MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In the murky waters of an Alabama river, diver Kamau Sadiki said he had to pause before entering the last known slave ship to the United States, where 110 people were confined in hellish conditions.
“You feel the reverberation, the pain and suffering, and the screams and the hollering,” said Sadiki, a diver who works with the Smithsonian Slave Wrecks Project. “We do this work to understand the science and archeology and collect all the data we can to help tell the story. But there's another whole dimension here that we need to connect with.”
The documentary “Descendant” retells this once-submerged history, intertwining the 2019 discovery of the ship Clotilda with the stories of the descendants of the 110 people aboard. Along the way, it raises questions about the legacy of slavery and what justice would look like 162 years after the ship's voyage.
In 1860 — decades after the United States had banned the importation of slaves — the Clotilda illegally transported 110 people from what is now the west African nation of Benin to Mobile, Alabama. With Southern plantation owners demanding slaves for their cotton fields, Alabama plantation owner Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could bring a shipload of Africans across the Atlantic. The ship was later scuttled to conceal evidence of the the crime.
Slavery ended five years after the arrival of the Clotilda captives. They saved money to start an community that came to be called Africatown. Some of their descendants continue to live there in the historical hamlet deeply tied to its heritage but now surrounded by heavy industry in south Alabama.
Director Margaret Brown said she hopes viewers walk away with “a little bit of history rewritten for them, and they’re emotionally moved by the resilience of this community."
"This is a community that has been telling the story, to mostly pass down through generations, for 160 years to keep this history alive."
In the film, descendants discuss their family's effort to not let the Clotilda fade into history, showing home videos of relatives recounting the story to younger generations. Some read from “Barracoon,” the posthumously published 1931 manuscript in which former Clotilda captive Cudjo Lewis recounted his story in an interview with author Zora Neale Hurston.
The documentary also puts a focus on environmental challenges surrounding Africatown, with subjects discussing pollution and cancer rates. In wrestling with the economic legacy of slavery, one scene shows a descendant reading Lewis' words while sitting in an antebellum mansion. While the Meaher family did not participate in the film, their name is shown dotting local landmarks. Another scene focuses on the buzz created by the discovery of the ship, raising questions about who will benefit from the discovery.
“I don't want the momentum of the story to just be focused on the ship. It's not all about that ship,” descendant Joycelyn Davis says in one scene.
Brown, who is white, was born and raised in Mobile. The story of the Clotilda was kept alive by descendants, but was not taught in any history books when she was a child.
Sadiki said he hopes the story, “becomes part of every history book in this country" despite the “efforts being made to remove these these sorts of stories from our consciousness.”
“We really have to get past that shame and silence. What I hope the movie does is insert, not only back in our memory, but back into the curriculum of this nation, the story of the Clotilda," he said.