When we sit back down, the tears fall from Katrina’s eyes. She explains that when she was in her late twenties she read a booklet about her family history written by her grandmother. She hesitates and looks down again. “It’s hard and scary to know that one is connected to evil people. There was so much family pride.”
Now she felt far from proud. She could not say out loud to anyone that she was descended from slave traders. “And, um…” She looks again from face to face. She wipes her tears, takes a deep breath, and smiles. Her voice becomes stronger. Read more »
I struggle to explain that I did not know how to talk to black people about my fear when I was young. There was no basis or education for that kind of dialogue. I also didn’t know about any of the family history, let alone about slavery in the North. There’s no amnesia, there’s no guilt–for me, it didn’t exist. Katrina asks what I would think if I were my ancestor Simon. Even though I’m not guilty, how I would deal with the fact that my brother was a slave trader?
I pause for a moment. “It was almost two hundred years ago. It was a different time, it was a different culture. I don’t want to defend anything that happened in this family or in New England or in America but I don’t want to vilify these people either because I don’t know. I wasn’t walking in their shoes.” Read more »
It is my privilege that allows me to be here. Before this journey I never considered my own privilege. Of course I’ve known I’m better off than many people, but it has always been generic. It was “we Americans” or we “middle class” who had it better than “those poor people” over there. It was never me.
Listening today, I realize even more that I’ve been trained, invisibly and unconsciously, not to see my own privilege as a man or as a white person. I look down at the little notebook in which I write. Even this twenty-five-cent pad of paper is evidence of my privilege. Read more »
Excerpted with permission from Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf. Beacon Press, Boston, © 2008.
Thomas Norman DeWolf was born and raised in Pomona, California. Tom began writing Inheriting the Trade in 2001, during the summer in which he joined Katrina Browne and eight distant cousins on their life-altering journey to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba, to make the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. He has been writing full time since 2005. Tom and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.