Tom DeWolf is filmmaker Katrina Browne‘s cousin and the author of Inheriting the Trade, the unique story of his experiences during the making of Traces of the Trade, which airs on POV on June 24th (check your local listings).
In 2001, Tom was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas during the 19th century. Tom met his distant cousin Katrina Browne for the first time, and together with her and with eight other family members, he traveled to Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba to retrace the notorious Triangle Trade.
In Inheriting the Trade, Tom writes:
I was excited to join Katrina to further investigate my family ancestry and to travel to Africa and Cuba. I looked forward to becoming more global in my thinking and awareness, but I was simultaneously anxious. This was going to be an expensive journey where I’d confront issues that I recognized more and more I’d rather not deal with. My anxiety was prescient. My exposure to issues of race would change dramatically in 2001 — and in unimagined ways for which my life hadn’t prepared me.
You can read three extended excerpts from Inheriting the Trade on the POV website for Traces of the Trade.
We asked Tom some questions about his book tour and the Traces of the Trade broadcast. Read his answers below, and add your own question or comment to the mix. Twenty-five lucky POV viewers will receive a signed copy of Tom’s book!
POV: What do you personally hope that PBS viewers take away from the Traces of the Trade broadcast on POV?
Tom DeWolf: The short answer is Inspiration. I hope people are inspired to dig a little deeper into aspects of our nation’s history that have been hidden. I hope they are inspired to examine their own lives and communities for ways in which we unconsciously (and consciously) perpetuate inequity and injustice and separation. I hope they are inspired to recognize that the road to healing and reconciliation isn’t as frightening as we may think it is.
POV: What conversations do you hope will happen in living rooms across the country, and particularly in New England?
DeWolf: It doesn’t matter to me what people talk about in their living rooms, class rooms, churches, and so forth, as long as they talk. I hope conversations on a variety of themes are stimulated by people watching the film and reading Inheriting the Trade. Our family journey is really an invitation into a deeper conversation. It begins with a conversation with oneself and grows into the wider communities we belong to. We have a particular interest in New England because the family story is centered there. Many generations of DeWolfs were raised in Bristol, Rhode Island. Many DeWolf descendants continue to reside in New England and elsewhere in the east. When the slave trade was an integral — and legal — part of our nation’s economy there were only 13 colonies/states. It feels appropriate to me that New England and the other original states lead the nation in efforts to address these issues. That said, I grew up in California and have lived in Oregon for more than 35 years. I hope that conversations that spring up out of Traces of the Trade all over the nation. Once we recognize we’re all in this together and we all have a role to play in the healing dialogue we’ll be moving in the right direction.
POV: What can people who are concerned about the issues of healing, repair and reparations do in their local communities?
DeWolf: The first step is awareness of the issues. So whether people begin the conversation with their families and friends or with their churches or schools, the beginning point is education about the full history AND the legacy that we’ve all inherited that continues to impact us today. I encourage people to talk. Reach out to people you may not have reached out to before. Have the conversation. Use Inheriting the Trade in your reading groups and book clubs. Once the DVD of Traces of the Trade is available (soon… soon…), watch it together with others and see what comes up in conversation. Once we recognize that we’re all damaged by the legacy of slavery and begin the work to heal together — strong emphasis on “together”; this is ALL about relationships — we’ll offer each other a little more grace and hope.
POV: You’ve recently been on a book tour, conducting readings of Inheriting the Trade in bookstores across the country. What are some of the highlights from your tour?
DeWolf: In addition to bookstores I’ve visited museums, film festivals, universities, middle schools and high schools, churches, libraries, conferences, and conventions. The overriding highlight for me is witnessing how much people hunger for this conversation. People have told me they feel like they’re being given permission to talk about things that we’ve all been raised to avoid. Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, told us about his own experience with this when his book was published. People do want to talk about these difficult issues but we don’t know how. Senator Obama, in his amazing speech on race that he gave March 18 at the U.S. Constitution Center in Philadelphia, truly named it. There is anger in the black community. There is anger in the white community. This anger has helped shape the political landscape. He spoke about the racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Two weeks later, Katrina Browne and I were honored to be on that same stage as part of the Constitution Center’s year-long “Legacy of 1808” series of events to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade.
My experience on the road these past months is that people want out of the stalemate. We’re tired of being angry, resentful and separate from each other. The second part of this highlight for me has been how eager people are to tell their own stories. We all have them. I enjoy talking with folks about their stories. I feel blessed that our family is able to play a small part — with many other people (filmmakers, authors, teachers, and so on) and organizations — in this critical national conversation. We met with Professor Kofi Anyidoho when we were in Ghana. He’s a revered national poet and a strong inspiration to me. He called slavery “a living wound under a patchwork of scars.” He said that we must remove the scars and cleanse the wound properly in order to begin to heal.
Our goal as a family — now that we’re coming to the end of the normal “book tour” phase and the film is truly “out there” and will soon be available to individuals and institutions — is to now embark on more of a national outreach campaign. It is my/our intention to visit, and work with, organizations who are interested in deepening this conversation. The ultimate highlight is working with people who are interested in addressing what W.E.B. Dubois called “the problem of the color-line.”
Do you have a question for Tom about his book, participating in the film or about his journey? Ask your question in the comments and check back in the days after the film airs to see his responses. Enter a valid email address for your chance to win a copy of Inheriting the Trade.