Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was marked at Sundance with two special events. The first was a panel discussion moderated by Orlando Bagwell (Ford Foundation) with panelists U.S. Rep. John Conyers (Chair of the House Judiciary Committee), Dedrick Muhammad (scholar and researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies), and Katrina Browne (director, Traces of the Trade).
I’ll say from the outset that the time allotted to the panel was way too short. A discussion on the legacy of slavery and the myths of history deserves far more than one hour. In fact, by the time people got settled, heard introductions and watched some film clips, there was only half an hour for presentations and discussion — shamefully short for an emotional and very important topic, and a bit of a disservice to moderator, panelists and audience.
That said, despite the short time, the conversation was illuminating. Traces of the Trade painfully excavates the legacy of the slave trade through the story of the De Wolf family — the largest slave trading family in the U.S. Katrina, a De Wolf descendent, was shocked when she discovered this legacy. So, to cut a long, fascinating and brave story short, she invited relatives to go on a journey to examine the legacy of the trade and the inherited complicity that has seeped through subsequent generations.
Bagwell (a producer on Eyes on the Prize) eloquently set up the discussion by commending the bravery of Browne and family on undertaking the journey, noting that the film was an example of “the difficult process of remembering.” He pointed out that this process moved in stages — from “remembering to forgiveness to truth.” Following “truth,” there can be “reconciliation.”
Katrina was first to speak, and she used a wonderful metaphor in which white Americans have the wind at their back, whereas black Americans seem to persistently have the wind in their faces. She noted that when she was in school, the South was portrayed as pro-slavery and the North as anti-slavery. Yet, on investigation, she learned that her ancestors in Bristol, RI were the largest slave trading in family in the U.S. — all aided by political favors from Thomas Jefferson, and mostly conducted after the slave trade was outlawed in 1808. She noted the persistent structural inequality in the U.S. between black and white, which she convincingly posits is a lingering result of the trade.
There are a lot of issues at play here — reparations, reconciliation, responsibility — and indeed, they are all relevant. Yet Katrina talks about “repairing” the legacy of the trade. It’s a wonderfully encompassing concept that rules nothing out as society moves through the process of examination and reconciliation.
Conyers, who introduced legislation to establish MLK Day as a national holiday quite awhile ago, expressed exasperation at the short panel process. Yet, in a brief time, he powerfully spoke to the need to establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery. Conyers is currently behind HR40, which will establish such a commission through Congress. (He also advocated for a Capitol Hill Film Fest — so I’ll be following up!)
Dedrick Muhammad compellingly emphasized the persistent legacy of slavery in the ongoing economic disparity and social segregation between blacks and whites. He emphasized the ingrained “wealth divide” where blacks control only 10% of the wealth.
This is all powerful and troubling stuff, and we need time and help to digest it all. Thankfully, the panelists and Katrina’s family seem eager to take on that challenge.
And that leads me to Part 2.
Traces of the Trade premiered that evening to a full house. The film is painful (in a good way) and prods us all to examine our own legacy and complicity. The film debunks so many myths, and so clearly explains the economics of slavery and that legacy. Responsibility filters through generations, and whites to this day continue to benefit. I’m an immigrant to this country, and yet it’s likely that I too benefit from “the wind at my back” that most whites enjoy.
It was notable that so many of the De Wolf family descendants took part in the Q&A. It underscores their commitment to seriously wrangling with these issues and their culpability. I can only respect them for putting themselves in the spotlight.
This film is just beginning its journey. Hold tight for some uncomfortable, but needed, conversations.
Traces of the Trade will have its television premiere on POV in 2008.