In Margaret Brown’s documentary “Descendant,” a man named Anderson Flen walks the streets of Montgomery, Alabama, wondering aloud about the people who walked there before him, people who had less freedom and less freedom. opportunities. He is from Africatown, a freed black settlement on the Gulf Coast founded by people who were brought on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to reach the United States. Seventy-two-year-old Flen is working with community members and conservationists to transform Africatown into a tourist destination that honors the legacy of enslaved black people. The purpose of your trip to Montgomery is to visit the National Peace and Justice Memorial, widely known as the National Lynching Memorial, which was dedicated in 2018 by attorney and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson and is a major landmark. for Africatown efforts. .
The imposing monument features hundreds of hanging steel rectangles, representing the more than four thousand African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. (The count is based on research done by the Equal Justice Initiative.) After touring the six-acre site, Flen seems to lose spring in her stride. He looks away from the camera and sees. He says: “The real test is often not the arrival. What do you do when you leave? . . . I’m sure most of the people who come here have been blessed beyond belief. This is just a blip in their lives, a few seconds.” He worries that the memorial will become “another form of entertainment”.
Conservationists, historians, and institutional leaders have capitalized on the rise in racial turmoil in recent years by creating dozens of museum exhibits, monuments, and memorials fighting racism in the U.S. The opening of the National Museum of History and African American Culture, in 2016, helped lead this revival. However, as Flen in Montgomery feels, the key questions remain unanswered: What is the best way to commemorate the history of racial violence? Can focusing on the past change our present? And what is specifically due to the families of those who suffered these crimes against humanity? Those questions are central to “Descendant,” which debuted at Sundance in January. It was acquired by Netflix and Higher Ground, the Obamas’ production company, and will be released in October after demonstration at the New York Film Festival.
Brown, in her early fifties, grew up white in Mobile, Alabama, whose center is three miles from Africatown. She is the daughter of a reluctant debutante mother and a Jewish composer father. A sensitive child, she was startled when her father pointed out houses owned by KKK members, warning him to be careful of her and to know her place as a Jew. But she had blue eyes and told me that she was “invisibly Jewish.” His 2008 documentary, “The Order of Myths,” examined the fraught class and racial dynamics of Mardi Gras in Mobile. Her subsequent films focused on the devastating effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill on working-class Gulf Coast communities, as well as voter suppression efforts targeting rural African Americans in Alabama’s Black Belt. While filming the movie Mardi Gras, she learned more about the story of Clotilda and the origins of Africatown; she didn’t remember learning it at school. A decade later, Brown set out to tell this story from the perspective of descendants of both whites and blacks, but when she approached the family of the white man who had paid for the trip, they refused to talk to her.
In “Descendant”, the current black descendants of those enslaved on Clotilda fight to preserve their ancestors’ stories in the face of historical erasure. The best-known ancestor is Cudjo Lewis, who helped found Africatown, where many descendants of Clotilda still live. In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston spoke to Cudjo for an oral history, later to become the book “Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Shipment.’ The film is interspersed with excerpts from this interview, read by descendants in the places where Cudjo lived and worked. Publishers rejected Hurston’s manuscript, objecting to his choice to phonetically translate their black vernacular, a rich mixture of Yoruba and English. The manuscript remained unpublished until 2018, the same year that Brown began shooting his film.
In “Barracoon”, Cudjo tells the story of Clotilda. It is often said that in the run up to the Civil War, a wealthy businessman named Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could take a ship full of Africans to Mobile and not get caught. The federal government had banned the importation of human cargo some fifty years earlier, and Meaher and his friends were eager to show they could get around national regulations, according to Sylviane Diouf, a prominent historian of Clotilda. Meaher purchased a schooner for a voyage to Ouidah, in the kingdom of Dahomey, in present-day Benin, where he financed the purchase of one hundred and ten young men and women. When the Africans arrived in Alabama, they were forced to abandon ship and forced to hide in the swamps. The schooner was burned and sunk to destroy evidence of the voyage; Meaher would have faced the death penalty if he had been found out. Captives were enslaved and put to work locally or shipped to plantations further afield. Five years later, at the end of the Civil War, these men and women were given their freedom, but Meaher refused to give them land. Instead, he and others sold many of them small lots where they founded Africatown, a self-contained community where they grew food, ran businesses and taught the next generation their customs and languages. They built a cemetery that faced east, towards Africa. The Meaher family remains one of Mobile’s largest landowners, and over the years they have leased their land to industrial plants that have polluted the land and contributed to a public health crisis in the community, according to research by MobileEnvironmental. Action for Justice Coalition. They have never apologized for Clotilda’s trip.
In 2019, marine scientists confirmed the discovery of Clotilda’s remains, in a remote stretch of the Mobile River, near land belonging to the Meaher family. The discovery provided the Africatown community with scientific validation of her story. (Researchers said last year that the ship was remarkably well preserved and might contain traces of DNA.) After the find, Africatown held a bell-ringing ceremony attended by local politicians and members of the national media, including this reporter, who appears briefly in the documentary. In a scene from “Descendant,” after the event is over, Veda Tunstall, a former real estate agent whose lineage stems from Clotilda, reacts to the sudden influx of attention. She fears that the history of her community “will be taken in the same way that our people were taken.” Of the nascent efforts to build a museum in Africatown and redevelop the area, she says, “I don’t want to be a part of that, I want be it’s.”
At a community meeting in Africatown, an illustration hidden under a piece of cloth was revealed. She showed what the Clotilda might have looked like, including how the captives were packed into her hold. By the time she removes her cover and a small burst of applause is heard, the awkwardness in the room is palpable as people gaze at the heartbreaking depiction of her ancestors lined up head to toe on slats like coffins. Many of the faces of the attendees appear full of fear and regret. Finally, an older man takes the floor: “The pain and suffering that my people have had to endure throughout this process is a tremendous burden,” he says. He proposes that “a few dollars” reach the relatives of Clotilda’s victims. Kamau Sadiki, one of the divers who helped confirm the discovery of the ship, affirms the community’s suffering and suggests: “Everyone should think about what justice means to you.”
It is a complicated question with a variety of answers. In the documentary, Joycelyn Davis, a descendant of Clotilda survivor Charlie Lewis, visits DC’s Lincoln Memorial and dreams big of a similar memorial in Africatown. “I hope it can be appreciated like that,” she says. Emmett Lewis tells his young daughters stories about his great-great-grandfather Cudjo, because he wants them to know what he stood for. He says: “My only fear is that the story of my people is not told.” Tunstall worries that Africatown residents will be charged the price as the region becomes a tourist attraction, while he expresses ambivalence about reparations. “As long as Timothy Meaher isn’t here, I don’t think there’s anyone to punish,” he says. Garry Lumbers, a member of the Clotilda Descendants Association, points out that although articles and books have appeared about Africatown, the community continues to suffer economically and socially. “It looks like a war,” he says.