WHAT'S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
KAREN WILSON AND BILL SIMS
After 30 Years and Two Children, the Interracial Couple
at the Heart of
"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."
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.
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
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
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.
# # #
WHAT'S RACE GOT TO DO WITH IT?
BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX
LAWS OF THE LAND
Partners Produced by Web Lab
Copyright © 1999 by Zohe Film Productions and Web Lab