This month in Adult Forum, we are watching and discussing a film called Traces of the Trade.
It is a documentary about a white, New England family that goes on a journey to discover the roots of their family’s wealth: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
As such, it is a hard film to watch – and an even more challenging film to talk about. So why are we doing it? And what must we commit to in order to do it?
We are doing it because as Leonard Pitts writes, “black history is everyone’s history.”
Every day as we walk about our world, which was built on generations and generations of unpaid labor of people of African descent, we walk around with what Pitts calls “the same gaping irresolution, the same untreated wound.”
“Black people have spent generations trying to come to grips with their passages and have done, at best, an imperfect job,” he writes. “Yet that process has scarcely ever been contemplated for whites, who, after all, went through the same passage, albeit from the other side.”
That is why the unraveling of Northern involvement and perpetuation of slavery and the slave trade is so important to come to terms with, and why, back in February during our series on black history in the UCC, we challenged ourselves to do it.
It is easy, for white Americans especially, to abdicate responsibility and distance themselves from slavery. If we’re not from the South; if we don’t know of family members who were explicitly involved by owning or trading others; if, on the whole, the stories of our families don’t correspond with the stories that have sunk deepest into the collective American unconscious — that slavery was perpetrated solely by wealthy, white plantation owners in the Deep South — then washing our hands of a connection to the institution is often far too seductive.
But, as came up in the discussion on Sunday and is a theme of the film, every layer of Northern society touched the trade of human beings — and today, still benefits. Long after slavery was abolished in Northern states, cities like Boston, Newport, Bristol, New York, Philadelphia served as ports for ships carrying people, with industries growing up around them that were lucrative and inextricable parts of the local economy.
That is not to mention slavery itself that was present in the North. The film mentions that in Connecticut, enslaved Africans were forced to build the stone walls that are now iconic in the state, stone walls that if stretched out in a line, would reach the moon. And as Clark D. mentioned last week, when we talk about the legacy of slavery, we’re not just talking about stone walls or cotton or particular people or parts of the country – but rather the reality that slavery was the foundation for the wealth of the entire nation.
Looking at truths like this requires us to speak openly about the “banality of evil” – when collective evil is perpetrated by seemingly regular, innocent people who follow the status quo within a community committing atrocities. I am reminded that it’s often what the prophets call out in the Bible too.
And so, as we dismantle our notions of who were the “good guys” and who were the “bad guys” in history, it can be a painful emptying of expectations and assumptions about the past. That takes courage. It can also be a charge to look with clarity upon our complicity with institutions of evil today. That takes, perhaps, even more courage.
We call upon God to give us this courage. And we too, know that there are some ground rules we can follow in order to foster it on our own and as a group.
In our first session, we spent our time agreeing upon rules to guide our conversation about Traces of the Trade, which are important enough to repeat and expand upon here.
~Stay Engaged: Commit to be present with each other, to listen and hear each other, and to remain open to what is going on.
~Experience Discomfort: Discomfort is inevitable when dealing with the history of race in America, especially in multiracial groups. That discomfort is not a signal that we should retreat. Often, only when we are uncomfortable – and when we name how and why – do we learn something new about ourselves and about each other.
~Speak Your Own Truth: Use “I” statements and speak from your own experience.
~Accept and expect non-closure: It’s OK for the subject and conversation to fill unfinished. It always will.
I would also like to add to this that if you’d like to discuss the topic with someone outside of Adult Forum, ask first. Given the traumatic nature of this history, it’s important that we be mindful of respecting when and how we each want to engage with the topic. Discomfort can be productive, but only when there are terms established of trust and safety first.
Thank you for committing to those who are committing to be here as we do this, and see you Sunday,