Musician Daryl Davis is a great, lumbering bear of a man with a very, very long fuse.
His disposition and his race are equally critical components of his decades-long project—engaging, as a black man, with members of the KKK, the National Socialist Movement, and other groups espousing white supremacy.
Diplomacy seems to be the major lesson of his globetrotting childhood. His father was a State Department official, and wherever the family relocated, Davis went to school with the children of other foreign service workers, whatever their race. This happy, multicultural experience left him unprepared for his return to his country of origin, when he was one of just two black pupils at his Belmont, Massachusetts elementary school, and the only black Cub Scout in his troop.
When Belmont’s Cub Scouts were invited to participate in a 1968 march to commemorate Paul Revere’s ride, his troop leaders tapped the 10-year-old Davis to carry the flag, provoking a furious reaction from many white spectators along the route.
His prior experience was such that he assumed their bile was directed toward scouting, even after his parents sat him down to tell him the truth.
Now, as the subject of Matt Ornstein’s documentary, Accidental Courtesy (watch it on Netflix here), Davis muses that the unusual circumstances of his early childhood equipped him to instigate and maintain an open dialogue with the enemy. He listens carefully to their opinions in the expectation that they will return the courtesy. It’s a long game approach that Davis refuses to play over social media or email. Only face-to-face.
Over time, his even-keeled manner has caused 200 card-carrying racists, according to NPR, to renounce their former path, presenting their cast-off hoods and robes to their new friend, Davis, as a rite of passage.
One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary is the tour of his klan memorabilia—patches, jewelry, pocket knives and belt buckles. He is able to explain the colors, insignia and provenance of the robes as methodically as he discusses musical history.
Presumably, some of this knowledge was handed down from the former owners—one of whom volunteers that Davis is far more knowledgable than he ever was about the ins and outs of klan hierarchies.
Davis doesn’t wait for an outspoken racist to renounce his beliefs before claiming him as a friend.
It’s fairly easy to feel clemency toward those Davis has nudged toward a whole new set of values, such as soft-spoken former-Grand-Dragon-turned-anti-racist activist, Scott Shepherd, or Tina Puig, a mother of two who was taken aback by Davis’ offer of a ride to the far away federal penitentiary where her white supremacist husband was serving a ten-year sentence.
It’s queasier to watch Davis posing with a smile in front of Confederate flags at a klan rally, or staunchly refraining from comment as jacked up supremacists spew vile, provocative remarks in his presence.
Not everyone has—or wants to have—the stomach for this sort of work. The most heated encounter in the film is the one between Davis and Baltimore-based Black Lives Matter activists Kwame Rose, Tariq Touré, and JC Faulk.
As director Ornstein told PBS’ Independent Lens:
Daryl operates under the principle that if you aren’t hearing viewpoints that are distasteful to you, that they are also not hearing yours. I think there’s wisdom in that. We saw this last election cycle how not doing that ended in not only disaster for this country, but a lot of infighting and yelling into echo chambers and news that serves to reinforce what you already believe. The economic arguments that Tariq and Kwame present in the film have a tremendous amount of validity, but in no way does this diminish the importance of what someone like Daryl does. If we all took the time to speak to even one or two people we disagree with and both really hear them and be heard that alone would begin to make a difference.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her current project is Theater of the Apes’ Sub-Adult Division’s production of Animal Farm, opening this week in New York City. Follow her @AyunHalliday.