Wed 2 Apr, 2008
Tags: Guilt, Katrina Browne, Media coverage, Philadelphia, Privilege, Race, Self-indulgence, Tom DeWolf
The article, by Sam Adams, carries the subhead, “How Philly native Katrina Browne confronted her ties to America’s original sin, and why the nation should follow her lead,” and features interviews with Katrina Browne and Tom DeWolf. This coverage is motivated by screenings of the documentary at the National Constitution Center on April 24; as the article explains, the screenings were originally to be held as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, until a conflict arose with the Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
As I indicated, this is a particularly thoughtful article. Adams does review the film itself, describing it as “gripping” and “a fascinating and largely unknown story,” but he focuses on the family’s introspection about the legacy of the slave trade and delves into Katrina’s and Tom’s backgrounds and motivations as coverage of the film and book rarely do.
The article explicitly addresses the discomfort which both Katrina and Tom have about race, and their shared belief that many, if not all, whites are uncomfortable talking with blacks or about the subject of race. Adams traces Katrina’s discomfort to her background, discussing her privileged upbringing in Philadelphia’s Society Hill and at elite private schools before moving on to locate the origins of her feelings of “white guilt” in her introduction to issues of race in college.
Attending Princeton, Adams writes, Katrina “cut her blond hair short after reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, feeling that her pale skin and blue eyes were an affront to ideals of black beauty.” Adams also reports that Katrina joined a gospel choir at Princeton, but “kept to herself, worried about ‘bothering’ its mostly black membership.”
Tom, by contrast, did not have an especially privileged upbringing, and Adams addresses this as well, concluding that Tom’s discomfort around race stems from his more distant, “arm’s-length” relationship with the black community during most of his life. (Tom elaborates on this theme in his book about the journey, Inheriting the Trade, in which he discusses how little interaction he had with blacks in his life, prior to embarking on the trip.)
Like other reviewers, Adams also explicitly raises the concern that this film is largely about guilt over issues of race, referring to Katrina’s “struggles with white guilt” and saying, “It would be easy to dismiss Traces of the Trade as an act of liberal self-flagellation.” He also quotes Tom as saying that while he rejects individual guilt for the sins of the past, he believes that the nation as a whole has inherited guilt which needs to be purged.
Adams suggests that Katrina’s answer to the charge of indulging in feelings of guilt lies in her approach to solving the country’s problems with race, which she believes must begin with conversations in which whites talk exclusively to whites. Here, Adams cites me, referring to me simply as “the youngest member” of the group, raising my concern during the film that all of this amounts to “self-indulgence.” For me, in fact, it would be self-indulgent to focus on a conversation among whites about addressing feelings of guilt. Having had a very different set of experiences in my life than either Katrina or Tom, my own issues around race do not include feelings of guilt, or undue discomfort in talking with people of all races about this subject. Since we filmed that scene, however, I’ve come to understand that for Katrina and others like her, addressing issues of race with other whites and working through feelings of guilt may be a necessary preliminary to confronting the important issues of race in our country.
Having just mentioned areas in which my views diverge from those of my distant cousins, I should also mention that there are vital areas in which we agree. Here is Katrina, quoted in the article:
People, including some of my relatives, have said to me, ‘You should just be out there helping black people. Roll up your sleeves and get to work.’ But the inequality issues are structural and systemic, and to solve them, we need more commitment to solving them in legislative and economic and structural ways. It doesn’t look to me like most white Americans are committed to that. And I think the reason for that is more in the realm of the stories we tell ourselves about whether this is our problem or not.
I agree strongly with Katrina that most Americans do not yet see the need for a commitment to addressing racial justice, and that this must be our first priority. I would argue that those Americans who don’t yet “get it” are in need of greater understanding about the realities of race in this country. This is where efforts aimed at education and dialogue — which became, over the course of the journey, the focus for both Tom and me — can lay the necessary foundation for the work to come.
At the same time, those Americans who don’t “get it” should not be the sole target of our efforts. Such people generally have, as Senator Obama has noted, a legitimate set of concerns about how race impacts their lives. This effort should also help the rest of us to understand, appreciate, and learn to work with that perspective, while simultaneously helping to reduce their concerns through greater understanding. Only in this way, I believe, can we move forward together, committed to a vision in which we’re united, dedicated to action and committed to one another.
As an aside, I offer two minor factual corrections to the article: Several members of the family in the film attended Ivy League schools, not “all but one.” And Senator D’Wolf did not continue in the slave trade after its abolition in 1808, as the article implies, nor did most of his family.