Sat 28 Jun, 2008
Tags: Guilt, Media coverage, Washington D.C.
On the front page of today’s Style section, the Washington Post runs a feature story on Traces of the Trade, headlined “A Family Discovers Its History of Shackles and Shame.”
The article, by Ellen Maguire, runs in advance of the Washington-area broadcast of the film on Sunday on WETA, and features interviews with Katrina Browne, the director, and Juanita Brown, a co-producer.
Maguire describes the result of Katrina’s collaboration with Juanita as “part history lesson, part encounter session,” and notes that they have tried to offer viewers “a window into the awkward and painful consciousness-raising” of an established American family.
Maguire does a sensitive and balanced job of discussing their motivations in making the film, and their rationale for approaching the project as they did, while simultaneously referring to several of the more controversial aspects of their approach.
The article discusses the historical and contemporary basis for raising issues of race in a documentary, and outlines the reasons why this history is relevant to all Americans. It also discusses Katrina’s personal approach to race, revealing that Katrina had initially repressed the knowledge that she was descended from slave traders, in a personal parallel to Northern amnesia about slavery, and that she believes that whites today need forgiveness from blacks. Katrina is also quoted as saying,”I work around the clock, and I can only wonder if there is a piece of white guilt that I have not let go of.”
The article quotes at length from the most controversial aspect of Juanita’s participation in the film, the hotel room scene where she unexpectedly finds herself talking on camera to Elly about race. Here is a brief portion:
… I’m angry at white people. I think white people have been cowards and have chosen to give up their integrity and their humanity ….
Not content to leave readers with this aspect of Juanita’s attitude towards issues of race, however, Maguire also personalizes Juanita with several anecdotes. She writes about Juanita’s concerns about participating in the project (“I was also very aware that I could be seen as the Uncle Tom or the mammy or the mascot”) and her emotions as the only black American during our visits to Ghana and Cuba (“To go through the slave pavilions [in Ghana], that is a very difficult thing, and I learned that I am not as indestructible as I think. The grief that comes up . . . it would have been nice to have had an African American ally”).
Juanita has powerful moments in the article. She is quoted in the film, for instance, delivering a line which she knew was clichéd but nevertheless was essential: “Anybody who’s alive or who’s paying attention should be pissed off.”
Juanita also offers an amazing rejoinder to anyone who argues that these issues belong in the past:
My mother talks about one of her cousins, a former slave. He had scars on his ankles and wrists where the shackles used to be. He ate from a trough. To people who tell me, “Get over it, it’s ancient history,” I say, “I can touch the hand of my mother who touched a slave.”