Descendant is a sweeping tale of American history and of the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. long after slave ships were outlawed. It’s a story of ancestry, survival, and American racism.
Descendant, directed by Margaret Brown, tells a well-organized and moving story about the families who were deposited in Alabama in 1860 as slaves. By 1865 they were set free. They built a community outside Mobile which they called Africatown. Their descendants are still there.
They’ve been making news in the last few years.
In 2018, a long unpublished book from Zora Neale Hurston called Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo [affiliate link] was released. This book caused a stir. It told how Hurston traveled numerous times to Alabama to interview Cudjo Lewis. He was one of the last living Africans who had come to America on the slave ship called the Clotilda. Hurston recorded his story faithfully in his own dialect – which is why it went unpublished.
At about the same time, the Clotilda was found. That made news as well.
Because bringing enslaved Africans to America in 1860 was against the law, the ship was burned and sunk once the slaves were offloaded.
Now there are other books, such as Clotilda The Last Slave Ship [affiliate link] and this beautifully told documentary on Netflix, Descendant.
You don’t have to read either of these books to understand and appreciate the compelling story told in this documentary film.
Through the combined efforts of stories told by the descendants of the families in Africatown, the efforts of archeologists and National Geographic, other groups, and savvy locals combining their knowledge, the ship was found. Proof of the crime.
Many descendants of the people on the Clotilda were interviewed. They talked about how they kept their stories alive, about what they want (and don’t want) for their community now, about reparations and justice for themselves and their ancestors, and much more. They read aloud Cudjo Lewis’ words recorded 90 years ago by Zora Neale Hurston.
Many things about this story are fascinating and unique. The illegal slave ship came here on a bet, a whim, from a wealthy landowner whose descendants still live right next door to Africatown and still do enormous damage to the Clotilda descendants, as does the mayor of Mobile. The freed slaves stayed together to form a thriving community. The Clotilda survivors preserved their culture and heritage in their community and passed their story down to each new generation.
What isn’t unique about the story is the experience of being African in a racist America. That’s why whatever memorials, museums, publicity, or reparations come out of this story are about all of American history. And that’s why the documentary should be watched – to make a difference in how people comprehend the America we all descended from.