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Traces of the Trade, my cousin Katrina Browne’s documentary film about the slave trade, my family’s relationship to the slave trade, the impact of the slave trade on racism today, and more, will be on the PBS show P.O.V. on June 24 at 10 pm Eastern time.  I’ll be mentioning this again when the airing gets closer.

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My cousin Tom DeWolf is going to be on CSPAN2 this weekend, at 1:00 on both Saturday and Sunday, reading from his book Inheriting the Trade. The reading was recorded earlier this week in Bristol, Rhode Island at Linden Place, which is the only mansion left standing that was built with DeWolf slave trade money. It’s now a historic site and museum.

One of my worries about Katrina’s film and Tom’s book, which both cover the deep involvement of our forebears in the slave trade, is that the DeWolfs will be perceived as a bunch of rich people, not like you and me. If that happens, the central points of the book and movie will be lost. For one thing, even though the DeWolfs were the ones who owned the ships and moved humans like cargo, everyone in Bristol benefited. Many small investors helped keep the ships going. Many people in town sold goods to be carried on the sea voyages. (One of Mark Antony DeWolf’s sons went on one voyage and refused to go again. But he was a farmer who then supplied the ships with onions.) So when I tell people about my family background, generally the first reaction is shocked silence, the second is reassurance (“Well, you shouldn’t feel guilty for what your ancestors did. You can’t be blamed”), and the third is a personal disclaimer (“My family was a bunch of nobodies.”). This disclaimer is a way of saying “And I’m not responsible either.”

In fact, white people in this country are all responsible for at the very least being aware of the systemic racism that pervades our culture. We receive enormous unearned privilege by virtue of being white. I never have to worry about being mistaken for the maid. I can always expect to see people of my race represented publicly, such as on TV or in politics. I do not expect my behavior to be viewed as representative of the behavior of my entire race (“oh yeah, that’s what white people do”). My husband can walk down the street and not have a woman coming the other direction shift her purse tightly under her arm and step to the outside of the sidewalk. (These ideas come from the writing of Peggy McIntosh, PhD. Here’s one of the many places you can read an excerpt of her paper “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”)

My hope is that people seeing Traces of the Trade and/or reading Inheriting the Trade will see themselves in it, not some remote Eastern elite family, and seeing themselves will become alert to the way white privilege is central to our culture’s systemic racism.

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I do have the idea that the only people who are reading this blog are friends and family, and all of you probably know about this anyway. However:

Traces of the Trade, the documentary film made by my cousin Katrina Browne, will be in the Sundance documentary competition. 953 films were submitted and 16 were chosen. The film is about the slave trade in Rhode Island, specifically the trade as conducted by my forebears. I’ll quote from the film’s site:

This personal documentary tells the story of first-time filmmaker Katrina Browne’s Rhode Island ancestors, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. At Browne’s invitation, nine fellow descendants agree to journey with her to retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade. They soon learn that slavery was business for more than just the DeWolf family—it was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The family travels from Bristol, Rhode Island, where the family “business” was based, to slave forts in Ghana where they meet with African-Americans on their own homecoming pilgrimages, to the ruins of a family-owned sugar plantation in Cuba. At each stop, the family grapples with the contemporary legacy of slavery, not only for black Americans, but also for themselves as white Americans.

Katrina has been working on this project for a long time. She initially wrapped up filming over Labor Day weekend in 2001, right before 9/11, which slowed things down for her next steps.

Also in January (and this is not a coincidence), my cousin Tom DeWolf’s book Inheriting the Trade will be released. Tom was one of the cousins who traveled with Katrina and her film crew from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back to Rhode Island to recreate the triangle trade. The book began as a companion piece to the film but developed into Tom’s own story of coming to terms with the family legacy.

I’m really happy that the book and the film will be out soon, and together.

Every time I talk to people about this, I find myself struggling to find a neutral path. I can downplay it – they traded mostly in Cuba, they weren’t the richest, they ran through all the money in a couple of generations – or I can highlight the worst parts – the captain who threw a woman with smallpox overboard, the businessman who bankrupted the town of Bristol, the sheer numbers of human beings they treated as commodities. I usually wind up doing both, somehow or other. The cousins who were in the movie have talked about it more, learned a better vocabulary than mine, and can speak about it with humility and power. I hope I come to that. Generally when I talk to someone about it, they try to reassure me. “Of course, you can’t be responsible for what they did. It was a long time ago. It’s not your fault.” While those things may be true, it is also true that I come from a family that is enormously proud of the good things our forebears did and of the good people at least some of them were. It’s wrong to take pride in the good without taking responsibility for or at the very least addressing the bad.

My sister Deborah and I are not in the film, although we took part in one of the events in the film, and we both had a hand in early edits of the book.

I’ll write more about this later.

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