POV: Tell us about Traces of the Trade.
Katrina Browne: I was 28 years old when I got a booklet in the mail from my grandmother, who was 88 at the time. She was thinking about her grandchildren not knowing our family history. In the booklet, she wrote a couple of sentences about the fact that our ancestors from Bristol, Rhode Island were slave traders. That’s when I first found out about this part of our family history. I later found out that the DeWolfe family, the family I am descended from, was the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.
My ancestors were from New England, and their slave-trading was a shock to me, given my own mythology about our family. I was shocked again when I realized that instead of being the exception, the DeWolfe family was just the tip of the iceberg of the vast complicity to slavery in New England.
Traces Of The Trade follows me and nine other family members as we retrace the Triangle Trade route of our ancestors. We went to Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba to come to terms with our family history and tackle the question of what our history means for us now. We tackle the current debates about what white America owes — apologies, and reparations.
POV: What motivated you to go on this journey in the first place?
Browne: The need to go on the journey was a deeply personal calling, and something I needed to deal with, but I probably wouldn’t have made Traces of the Trade if I had felt like it was purely a personal issue.
Everywhere I go, I ask people to raise their hand if they knew about the role of the North in slavery, and people don’t raise their hands. More black Americans know about it than white Americans, but overall, we have such a mythology in this country that the South was solely responsible for slavery. It’s important to set the record straight, and then from there we can see how that changes the conversation about black-white relations today. Slavery is not just a southern sin, it’s a national one, and it’s the foundation of the American economy. Recognizing that means that the legacy of slavery becomes the responsibilities of more Americans than I personally assumed at the outset. So it was a combination of a deeply personal connection and realizing it’s a collective issue that made me go on this journey.
POV: Who are the nine relatives that you take with you on your journey, and how did they come to be involved in the project?
Browne: There are thousands of DeWolf descendants by now. I came up with a list of about 200 of these people, and I wrote to all of them, inviting them to come on this journey. Some of these people were finding out, for the first time, that they were descended from slave traders. Others already knew. After some in-depth discussions, our group settled into about ten people.
A lot of people didn’t know each other at all; there were seventh cousins on the journey who had never even heard of each other. Others were close: father and son, or two sisters. I told everyone that if they’re going to do this, they have to be willing to embarrass themselves, and make some stumbles.
As white Americans, we don’t always know how to talk about race, and we’re often scared to talk about it. My relatives chose to delve into some very difficult terrain, and I’m very grateful, because I couldn’t have done it alone. This is our family history, and it belongs to all of us.
POV: The DeWolfes have been a prominent and wealthy family for centuries, and it’s clear from the film that there is a legacy of privilege that has been passed down through your family. Are you the right people to tell this story?
Browne: Part of what I wanted to do in making Traces of the Trade was to put our family under the microscope. American culture is full of stories about rich and prominent people, but in this case, the descendants of the perpetrators of slavery are the ones telling the story and putting themselves under the microscope.
I could have said “I wasn’t a slave trader, so why is anyone pointing the finger at me?” A lot of white Americans might say that. But I am a descendant of slave traders, so I wanted to ask myself and my family questions about what we’ve inherited, and how we got a leg up in society. For white Americans, even if you’re not actively trying to be a racist, you can still benefit from a system that was set up to benefit you. That is how I feel about my life today, and that is part of why I wanted to make this film.
POV: How have your family members — the ones that didn’t participate in the film — reacted to Traces of the Trade?
Browne: There are certainly a lot of people I didn’t hear back from after I sent them the original letter inviting them to go on this journey with me, and I still haven’t heard back from some of them. But more and more family members have come forward and expressed their interest and support for what we’re doing.
There is now a much larger collective of people who believe that it was important to look at our family history. But there are also family members who are uncomfortable and nervous, and who are worried about lawsuits. On an everyday level, some family members were worried about what black friends and colleagues were going to think of them if they were “outed” as being descendants of this horrible family.
During the long process of making the film, there’s been time for me and my family members to see whether our fears are founded or not. What we found out is that black Americans are used to talking and thinking about race — it’s white Americans who are uncomfortable with talking about race, and who don’t have the vocabulary for it.
Some of my family members have realized that talking about race really is a transformative dialogue, and through talking about race, you can actually become closer to people with whom you used to have fairly superficial relationships with. That’s where there’s been a lot of healing and transformation.
POV: Did you have black crew members working on this film?
Browne: Yes, I did. We had two camera crews in each country because of the size of our group. We had a white camera crew that traveled with us during the whole journey, and then we had second unit cameras, so a Ghanian crew in Ghana, and a Cuban crew in Cuba.
We were really conscious of the fact that there would be trust issues around who’s behind the camera, and those issues would affect the people in front of the camera. For example, we were in Ghana during Panafest, and when we filmed the ritual in the dungeon, it was actually just the Ghanian cameraman who filmed it. The white crew and the family members weren’t there during the ritual. Similarly, during the filming of the interracial dialogue in the U.S., we had two crews: one black and one white.
POV: Can you talk a bit about your religious background?
Browne: I define myself as a person of faith, and I have an all-American hodgepodge definition of that. I have a long history in the Episcopal church and partially identify as Episcopalian, while at the same time I’m a Buddhist and a member of U.C.C. church [United Church of Christ]. I went to an interdenominational seminary and became a firm believer in getting out of the silos of denominations. I identify as a person of faith in the broadest sense of the word, and I believe that a lot of our spiritual traditions can teach us and give us some guidance in tackling questions around the issues we deal with in Traces of the Trade.
POV: How has this experience changed you? How are you different from ten years ago?
Browne: I have a much deeper and better understanding of how to connect the dots between the past and the present. There are also ways in which I feel different in terms of interactions around race, particularly with African Americans.
It may be weird to say this, but I feel more grounded in myself and my whiteness. I know who I am, I know where I came from, and it’s got a lot of ugliness in it. There’s something about facing that which actually makes me feel like I can stand more solidly on the ground than I could when I was pushing it away and repressing it.