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Rich in Relations

"Family Name," a personal investigation of North Carolina's Alstons, laid out in black and white.

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Late in Macky Alston's inquiry into the personal, historical, and symbolic baggage attached to his own Family Name ("P.O.V."; Tuesday, September 15; 10 to 11:30 p.m.; Channel 13), one of the dozens of Alstons we've already met, among the hundreds whom we've heard about, confides to the camera, "I come from a long line of not saying much." This is a thundering understatement, even from a soft-spoken African-American more accustomed to expressing himself in the music of dead white Europeans, who has just finished performing at the first family reunion to include both those Alstons who happen to be black and those Alstons who have always been white, on the lawn of a former slave plantation. Not saying much appears to be an Alston specialty. Nor, except for Macky, do they seem especially curious about what they'd rather not discuss.

Much of this goes back to Chatham Jack Alston, Macky's great-great-great-great-great-great uncle, who owned quite a bit of antebellum North Carolina and is said to have slept on cold winter nights with a matched pair of black boys curled up at the end of the bed to warm his feet. Jack's son Nathaniel Macon, having failed to coax from his wife, Patsy, an heir to the Alston acreage, apparently took up with their maid. Such is one explanation of the fact of so many Alstons, black and white, in the Chatham County phone book. Another is that when the master race wasn't naming its human chattels as whimsically as racehorses and sailboats, they were denominated by ownership -- a sort of brand name. Anyway, before Macky, who is white, showed up with his questions and his camera, there were separate but equal family reunions, just a few miles apart.

What motors Macky? A Columbia grad who also did time at the Union Theological Seminary, Macky is gay. His father, a Princeton, New Jersey, minister and civil-rights activist, apparently had some trouble coming to terms with his son's sexuality -- although we see him now chatting amiably with young men who wear ACT UP T-shirts. But when Macky started asking his rather belated questions, his father, who had put North Carolina behind him years ago like a bad dream, gave him a book of family history. Understandably, the son believes that closets and secrets need airing, from the bedroom to the courthouse, the textbook, and the grave site. To that end, he will hit the road, knock on doors, chat up strangers, and drag a couple of them south again. If, as the white folks are proud to tell you, Alstons go back to Charlemagne and Alfred the Great, they also go forward into the politics of identity-making.

Thus, Macky meets Fred Alston Jr., the classical musician whose parents were tenant farmers on the ancestral homestead. And Fred's ex-wife Charlotte, a storytelling performance artist known affectionately as the Green Hornet. And their teenage son Jeff, whose high-school-graduation gift is a trip down home, which he's never seen, with his bemused father and the young white man. And thus Macky also meets the two light-skinned sisters of Charles "Spinky" Alston, the painter who died in 1977 and about whom they're pleased to reminisce while looking at photographs of his famous friends in the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and thirties -- and whose father, Primus Priss Alston, will turn out to have been the son of the maid in Nathaniel Macon's plantation house, as well as a minister just like Macky's father. Not to omit a stem-winding black female preacher who, though not herself an Alston, is almost as intrigued by these investigations as Macky and (maybe) the two sisters are. And as if this nifty connecting of dots were not enough, Family Name concludes with another Alston, Vincent, who began his own urgent inquiries into the distant past upon discovering that he was HIV-positive. Macky and Vincent end up Rollerblading on Manhattan's waterfront, after which the credits scroll.

In one of the many out-loud and on-camera introspections to which he is inclined while driving from Princeton or Philadelphia or New York to Pittsboro, North Carolina, Macky will ask himself: "Am I trying to make amends for what my ancestors did?" This isn't really a very interesting question -- because, of course, he can't. A person of privilege, reflecting on his nature, may be capable of perception, and maybe of rehabilitation, but certainly not of reparation. Privilege can't even be renounced by its beneficiaries. It is itself the unearned wherewithal of self-comprehension, a kind of surplus value. And while there may be a kinship in different kinds of victimhood -- of race prejudice and homophobia -- it amounts to a politics only if it ends in some alliance of joint future behaviors. The secret may be out of the closet, but we are free only if we act differently.

What I really want to know is, what happened after the reunion of black and white Alstons that Macky arranged in Chatham County, and that the New York Times wrote a "Family of Man" feature about? Did this merging of gene pools float anything more than a frisson -- what the poet ValŽry somewhere called "the shiverings of an effaced leaf"? Was it an interlude, a parenthesis, a hiccup, an embarrassment, or a beginning?


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