Inheritors of Unwanted Legacies

Today's post comes to us from our friend and occasional guest poster Judith Weisenfeld, Professor of Religion at Princeton University and author of the recent and excellent volume Hollywood be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949. Judith discusses some recent documentaries on the entangled history of race, slavery, communal myths, and religion in American history.

Inheritors of Unwanted Legacies
Judith Weisenfeld

On July 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the non-binding respolution H.Res. 194 ( formally “apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans” and committing to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.” Predictably, my reading of responses posted on online news sites turned up many people arguing that this as far too little and far too late and many insisting that these sins of the past have nothing to do with them. Some, however, took the opportunity to respond at length to the question of what kinds of responses to the legacies of slavery and racism are useful and appropriate.

Coincidentally, I recently saw two new documentaries made by white women dealing with the implications of their families’ histories as participants in America’s long traditions of racism. Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which premiered on PBS’s POV in June, follows ten descendants of the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island as they struggle to come to terms with their ancestors’ tremendous success as slave traders from the mid 18th century through the early 19th century and slave plantation owners in Cuba well into the 19th century. The film follows this group as they retrace the steps of the slave trade from Ghana to Cuba to Bristol and consider the economic, political, and moral consequences of their ancestors’ business in each location. In addition to building the economy of Bristol through their active traffic in people, the DeWolfs were important figures in the local Episcopal Church. Many of the descendants featured in the film are active members of churches and see their work as fundamentally religious. The information the film presents about the profound ways in which Northern communities were implicated in the Atlantic slave trade and American, Caribbean, and Latin American systems of slavery is compelling and makes clear that, while the documentary began as a personal project, it is not simply the story of one family. At the same time, the focus remains on the individual emotional journeys of participants, with Browne serving as narrator and commentator. I sometimes found it difficult and at other times moving to observe their struggles, but was generally made uncomfortable by Browne’s sighing, worried narration which contributed to a certain aura of self-indulgence on the part of the DeWolf descendants.

A good deal of screen time is devoted to conversations among the ten participants about what, if anything, their inheritance enjoins them to do and, although no single path emerges, we do get a sense at the film’s end of the actions various family members take. One of these was a campaign to get the Episcopal Church to apologize for its involvement in the slave trade and in slavery. A dialogue project has emerged from the film and discussion materials and information about screenings are available (although I was a little taken aback by the division of viewing guides into ones for African Americans, “European Americans,” “multi-racial” people, and “other race groups and ethnicities”). Traces of the Trade is just out on DVD soon and so easily obtained.

Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths chronicles the 2007 Mardi Gras in Mobile, Alabama, where she grew up. The oldest Mardi Gras in America, Mobile’s celebration remains racially segregated, with an all-white association crowning what they understand to be the true and only King and Queen of Mardi Gras. An all-black group, founded in 1939 in response to Mobile’s black residents only having access to the celebration as servants, musicians, or fire carriers (this remains the case today), crowns its own King and Queen. 2007’s white Mardi Gras Queen descends from an infamous slave trader who brought an illegal shipment of Africans to Mobile in 1860 and, as it turns out, that year’s black Mardi Gras Queen descends from one of the Africans on board that ship. The mystic societies that sponsor balls and parades – The Order of Myths is one of these – remain inaccessible to black members and many of the white participants Brown interviews insist that they simply want to maintain their traditions and, besides, the “coloreds” like it that way.

What makes this film so compelling is the skill with which Brown accomplishes observational, cinema verité documentary – she chose informational title screens rather than a voice-over narration – and refuses easy resolution. This is not to say that her perspective is not apparent. Her emotional presence informs everything, especially the editing, which moves the film along quickly primarily through juxtaposition of scenes of the separate black and white events. It did seem to me, however, that the editing sometimes relegated the black participants in service of Brown’s desire to show the separate but unequal nature of the celebrations rather than allowing these people’s stories their own integrity. We learn late in the film precisely how Brown is connected to Mobile’s Mardi Gras and it seems to me a good decision for her to have withheld that information for so long. It is clear that the filmmaker has an investment in the past and future of Mobile’s rituals and, despite a few missteps, she does a remarkable job of presenting a complicated vision of one small portion of contemporary American race relations. In his review in New York Magazine, David Edelstein sums up the source of the film’s power and effectiveness well: “In the telling, The Order of Myths sounds obvious, and its underlying racial politics might be. But Brown is scrutinizing the surface, the tension between individuals and their ways. You try to read their faces, and it’s as if they’re wearing Mardi Gras masks, held in place by… what? Fear? It’s no wonder. Without the order of myths, what’s left?” The film’s website has information on the limited schedule of screenings, but I sincerely hope that we will see a DVD release soon. [Editors' note: my Netflix queue gives a January release date for the DVD).
Update: We have received the following information on getting the DVD, especially to show for classes and the like, for The Order of Myths: "it is available for purchase on DVD with Public Performance Rights. You can order it online through our website, at (select New Releases along the top), or by calling or faxing us directly at Tel: (212) 685-6242, or Fax: (212) 685-4717.


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