Sun 22 Jun, 2008
Tags: Boston, Media coverage, The Root
Katrina also has an essay this weekend at The Root, the online magazine devoted to race and to promoting black perspectives in the media, and there are additional reviews and previews of Traces of the Trade in a variety of newspapers.
The Boston Globe interviewer, who admits to having “mixed emotions” and to feeling “uncomfortable” while watching the film, using those reactions to elicit Katrina’s concerns about those in our society who may be “scared off” from discussing race out of a fear of “saying the wrong thing.” This is a target demographic that has long been a focus for Katrina, and exploring the concerns and needs of this segment of the white population was a major reason why Katrina decided to make the film.
Katrina’s essay at The Root is an excellent overview of the history behind the film: the role of the D’Wolf family and the entire North in the slave trade, and Katrina’s personal journey from learning about our family’s dark story to crafting a documentary exploring that history and its legacy.
She discusses how she had initially suppressed her knowledge of the family business, manifesting personal amnesia and “white liberal guilt” that she suggests may parallel the experience of the North in repressing its deep complicity in slavery and the guilt over that unresolved history which is experienced by some whites to this day. Katrina discusses her decision to explore these issues in an artistic medium and with an explicit focus on the powerful emotions which she and others experience in this area, and she mentions her controversial decision to focus on dialogues among white people, believing that whites tend to carry psychological baggage which is best explored in racially segregated groups.
Katrina also addresses head-on what I see as the crux of the debate over the legacy of slavery today:
If slavery was a national institution, I came to realize, then the legacy of slavery is a national responsibility.
Whatever our national obligation may be concerning slavery and its aftermath—and Katrina and I frequently differ here—we share a belief that since complicity in slavery and the slave trade were national in scope, and since the benefits have accrued to all Americans, then the consequences must be our shared responsibility, as well. Katrina mentions that there are whites who exhibit “massive defensiveness and resistance” on issues of racial justice, believing that their own family backgrounds and personal struggles exempt them from responsibility for the nation’s racial past. But this is based on a misunderstanding. She notes, as I have, that the history of the nation since slavery demonstrates that while individual whites, especially immigrants, have often had to struggle to achieve success, blacks as a group have had a much harder time. While immigrants have benefited from the enduring economic consequences of slavery and from stark racial preferences in place until the 1960s, blacks have been able to make only limited socioeconomic progress since the days of slavery.
Turning to reviews of the film, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal says that Traces “has important things to say about the bone-deep American discomfort with our shared history,” and calls on Katrina to make a second documentary about we have been doing since returning from the journey chronicled in the film. (The reviewer also makes the common mistake of assuming that we are a wealthy family today.)
The Kansas City Star calls Traces “a heck of a story” which “refuses to rush into the safe harbor of white guilt.” The reviewers also paraphrase a comment of mine in the film, saying that “there’s an understanding that if they’d been there 250 years ago, they might have looked the other way.”
This perspective is essential to me, and I’m glad that it was singled out in such a brief review. History teaches us that the D’Wolfs were not unusually greedy businessmen; they were ordinary citizens and merchants, and most members of their society were complicit in the slave trade. The true story of that history, and of the present day, is that most, if not all, of us are capable of participating in, or at least buying into, social practices of extraordinary inhumanity.
There’s also a detailed article on Traces in this morning’s issue of the Tulsa World, and previews of the film this weekend in the Miami Herald, the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, and in a variety of newspapers courtesy of an Associated Press preview.