Fri 14 Mar, 2008
Tags: 1808, Abolition, Bicentennial, Media coverage, Moral issues, Reparations, Slave trade
Chen’s article includes background information on Traces and quotations from an interview with producer/director Katrina Browne. She also touches on a variety of topics related to Traces and race in the U.S. today, including the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, hearings by the House Judiciary Committee on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, and the proposal by Chairman John Conyers to establish a commission on reparations. Chen also goes into detail about the various state apologies issued recently for slavery and discrimination, as well as the parallel apologies proposed in the U.S. House by Rep. Cohen, and in the Senate by Brownback and Harkin.
Along the way, the article makes an important point about the nature of individual and social responsibility, picking up on Katrina’s argument that our ancestors weren’t “individual monsters.” As the historical record shows, the D’Wolf family was hardly unique in participating in the slave trade: many ordinary people in Rhode Island society invested in slaving voyages or participating in outfitting slave ships or otherwise supported the trade, and few in the U.S. weren’t entangled in slavery, if only through economic ties.
The film makes these factual observations, but viewers often miss the implication that the slave trade, and thus the legacy of responsibility, is not particular to the slave traders themselves. One historical lesson of slavery concerns the human capacity for cruelty, selfishness, and self-justification, as well as the corresponding need for broad responsibility and social justice in our own society.
Chen also makes the observation, troubling to many who advocate for racial justice, that the legacy of the past is a tangled and nuanced one. In this regard, she notes that in this presidential election season, senators John McCain and Barack Obama are both the descendants of slave owners.
Finally, regarding the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, Chen notes that the Bush White House has kept notably silent about this anniversary, despite having previously made announcements of such important bicentennial observances as the founding of the U.S. Patent Office. She also catalogues other reasons to have observed this bicentennial, such as the lavish British commemoration of their own anniversary and the commission established by Congress to commemorate the U.S. bicentennial. Chen suggests that the motivating factor for the general silence around this historical anniversary may be a fear of encouraging pressure for reparations. This is an interesting conclusion, especially given how few Americans, including advocates of racial justice, actually support reparations. (Consider, for instance, that only 1 out of the ten DeWolf descendants profiled in the documentary supported any form of reparations.) I would suggest that perhaps this is largely an irrational fear, and may even stem more from the threat of thinking about the nature and origins of our society than from any potential monetary repercussions.