A Family Discovers Its History of Shackles and Shame

DeWolf family members and Ghanaian Beatrice Manu, right, watch a river ceremony where centuries ago, captive Africans were taken for their last baths before leaving their homeland. "Traces of the Trade," about the family's role in the slave trade, airs tomorrow.
DeWolf family members and Ghanaian Beatrice Manu, right, watch a river ceremony where centuries ago, captive Africans were taken for their last baths before leaving their homeland. "Traces of the Trade," about the family's role in the slave trade, airs tomorrow. (By Amishadai Sackitey -- Pbs Via Associated Press)

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By Ellen Maguire
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Juanita Capri Brown and Katrina Browne, though not related, call each other "cousin." They met a decade ago as members of a Bay Area improvisational theater group and forged a friendship over blunt, often painful conversations about race and class.

Brown, 35, is an African American whose family tree includes slaves. Browne, 40, who is white, traces her family line to the DeWolfs of Bristol, R.I., the most active slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. "It turns out my forefathers bought and sold more than 10,000 Africans," Browne says.

Not long after they met, Browne began making her documentary, "Traces of the Trade," which examines the legacy of her ancestors. Now, "I am aware that I am white so many more hours of the day than I used to be," she says. (The film, shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, airs tomorrow night on Channel 26.)

After repeated invitations, Brown, the only African American member of the documentary team on the film's journey, joined the project as a co-producer -- with trepidation.

"I wanted to make sure the film was being accountable to black people, to issues that black folks have been talking about and thinking about forever," says Brown, who has a master's degree in public policy from the University of California. "I was also very aware that I could be seen as the Uncle Tom or the mammy or the mascot." She dispelled that fear by focusing on a long-held professional goal: "to keep the conversation about race going."

With Browne's polite but insistent on-screen prodding -- and the on- and off-screen support of Brown and other experts on race relations -- the film follows 10 DeWolf descendants as they discover ugly details of family history, discuss their complicity, attempt to understand the raw suffering of the enslaved Africans and, at the end of the journey, hash out their varying degrees of enlightenment.

Directed by Browne, the documentary -- part history lesson, part encounter session -- provides a window into the awkward and painful consciousness-raising of a set of privileged white Northerners, as well as a gauge of the distance between black and white America. (As the director points out, the slave trade was outlawed 200 years ago, but where's the official apology from the U.S. government?) And the entire project, it turns out, began with a simple booklet.

Browne received a record of DeWolf history from her grandmother, and more shocking to her than the mention of slave trading was her realization that she had buried her previous knowledge of the family business. In that way, the director says, her behavior mirrors "white Northern amnesia" about slavery.

The first-time filmmaker invited 200 DeWolf descendants to come with her as she filmed a path of discovery from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, sites along the transatlantic slave-trade route used by their family's fleet of ships from 1769 to 1820. (Congress outlawed the slave trade in 1808.) Nine of her relatives decided to join the journey.

Why, though, would Browne choose to publicize her family's past?

"If you really believe that all members of society are equal, it makes sense to deal with the grief that arises from our shared history," the director says.

Against the backdrop of an elaborate Independence Day parade, the DeWolf descendants, ranging in age from 32 to 71, gather seaside in Bristol, which bills itself as "the most patriotic town in America."


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