by Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian
Jim Henson's Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (video, Hallmark Entertainment, 2001)
Katrina Browne's Traces of the Trade (film in production, release date 2003)
Jack Robinson is the head of a successful business that has been in his family for generations. A skeleton shows up—both metaphorically, in his closet, and literally, in the ground: the bones of a murdered giant. A mysterious woman accuses Jack of having profited from the amoral actions of his ancestor, the original Jack, founder of the family legacy.
Thus begins the recent video, Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story<./i> While succeeding as action-oriented fantasy entertainment (our ten-year-old son watched it three times in three days), the production went still further. Our jaws dropped in astonishment when we saw that the protagonist, a wealthy CEO and inheritor—a role so often portrayed in popular culture as greedy and power-hungry—was, yes, naïve, but also unpretentious, open-minded, and generous; a figure that was likeable and good.
The story is one of moral awakening. What do you do when you discover that your family has done something terrible? That your fortune comes directly from others' misfortune? Do you, personally, have any responsibility? In this story, Jack goes through a gradual and believable process, from shock and denial to a willingness to take personal responsibility to right the wrong that was done.
At one point, Jack is on trial for what his ancestor, the first Jack, has done. The bad news is that not only is the first Jack accused of murdering the giant (who was gentle and generous), but also of stealing the goose that laid the golden eggs—which, it turns out, served as the source of peace and prosperity in the giants' world. Ever since the goose was stolen, the population has suffered severely. It seems the original Jack lied about "the real story" to make himself look good to his descendents.
After unsuccessfully claiming that he has no responsibility for acts committed hundreds of years before, our modern- day hero decides he better do something. He discovers that he wants not only to heal the giant's land, but also to use all the resources at his disposal (and after hundreds of years of golden egg-laying, they are considerable!) to help heal his own world and provide for those in need.
The fable eloquently addresses the concept of "responsibility." In our culture, where, when something goes wrong, responsibility is so often assumed to imply blame and possible retribution, people with wealth may naturally want to deny having benefited from past wrong-doing. Here, Jack demonstrates that redemption—through compassionate and ethical action—is a preferable alternative to denial. Once Jack takes action, he grows into a leader of great moral courage, who brings priceless gifts to the wider community.
While watching Jack awaken to the true roots of his wealth, we remembered that, years ago, we met a real-life Jack: More Than Money member Katrina Browne, who had just learned that her New England family had built its fortune by running slave ships. At the time, she dreamed of making a documentary film exploring that untold story. We reconnected with Katrina and watched the movie trailer of her film, now in production.
She told us, "I sent a letter to all my relatives, inviting them to join me in retracing the steps of our forefathers' slave ships. Of the 200 who received that letter, nine family members, aged 32 to 71, joined me on a painful and profound journey: starting in our hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, on to the slave forts on the coast of Ghana, then to the family plantations in Cuba, and back to Rhode Island, where 30 other relatives joined us to discuss implications. With a professional film crew, I filmed every step of the way, as our eyes were opened to the brutal past and its legacy.
"I had known about my family's role in the slave trade, but completely repressed it. My conscious memory started with knowledge of the first generation after the slave trade, and all the proud accomplishments that were touted in family lore.
Never mind that the slave trade created the capital for a textile mill and rubber company, and the elite educations and professional success that have followed. Now our family is struggling to figure out our present responsibility for past actions. Do we support the African-American reparations movement? What does "repair" look like? At the least, we hope the film will open some crucial conversations."
The next day, as we were driving to the mall, talking about Jack and the Beanstalk and how it connected to our work, our son piped up from the back seat, "Mom? Dad? Does our money come from something bad?"
"Well . . ." we hesitantly responded. "We don't think so. Your ancestors owned an import-export business. But to be honest, we really don't know much about it."
We've decided to call Uncle Charlie and find out more . . .
Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian are co-founders of More Than Money. They are award-winning writers, presenters, and organizers on issues of wealth stewardship.
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