab