Traces of the Trade

By Talia Whyte
Originally published in The Bay State Banner

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the U.S. abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, a bicentennial that has some blacks and whites trying to reconcile their respective places in American society.

Katrina Browne is one of them.

The filmmaker, who is white, thought that because her family was from Rhode Island, there was no way that her ancestors could have been involved in slavery. But when she read a book given to her by her grandmother, Browne learned that her family was not only involved, but were the largest slave trading family in the United States.

Her latest film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” premieres Sunday on WGBX as the opening entry in the 21st season of the documentary series “P.O.V.” In it, Browne documents her struggle to understand her family’s past and how it relates to race relations in today’s America.

To better grasp that past, Browne — a direct descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, the family’s first slaver — invited 200 other family members to retrace the triangular trade route from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back.

However, she said, most of her family didn’t support the trip.

“There was one relative who was particularly against the concept of the trip,” Browne told the Banner in a recent telephone interview. “He was concerned about how his black co-workers would treat him. He was also concerned about the usefulness of rehashing history.”

In 2001, Browne and nine relatives embarked on their journey from their hometown of Bristol, R.I., to look at the various business ventures that made the DeWolfs successful in the community. The DeWolfs conducted slave trading over three generations, beginning in 1769 and continuing until well after the U.S. banned the practice in 1808. The family brought over 10,000 African slaves to the Americas; it is believed that half a million of their descendants are alive today.

“My family has inherited the privileges they have, and we have also brought a lot of misery to other black people in this country,” said Browne. “I think as a family, we are obligated to address our past grievances.”

While traveling in Ghana, the DeWolf descendants attended Panafest, a biennial celebration that promotes Pan-Africanism through arts and culture. However, the family was not welcomed with open arms by some African American participants. One black woman shown in the film is distraught at the presence of white people in a sacred space at a time specifically designed to bring together members of the African Diaspora.

Following both the festival and the trip to Havana, the family participated in discussions with other blacks and whites about the uncomfortable subject of race in America, and especially the topic of reparations for African Americans. For Browne, these conversations were a “cleansing experience.”

According to Browne, the recent controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s blunt statements about America’s racial past illustrates why Americans need to have more honest discussions with each other.

“With the Jeremiah Wright case, it really opened me up to the distrust in the black community,” she said. “As white Americans, we have a lot of baggage from slavery. I am a strong believer in addressing what separates us to bring us together.”

Browne says she supports reparations for African Americans, and wants to use her life as an example of racial reconciliation. She has spent most of her career in activism focusing on eliminating racism. Before making her film, Browne served as an outreach planning coordinator for the film adaptation of “Twilight: Los Angeles,” Anna Deavere Smith’s play about the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She also founded Public Allies, an AmeriCorps program to recruit young people of color into careers in the nonprofit sector.

Some of Browne’s family members have also made strides to reconcile their ancestors’ sins. Browne’s cousin, Thomas Norman DeWolf, wrote a memoir about his experience on the triangular trade journey called “Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty.”

In the book he writes about his ancestor, U.S. Sen. James DeWolf, at his death in 1837 reportedly the second richest man in the U.S., thanks in part to his three sugar plantations in Cuba. The senator was best known in history as a ship captain on several slave trading vessels throughout the West Indies, who allegedly had a sick female slave thrown overboard while gagged and tied to a chair.

Browne wants her film to help begin healing the nation’s racial wounds.

“We hope the film will lead to more discussion about reconciliation,” she said. “We need more of that today.”

“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” premieres on June 29 on WGBX Channel 44 at 9 p.m., with a second showing on June 30 on WGBH Channel 2 at 10 p.m. For more information about the film, visit www.tracesofthetrade.org

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home