A filmmaker uncovers her family's past as a Northern slave-trading dynasty.
Traveling the country while making a film, I've been struck by the fact that the vast majority of white Americans do not consider themselves "racist." In the North, we especially presume ourselves innocent. I certainly did.
In 1995, when I was 28, and enrolled in seminary in Berkeley, Calif., I received a small booklet from my grandmother. She wanted to be sure her grandchildren knew about our family history. In the midst of stories about artists, writers, ministers and others in our family tree, she included a few brief sentences about our DeWolf ancestors being slave traders in Bristol, Rhode Island.
In researching the historical literature, I was horrified to learn that the DeWolfs, my ancestors, were actually the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. I don't think anyone in my family realized the extent of it. The scope of the story had somehow been watered down over the generations. Our relatives, I learned, had developed this "vertically-integrated" model of smart capitalism applied to a cruel, horrific trade. They owned the ships, a rum distillery, bank, insurance company, several plantations in Cuba, and an auction house in Charleston, S.C.
Three generations of my ancestors brought more than 10,000 African people to Northern and Southern states and to the West Indies from 1769-1820 (that we know about for sure). They owned Cuban plantations for decades longer. But they weren't alone. They were part of a broad-based pattern of Northern complicity in slavery. Average citizens bought shares in slave ships, back then, the way people buy shares in the stock market today. Workers made sails and ropes and shackles. Farmers grew food that fed sailors on slave ships and enslaved Africans in the West Indies. Not to mention that African people were enslaved in the North for over 200 years (how did I miss that in my history books?). And even when that practice ended, Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution. And Northern banks and insurance companies kept the wheels in motion.
Receiving the booklet from my grandmother, I was shocked to hear this news about my family. But the bigger shock came in the very next instant: I suddenly realized that I already knew. I had completely buried this painful truth—pushed it far from my consciousness. I still don't remember how or when I initially found out, but I have a friend who remembers me talking about it in college. The knowledge was clearly influencing me at some level: I had joined the (almost) all-black gospel choir at Princeton University, was devouring literature by black women authors, and in my 20s, I co-founded a multicultural Americorps program, Public Allies. White guilt was guiding me—but blindly, in a sense.
So rediscovering this family history in my late 20s told me a lot—it explained a lot. And discovering the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery explained a lot, too. Parallel complicity and parallel amnesia, and some parallel white liberal guilt maybe?
I was seeing things more clearly now: Slavery was the foundation of the U.S. economy, South and North. Yet the North successfully constructed an identity as pure and heroic abolitionists to cover all this over. It's understandable. No one wants to be related to bad guys. But conscience gnaws at you. As I came to terms with the discovery, it also influenced my feelings about a broad range of social issues. If slavery was a national institution, I came to realize, then the legacy of slavery is a national responsibility.
Confronting this history and public policy questions about how to level the still unlevel playing field in this country isn't just about confronting facts and figures. There is, of course, a tangle of emotions and narratives that need to be addressed.
While in seminary, I wrote a master's thesis on Aristotle's theories about the power of Greek tragedies to impact public dialogue. Theater and democracy went hand in hand in Ancient Greece. Important social issues—ripe for public debate—were highlighted in plays. I knew that the role of the North in slavery was a story I needed to tell, and that it should be a personal journey into the uncomfortable emotional terrain of my and my family's relationship to the legacy of slavery. It needed to be told in an art form that can be experienced on a heart level and collectively; ideally with a chance to talk afterwards.
It became clear to me that creating a documentary film would allow me to show real people dealing with these real issues. I was inspired by Macky Alston's documentary Family Name and Edward Ball's book Slaves in the Family, which both came out in 1998. That was also the year in which Joanne Pope Melish released Disowning Slavery, which laid out New England's "constructed amnesia" about slavery. And so, that same year, I resolved to make Traces of the Trade. Both Alston and Ball were descendants of Southern slave-holders, breaking codes of silence. I, a Northerner, had some truth-telling of my own to do.
I invited family members to accompany me to retrace the Triangle Trade on camera. I told them that as we traveled to Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba to grapple with this history, that we should all be prepared to make mistakes, to embarrass ourselves as we felt—and perhaps fumbled—our way through the treacherous landscape of slavery, race and class. We're human, and I wanted to humanize our attempts to face truth and get things right.
People of color I worked with in my 20s had said very directly that it was really important for white people to deal with our baggage with each other. They were tired of holding our hands through it all. It was a plea for us to do our homework, and then come back to the table. So on the journey, making the documentary, we held interracial dialogues in each country, but we also sequestered ourselves in hotel rooms, and talked, and talked, and argued and worked our way through things. Our family history is unique since it's so extreme, but a lot of what we grappled with was just regular stuff about being white in America.
We argued, for example, about whether it was OK for us to attend certain events in Ghana that were part of a homecoming festival for people from throughout the African Diaspora. Some of us, including me, felt that we should keep our distance, honoring the painful, sacred journeys that many African Americans were on. Others felt that we were risking being over-sensitive—walking on egg shells, bending over backwards, contorting ourselves out of our own humanity, our right to bear witness to the pain.
We showed rough cuts of the film to lots of people as we were making it, including white people with stories very different from ours. There is obviously a huge diversity in the "white community," including many stories of struggle to make it in America. So people don't want to feel like slavery and its legacy are their problem. There is this massive defensiveness and resistance to black anger and to calls for redress, and we felt that defensiveness in our discussions, large and small.
But the playing field is still unlevel. Every indicator shows it.
I've learned to trace back and connect the dots. Like to the fact that the federal government created programs such as the G.I. Bill that helped create the white middle class. Access to college education and home ownership is the bedrock for success in this country. Access that was denied to African Americans in the first half of the century has rippled to the present day. Hence, the vicious cycle back and forth of resentments, recriminations, tensions and distrust that manifest in small and large ways and keep the black/white divide painfully in place. Sen. Obama spoke so powerfully in Philadelphia about this "racial stalemate."
It took nine years to complete Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. As I watch it now, I am struck by the fact that none of us alive today created the profound mess, but we all inherit it. We inherit these mantles that lock us into roles: the "perpetrator" (be guilty or be defensive) and the "victim" (be passive or be angry). Our full human selves contain all those multitudes, as well as something above and beyond.
In the end, I hope the documentary invites Americans into heartfelt and honest dialogue on the core questions that still have such resonance in our society. What is the legacy of slavery—for European Americans, for African Americans and for all Americans? What would repair—spiritual and material—really look like? And what would it take…from all of us?
Traces of the Trade has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 24 at 10 p.m. on PBS's P.O.V.documentary series. (Check local listings.) For further information on how to see the film and how to use it in your community: www.tracesofthetrade.org; www.pov.org.
My cousin Tom DeWolf was inspired to write a memoir of his experience of our journey. Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, published by Beacon Press, is available now.
Katrina Browne is a filmmaker.