Al Jazeera Correspondent

A Moral Debt: The Legacy of Slavery in the USA

A journey of self-discovery and education, spanning the legacy of Confederate America and its modern ramifications.

Journalist James Gannon has inherited a controversial family legacy – that of a clear descendancy from General Robert E Lee, who led the Confederate Army against the Union during the American Civil war in the mid-19th century.

Gannon grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, where an 18-metre high statue of his ancestor dominates the landscape in Monument Avenue, the city’s grandest street.

For over 100 years, Richmond has honoured Lee as one of its greatest heroes. Until recently.

In 2015, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photographs of Roof draped in and posing with the Confederate flag emerged on a now defunct white supremacist website.

Soon after, the city council in New Orleans voted for their Confederate monuments to be removed. Public consultations over Confederate memorials took place in Virginia, which once had the largest enslaved population in the United States.

When a “Unite the Right” rally to protest against the removal of a Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville,  Virginia, turned into violent clashes in August 2017, it accelerated the national debate about what to do with the country’s more than 1,500 monuments and publically-installed symbols memorialising the American Civil War.

What happened that weekend in Charlottesville made Gannon consider the true legacy of his slave-owning ancestors.

On a journey into his family’s legacy, Gannon explores why people across the US are so divided on the subject of Confederate monuments and whether the oppression of enslaved people by his ancestors still has an effect on black lives in the US today.

Travelling across Virginia and Maryland to meet key actors in the ongoing moral dilemma the US finds itself in regards to the Civil War and glorification of Confederate monuments, Gannon finds himself face to face with the debate for justice, reparations and the fight to tear these statues down. 


By Lynn Ferguson

I’d just finished reading a book entitled: ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’ when I was asked to take over from the highly-respected Paul Sapin (who was ill) in directing this film.

The book by British author Remi Eddo-Lodge is a brilliant critique of the systematic failure of white people – both collectively and individually – to acknowledge and accept responsibility for race-related inequality and injustice in the UK today. It argues that there’s a huge amount that white people don’t understand – and probably will never ‘get’ – about the reality of being a black person in a white-dominated society, in terms of everyday experiences.

Our hope for this film is that millions of white Americans and Europeans will watch and - in the words of Shan Wallace, not only, 'listen and take notes' but become 'white allies' in the fight for racial equality.

by Lynn Ferguson, filmmaker

This point was driven home to me soon after in a very personal way when my granddaughter came home from school, upset about something a teacher had said during a lesson in ‘black history month’.

In the UK, ‘black’ history is segregated in the school curriculum and relegated to just four weeks of the year. The lesson related to Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse who tended the wounded in the Crimean war, in the same period as the famous white British nurse, Florence Nightingale.

My granddaughter is of dual heritage – her father’s white and her mother’s of Jamaican descent.

“Nana Lynn”, she asked me, “Why did the teacher say that Mary Seacole is ‘the black Florence Nightingale’? Why does she have to be a black white person? Why can’t she just be herself?”

Good question. The teacher’s description of Mary Seacole arose from a ‘white supremacist’ way of thinking and was potentially hurtful to black children. But the truth is that I would never have realised this, if my granddaughter hadn’t pointed it out. And she’s only nine. I’m as guilty as her teacher of unconscious white prejudice.

It’s white people who need to learn’

Arguably, only black people can truly understand racial inequality. Even so, I didn’t hesitate in accepting the job of directing a film about racial injustice in the US, with a white reporter – for two reasons:

Firstly, I believe that there is merit in the underlying concept for this film – a relatively privileged white person investigating the nature and scale of racial inequality in the US today. Black people already know this stuff. It’s white people who need to learn.

Secondly, reporter James Gannon genuinely wanted to discover the truth about the legacy of his slave-owning ancestors. There was nothing fake, contrived or self-serving about his motives. We both knew, starting out, that we had a lot to learn.

Camera man Victor Tadashi Suarez, co-director Lynn Ferguson and correspondent James Gannon on location, while shooting 'A Moral Debt: The Legacy of Slavery in the USA'. [Al Jazeera]
Camera man Victor Tadashi Suarez, co-director Lynn Ferguson and correspondent James Gannon on location, while shooting ‘A Moral Debt: The Legacy of Slavery in the USA’. [Al Jazeera]

In the end, this is a film that we’re proud of, because it succeeds in conveying the two most important truths that our black contributors were keen for white people to understand:

1) The scale of racial inequality and injustice in the US is still vast today. What this means in practice for many black people is poverty, discrimination and lack of equal opportunities.

2) White wealth and privilege and relative black poverty in the US is a direct result of the failure to compensate millions of formerly enslaved black people and their descendants for over 150 years of exploitation and subjugation, followed by deliberate and systematic policies and practices discriminating against black people, that continues up to the present day.

These are immensely important messages because there are many white people who think that racial equality has been achieved in the US following the civil rights movement in the sixties and the election of the first black president. Sadly, this is not the case, either in the US or Europe,

The film also succeeds, in my opinion, because it’s an honest representation of James’ journey. It includes some embarrassing moments of racial insensitivity that have been kept in the film. To James’ credit, he never asked for them to be removed. The film also has ‘heart’. James was deeply and genuinely moved and humbled – as we all were – by the stories of the people we met.

One of the most troubling things we learned is that many black people in the US are made to believe that black lives don’t matter. Despite decades of black people highlighting racial injustice and inequality, it seems that the white majority in the US don’t care and aren’t listening.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that promises of freedom and justice have not been met.”

Sadly, that is as true today as it was 50 years ago. 150 years after slavery officially ended, Steven Thomas, an African American, told James: “I have never experienced what it truly means to be free”.

Our hope for this film is that millions of white Americans and Europeans will watch and – in the words of Shan Wallace, not only, ‘listen and take notes’ but become ‘white allies’ in the fight for racial equality.