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Katrina's Sermon: A Third Way

Filmmaker Katrina Browne delivered a powerful sermon at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Bristol, Rhode Island, on Martin Luther King Sunday, January 15, 2006.

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May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord.

Good morning. My name is Katrina Browne. As many of you know, I'm a descendant of the DeWolfs, who date back to 1744 in Bristol. You may not know that I'm also the great-great-grand-daughter of George Lyman Locke who was rector here for 53 years, which adds up to about 2544 sermons! And he seems to be watching me [point to relief/bust of him in marble right next to me on wall]. So I guess I better do a good job!

Ten years ago, when I was in seminary, minding my own business, I got a little blue booklet in the mail from my grandmother, Rosalind Howe Sturges. It was about our family history. She described her childhood here. There were fond memories and tall tales, and lots of ministers. Tracing back through time, she then arrived at the DeWolfs, and the fact they were slave traders. This hit me really, really hard. It was a while before I could even speak to anyone about it. It turned my world upside down; all the family pride I'd been raised with, and all the Yankee pride.

It turns out that the DeWolfs, by virtue of their success over three generations, were actually the largest slave trading family in the history of the United States.

In 2001, nine family members came with me on a filmed journey to retrace the route of the Triangle Trade. We came here to Bristol, then went to Ghana to the slave forts and to Cuba, where the DeWolfs owned plantations. Many of you here have helped us in this effort. St. Michael's welcomed us a few times. I want to thank you so much for this support. And thank you so much for the chance to talk with you this morning.

I'm here for Martin Luther King Day to share some of what I've learned and to speak, as best I can, from my heart about what I hear in the words of Jesus and the life of Dr. King.

And I'm nervous. Because this beautiful town has this not so beautiful history. And it's hard to talk about. It's brought up a lot of fear in me as I try to figure out: what does it mean for our family to face this history? What does it mean for Linden Place, George DeWolf's mansion that was built on profits from the slave trade? What does it mean for the wharf area? Or even for St. Michael's church whose financial well-being has been tied over the years to the fortunes of slave traders and their descendants? What does it mean for the town overall?

The good news is that it means good things. It's hard work, but it's a journey towards wholeness.

But backing up... when I started in on all this I was naturally focused on my DeWolf ancestors. But through our travels, and meetings with historians, we learned that the system was so much larger than them. They were tied into the whole economy of New England and the nation. There were the shipbuilders, the sail and rope makers, the rum distillers, the farmers whose foodstuffs were part of the trade, on and on it went. Later, there were the Northern textile mill workers who processed Southern cotton picked by slaves.

So when we were in Cuba at an old sugar plantation, we saw a sugar press, and if you looked closely you could make out words at the bottom, imprinted in metal. It was made in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo. All the way down there. Machines from the North went down to Cuba and then sugar came back up. Which leads to the other missing link: consumers. A historian said to me at one point: "the slave trade is all about everybody's desire for sugar in their tea." Instead of being sinister, or malicious, this was so mundane.

The problem is that all this activity added up. It added up to great harm to enslaved Africans. And their descendants know that and remember that, because the stories get passed down, and people connect the dots from the past to the present. Meanwhile, in white families, the stories don't get passed down, either because of shame at the major role played, like in my family, or because of the dissociation that comes with playing a minor role, not connecting the dots when you buy sugar, or coffee, or go to work at the local mill.

Next thing you know blacks and whites are in a dysfunctional relationship. Black Americans try to get white Americans to deal with the legacy of slavery. As whites we don't like the implication that we're responsible for slavery, or that we're "racist," so we resist. Blacks get angrier when they see the defensiveness. We get offended by the anger. Everyone is confirmed in their views of each other and we spin round and round in this vicious circle dragging everybody else who comes to America into it.

For those of us who don't resist this history and do take in all the suffering, our trap is usually guilt! We feel terrible about ourselves and our people.

So it can seem like we have only two choices: either, listen to African-American claims and feel guilty and bad about ourselves, or in order to feel good, we don't listen, and take a defensive posture.

But I'm here on Martin Luther King's birthday. And he had something to teach. He offered another way, perhaps a third way. He zeroed right in on the words of Jesus that we heard in the Gospel of Luke this morning. "Love your enemies." "Do good to those who hate you." "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Jesus was saying love the Roman soldier, love the slave master. King was saying love the white segregationist...love those who do not love you.

So what's the message for us, here? I'm sure you don't think of African-Americans as your enemy. But in light of the vicious circle I just described, might we not confess to a resistance to black anger, to calls for reparations? Might we not confess to a negative attitude about what we think is their negative attitude towards us?

I can confess that. But I'm figuring out how to quiet my resistance. For starters, I tell myself not to take it personally. Which is sort of obvious. All of us white Americans actually, whatever our ancestry, can say "it wasn't me" because we weren't alive during slavery. But instead, what if we were to acknowledge that, though it's not our fault, we are inheritors of a country in which the cumulative effect is that African-Americans are still at a disadvantage. Slavery was followed by Jim Crow, and by discrimination --South and North--in housing, and lending, and jobs, in hospitals, and schools. For all the advances during the civil rights era, it's hard to make up for 400 years of injustice in 50 years. It's like a running race in which we finally said to African-Americans, you can come to the starting line and run this American race. But by the time we said that in the 1950's and 60's, most everyone else was way ahead.

So the challenge I give myself as a white American at this moment in time is to really show up for the conversation. When black Americans say there's unfinished business, I take that to heart and make it my business.

And here's the thing, I've come to realize that I don't need to take myself out of my heart in order to do that. I don't need to take you out of my heart. As we bring attention to the question of what will create wholeness for people of African descent, we can also ask what will create wholeness for ourselves, as people of European descent. What needs to be healed in us? What are the scars and legacies of slavery that we carry? They're different, but they're there.

In Ghana, we attended a ceremony that was for people from throughout the African Diaspora who'd come back to their homeland. We were a conspicuous minority! The ritual was at a river in a town called Assin Manso. It's where captives, after being marched from inland, were brought for a last bath. They were washed and oiled, primed for sale at the coast. An African-American leader was performing a ritual to help people heal from the past. My cousin Dain asked if he could perform the ritual for us DeWolf descendants. The healer smiled and said he could do that, but he thought we should ask our own elders to play that role. I think he was basically saying go home. Look no further than your own backyard. Do the healing there, with each other.

So I've come full circle, back to my community, back to the church that my family has attended for generations. And I don't know exactly what the ritual or the healing process would look like. But I do know that it should be grounded in the spirit of love for all. And I do know that we'll figure it out once we face the history...together.

You know, the town of Bristol has an amazing opportunity, because we have so much of the history here. All you have to do is take a short walk through the streets of town, to piece together the troubled story of the North's role in slavery. At the same time we have the oldest Fourth of July parade in the country. So we're able to tell the proud story of the founding ideals of this nation as well.

Let's bring all these stories out into the open. Let's figure out how to tell all of what went into the making of America. Without anxiety or dread, but with the hope and trust and faith that are born of love.

Amen.

© Katrina Browne, 2006





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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.”

— Katrina Browne

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