I want to reflect on the honest and revealing documentary *Traces of the Trade* by Katrina Browne et al, which was shown last night on Chicago PBS. But before I go into this film, which follows members of an old, privileged white American family of New England stock as they explore their ancestral complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I would like to cite Hannah Arendt in 1968 on the question of collective responsibility:
"There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them. This is an important point, worth making loudly and clearly at a moment when so many good white liberals confess to guilt feelings with respect to the Negro question. I do not know how many precedents there are in history for such misplaced feelings, but I do know that in postwar Germany, where similar problems arose with respect to what had been done by the Hitler regime to Jews, the cry 'We are all guilty' that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal. It refers to an act, not to intentions or potentialities. It is only in a metaphorical sense that we can say we guilty for the sins of our fathers or our people or mankind, in short, for deeds we have not done, although the course of events may well make us pay for them. And since sentiments of guilt, mens rea or bad conscience, the awareness of wrong doing, play such an important role in our legal and moral judgment, it may be wise to refrain from such metaphorical statements which, when taken literally, can only lead into a phony sentimentality in which all real issues are obscured."
Keeping in mind Arendt's unsentimental suspicion of the notion of collective guilt (which we know is motivated by her fiercely impersonal sense of justice), I wonder what it was that made it existentially important to this young woman Katrina Browne to come to terms with her ancestors, the DeWolfs, the most prominent and wealthiest slave traders in the United States. Browne's desire to confront her ancestor's complicity in a morally degrading enterprise led her to gather her own relatives, essentially privileged white Episcopalians, to trace the history of the slave trade together. They go as far as traveling to Ghana and Cuba to interview scholars of the history of slave trade, to visit sites of the slave market and plantations. Meanwhile, everything goes to make apparent that this journey was ultimately about confronting what it means to be not only white but in the white American elite. This becomes pointed when the whites in question felt - many for the first time in their lives - unwanted and snubbed when participating in a festival in Ghana, making them viscerally feel their race.
What is striking in this documentary for me is the extent to which the whites want to be loved and forgiven by those whom they believe to have oppressed. This is far from being a universal phenomenon since the Baba Chinese, for example, to whom I partially belong, do not seem particularly eager to be loved by the indigenous Javanese, at whose cost they had been able to prosper under the Dutch colonial regime, and toward whom they maintain till this day an unapologetic sense of superiority. (In fact, while most educated Europeans today feel embarrassed about colonialism, the Baba Chinese who have integrated and inter-married seamlessly into the Dutch society have yet to internalized this aspect of the European historical consciousness broadly speaking.)
It is probably obvious to us all that the notion of collective guilt is a particularly white phenomenon, be it on the part of post-war Germans (regarding the European Jews) or the white Americans (regarding the descendants of the African slaves). Equally obvious is the fact that the urgency to have a clear moral conscience regarding the wrongs of the world is a distinctly Hebraic-Christian heritage. At the same time, I would hesitate before seeing the sentiments and behavior of Katrina Browne and her folks as simply "Christian."
At one point during their journey, having been trapped in a tourist package modeled after "the life of the slaves" on the vestiges of a sugarcane plantation in Cuba, one of the family members breaks down. The gray-haired woman explodes in anger and frustration, saying, "Damn it, I need more communication among us about this experience, we have gone on this trip, and yet we are still being our Protestant selves, each to our own..." I think it was the most important moment of truth in this documentary. The woman is right to point out that the sense of the privacy of the individual soul is Protestant, and I would go further by pointing out that the entire journey, which was haunted by the wish to have the sins of the ancestors expiated by the victims, is distinctly Protestant. In other words, what is distinctive about this case of collective guilt is that those who saw themselves as "guilty" perceive the agents of forgiveness to be those whom they perceive as victims.
I do not question Katrina Browne when she says at one point in the film that the whites ought to ask for forgiveness, but I completely disagree with her and her family's conception of the blacks as the sole agents of forgiveness. In fact, I found mildly distasteful the moment when the family turned to their only African-American companion, Juanita Brown, in order to solicit approval from her, as if she alone could "forgive" the whites on behalf of all the black Americans that have ever lived. Brown is consequently put into the embarrassing role of consoling the historical oppressors, as it were, coerced emotionally to generate the absurdly sentimental and meaningless phrase: “To me, you are just a good person now…”
The absurdity of this situation, I think, can be avoided if we try to think beyond the Protestant mentality that seems to have entrenched Katrina Browne and her folks. This is completely thinkable especially because these folks belong to the American Episcopal church, which contains both Catholic and Protestant elements. We know that Catholic tradition valorizes confession of sins in a way that the Protestant churches do not, and it is crucial that it is to a priest that one confesses and not to those we have sinned against. In the Anglican and Episcopalian liturgy, one confesses to a “Most merciful God” that “we have sinned against thee/in thought, word, and deed,/by what we have done,/and by what we have left undone.” That is to say, it might be a trespass against our neighbors, but it is a sin against God. From this we can conclude that only God – namely a third, impersonal presence, a divine justice that goes beyond the human – can “have mercy/upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins.” The priest can perform this act of forgiveness in his office, but not as a person, whence the obligatory phrase, “Please pray for me, a sinner also” at the end of confession.
There is perhaps nothing that reveals the reason for this triangular situation “wrongdoer-wronged-God” than the kind of trespasses that we deal with in Traces of the Trade, namely, a wrongness whose magnitude is so that it that cannot be absolved simply by an apology. An apology on an institutional level (by the church, by a government) serves to make public a responsibility toward certain disenfranchised groups, but it cannot expiate the offenses of the wrongdoers. The danger of the Protestant mentality is its overemphasis on the individual conscience, which, in this instance, clearly reveals its impotence and helplessness when dealing with a moral transgression not against one person, one family, one country, but a whole class of people and their descendants over generations. I suspect that this is the reason for which Katrina Browne, to her credit, returns to the Episcopal church not only to have a public – which, in Arendtian terms, means visible, exposed, and therefore political – space in which she can seek recognition for white responsibility, but also as the an authentic institution in white American culture that can represent an impersonal, supra-human justice, to whom human beings caught in a historical tragedy can, without the risk of sentimentality, ask to “have mercy on us.”