Wednesday, June 25

traces of the trade

Why are white people, in general, so afraid of being called racist? I have long believed that we are raised, on each side of this racial divide, with negative emotions about each other from the cradle. Not consciously – but I think it happens much more than we realize no matter where or how we grow up. On one side guilt and fear and on the other side anger and fear; but always fear sits like a live wire between us. We don’t want to look in the mirror of each other’s eyes. We cannot face the truths and so we want simply to move on. We look to ‘post racial politics’ and each successive generation for healing, but we never stop to think that maybe what it will take is something more and less than hope. Action.
Last night I watched Point of View on PBS. It is a documentary series and this one was called Traces of the Trade. It’s about a Rhode Island family’s journey through our past. The DeWolf’s were one of the largest and richest slave trading dynasties. For generations the family made money off of the triangle. Now the descendants are trying to come to grips with what that means to them today. They traveled from Bristol, RI to Cape Coast, Ghana, to Noah’s Ark Plantation in Cuba and back to Bristol, tracing the shipping route of this recent past. As they journey they learn and as they learn they change. Each to a different degree, but each in some fundamental way. Is that what we are all so afraid of? That we might have to change?
One of the hardest lessons to learn, to truly accept, is that the entire country was complicit in the genocide and that America was largely built, both literally and figuratively, on the backs of enslaved Africans. Not just Africans who were enslaved here but in Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean. In the northern states, where the money and machinery of slavery was centered there weren’t large plantations. There were small households who enslaved one or two people. There were warehouses filled with sugar, molasses and rum harvested or made by the enslaved on the islands or in Florida. There were houses and factories built with money from the trading of enslaved people or from the goods they created. Throughout New England the pretty wooden houses and the charming stone walls and cobblestone lanes were created with the labors of the enslaved using materials bought with the money made by enslaving them.
Over 11 million Africans were brought here legally. Over 1.5 million died on the journey here. There are over 500 million descendants of these enslaved peoples living in the US. That number does not count the millions living on the islands or in Central America.
My family came here all kinds of ways. I am descended from John Alden who came here on the Mayflower. I am descended from Portuguese immigrants who came here at the turn of the century. I am descended from Native Americans. I am descended from Africans who emigrated here. I am descended from Africans who were brought here in manacles, slaves in the name of the Lord and by the laws of America.
It is painful and it is hard to turn and look at our history. To realize that the factories in the north where so many immigrants got their start here were built with the money and the labor of people who had been forced here. To realize that there are companies today who have their roots in slavery. To realize that one of my ancestors could have owned another. I have, within me the blood of the enslaved and the master- the anger, the guilt and the fear.
The conversation turns, inevitably, to reparations.
1 a: a repairing or keeping in repair plural : repairs
2 a: the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury: something done or given as amends or satisfaction
3: the payment of damages : indemnification; specifically : compensation in money or materials payable by a defeated nation for damages to or expenditures sustained by another nation as a result of hostilities with the defeated nation —usually used in plural.

For me, personally, money is beside the point. What draws me is the second definition: something done or given as amends or satisfaction. It rings of something that one of the family members in the documentary said – that they needed to make every apology possible in word and deed and then it was up to African Americans what the next step will be. For me it would be a revolution in the way children are taught about slavery. The truth, great and terrible, needs to be told, needs to be understood. A national apology should be given by the President and acknowledged by both Houses of Congress. That we the people, of the United States of America recognize the atrocities in our past, the hypocrisy, the murder, the rape, the stripping of identity, the forced religious conversion, the torture, the enslavement, the theft of Africans and the corruption of our own citizens. That we, the people of the United States of America apologize in all sincerity to the descendants of those enslaved on behalf of the enslavers. That we the people rededicate ourselves to the words of our incorporation, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Something like that…
People will say that they aren’t the ones who enslaved others so they shouldn’t have to apologize. People will point to a relative that came here in 1920 something. People will say that it was years ago and we should move on. The truth is that we shouldn’t have to do this. This should have been done (or at least started) during Reconstruction. Each successive generation has tried to skip over this original wound in our national psyche. Each generation has tried to just move on. Yet until we each stop and turn around, see our past for what it truly is and recognize that this country would not exist were it not for slavery, that our freedom would not exist if it had not been stolen from others, we will not begin to heal the wound nor honor the dead.
No one is clean and no one is untouched because our foundation is bloody murder of Native Americans first and then of Africans. That is what we’re made of. It is the money and the labor that built this country. That funded the Revolution and the war of 1812. That laid the foundation for the Haiti and Cuba we have today. That built the families who built the factories that clothed, fed, shod and employed America. The sugar presses in Cuba came from Buffalo, NY. That company also made plows for small family farms. No one is clean and no one is untouched. It is hard and it is painful but I don’t care. The work of this country is to build a ‘more perfect union’, to continually improve ourselves. That is hard and that is painful.I do not want a personal apology from each white person. I don’t want your money or your guilt. I want a dedication to truth, historical and present. I wish you all the courage to truly see where we come from. Maybe then we can figure out where we’re going


OG, The Original Glamazon said...

Great Post G! When Clinton apologized for slavery I thought it was one of the things he did as an American president that had the most impact on me as a descendent of those slaves. The thing is about acknowledgement, before one can heal you need to acknowledge the wrong doing, not deflect it. In personal relationships that's how successful ones continue on, when trouble arises. There is acknowledgement of the deed, how the deed impacted the persons involved, and then the agreement to try to move on in a way that will heal the rift that was caused by the deed. Instead American keeps on trying to put band-aids on severed limbs.

It seems we are starting to understand, as we really start to listen to one another but SO MUCH more has to be done to get that limb reattached. I hope and pray that we are truly moving towards this and its not just talk.

Great post! Now I‘m going to have to hope PBS puts this out on DVD since I missed it sounds like a very interesting show. I’m checking my local listing now just in case there’s a rerun.


WNG said...

Clinton brought up the idea - but it never went anywhere. Several states have issued their own apologies, however.
I do agree with you that we are starting to have a dialogue and that is great. I just think that we need to seriously examine the depth of the issue so that we realize where some of our feelings come from and what the realities of today are.
I think you can watch some of the doc on the PBS website. I know you can read some of the book one of the relative wrote about the journey there. I hope you do get to see it. It is remarkable.

Doc said...

Do I agree that our country needs to officially acknowledge our past, sure. However the issue of reperations is one that I am not prepared to discuss because I think there are way to many issues there for any type of formal compensation.

BTW - G - U gots mail

NoRegrets said...

I'll have to watch that show.

WNG said...

Doc - my form of reparations is not monetary, but emotional and spiritual. I don't support individual checks being handed out. However there are many other ideas out there that I think deserve to be heard. Whether you then agree with them or not is another matter.

NoR - you really will :-)

His Sinfulness said...

As usual, an excellent post WNG. Keep up the good work. :)

Gye Greene said...

A big question. Unfortunately, it takes a complicated answer. :(


slag said...

Laura Flanders interviewed the documentarian on GRITtv. You should check it out, if you're interested.

As for the larger issues: I think different people have different weaknesses that make it hard for them to deal with hard realities. As far as history is concerned, some people are ignorant of it. Some people are mired in it. Some people think of themselves as being outside of it--they may know the names and dates, but they don't see how the events are connected to them personally. I know that I have a little bit of each of these weakness at different times. But most often, I think it's that we all get stuck in our own stories and feel like we're giving up something if we acknowledge someone else's story.

The thing I think of is the episode in season one of the West Wing (ahhhh...fiction!) in which Josh has to discuss the issue of reparations with one of the administration's political appointees. I think the discomfort he felt during that conversation was pretty representative of the discomfort white, and even Jewish, people feel when confronting the history of slavery. He wanted to listen without judgment but his own historical pain kept coming up. Feeling someone else's pain for that moment meant ignoring his own. In the end, I think it boils down to a competition for resources.

Whether the resource be empathy, attention, love, or money, people feel that the supply is limited and they deserve it as much as anyone else. And giving some to you means taking some away from me. While in my better moments, I've found the opposite to be true, that doesn't always stop my inner neanderthal from emerging and shouting "MINE!" at various times. It takes an act of will to subdue that inner neanderthal. And maintaining ignorance of, being stuck in, or feeling separate from historical events makes it easier to just let it run loose. But then again, maybe that's just me.

PS Damn! That was a long comment. I hope your comments section isn't a limited resource. Feel free to delete or edit it as you see fit.

WNG said...

Thanks, Pater!
I'm fine with complicated, Gye, I'm a puzzle myself :-)

I see those same weakness in myself and in everyone else too. You've made great points, but I think what we need to understand is that this is NOT a zero sum game, no matter how much it may sometimes feel like it.
That's why I really feel like we need to start with education - serious education about our history. Far too many of us are ignorant, accidentally or willfully, and this stops progress.
People keep saying we can now have a national conversation about race but how can we talk about something when so many of us don't know what we're talking about?
And OK, you know you can always get me with the West Wing references (especially if you throw in Josh or Charlie)! Here's my thing - the evil of the Holocaust is being taught to our children. People who do not acknowledge the depth and breadth of the horror are thought to be idiots or anti-semites. A country was established and wars have been fought to protect the survivors. And of course nothing can make up for what happened and our complicity in it. We know that. People in this country don't even want to know the truth about slavery. They want the Gone With The Wind or American Girl version. Now I don't want an Israel(or another Liberia), and I don't want money. But I would like the truth to be acknowledged.
So there's a long comment to go with your long comment. And of course, Mi comment section es su comment section. I always appreciate your thoughts - so take all the space you want!

Big Man said...

When you get serious, you always do a fantastic job. Great post.

WNG said...

Thanks, Big Man!!!

Thomas N. DeWolf said...

Tom DeWolf here, one of the family members from Traces of the Trade and the author of my memoir of our journey, Inheriting the Trade, published by Beacon Press.

An earlier comment, from OG: "Now I‘m going to have to hope PBS puts this out on DVD since I missed it sounds like a very interesting show. I’m checking my local listing now just in case there’s a rerun."

There are many PBS stations who will re-broadcast Traces of the Trade. AND, there will be a DVD of the film available within a few weeks. It won't have any "extras" on it; that version is being prepared and will come out early next year. But the film's producers wanted people to be able to get just the film as soon as possible. You'll be able to get it through the film's website:

The website for the book is

It's great that so many people are talking about Traces and the issues it raises all over the blog-o-sphere. What a hopeful sign, don't you think?

WNG said...

Hi Thomas!
I bought your book last week and will post a review here soon. (Don't be scared ;-)
I think that people are so wary of these issues generally that books and documentaries can be a great starting point for discussions. I'm going to try and keep the discussion going here - you are welcome to check back in.
And yes, I'm glad it's happening all over the web, it is a hopeful sign and we could use more of it.