The slave ship Clotilda is central to that history
There is a certain irony in the fact that approximately 40,000 voyages brought 12 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas on 12,000 ships, yet a surprising number of Black Americans do not know how to swim. Further, the drowning rate for Black Americans is higher than that of Whites.
This is just one inequity addressed in the new Netflix documentary film “Descendant.” Kamau Sidicki, a master scuba instructor, teaches members of Alabama’s Africatown community how to swim. In the context of the film, knowing how to swim is one way of potentially reclaiming history itself.
The documentary, which won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Creative Vision at Sundance in 2022, was shot over four years and has as its jumping-off point the generations-long search for the slave ship, Clotilda.
The Clotilda reached Mobile, Alabama’s shores in 1860, decades after the importation of human beings to be used as unpaid labor was outlawed. Because it was against the law, Clotilda’s captain, William Foster, immediately set the ship afire after unloading its human cargo. At the end of the Civil War, many of the 110 enslaved who came over on the Clotilda bought land in the area and founded Africatown.
With help from the Whites who profited from the ownership of those Africans, this history became almost as murky as the swamp to whose depths the wrecked ship fell. If not for (mostly hushed) word-of-mouth passed on from generation to generation of the Black residents of Africatown, any knowledge of the Clotilda, the last ship to carry slaves to the United States, would surely have been lost.
Similar to the 1619 Project, this story uncovers the tension between those who would suppress the history of Blacks in America versus those who fight to keep it alive and recognize it for its centrality to American history.
Co-produced by President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions and musicians Questlove (also a descendant from the Clotilda) and Black Thought’s Two One Five Entertainment, “Descendant” was directed by Mobile, Alabama, native Margaret Brown.
Brown focuses on the members of this community, many of them descendants of the Africans who came over on the Clotilda. The film is specifically concerned with their quest to bring that history to light, and the justice that heightened awareness of that history demands. “Descendant” brings together discussion of a number of issues in American history as they relate to the Africatown community in particular.
Using black and white footage taken by writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, of one of Africatown’s founders, Cudjoe Lewis brings America’s literary (and arguably documentary film) history into play. Lewis was one of the Africans on the Clotilda, and thus one of the last Africans to make the journey across the Middle Passage.
From 1927 to approximately 1931, Hurston periodically interviewed Lewis about his life in Africa, the harrowing 45-day voyage to America, and his life thereafter. Her findings were recorded in the book “Barracoon,” which wasn’t published until 2018. In “Descendant,” we periodically see members of the Africatown community reading passages from Barracoon aloud.
Sequences in the film are punctuated by a long shot of the ocean in all its vastness, telegraphing all that the Africans had to overcome to make it to America, the overwhelmingly sad truth that many were lost in those waters, and the devastating likelihood that so much of that history is lost, never to be recovered.
“Descendant” also brings up questions of environmental justice. Cancer survivors from the community appear who seem to be part of a cancer cluster created by the heavy industry allowed to proliferate in the area.
The descendants of Timothy Meaher, who commissioned the Clotilda voyage to and from Dahomey (the nation at the center of the period drama “The Woman King”), leased land to companies that spewed harmful chemicals into the atmosphere for years.
The Africatown community was essentially defenseless. “Descendant” makes clear that those power dynamics are still in place, the Meahers a Goliath to the Africatown community’s David.
There is celebration when journalist Ben Raines finally discovered the remains of the Clotilda in 2018. There is also contemplation. With staunch evidence that these residents are the descendants of those Timothy Meaher enslaved, will there be reparations from the Meaher family or others?
Also, how will the Africatown residents keep ownership of the history and leverage it and its artifacts in a way that benefits the now economically depressed area? Mary Elliott from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture visits Africatown, and members of Africatown’s community, in turn, visit the famed museum, an indicator that the Clotilda and Africatown stories will be owned and told by the descendants of the people who lived them.