MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, in 1989, director Spike Lee got mixed reviews for his film that followed one summer day in the life of a Brooklyn neighborhood. Twenty years later that film is considered one of the most important of the era. We'll talk about the 20th anniversary of "Do The Right Thing." That conversation in just a few minutes.
But first we want to talk about an apology for past wrongs. Last week, the United States Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for two-and-a-half centuries of slavery and the racial segregation that followed. The measure was sponsored by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): A national apology for the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice. So it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws.
MARTIN: The apology does come with a disclaimer. It states that the resolution does not authorize or support reparations. The House of Representatives, which has previously passed an apology, will take up the matter this week. Today, though, to the degree that we can, we decided to step back from the political and go to the personal. Are these sweeping pleas for forgiveness important? Who does the apology benefit?
And for this, we decided to turn to two people with direct links to America's history of slavery. Katrina Browne is the writer and co-producer of the documentary, "Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North." In the film she delves into her New England ancestors who at one point were the country's biggest slave trading family. We also have Daniel Smith with us. He is a former civil rights worker and he is the son of a man who was born into slavery in 1862. And he's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. DANIEL SMITH (Civil Rights Worker): Thank you for having us.
Ms. KATRINA BROWNE (Writer, Co-Producer, "Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North"): Great to be here.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask each of you what does this apology mean to you? Does it mean anything to you? Daniel Smith, I wanted to ask you about this?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think the apology represents men and women of good faith trying to come to grips and coming to grips with the problem of slavery in our country. And the historical impact it's had on the nation, not just on blacks, on this country. And to me it represents a first step by the government to recognize the wrongs that were done to the citizens of this country.
MARTIN: Do you think it matters?
Mr. SMITH: Yes, I think it matters significantly because again it's the first step. I'm sorry it was publicized more.
MARTIN: Katrina, you probably thought more about this question than most people because your film is in part about the importance of remembering and what is needed to achieve reconciliation and resolution about a painful part of history. And in this film, which we've covered on this program, you delve into your sort of journey tracing back the steps that your ancestors had taken. And what is your view of the apology? Is this important?
Ms. BROWNE: It absolutely is in my mind. Even just at the very most basic level. I mean, when we think of human relationships, when even a small wrong is committed, we know it's important to apologize. But when such a huge atrocity was committed for hundreds of years against a group of people an apology is the least that can be offered. And the fact that it hasn't until now been offered by the U.S. Congress - well, the House passed a resolution last summer but, you know, 2008 is many years after the end of slavery and many years after the beginning of slavery.
It just - it seems like the least one could ask. And the fact that the apology was never extended at the time that the victims were alive and the perpetrators were alive is not that surprising. But that doesn't mean it isn't still owed to the descendents today and that as white folks we don't have to feel like it's a personal apology as if we did it. But I do feel that acknowledging having white people really see and take to heart that which was suffered and the consequences of it that are still with us today just kind of opens up a channel of just basic human decency and of connection and dialogue that then can lead us to figure out where we go next.
MARTIN: Well, to that point though, there are those who would say, I didn't own slaves, my family didn't own slaves. I had nothing to do with this. I could not possibly have benefited from slavery. You know, one out of ten people living in America now are foreign born.
Ms. BROWNE: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: And they say, look, my family came from Mexico, my family came from China, my family came from Singapore. I didn't own slaves. What does this have to do with me? So what would be your answer to that?
Ms. BROWNE: Well, the huge eye opener for us as a family as we delved into this was to learn that our ancestors who were slave traders from Rhode Island weren't the exception. They were actually part of this huge web of Northern complicity in slavery. If you do a little more research, you find out anyone who was alive back then even if they were just a consumer buying cotton clothes or putting sugar in their tea was complicit. And then people who have come after, came to the land of opportunity frequently as poor working class people coming for jobs. But those jobs were there because there was a booming economy built on slave labor and those jobs typically weren't being extended to black Americans who had recently been emancipated.
Mr. SMITH: I would add to that is that - well, I say we blacks built this country and this country was built off the backs of blacks. And the White House and the buildings in Washington were for the most part were completed by slave labor. No one can say that - the White House cannot say they didn't benefit from slavery, because they did.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Senate's apology for slavery. And we're speaking with filmmaker Katrina Browne, who has documented the participation of her ancestors in the slave trade. At one point they were America's largest slave trading family. We're also speaking with Daniel Smith. He is the son of a formerly enslaved American. Mr. Smith, we last had you on the program to talk about the inauguration of Barack Obama. You're one of the people we spoke to at that time.
Mr. SMITH: Right.
MARTIN: There are those who say that this kind of apology looks backward and not forward. That the rise of Barack Obama, his election as president is all about the future and possibility. And it's really best to leave these things lie. What do you say to that?
Mr. SMITH: Well, one who doesn't the understand their history again is doomed to repeat it. And I think that, true, we have to look forward, but I can tell you that I grew up in Connecticut. I'm a New Englander. And in our history books there was almost zero about black history. And as a consequence, although slavery was abolished, we were emancipated, that left a psychological stigma about being black which was not good.
MARTIN: But how does this affect that? How does that change that reality? I mean first of all, you can't - you're not seriously suggesting that anybody is about to reinstitute, you know, bondage, right? In what way do you think this apology is a corrective toward the stigma of slavery that you feel that is still manifest in some ways today?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think it's an open recognition by representatives of the government. But not open recognition by the business community, corporate America, about the part they played in slavery. So in that sense I think it helps people who want to sort of put this behind them or want to relieve themselves of guilt or want to move forward and allows them an opportunity to say, okay, that has happened, we apologize for it, and now we can move forward.
MARTIN: Katrina, the other critique of this apology comes from a different direction. And an example of this is columnist Dewayne Wickham who argued that the apology doesn't go far enough. He writes, for the sake of history and closure Congress needs to describe the full nature of its offences in support of slavery and the century-long period of legal disenfranchisement of blacks that followed. Too many people in this country have little knowledge of the legal cover Congress gave slavery. Too few people understand how Congress perpetuated the suffering of blacks long after the 13th Amendment ended slavery. And then, of course, there's the whole reparations argument, which is specifically off the table in this apology. What is your take on that?
Ms. BROWNE: Well, it's definitely a case of the better we understand the history including some of those details referred to about Congress' role, the better we can understand as white folks why there still remains a level of sort of distrust and skepticism in many parts of the black community about whether we're conscience enough to realize what remains to be fixed today. So the apology isn't a magic wand, the election of Barack Obama isn't a magic wand. They both represent huge important steps. And we should celebrate them.
But they're kind of an invitation to have more conversation about what remains untackled. And I think in the white community often there is a misperception that well, you know, affirmative action and the civil rights laws in the '60s solved all the problems. And if there's any, you know, if folks are still struggling in the black community today it's their fault. And I think a better understanding of history helps connect the dots and understand why there are these sorts of systemic patterns that make it such that there are still these huge divides today in health outcomes and economic, you know, the racial wealth gap and education gap, and all of that. And there's still work to be done to level the playing field. And as whites we don't need to feel defensive or attacked or guilty about that. We can just notice it, understand it and then dedicate ourselves to addressing it.
MARTIN: We have just a few minutes left. So, I would like to hear from each of you on this last question. The Senate has voted on the apology. The House has previously voted. They'll meet to reconcile their various versions sometime this week. What would you like to see happen now, Daniel?
Mr. SMITH: Well, two things. I think the Congress still can put some teeth into the apology. For example, what they could do is present a - rather than reparations in terms of cash money they could provide a G.I. Bill for the descendants of slaves for education. They could rewrite the text books in schools, so you teach re-American history and international history. You know, they ought to teach about the Holocaust as a comparison to slavery. I think those are some of the things that should be done now. And the Congress can do that.
Ms. BROWNE: I agree wholeheartedly with what Mr. Smith was saying. And I think it's about - we're thinking of inviting Americans to basically make the apology real, to take concrete steps in really practical ways, like supporting a G.I. Bill for education and things. There is a misperception about reparations that it's about checks to individual descendants. Some people believe in that. But most argue that it's about funding for government programs to improve education and housing and health care, which we're all debating. So we can work on that right away. And we can use the apology as the basis for having - creating more heart to heart connection between folks where there's usually this distrust and distance.
MARTIN: Katrina Browne is the writer and co-producer of the documentary, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North." She joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. We were also joined by Daniel Smith. He is a former civil rights activist and the son of a formerly enslaved American. He was here with me in Washington. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Ms. BROWNE: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you for having us.