Penn community addresses race issues at film screening

The movie screening of 'Traces of the Trade' sparked spirited conversation, led by individuals featured in the film

· October 5, 2011, 12:36 am   ·  Updated October 5, 2011, 1:00 am

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Bodek Lounge played host to a heated discussion on race Tuesday evening.

A screening of Traces of the Trade, hosted by Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice, the African-American Resource Center and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, sparked the spirited conversation. The event drew over 150 people — students, faculty and local residents alike — ready to discuss the issue of race.

Dain Perry, one of the subjects of the documentary, and his wife Constance broke the ice by asking the audience to yell out names of admirable African-American historical figures. The naming of Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, among others, was accompanied by the rhythms of a drum and audience members shouting messages of approval such as “Ashé” and “Amen.”

The film tells the story of the DeWolf family, a white family whose ancestors were prominent slave traders, and their attempt to understand and reconcile with the African-American community as they traveled to Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba. The movie introduces the topics of reconciliation, reparations and conversations about race in America.

The subsequent discussion, led by the Perrys, focused on how members of the audience felt about the documentary, which ranged from “disgusted” and “conflicted” to “liberated” and “thankful.”

Constance Perry observed that while the discussions are similar in screenings she attends, “every person offers a unique story to share.” Tuesday’s screening was no exception, as participating members from the audience represented a variety of age groups and ethnicities, even including an descendent of a family brought to America by the DeWolf family itself.

Members in the audience proved to be spirited and honest as they openly opined about the implications of the film. Eric Grimes, a part-time instructor from the Graduate School of Education, felt that the documentary focused on the white point of view towards race relations. He added that the conversation was “a little contrived and controlled,” which played down the true intensity of the issue — a sentiment that resounded among the audience.

Valerie Allen, director of Penn’s African-American Resource Center, said “today’s discussion is the beginning of a dialogue long overdue about the white-black binary and white privilege.” She added that this event does “not end or answer [the issue], but sparks conversation in hope that more conversations will be held about racism in America and on campus.”

Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, considered the implications of the event by recalling Obama’s call for conversations about race in the National Constitution Center in 2008, saying that the “goal today was to generate conversation of race,” and that “Penn lived up to Obama’s challenge.”

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