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'Deep North' documentary spurs racial healing

By Marjorie Valbrun
On December 5, 2011

  • Descendants of America’s largest slave-trading family unravel their past in this film. Traces of the Trade

Katrina Browne and her critically acclaimed documentary, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," are helping Americans talk more openly and honestly about race and race relations. The film is a well-researched account of her New England ancestors' status as the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. It is also a moving story about racial healing and redemption, the very issues she wants to help Americans embrace.

 In the film, Browne and nine other descendants of the DeWolf family retrace the "Triangle Trade," the path from Rhode Island to slave forts in Ghana to sugar plantation ruins in Cuba, as "they uncover the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery" and the key role played by their forebears.

 At screenings and at forums in faith-based institutions, community centers, and research institutions, White participants have addressed guilt and shame underlying their reluctance to talk openly about race, and their fear that whatever they say will be interpreted as insensitive or racist. Blacks are voicing resentment about Whites' unwillingness to revisit the past and resistance to acknowledging the depth of pain and damage caused by slavery and racism.

 While this may sound similar to past efforts to prompt a national dialogue on race, discussions connected to the documentary are less forced and more informal. They don't have the feel of a group of smarty-pants academics preaching to the already converted, or the imprimaturs of former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, both of whom urged Americans to engage in a national dialogue on race

 "I found what a difference it makes to create a safe space to talk about this," said Browne, who travels the country giving presentations about her work to promote racial dialogue and antiracism efforts.

 Browne is executive director at The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery in Watertown, Mass. The center was founded in 2009 to build on the work of the documentary and create greater awareness about "the vast complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade" and to foster dialogue and tangible action.

 The center also holds screenings and organized discussions nationwide, including at the annual White Privilege Conference held in Minneapolis last April.

  Interestingly, the target audience is White Americans, based on the idea that public support for seeking solutions to racial inequity would increase if more Whites understood the history and effects of structural racism. It helps if that message also comes from Whites.

 "I think it's easier for me as a White person to talk about this to a fellow White than it would be for a Black person whose not gonna want to hand-hold these people through the process," Browne said. "In conversations about racism, I found that White people are very vulnerable and scared. It seemed important to me to put that idea out there."

 Browne cites a particularly positive discussion after a screening hosted in Philadelphia by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. A Black woman, perhaps sensing anxiety among White participants, addressed their fears head-on:

 "She stood up and said, ‘I want my White brothers and sisters to know that you are already forgiven in Christ, so quit worrying about the past. What gets me mad is when you don't show up for the problems of today, which I'm not blaming you for, and you don't show up to roll up your sleeves to work on that problem with me.' "

 Soon after, Browne said, a White woman in the audience stood and said: "To the Black people here, I would really like to know what your ideas on reparations are."

 A Black participant responded: "What we're doing here today, talking about the history and legacy of slavery honestly, to me that is reparation."

 Browne recalls a clear sense in the room that people were connecting across an invisible racial divide. Each question led to another as participants tentatively let down their guard. Browne was thrilled.

 "I really see how much people … have to say to each other," said Browne. "And White people are really surprised to see how effective it is. I think White people project that Black people are going to be really hostile to them" and are often surprised to be proven wrong.

 That's not to minimize very real challenges ahead. "We're still not reaching a broad swath of the white American population that doesn't think we should look back," Browne said.

Browne said much of the resistance among Whites is based "in thinking that it would be about blaming them."

Most Whites do not see themselves as racist, however, and value the idea of not being prejudiced, she said.

"For some, it's being overwhelmed with guilt and shame," continued Browne. "For others, it's defensiveness. They're so scared of looking at the history and the pain, so they push back. It's often seen as hostile and racist, but it's really coming out of fear." 

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