This moment is about history — the systemic racism that is being exposed at every level of society, the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the destruction of monuments. It is a history of enslavement and rape, of a country founded on one group benefiting from the labor of another.
History is made up of stories, some of them lost while others are celebrated in textbooks and statues. The Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, the pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church and host of the Black Like Me podcast, is the central figure in Justified Journey, a new documentary that uses one family’s story to illustrate the vastly unequal outcomes for Black and white Americans. The film was produced by former WKOW news anchor Greg Jeschke as part of his new production company JDog Productions. In the film, Gee, who is Black, traces his own roots back to rural Mississippi and discovers the exact point where the Gee family tree branched out into two very different directions.
Gee’s organization, Justified Anger, will host an online premiere of the documentary with a panel discussion on June 29. The conversation will be moderated by TV and Broadway star Angela Robinson, and will include Gee and John Harkins, the white cousin he discovered while searching for his roots.
I spoke with Gee on his front porch via Zoom as the city reacted to the latest news of downtown protests.
American history is Black history, says Gee, noting that’s why he introduces his nine-week African American History Course with a quote from the poet and author James Baldwin. “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America.”
A couple of years ago, while prepping for the history course, Gee thought it would be useful to look back at his own family’s history. At ancestry.com he saw a message from John Harkins, a white resident of New Orleans, looking for descendants of Ruben Gee. “I replied that Henderson Gee [the son of Venus, an enslaved woman] was my great-great-grandad,” says Gee. By the next morning Harkins had replied, and the two began making plans to meet in person. “We went down there, and something just said this is going to be meaningful so take a camera and a recorder.” Gee brought his sister, Lilada, his daughter, Lexi, and an assistant.
It was a significant journey, not just for Gee and his family, but for all Black and white people seeking to understand our shared history. For one, Gee explains that it all began with the rape of Venus. Because Ruben Gee owned her, she had no ability to consent to sex or to bear a child. “There was no #MeToo,” Gee says in the film. “Because there was no me.
“This is the story of almost every Black person you and I know,” Gee says in the interview. “My story is not unique. What’s unique is I found my white relatives. But if you think of Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Sterling K. Brown — these are not West African names. Our names are either derived from the plantation we’re from or the man who raped your great-great-grandmother. We are genetically Gees because my great-great-great-grandmother, Venus, was raped by Ruben Gee. At that point in history, the Welsh white Gees became brown.”
Gee’s interest in genealogy began when Alex Haley’s Roots series came out in 1977. Gee was an 8th grader at Lincoln Middle School on Madison’s south side. “That was really my first dive into American history, not just Black history, because we didn’t talk a lot about that at school,” says Gee. When he got to West High the next year he researched his family’s genealogy at the Wisconsin Historical Society. He heard relatives talk about white Gees, but he still thought they were talking about light-skinned African Americans.
The missing piece of the puzzle came when he connected with Harkins. As it turned out, their first meeting in New Orleans took place on Aug. 11, 2017, while white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. A counter-demonstrator, Heather Heyer, died and dozens were injured. “The white gentlemen were marching saying ‘Blood and Soil,’ and they had run over this young, white woman,” says Gee. “They were bemoaning the fact that America had been stolen from them while I’m sitting down at a meal with the descendants of the white slave owner who owned and raped my great-great-great-grandmother. I’m sitting in this reality while these men are saying America is being stolen from them.”
After New Orleans, Gee contacted Charles Monroe-Kane, a producer at NPR’s To the Best of Our Knowledge, who helped put together a segment called “How Do You Know Ruben Gee?” Gee was in the process of starting the podcast Black Like Me, but waited for the national release of the story before launching the podcast.
Gee knew he wanted to expand the project and approached Jeschke, who had interviewed him for a television documentary on Madison’s racial inequities. Jeschke says years of anchoring news made him hungry for deeper dives, and he was eager to share Gee’s fascinating story. Jeschke and photographer/editor Jason Weiss went to Mississippi with Gee where they captured footage at Gee’s Grocery store, met Black and white relatives, and explored grave sites. They also visited a school and a church made possible by Gee’s Black relatives, a point of pride for Gee.
“I am really, really thankful to Alex for letting me tell his story,” says Jeschke, adding that he learned much along the journey as well. “One of the most interesting things to me was when we got down there [to Mississippi] was Alex’s feeling that he felt more at home down there than he did up here. That just says so much about the atmosphere here and just what it’s like to be an easily recognizable minority. I don’t mean because he’s Alex Gee, but because he’s Black in a sea of white. You do stand out, and especially in the racial atmosphere that we have in this country, it wears on you, it’s exhausting. It was a more relaxed Alex that I saw down there.”
For his part, Gee is pleased to share his story with a wider audience in the service of history. And he believes this is the perfect moment to share it. “We have not made as much progress as we have celebrated. And I think it begins with understanding that,” says Gee. “We need a deep dive in understanding how we got here. I feel like the discussion has been ‘Where do we go from here?’ and not ‘How did we get here?’ There is no way you’d want your physician to move to prognosis without truly understanding what the diagnosis is.
“The only thing that has changed from the time I made this documentary to today is raw footage through a smartphone. That police officer was working two years ago. George Floyd was living two years ago. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. These are not new phenomena. We just now are aware of them. I think we need a deep dive into American history. We move too quickly to ‘Where do we go from here?’ because that makes everyone have a ‘kumbaya’ feeling. I like kumbaya, but not if kumbaya does not work.”
Gee brings home his point using his cousin, John Harkins, as an example. Both of them have daughters in graduate school. But what it meant to get there is vastly different. “John’s family has been owning; we’ve been renting,” says Gee. “My mother and father were sharecroppers. I am the first male in their line who has not picked cotton for a living. My family rocks. But please do not take my story as a successful, educated, middle-class Black man to mean that there are no systemic realities. I just learned how to navigate them. But make no mistake. I live in a home I built 25 years ago and I do not go running at nighttime. I do not go on evening walks, and I have lived in this neighborhood for 25 years. Those things are real for me because my skin color does not tell people about my degrees. This is why we are tense, we are tired.”