Professor Cherif Keita’s Documentary Film “Cemetery Stories” Links South Africa to Northfield

January 25, 2013
By Jacob Cohn '13

Carleton College’s Weitz Center for Creativity will host a special screening of “Cemetery Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa,” a film directed by Carleton professor Cherif Keita, which explores an early effort at resistance to white authority in South Africa and its little-known connection with Northfield. The screening, part of the College’s Humanities Center’s Perspectives in Public Humanities series, will take place on Thursday, Feb. 7 beginning at 7 p.m. in the Weitz Center Cinema. This event is free and open to the public.

Keita, a native of Mali and professor of French and Francophone studies at Carleton, previously directed "Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube" (2005), which looks at the life of John L. Dube, founding president of the African National Congress (then called the South African Native National Congress) and an early figure in the struggle against white rule in South Africa. “Cemetery Stories” is a sequel of sorts to “Oberlin-Inanda,” as Keita charts the connection between Dube and William and Ida Belle Wilcox, an American missionary couple who lived in South Africa in the 1910s.

In South Africa, the Wilcoxes challenged mission policy by defending native land rights against the white authorities and preaching racial equality and social justice. The Wilcoxes became mentors to Dube, then a 16-year-old orphan whose mother had entrusted him to the missionaries, and took responsibility for his education, training him as a printer (during an interlude spent in upstate New York) and eventually sending him to Oberlin College in Ohio. Dube would use his education and training as a Congregationalist pastor to form South Africa’s first black-owned industrial school, to launch Ilanga Lase Natal (The Natal Sun, the first English-Zulu newspaper) and to help found the ANC, becoming an early pioneer in the decades-long struggle for freedom. Today Dube has been honored for his work by Nelson Mandela and other leaders and acknowledged as one of the forbears of modern South Africa.

Coincidentally, as Keita was researching Dube’s story, he discovered that Ida Belle Wilcox (nee Clary) was born and raised in Northfield; she and William were married in Northfield in 1881. Defying the American missionary leadership in South Africa, the Wilcoxes preached progressive ideals that were far ahead of their time, paying a heavy price in their loss of financial support from the church organization; they were expelled from South Africa, forced to rely on charity to return to the United States and eventually died in poverty. In November 2009 their legacy was finally honored by a free South Africa, as President Jacob Zuma sent a high-level delegation to pay their respects to the Wilcoxes at their final resting place in Glendale, California. The following month, Rev. Jackson Wilcox (their grandson) and Deborah Alternatt (their great-granddaughter) flew to Pretoria to accept the Medal of the Grand Companions of Oliver Tambo, the highest honor South Africa can bestow on foreign nationals, on behalf of William and Ida Belle Wilcox.

“Cemetery Stories,” Keita’s 2009 film that chronicles the intertwined lives of Dube and the Wilcoxes, has been widely screened in Africa and worldwide. The film was an official selection at the 2009 Pan African Film Festival (in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso), the Durban (South Africa) International Film Festival and the Real Life Documentaries Accra (Ghana) Film Festival, as well as the 2010 Rwanda International Film Festival and the 2011 Cinema Africa film festival in Tokyo.

For more information about this event, including disability accommodations, contact the Carleton College Center for Humanities Center at (507) 222-4217. The Weitz Center for Creativity is located at 320 Third Street East in Northfield.