'Traces of the Trade'
General Assembly 2007 Event 3082
Presenter: Rev. David Pettee, Director of Ministerial Credentialing, Unitarian Universalist Association
Last summer, after I had finished researching my family history and found more than a dozen New England ancestors who owned enslaved Africans and one who sailed in the transatlantic slave trade, I set out to find others who might help me make sense of this disturbing legacy. An article in the Boston Globe referenced Katrina Browne, a descendant of the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island, who were the most notorious slave traders in American history.
In 2001, Ms. Browne arranged for a film crew to follow her and nine other DeWolf descendants to retrace the route of the Triangular Trade in enslaved Africans, rum and sugar between Rhode Island, Ghana, Cuba and back to Rhode Island. The article highlighted how the film had been shown at the Episcopal General Convention and how delegates had passed a resolution that included an admission of sin, an apology, and a promise to research the denomination's complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
Since Katrina Browne was based in the Boston area, I was able to get in touch and meet with her. And since last summer, I've been fortunate to meet several other DeWolf family members who made the trip. Her film has an absorbing capacity to allow the viewer to vicariously journey with the DeWolf family, and in it are people who will feel very familiar to Unitarian Universalists, as they sought to make sense of their particular legacy of slavery and white supremacy in general. The film also raises critical questions about the necessity of getting to know the hard and true facts of our history and the benefits of completing this kind of inventory.
A deep and honest examination of the legacy of slavery is fraught with emotion and wide-ranging opinion of what should be the appropriate course of action. The film doesn't offer quick and easy solutions. The DeWolf family members struggle with confronting their complicity and their historical legacy, and no one firm consensus emerges around next steps. What becomes evident is that there a deep and important need to find a way to talk candidly about racism and the role of privilege without casting blame and/or being absorbed in guilt. I believe the film is well positioned to help members of Unitarian Universalist congregations begin to go deeper into these uncomfortable questions, engaging in a conversation that is long overdue.
Reported by David Pettee; edited by Deb Weiner.