By Michelle Trauring
Katrina Browne grew up believing a story: that she hails from a long line of ministers and professors, artists and poets, people who embodied a pervading sense of innocence, goodness and accomplishment.
That rosy picture wasn’t wrong, per se — but it wasn’t perfectly accurate, either. It was truth by omission, overlooking one critical detail that, at her core, Browne says she somehow always knew.
Her awakening began almost 20 years ago, when she received a piece of mail from her maternal grandmother. It was a booklet she had written for all her grandchildren, reliving their happy days together, while also documenting their New England history and DeWolf family ancestors.
To her horror, in between the memories of sun, sand and Fourth of July parades, Browne read: “I haven’t stomach enough to describe the ensuing slave trade.”
That was not enough for Browne. She needed to know more, and if her grandmother wouldn’t tell her, she would find out through her own research — which brought her to a grim conclusion: the DeWolfs were not just amateur slave traders, she explained.
In fact, her ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in United States history, spanning three generations. From 1769 to 1820, they brought 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains, and half a million of their descendants could be alive today.
“It was just complete cognitive dissonance and a complete flip of the script of how I perceived my family,” Browne recalled. “Even though those artists and professors and ministers weren’t they, themselves, the slave traders, they were the descendants of slave traders. It just put a whole new lens on the affluence that afforded them to pursue their dreams.”
Rocked by this revelation — “I kept having shock upon shock,” she said — Browne turned the lens on herself and her family as they reckoned with their history in the documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” which will screen on Sunday, September 1, at the Southampton Arts Center.
“The concept of amnesia is a very potent concept and basically, in large part, due to the way the North has written the history books post-Civil War,” the first-time filmmaker said. “It’s basically in our favor and framed us as, ‘We are the good guys, we were the heroes, we ended slavery,’ and we’ve very conveniently forgotten the extensive ways in which we were complicit in slavery in the first place.”
Swept up in the fairy tale of New England, Browne said she had never thought to question how her family became so established. But there were clues sprinkled throughout her childhood — some obvious that she never fully registered as a young girl, and others more discreet, such as a childhood nursery rhyme about two African slaves, and a mural her great-grandfather painted, which includes a pair of African men driving a DeWolf stagecoach through Bristol, Rhode Island, their hometown.
“If one is a white Northerner and the product of most of our schools and our American history classes, it’s really tempting to think that racism is just a white Southern problem, and therefore we blithely go about our business,” Browne said. “But a deeper understanding of history has helped me connect the dots between not just them, but the aftermath of slavery and the ways in which some of my really simple conceptions were just wrong.”
She tracked down 200 descendants, from across the country, to tell them about her project. Of those, 140 did not respond at all. Of the 60 who did, nine agreed to join Browne on her journey, ranging from siblings to seventh cousins. On the first day of filming in 2001, she met all but one for the first time in person.
“I didn’t know what would come of a family journey, but I knew I didn’t want to do a solo journey. I knew I needed company,” she said. “Putting white people, who are willing, under the microscope of self-scrutiny about everything that gets stirred up for us — and facing our family’s past and our region’s past — I just hoped and prayed that good things could come of it.”
Together, the group of 10 retraced the slave trade route, from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, and back. It was called the Triangle Trade, masterminded by the DeWolf family. They sailed their ships from Bristol to West Africa with rum, produced by their distillery, and traded them for African men, women and children. They were transported across the Middle Passage to Cuba, where they were either sold at auction or forced to work the plantations that the DeWolfs owned. The sugar they produced was shipped back to the distilleries in Rhode Island, and thus the cycle began again.
“I went into the journey thinking that what I was most going to have to come to grips with was my actual ancestors and how could they have done this evil thing,” Browne said. “What was a lot more chilling was to realize that systems like enslavement require those that are willing to do the worst part of it, like the DeWolfs, and much larger numbers of people to do what the political philosopher Hannah Arendt calls ‘the banality of evil.’
“I had known that concept from my studies of the Holocaust as an undergraduate and it suddenly, resoundingly became clear that it applied to slavery, as well,” she continued, “and this idea of mundane complicity — being a consumer and not asking questions and not doing one’s homework about what labor conditions went into this supply chain of bringing a product to my door.”
For the traveling DeWolf descendants, the brutality that slavery required snapped into focus while visiting the slave forts in Ghana and the ruins of a sugar plantation in Cuba. And with each stop, they wrestled less with their love of Yankee culture and privilege, and more with how to repair the damage the DeWolfs had done.
“It’s very pervasive to think, ‘We can’t judge them, those times were different, who are we to say?’” Browne said. “But there was just something profound about being in the place of the slave forts and the slave dungeons that, I think for all of us, it brought the reality of it home in a much more direct way. And you just have to confront the evil of it and you have to confront the fact that they must have known it was evil and employed all kinds of justifications to permit themselves to proceed.
“I’m a real believer in the importance of really taking stock of the ways in which black Americans are still struggling under the weight of this history and its tentacles,” she added. “The very concept of whiteness is an invention and is a construct that, literally, was born out this attempt to justify enslavement of Africans. So even something as fundamental as the categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’ are a legacy of slavery.”
In 2008, “Traces of the Trade” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and then aired nationally on PBS’s “P.O.V.” series to critical acclaim. During that time, Browne heard from some of the 140 relatives who never responded to her initial correspondence, as well as others she never knew existed. There are thousands of DeWolf descendants at this point, she said.
“It’s a weird life, to be a professional DeWolf descendant, because it is my work and my calling and my passion to address it,” she said. “But there’s a funny way in which it still — literally, 20 years into doing this work — really hard for me to wrap my head around it because it’s so extreme and so big, that I still cannot fathom the scale of harm that they did.”
She sighed. “It has sunk in enough to make it my life’s work, to try to make up for their deeds in some modest way — because I can’t possibly make up for their deeds, it’s too big — and I don’t feel guilt as if I did it and I have to make up for my own bad deeds,” she said, “but I do have a sense of responsibility and obligation, because there’s no turning back on knowing the extent of the damage that they did.”
In the years since, the Emmy-nominated film has served as a catalyst for dialogue in countless schools, congregations and communities — soon to include the East End.
“The temperature is definitely much hotter as Americans interact with each other around this history and issues of race and racism and identity,” Browne said. “Obviously, things have gotten much more heated and much more extreme and much more divisive, and the tensions between Trump voters and anti-Trump people, a large percentage of that has to do with issues of race and identity, and the politics of all of that.
“I think there’s a really deep need for not just interracial dialogue, but very specifically, I feel called at the moment to promote dialogue among white people who disagree with each other on these issues and to get at the root causes of those disagreements,” she continued. “It’s not to negate what’s going on for people of color, but it’s to say, ‘We need to look at all of this and have much more open hearts toward each other, and do some healing work in unexpected places that aren’t normally talked about.’”
“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” will screen on Sunday, September 1, at 5 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton. A conversation with director and producer Katrina Browne will follow. This event is recommended for adults and children in middle school and older. Tickets are $12, or $10 for Friends of SAC and the Southampton African American Museum, co-presenter of the film. For more information, call (631) 283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.