This morning, Traces of the Trade hosted a panel on the legacy of the slave trade at the Sundance Film Festival, keynoted by Congressman John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

The panel, entitled “An MLK Day Discussion: The Legacy of the Slave Trade 200 Years After Its Abolition,” also included panelists Dedrick Muhammad, of the Institute for Policy Studies, and Katrina Browne, producer/director of Traces, and was moderated by Orlando Bagwell, an award-winning documentary filmmaker currently with the Ford Foundation.

The panel was held to discuss how the legacy of the slave trade affects contemporary society and how that legacy might be overcome. It was held in conjunction with the world premiere of Traces of the Trade, and marked the launch of the second phase of that project, in which we begin to show the film to the public and initiate our dialogue and outreach efforts.

Dedrick discussed ways in which blacks in the U.S. remain far behind whites in social and economic terms, and Katrina outlined several steps which she hopes some members of the D’Wolf family will follow in order to address structural inequality in our society. Those steps include public education and dialogue about the legacy of the slave trade, through screenings of the film in educational, civic, and religious settings; and national political efforts, including the commemoration of the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, and H.R. 40.

Congressman Conyers suggested that he would like to screen Traces to his colleagues on Capitol Hill, saying that the film itself “would say more than a half-dozen hearings” on this issue.

I will post another entry shortly, relating more of what the panelists had to say about the enduring legacy of the slave trade, and offering a few of my own thoughts on the subject. For the moment, I want to end by quoting Congressman Conyers in his press statement on this occasion:

I have followed the production of Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade from its earliest stages.  She has bravely chosen to examine her family’s history in a manner free of myth and false sentiment ….

The most enduring myth of American history is that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves and that the blood shed in that war cleansed the taint of slavery from the soul of this nation.  This myth has allowed us to ignore the culpability of the North in the institution of slavery, the injustices of Jim Crow and the lingering effects of slavery ….

The African American community faces a myriad of striking disparities and barriers. … This reality is the result of the social, economic, and political disenfranchisement that African Americans have endured throughout our experience in this country.  For a majority of this nation’s history, this disenfranchisement was mandated by law.  Disparities in education, housing, healthcare and other critical aspects of society have been the consequence. …

For over 19 years, I have introduced the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (H.R. 40) – not to spark controversy or promote division – but to further a national dialogue on the plight of Africans Americans in the context of slavery, Jim Crow, and other legally sanctioned forms of discrimination. … Through the work of an H.R. 40 commission, I believe that this nation could come closer to racial equality and understanding. …

I must confess that I do not know where a study will take us, but I am hopeful that it will take us in the right direction. … While a commission will not erase the past, it can bring us closer to racial reconciliation and advancement as a 21st century multicultural society.

5 Responses to “Panel on the legacy of the slave trade”

  1. bobbo says:

    I'm reading the blog in order and this is the first item I have clicked on to read about "the legacy" of the Slave Trade. Did you make your comments later on? If so, can you post a link?


    I think there very much needs to be a clear distinction between Slavery and everything after the end of the Civil War and the 13 th Amendment. The pro-reparations crowd severely under appreciates the sacrifice of the Civil War = 646K Dead and Wounded on the Union Side.

    As I have engaged this blog, I am more convinced than ever that no reparations for Slavery is indicated AT ALL. That obligation has been PAID IN FULL. Now, still live is a discussion about reparations/damages/recognition of the continuing Jim Crow and discrimination after the civil war up to and including today.

    I'll wait until perusing the rest of this blog before seeing what my conclusions if any might be about that.

  2. James says:

    Bobbo, I don't know that I have a single post on this blog which tries to provide a comprehensive overview of the legacy of slavery and race for our society today. Certainly many of the posts in this blog address one or another specific issue, but I'll see if I can pull together some material into a single post that I could point readers to.

    I have to disagree with you about the legacy of the Civil War. While it's true that about 625,000 combatants lost their lives in that conflict, they did not die to end slavery. Most soldiers enlisted, or were drafted, long before the Union even decided to see the end of slavery as a war aim; Union soldiers, for instance, were generally fighting for such goals as preserving the Union.

    Even if those deaths were somehow a price paid to end slavery, how would this be reparations for slavery, or an obligation "paid in full"? Ending an evil institution does not amount to atoning for it. The analogy I often use is this: if a murderer agrees to stop committing murders, would we believe that he had made up for his crimes? That the families of his victims had been made whole?

    You do recognize, and I appreciate this, that most proposals for reparations focus not on slavery up to 1865, but on the impact of slavery, and the century of brutal discrimination which followed, on the lives of black Americans today.

  3. bobbo says:

    James, I thought you agreed that "slavery was inextricably entwined in the Civil War?" Would there have been a secession movement without the existence of slavery? I say THAT question, only a slight variation on the original question, can only be sanely answered: No.

    But I'll even back up from that position. Some people did fight to free the slaves.

    Additionally, it hardly matters what ANYBODY'S motivation was as the Civil War did result in the end of Slavery. Isn't it valid to define things by the action they have in this world, intenden or not?

    So–625K killed and WOUNDED is nothing to be so dismissive of. Giving you life is about as much atonement as I'd ever wish to experience.

    I'll read your answer with interest if you post it, but the issue of reparations is still alive in its full glory regardless of whether or not atonement for slavery was met or not.

    PS–But once again, you are confusing me. Where does atonement arise if reparations are not thereby mandated???? Same as the "responsible for" relationship. You make a wholly inappropriate break between cause and effect by my way of thinking. Which of us has more to learn from the other?

  4. James says:

    Bobbo, I do agree that slavery "was inextricably entwined with the Civil War." It was certainly a precipitating cause of the conflict, for instance. That doesn't mean that ending slavery was the reason why the Union, or its soldiers, fought, or why those lives were sacrificed.

    You say that some people did fight to free the slaves. I'm sure that some people did do so. However, their numbers must have been quite small, especially given that they would have been fighting only in the hope that if the Union won, Congress might decide not to allow slavery to continue in the South (a question which wasn't settled until 1865).

    Isn’t it valid to define things by the action they have in this world, intenden or not?

    Certainly it is, bobbo. Can we agree to say that those deaths were, in some sense, a price which the nation paid for its sins concerning slavery? That's quite different, in my mind, from saying that the Union made that sacrifice in order to end slavery, or that those soldiers died as a form of reparations for slavery.

    You might think of the difference as being similar to a bank robber experiencing remorse and returning his loot to the bank, as opposed to dying when the getaway car careens out of control off a cliff in an effort to escape the police.

    625K killed and WOUNDED is nothing to be so dismissive of.

    It was the worst episode in our nation's history, bobbo. I'm not being dismissive of it.

    Where does atonement arise if reparations are not thereby mandated????

    I suggested that the nation has not atoned for slavery or its aftermath, and indeed I think that's self-evident. That doesn't necessarily mean that the nation is obligated to atone for those events, merely that it hasn't chosen to do so.

    You see a cause-and-effect relationship here, but I don't, and I'm not sure why you do. Should I compensate the victims of a crime if I'm the criminal? What if instead, I'm the criminal's parent, and I feel responsible that I raised my child to become a criminal? Assuming you agree that I have no responsibility as a parent to compensate the victims, surely I could still choose to do so? And we could talk about whether or not I've compensated them, even though I have no obligation to do so?

    I'm not trying to suggest that this hypothetical is in any way parallel to slavery and reparations. I'm just trying to help you see why I believe there could be, or not be, atonement even if such atonement or reparations might not necessarily be required.

  5. bobbo says:

    Should I compensate the victims of a crime if I’m the criminal? /// Yes, thats payment of direct damages, sometimes incorrectly called or lumped into reparations.

    What if instead, I’m the criminal’s parent /// Depends on the crime. If it was bankrobbery, theft, creation of a financial empire, AND if your son ((or for diversity's sake your daughter, although that is rare)) bought you lots of expensive gifts so as to amount to a transfer of some of that wealth to you, then yes the parent, or other transferees, owe money to victims according to the AMOUNT THEY RECEIVED.

    What if instead, I’m the criminal’s parent, and I feel responsible that I raised my child to become a criminal? /// Everyone should be free to freely act on their own value system as long as it doesn't violate someone else's rights. Such people are not acting pursuant to a legal responsibility, but on independent moral commitment.
    1: obsolete : reconciliation

    2: the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ

    3: reparation for an offense or injury : satisfaction

    4: Christian Science : the exemplifying of human oneness with God

    Well, I have to admit, I don't know what atonement means. So, I'll take your word for it. ((I laugh at myself!))

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