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A Family's Truth Traced Back to the Slave Trade


Now to a journey that began in America, led to Africa and back again. Every family has a secret. For Katrina Browne her family secret involved not just her family history, but an important part of our nation's history. Katrina Browne discovered her New England ancestors were the country's biggest slave trading family. They're believed to have traded rum for more than 10,000 African men, women, and children.

How she chose to face that history is the subject of the PBS documentary, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North." Katrina Browne and co-producer Juanita Brown join us now. Welcome, thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. KATRINA BROWNE (Writer, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North"): Good morning.

Ms. JUANITA BROWN (Co-producer, "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Katrina, you are a member of the DeWolf clan. You say in this film that your family created an identity for itself as a group of abolitionists, and I want to play a short clip where your cousin Elizabeth explains how your family handled questions about the, shall we say, less attractive parts of its history.

(Soundbite of documentary "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North")

Ms. ELIZABETH BROWNE (Cousin of Katrina Browne): Nobody ever wanted to talk about this, and it made everybody very uncomfortable. What these people are used to doing is presenting this pretty picture of who the DeWolf's are, and taking people (unintelligible) and pointing out the nice portraits and the beautiful chandeliers and everyone goes, oh, how lovely, what a beautiful home. I wish it was mine. I'd like to have this as my living room, and that's the extent of it.

MARTIN: London Place, of course, being the family homestead in Bristol, Rhode Island. Katrina, tell us your reaction when you found out that you came from this family with this history?

Ms. BROWNE: Well, I had basically a double shock. The first shock, I was 28 years old, and my grandmother had sent me a booklet in the mail summarizing our family history for all her grandchildren. And she had a couple of sentences in there about the DeWolf's being slave traders, and my first shock was basically, you know, as if I was finding this out for the first time. And then it was a horrific thing to find out.

Within moments, I actually realized I already knew and had completely buried it. And that was - I was embarrassed that I'd done that and quickly started reading more and digging into it more. And low and behold, you know, what I had done was basically a great, well, microcosm of what New England had done in terms of the whole region being way more complicit in slavery than I think the vast majority of us learn in school. And yet, sweeping that under the rug because it's too uncomfortable and painful to face.

MARTIN: But you did face it in a very public way. Why did you decide to make this film, which I have to mention took nine years? So you clearly had a passion about it.

Ms. BROWNE: Oh, right. It was two big reasons. One was this really fundamental fact that the history that most of us is learning - most of us learn is based on this myth of the fact that the South - the notion that the South was solely responsible for slavery. And the rest of the country, in the North in particular, have this sort of mantle of innocence. So I felt like that was incredibly important to address and put forward and sort of set the record straight.

And the other part was just this feeling that there's so much unfinished business, particularly between white and black Americans, both in a kind of - in a personal and in terms of just all the dynamics and baggage we carry into those relationships. But then also, on a more systemic societal level, in terms of, you know, equity and outcomes, and how people are doing in terms of life prospects and what not. So it felt like, as a white family those, of whom are descendants and have this sort of white American experience, what is that like from our angle? What's the legacy of slavery for white Americans.

MARTIN: The film traces a journey that you and several family members embarked on to try to experience this. You traveled through Bristol, Rhode Island to Ghana, then to Cuba, and back again. And it profoundly affects everybody, and I want to talk to you about that. But first I want to bring Juanita in, and I want to clarify that you and Katrina are not related. At least you are not to our knowledge? Although you just share the same last name. You are African American, not a member of this family. Why did you want to participate in the making of this film?

Ms. BROWN: I met Katrina in 1998, Michel, and we began discussing our personal stories through an improvisational group that we both belonged to. And as part of that, we realized that we had very complementary ideas and feelings about race and reconciliation in this country and what needed to happen. I had been doing group facilitation in schools and community organizations at that time and before around race, class, gender politics. So it was really salient for me to be talking and living these issues.

Katrina asked me to join this project probably around five times, and I was reluctant because I knew that to open this particular can of worms, for me, would be a path that I couldn't return from. And so about the fifth or sixth time, when Katrina invited me to work on this project, I realized it was too important not to work on. And there was a perspective, an African-American perspective that I could provide that would really support the trajectory of the project.

MARTIN: It really opened a can a worms for just about everybody involved. I want to play a clip where Katrina, you and your cousins and family members are in Cuba trying to experience what a day would have been like for a slave here on the plantations, and here you have a slave meal, a so-called slave meal and then - well, let's just listen to what happens to what - how one of your cousins reacts.

Ms. KYLA (Katrina Browne's cousin): I feel a lot of confusion, a lot of emotion. I'm having a real problem with - I don't know what to call it, the itinerary? And how it's feeling right now is that it's going to show up as a really neat travel log about slavery. But damn, I need to have us connect more between each other on a feeling level. A lot is going on between us, and we're just being our nice Protestant selves, and I'm sick of it.

MARTIN: Yes, she was. Katrina, what was going on there? What were some of the feelings that were stirred up by this?

Ms. BROWNE: Well Kyla took us right into to some really deep and great discussions, and we were, you know, we were trying to do it all, to sort of cover the history and also delve into what it meant for us today and where that led us. It was just until lots of debates and arguments and soul searching around what, you know, do we have particular obligations as DeWolf descendents? And what is it like?

Juanita would actually ask us, what's the legacy of slavery for white people? What's the legacy inside your head? What's the legacy, sort of, out in your concrete tangible world? And we honestly would have the hardest time answering that, so we would - we'd spend some time trying to look at issues of white privilege and then issues of like apology for slavery, reparations, who owes what? How do we kind of untangle all these strands of what basically - none of us created who are alive today, but we've all inherited.

MARTIN: Which sounds kind of walky and, you know, term paperish, but in fact, as kind of a personal question, became very passionate and difficult for people. I think the film makes it very clear. So I wanted to ask each of you in just the couple of minutes we have left is what would each of you like for people to draw from this film? Juanita, I'm going to start with you.

Ms. BROWN: This is an important missing piece of the dialogue around race in this country. I think we've seen a lot of examples of interracial dialogue that was more workshoppy, let's say. Or we've seen African Americans talking about race and understandably being upset about it, and it has n somewhat off putting consequence, I think, to the whole of white Americans out there.

This was taking a different slice of the conversation, a missing slice and really bringing it forward, and I think that, in the screenings that we've done, we found that a lot of people of African descent, particularly African-Americans, have found it quite healing and trust building that this family has decided to give authentic acknowledgement to what happened and what the vestiges of what happened remain today with us.

MARTIN: Katrina?

Ms. BROWNE: I guess the huge takeaways for me were that slavery was an economic system that built this nation. It didn't just build one part of this nation. It built the whole nation. And so, in a sense, even if people don't have the same extreme, horrible ancestors that I do, if you have white skin, you inherit in one way or another from the system that slavery set up.

And then the other fact is just that today, at this moment in history, I think the vast majority of white Americans don't identify as racist or as trying to do anyone any harm. But we are still - those inequities are still there on a more institutional level, and we're also - we can get psychologically just really tied up in knots. And, you know, I just noticed my own patterns that have gradually started to shift of being more comfortable talking about the stuff and being more real. And that's what it's going to take to create the type of change that's still needed.

MARTIN: I think that the film does get very real. I thank you for that. Katrina Browne is the producer of "Traces of the Trade A Story from the Deep North," a documentary that aired recently is part of PBS's Point of View series. She joined us from member station WBGH in Boston. Juanita Brown is a co producer of the film. She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

And I want to tell you, if you want to see photos and clips of "Traces of the Trade," which premiered last month, you can go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org, and you can find a link to the film's website, where you can find out how to see it for yourself. Thank you ladies both for joining us.

Ms. BROWN: Thank you.

Ms. BROWNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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