‘Traces of the Trade’ and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at Sundance

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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.

Panel at Sundance

Dedrick Muhammad, Katrina Browne, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers spoke about the legacy of the slave trade at Sundance on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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 at Sundance

Members of the De Wolf family took part in the Q&A at the premiere of Traces of the Trade.

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.

Simon Kilmurry
Simon Kilmurry
Simon served as chief operating officer of American Documentary for six years before assuming the role of executive director in Fall 2006. Since joining AmDoc in 1999, he has played a key role in helping to set strategic direction for the organization and implementing new initiatives, including the Diverse Voices Project, POV's co-production initiative in support of emerging filmmakers; POV's Borders, PBS' Webby Award-winning online series; and True Lives, a second-run series for independent documentaries on public television. In addition, he worked to secure pioneering partnerships with both Netflix and Docurama to expand the distribution opportunities for POV filmmakers and enhance branding for POV Previously, Simon was associate director at Teachers & Writers Collaborative, a nonprofit literary arts and education organization and publisher, where he is now a member of the board of directors. He has also served as a board member and treasurer for Elders Share the Arts and East Harlem Block Schools, and as an informal advisor and funding panel member for other organizations including the New York City Center for Arts Education, the Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers and New York State Council on the Arts. Simon attended the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Columbia University Business School's Institute for Not-for-Profit Management.
  • mike

    FOREIGNID: 15365
    You may use HTML tags for style and links. there is plenty of blame to go around when it come to slavery: black tribal leaders, waring tribes in africa, slave- traders, who captured and sold blacks into slavery in the 1600′s to 1900”s in africa…. ………..i am a histroy-buff, sparta, ancient rome, egypt mesopetamia had slaves/slavery, it is and was a terrible and cruel institution………..let.s get over it, it’s time to move on…………….reparations, NO, (from whom to whom); an apology, (perhaps), but, again, (from whom to whom)……………i’d give the program, “traces of the trade”, which i saw last night, a grade of c- out of a possible high grade of a and a possible low grade of f.

  • Terry

    FOREIGNID: 15366
    I caught this program last night on PBS and was floored by the content and subject covered. I too am a student of history and it is a stark reminder of the role that human capital has played in building this country and in fact in the building of numerous empires since the dawn of man. As the program demonstrated, there is much reconciliation to be had but I am not sure how to go about doing that. I would love to see more stuff like this to use as a tool to learn from our tragic past and better understand the circumstances and impact that our ancestors actions had on a group of African American people who are substantial and roughly 26 of our 290 million US citizens.
    Several years ago we started researching our family geneanoly. We are Washingtonians and they transitioned to DC in the 1870′s after being farmers in southern Maryland, a major enclave for slave application. The sentiments of our ancestors are not clear although southern Marylanders tended to be southern sypmathizers. I have not found any evidence of slave holdings but it was clearly part of the landscape. Nonetheless, my heart and sensitivity goes out to this family because they recognize the major role their families business has played on this country and they are seeking solice. They have it from me.
    They are not responsible for the action of James De Wolf but as discussed in the program, benefited from the economic advantages of the times and family business. It may not be represented in corporate holdings or trust fund accounts, but they certainly benefited ( as well as many Americans) from the value of what free labor translates into for an agricultural economy.
    I am not sure that reparations, an idea that some are positioning for, is the answer. Maybe reparations do not have to come in the form or cash payments but rather an authentic effort to reach out to those who are less advantaged instead of taking a critical position of why someone is less advantaged as though they deserve to live in poverty, etc.
    I am not a great writer but feel compelled to reach out to Katrina Brown. I see the explosive potential of our “underclass” as a resource to be tapped but nobody has figured out how to implement a strategy to strengthen this carve out of our society. Maybe our new president can help us to go in that direction.

  • mary

    FOREIGNID: 15367
    fortunately for me, i am not a superbowl fan and saw katrina’s film last night. katrina has done the right thing and more by seeking the truth and educating the public about buried history. we need to learn from past mistakes so that they will not be repeated. in this way, there is hope for a better future. i feel this film should be required viewing and discussed in every middle school and high school classroom. thank you katrina…

  • ethan

    FOREIGNID: 15368
    It is absurd to equate ‘white people’ with the slave trade.
    My very blonde ancestors were virtually enslaved in Ireland by the very same people who were trading in Africans.
    I am fed up with black people blaming me for their historic wrongs because of the color of my skin.
    If reparation is in order – I want my share.

  • Sue

    FOREIGNID: 15369
    I just finished watching this program and felt a need to share a few lines of thought. I am from a long line of South Carolinians and lived in Charleston for seven years. For the last five years I have been living in MA just down the street from Harvard University. These are two very different worlds.
    As progressive and liberal as I thought I was in SC, I found that when I moved to this area I had to immediately come face-to-face with my white southern heritage. There is no evidence of slave holding in my family but this in no way exonerates my ancestors. Even so, in grappling with this issue within myself I must say that this family needs to go deeper. This family has not even begun to deal with its deeply planted racism.
    Racism is more than an academic subject to be studied. A cerebral exercise will not bring us to the other side. Consider holding each other accountable in the day-to-day. Politics begins in our own back yard. Are you willing to step forward in shops, in a court of law, or on the bus when injustice is rearing its ugly head? Are you willing to risk social status, friends, jobs or more to do so?
    In Charleston few if any whites ride the public bus. Can you step aboard regularly? In Charleston there is an African-American neighborhood boardering the very wealthy white community. Few whites are seen in this area. Also, few African-Americans are seen regularly sipping tea on the front porch of those wealthy confederate homes. But most importantly, in this program, I did not see anything pointing to beholding the other as truly beautiful. I did not see admiration for a beauty that holds one speechless.
    Yes, the old south continues. It just continues in another form.