By Marjorie Valbrun
WASHINGTON—Katrina Browne and her critically acclaimed documentary, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” are helping Americans talk more openly and honestly about race and race relations. The film is a well-researched account of her New England ancestors’ status as the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. It is also a moving story about racial healing and redemption, the very issues she wants to help Americans embrace.
In the film, Browne and nine other descendants of the DeWolf family retrace the so-called “Triangle Trade,” the path from Rhode Island to slave forts in Ghana to sugar plantation ruins in Cuba, as “they uncover the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery” and the key role played by their forebears.
While the documentary itself is compelling, reaction to it and the continuing dialogue it spurred about the legacy of slavery and its connection to contemporary race relations have been equally powerful.
At screenings and at forums in churches and synagogues, colleges and community centers, research institutions and conferences, white participants have addressed guilt and shame underlying their reluctance to talk openly about race, and their fear that whatever they say will be interpreted as insensitive or racist. Blacks are voicing resentment about whites’ unwillingness to revisit the past and resistance to acknowledging the depth of pain and damage caused by slavery and racism.
While this may sound similar to past efforts to prompt a national dialogue on race, discussions connected to the documentary are less forced and more informal. They don’t have the feel of a group of smarty-pants academics preaching to the already converted, or the imprimaturs of former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama, both of whom urged Americans to engage in a national dialogue on race. Instead, ordinary folks simply talk to, not at, each other—and listen, really listen, to each other.
“I found what a difference it makes to create a safe space to talk about this,” says Browne, who travels the country giving presentations about her work to promote racial dialogue and antiracism efforts.
Browne is executive director at The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery in Watertown, Mass. The center was founded in 2009 to build on the work of the documentary and create greater awareness about “the vast complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade” and to foster dialogue and tangible action.
The center also holds screenings and organized discussions nationwide, including at the annual White Privilege Conference held in Minneapolis last April. The center offers faith-based programs, education workshops to counter “the myth of Northern innocence in slavery” in school history curriculums, and training and consultation collaborations with museums and historic sites.
Interestingly, the target audience is white Americans, based on the idea that public support for seeking solutions to racial inequity would increase if more whites understood the history and effects of structural racism. It helps if that message also comes from whites.
“I think it’s easier for me as a white person to talk about this to a fellow white than it would be for a black person whose not gonna want to hand-hold these people through the process,” Browne says. “In conversations about racism, I found that white people are very vulnerable and scared. It seemed important to me to put that idea out there.”
Browne says there’s an assumption that white people have historically benefited from the slave trade and continue to reap the benefits of white privilege and power. “Part of what I observed over the years is that power is situational and complex,” she says.
“The emotions and attitudes that white people have about race, some of them involve feelings of strength and some involve feelings of vulnerability, and we usually put more attention on the fact that they have strength instead of on the fact that they have vulnerability . . . and if we’re not attentive to this, we’re not going to be smart about how to engage white people in addressing racial inequities.”
Browne cites a particularly positive discussion after a screening hosted in Philadelphia by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. A black woman, perhaps sensing anxiety among white participants, addressed their fears head-on:
“She stood up and said, ‘I want my white brothers and sisters to know that you are already forgiven in Christ, so quit worrying about the past. What gets me mad is when you don’t show up for the problems of today, which I’m not blaming you for, and you don’t show up to roll up your sleeves to work on that problem with me.’ ”
Soon after, Browne says, a white woman in the audience stood and said: “To the black people here, I would really like to know what your ideas on reparations are.”
A black participant responded: “What we’re doing here today, talking about the history and legacy of slavery honestly, to me that is reparation.”
Browne recalls a clear sense in the room that people were connecting across an invisible racial divide. Each question led to another as participants tentatively let down their guard. Browne was thrilled.
“It was an incredible dialogue that day,” she says, adding that the experience convinced her that “there is way more to talk about and way more interest to have that conversation if there’s a space for people to speak from the heart and be honest and vulnerable. I really see how much people appreciate that and how much they have to say to each other.
“And white people are really surprised to see how effective it is. I think white people project that black people are going to be really hostile to them” and are often surprised to be proven wrong.
Browne says such group dialogues are a stark contrast to what she terms the “vitriol” in discussions about race on talk radio and cable television news.
“There’s so much more compassion and civility,” she says. “People are kinder. The kindness I’ve seen in conversations between black people and white people has made me very, very hopeful.”
That’s not to minimize very real challenges ahead.
“I’m still trying to reach people who would never consider coming to see a film about the history and legacy of slavery and don’t think it’s worth it,” Browne says. “We’re still not reaching a broad swath of the white American population that doesn’t think we should look back. I have a greater understanding and compassion for them than I did 10 years ago.”
Still, she admits that “it feels completely incorrect to think that we have to care-take white people. It is with some hesitation that I’m advocating putting a lot of weight on the psychology of privilege and accommodating it.”
Browne says much of the resistance among whites is based “in thinking that it would be about blaming them,” a feeling reinforced, she says, by “a natural mindset in diversity and antiracism training that white people are the bad guys.”
Most whites do not see themselves as racist, however, and value the idea of not being prejudiced, she says.
“In conversations about race, there can be a lot of nervousness and anxiety about saying the wrong thing and being called racist, so white people often avoid talking about race and getting involved in antiracism work.
“For some, it’s being overwhelmed with guilt and shame. For others, it’s defensiveness. They’re so scared of looking at the history and the pain, so they push back. It’s often seen as hostile and racist, but it’s really coming out of fear.”