A Message from Mark Holdaway
Powerful New Film On Race in America

Happy Mark

I recently watched a film, Traces of the Trade, about a family of white New Englanders who discovered that their ancestors were some of the biggest players in the slave trade. This was a dirty little secret that nobody talked about, until a woman getting her divinity degree realized that she could no longer ignore this history when it came out in plain speech in a letter from her 88 year old grandmother.

After researching just how deeply her family had been into the slave trade in the 1700s and early 1800s, she organized a trip on which 12 family members traveled from Rhode Island to West Africa and back through Cuba to retrace the triangle trade route which brought slaves from Africa to the Caribbean, sugar cane for rum to New England, and rum to buy slaves in Africa.

One basic question that arose in coming to terms with this family's ancestors' extensive involvement in the slave trade is, "What can we do now to make things better?" Part of the answer to that question, for the DeWolf family, is to present their film to small community groups and talk about race issues in America.

Most white people cannot trace their ancestral involvement in the oppression of black people so directly. Yet it seems to me that just by being white, just by being the recipient of the implicit privileges that being of the dominant race confers upon me, I must ask these questions: How have I benefited from all of this? What are the implicit privileges conferred upon me as a member of the dominant race?

In response to the Senate voting to apologize for slavery on June 18, 2009, Katrina Browne, the filmmaker and protagonist of Traces of the Trade wrote: As white Americans today, we can be proud that we don't have the prejudices of our forefathers, but we've inherited various blind spots and head starts, and it takes more than a couple of generations post-civil rights and affirmative action to create the level playing field we extol... It now feels really natural to want to express regret -- not an apology (that's for institutions; Congress was right to step forward) but deep regret and sadness about what happened, fellow citizen to fellow citizen. I try to imagine what it would be like if we went so far as to extend tenderness toward each other. We could actually all use more of it when we're talking about race, racism and anything to do with slavery. —Katrina Browne (Read the full response here.)

I look forward to a time when there is no more fear between races. To overcome that fear, we need friendship, hope, trust, love—and music.

The mbira is a traditional African instrument that was created to help people connect with their ancestral spirits. (To learn more about the mbira and traditional music being made by African mbira musicians today, check out Mbira.org, Erica Azim's nonprofit to support mbira music.)

The kalimba is a twentieth century adaptation of the mbira by white man, Hugh Tracey, who had a deep respect for traditional African music. The kalimba bridges the past and the future, European culture and African culture. In the kalimba, we honor the modern African who builds it, the ancient African who invented its precursor, as well as Tracey's dedication to preserve and build upon African tradition. Furthermore, I believe the kalimba has the power to enable spiritual transformation. This instrument puts me in touch with something greater than myself or my race, which cultivates in me a sobering empathy for the descendents of those whom my ancestors wronged.

—Mark Holdaway, December 8, 2009

 

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