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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
January 23rd, 2008

Katrina Browne can trace her family’s history back to the early American colonial days . . . back when they ran one of the largest slave trade operations in the world. What do you do with knowledge like that? It’s been at least 140 years since anyone in your family owned or traded other human beings–it’s not your fault. Many people in Browne’s position ignore that part of their heritage (check out Margaret Brown’s fascinating “Order of Myths” to see some similar denial in action), or make excuses for it. But Browne decided to contact 200 of her known relatives, and invite them on an exploration of their family’s past. 9 agreed to come, and the documentary “Traces of the Trade” is one of the many results.

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The family members travel from Rhode Island (where the family was based) to Ghana (where they purchased slaves) to Cuba (where they owned plantations, worked by slaves, which fueled the cycle). One might wonder what these (mostly) privileged white people, in the 21st Century, would gain from such a trip–if it would merely end up as a guilt-assuaging tour of near-forgotten horrors. But for me, the film faces down complex moral turmoil and emotional anguish, and it’s all split open on the family’s first day in Ghana, where they see that these atrocities are not nearly as forgotten in Africa, and by African-Americans, as they may seem in to white Americans.

One relative says, [to paraphrase] “I had always excused my ancestors, saying that they were only a product of their times, that trading slaves was just the way of the world. But after being in one of the slave prisons, where hundreds of people were held in cramped, dark cells before being shipped across the Middle Passage, now I know that’s bullshit. What they were doing was evil, and they had to know it was evil, and they did it anyway. I wouldn’t have thought that if I hadn’t come here.”

That crucial admission, and the knowledge that he could only have reached that revelation by confronting the past directly, is the moral crux of the film. By making that admission he opens up the possibility of his own complicity, acknowledging that there are aspects of this horrible past which he may be suppressing, thereby continuing the legacy of denial,  ignorance, racism. And so the 9 press on, opening themselves up to learn and understand and attempt to do the right thing. They realize that even though slavery was abolished a century and a half ago, the problems of racial inequality persist, largely because the root causes have never been fully acknowledged. In the end, they each find ways to try to make amends, and Browne and a few others begin to advocate for large-scale reparations, with the funds earmarked for social programs that might help end the systems of racism and inequality.  

It could be easy to dismiss this family’s journey as a limited example, relevant only to them and other direct descendents of slave-owners. But such a dismissal would avoid the important point that Browne’s film makes: morality cannot be complacent. We all have beliefs–we’re against the wars in the Middle East, we fear for the environment, we’re outraged by the myriad inequalities in our society, for example–but are we doing enough? If we rationalize away our inactivity, our morals will crumble and fail. At a certain point, we have to examine at our excuses and simply say, “That’s bullshit.” It’s time to do something.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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