Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More family stories: Traces of the Trade

There are stories that families tell and stories families don't. While we were growing up, we heard in a vague way that our ancestors were slave traders. It was always tossed off cavalierly without any detail. This was a story we didn't tell.

About ten years ago, my cousin Katrina Browne began making a documentary film called Traces of the Trade about our ancestors, the DeWolfs. We began to hear the vast scope of our family's involvement in slavery and to understand more clearly the issues of race, entitlement, and privilege in this country, not just in the distant past but today as well.

As part of the project, Katrina took nine DeWolf descendants on a physical and emotional journey retracing the Triangle Trade from Bristol, RI to Ghana to Cuba and back home--during slavery, ships carried rum to Africa to trade for slaves who were taken to Cuba to cut sugar cane which was taken to Rhode Island to make rum.

Of course I knew about slavery. The first "chapter book" I ever read when I was about seven was about Harriet Tubman, and I'd read myriad books on the topic ever since. The horror of slavery became even more real for me when I heard that Katrina had found manacles and a whip used on slaves. Awful.

At the beginning, Katrina wondered about "productive guilt" and if that was the reason that so many of the descendants became clergymen (and women), writers and artists. I don't know if she followed that line of questioning. Also at the start of her project, many family members wondered if Katrina was doing this to diminish feelings of guilt for having had a relatively privileged upbringing. It quickly became clear to most of us that this was not at all why she took on the massive challenge of telling this story. It is a story that should be told.

The film is now finished and will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival. I have only seen trailers, which were incredible. Katrina managed to make the experience both intensely personal and universal.

Our cousin Tom DeWolf also wrote a book about his experiences on the trip, called Inheriting the Trade, which has just been published. He'll be at Sundance with Katrina, and he'll also be on Book TV on CSPAN2 at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 19 and at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 20. That's a filming of his reading of the book at Linden Place in Bristol, the former DeWolf mansion last week.

I'm really proud of these two relatives for telling this difficult family story! You can read more about it on my sister Mary's blog--I was trying not to duplicate her comments.

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