Thomas DeWolf, author of the new book Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, stopped by to share with us a piece he wrote.
The seed began to sprout when I was an 18-year old college freshman sitting in Cornelia Barnhart’s Literature class. She assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. That book changed my life. One line inspired me to be a writer.
The reason won’t matter to you. Each writer’s inspiration is her or his own. There is a moment when you just know: you can’t not write. But I didn’t. I got married, had children, earned a living. Three decades passed. Oh, I kept a journal. I wrote a children’s book. I started the Great American Novel half a dozen times. But I didn’t have the courage—didn’t commit the time and energy—to pursue my dream.
When I was invited to participate in the filming of Traces of the Trade I finally seized the opportunity. I began writing during our journey in 2001. I resigned my last “job” in late 2005 and committed to writing full time. Two years later my book was finished, I found an agent, and she found Beacon Press. When I first held the advance reading copy of Inheriting the Trade I experienced the greatest moment of satisfaction ever in my life.
A young woman recently wrote that while reading my book she decided to pursue a double major of ethnic/women’s studies so she can teach about oppression; how it is perpetuated and how to curb it. Can you imagine how it felt to receive her note?
What we do matters. It influences others. I finally became my true self. Thirty years of doing other things are all part of the journey. I know nurses, teachers, and others who become their true selves feel the same. Me? I’m a writer. Finally.
Q. You joined nine distant relatives to learn about your slave-trading ancestors by retracing their steps through the notorious Triangle Trade, from New England, to West Africa, to Cuba, and back. Why would anyone choose to spotlight such a sordid family history?
A. The point isn’t to spotlight our family’s history so much as to use our family’s story as a springboard to a deeper conversation. It can be traumatic to discover ancestors who did horrible or embarrassing things. But I’m pretty sure that if you look, most of us will find both heroes and horse thieves somewhere along the line. My cousin, Katrina Browne, learned that she was descended from the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Three generations of our family participated in the slave trade. They transported more than 10,000 African people to the West Indies and North and South America. The most successful was James DeWolf, a prominent business man, philanthropist, and community leader who became a U.S. senator from Rhode Island, which I’ve always found horribly ironic. He died the second richest man in America in 1837. Rather than succumb to the guilt she initially felt, Katrina confronted this history by inviting several of us to join her in facing our family’s—and our nation’s—hidden past. She produced and directed a documentary feature film about our journey, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, and I decided to write a book. The journey Katrina created is actually an invitation to readers and filmgoers to explore the legacy of slavery and how it continues to impact us today. Deep wounds exist that have never healed properly. If people are willing to honestly confront these issues, we’ll find a path that leads to reconciliation, and, consequently, to a more peaceful world.
Q. Your book is called a memoir, yet it’s more than a description of your travels with your cousins and what you learned along the way. For instance, you incorporate details of American history that aren’t well known.
A. In fact, I believe many of those details have been deliberately down-played. I understand it because what has been hidden is shameful and embarrassing. But not knowing those facts has impacted the way we think about our country and about our fellow citizens, often in unfair and unrealistic ways. So I included relevant historical events that I hadn’t learned about in school. Through discussions with many people over the past several years, I learned that I wasn’t alone in not knowing that almost all U.S. slave-trading was done by northerners and that slavery itself existed in the North for over two hundred years, among other things.
Q. Though your “family of ten” is all white people, you also interacted with people of color throughout your journey. Did you feel guilty around black people, knowing what your ancestors did?
A. Not really. There were definitely powerful, tense, and emotional moments. We met with both black and white scholars. We participated in interracial dialogues in all three countries we visited. There was no intention to make us feel guilty. Some believe that white people have been coddled throughout history and that we shouldn’t be allowed to feel safe. But I disagree. I don’t believe we can impact the hearts and minds of people who are paralyzed by feelings of guilt or fear. The way to successfully break down the barriers that separate us—whether by race, class, gender, or religion—is to create safe spaces in which to establish and nurture relationships with people who are different, or believe differently, than us.
Q. What was your most powerful moment in Ghana?
A. There were many such moments, especially for me, as I had never traveled internationally before. The interracial group conversations we participated in, the ceremonies we attended, standing at the Door of No Return, and other sites we visited that were connected to the slave trade, and which our ancestors had also been to two centuries earlier, had a strong impact on me. But the most powerful moment was when we entered one of the male dungeons beneath Cape Coast Castle—a 450 square foot stone cell that held up to 200 enslaved African men at a time—and the battery pack for the camera lights died and plunged us into pitch black darkness. There was no electricity in the dungeon, and rather than turn on our flashlights, Katrina invited us to wait quietly in the darkness. So we sat in the dark while a film crew member went to get a replacement battery. Ten minutes felt like an hour as I imagined what it must’ve been like to be confined in this space 200 years ago. I’ve never felt so close to utter despair and hopelessness in my life, knowing, of course, that the lights would soon come on and I’d walk out, which wasn’t the case for the people who were once imprisoned there. That moment shifted my consciousness more than any other on our entire journey.
Q. With the embargo the United States has had in place since the early 1960’s, few Americans travel to Cuba. Was being there what you expected?
A. First off, I didn’t know Americans could even go to Cuba legally but we did. We flew right out of JFK in New York City directly to José Martí in Havana. Then once we were in Cuba, most of my preconceived notions were off the mark. I thought there would be a more ubiquitous military or police presence than I saw. I expected a country filled with sad, oppressed people living under the heels of authoritarian rule, and we certainly encountered people who spoke with us about conditions I find heartbreaking and unconscionable. But what I also found, particularly with most of the people I interacted with—and we got out there in the streets, walking along the Malecón, in poor and not-so-poor areas, rural and urban communities—is that they appeared to be normal and happy with similar concerns as people anywhere else. We were free to go where we wanted to go at any time. I was never stopped and asked for my identification. Don’t get me wrong. I’m fully aware that Cuba is ruled by a military dictatorship that clearly limits the freedom of its citizens. I guess what I’m trying to say is that like anything we read or hear the reality is more complicated. It simply wasn’t what I expected based on what I learned in school and read in the U.S. media. I was pleasantly surprised by my experiences. I loved being in Cuba and would like to return. I met some wonderful people I’d like to spend time with again.
Q. Doesn’t rehashing the subject of slavery keep us stuck in the past? Why can’t everyone just get over it?
A. Many people of African descent that we spoke with during our journey say that the reason they can’t ‘just get over it’ is because it isn’t over. In general, there exists today a profound lack of trust between white people and people of color. White people typically aren’t even aware of it, or else we do our best to ignore it. This is our training, our birthright. In Cape Coast, we met with Professor Kofi Anyidoho from the University of Ghana. He encouraged us to wrestle with history because in order to understand where we are we need to understand how we got here. I was blown away by one particular statement he made, and I use part of this quote as the title for one of the chapters in Inheriting the Trade. He said, “Slavery is a tragic accident in which people today are still bleeding to death. Slavery is the living wound under a patchwork of scars. The only hope of healing is to be willing to break through the scars to finally clean the wound properly and begin the healing.” I believe this is the work of every person who believes in liberty, equality, and grace. Reckoning with events in history that have ripped people apart is how we can clean centuries-old wounds and heal together.
Q. Many white people will say this has nothing to do with them. Their ancestors didn’t own or trade slaves. They came after the end of the Civil War. They also suffered, whether they were Jews being forced from Russia during the pogroms of the late 19th century, or poor Irish potato farmers coming here after the famine with nothing but the shirts on their backs. They’d say this isn’t their problem.
A. I recognize that many families have ancestors who suffered to scratch their way toward the American Dream, including other branches of my own family. But the fact remains that people with white skin have always been able to rise toward prosperity in this country more easily and rapidly than people with dark skin. And it continues. Look at almost any significant social indicator—wealth, infant mortality rates, the likelihood of imprisonment, homicide rates, having health insurance, access to housing, employment, and higher education, and so on—and blacks fall on the negative side of the dividing line. This is a legacy of slavery, and it is systemic. If we truly aspire to live up to the ideals established by our nation’s founders—democracy, equality, and the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—then we have a lot of work to do. I’m sure most people would agree that inequality harms its victims. But it also harms those of us who are privileged to be on the upper tier of the dividing line. The harm is different, but it exists. If we pay attention, we will see the many privileges we enjoy due to our white skin. We can also see the harm we experience due to the fear and guilt that hover in and around our lives. These are our unclean wounds. This is everyone’s problem and everyone can contribute to, and benefit from, the process of healing.
Q. What do you hope readers will gain from your experiences?
A. My intention in writing the book was to use the example of what I and my cousins experienced as an invitation to readers to explore their own lives. A counselor told me once that we all have parallel experiences with which we can connect with what we need to learn. Everyone can understand more about racism and the legacy of slavery by paying attention to their own parallel experiences. Over the past seven years, I’ve learned how closely racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and so many other “isms” are connected. I’ve tried to show this connection in Inheriting the Trade so that readers can examine their own lives in order to become more aware of how we walk in the world, the importance of recognizing our kinship with each other, as equals, and the critical need in these troubled times to truly develop compassion for each other, especially with those who differ from us. The journey through Traces of the Trade, for me at least, began with a fair amount of trepidation. But the initial journey, followed by many related experiences, both with my cousins and on my own, became this amazing blessing. I really do believe we can repair damage we have caused and experienced. We can train ourselves to be kinder, always, in all situations. We all want fulfilling relationships based in trust. We want to love and to be loved. When we choose to live our lives with this focus, life becomes all it can be. That’s what I hope readers will gain.
Q. One of the big questions implicit in Inheriting the Trade is, “What’s next?” What do you do with your newfound knowledge or awareness?
A. Each of us who went on the international journey focuses on different efforts in our lives and communities, but we agree on one overall direction: we support a national dialogue and education process to lead the people of the United States toward racial reconciliation and the healing of our collective wounds. Politically, several family members are supporting several bills that are currently before Congress. One would study the lingering damage caused by slavery and what remedies should be employed. Another would have Congress follow the lead of several states—including Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, and Arkansas—and apologize for the United States’ role in slavery. A third would establish a commission to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in January 2008. Inheriting the Trade is being published by Beacon Press in January specifically to coincide with this anniversary. Family members will participate in an extensive outreach campaign that will utilize both the film and the book as resources to confront racism in our country. We will visit schools, churches, and community groups throughout 2008. If anyone would like to contact us to schedule an appearance in their community, they can do so at www.inheritingthetrade.com. We’re working with Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training (http://www.crossroadsantiracism.org/) to develop curriculum for outreach efforts and most family members who went on the journey will participate in a 2½ day anti-racism training program in late December. One African American man we met with in Ghana really nailed it for me when he said, “The direction you’re going is great, but if you’re not going to devote your life to it, they’ll never take you seriously. [Confronting racism] is not something you can turn on and off. It has to be a path, a walk of life.”
Q. It sounds like you’re on a mission to save the world or something. Do you really think we can end racism?
A. It does seem pretty daunting, doesn’t it? But look around. Not a day goes by that we don’t bear witness to war, sectarian conflict, intolerance, and other forms of oppression in our own nation and around the world. Hate crimes in 2006 in the United States were up 8% over 2005. There were over 7,500 criminal incidents reported in 2006 that were directly linked to discrimination against a victim’s race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or disability. I don’t believe the rash of nooses being hung in public places around the United States, or celebrities spewing hateful, racist language, are isolated incidents. They are indicative of the systemic nature of the challenge we face. Katrina, our cousins, and I have done our best to tell our family story, through the film and the book, with honesty, as well as with gentleness and a bit of humor. Part of our nation’s history is horrific, but we don’t have to be afraid to face it. Avoidance is a powerful piece of our inheritance. I know now that I’m not so alone in my inclination toward avoidance. Welcome to the human race, right? But in order to heal, to be reconciled, we have to be willing to wake up, to face things we have been taught to fear. I don’t actually think in terms of saving the world or ending racism because it feels impossible. I think about what I can do, what we together can do, on this day, today, to live our lives—and to teach our kids and grandkids to live their lives—with more tolerance, more gentleness, and grace. It will make a difference. It will.
When Katrina Browne, Tom DeWolf’s distant cousin, learned about their family's history, she resolved to confront it head-on, producing and directing a documentary feature film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.
Inheriting the Trade is Tom DeWolf's powerful and disarmingly honest memoir of the journey in which ten family members retrace the steps of their ancestors and uncover the hidden history of New England and the other northern states.
Their journey through the notorious Triangle Trade—from New England to West Africa to Cuba—proved life-altering, forcing Tom to face the horrors of slavery directly for the first time. It also inspired him to contend with the complicated legacy that continues to impact black and white Americans, Africans, and Cubans today.
Inheriting the Trade reveals that the Northern involvement in slavery was as common as it was in the South. Not only were black people enslaved in the North for over two hundred years but the vast majority of all slave trading in the United States was done by Northerners. Remarkably, half of all North American voyages involved in the slave trade originated from Rhode Island, and all the Northern states benefited.
With searing candor, DeWolf tackles both the internal and external challenges of his journey—writing frankly about feelings of shame, white male privilege, the complicity of churches, America’s historic amnesia regarding slavery—and our nation’s desperate need for healing. An urgent call for meaningful and honest dialogue, Inheriting the Trade illuminates a path toward a more hopeful future, and provides a persuasive argument that the legacy of slavery isn’t merely a Southern issue but an enduring American one.
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About Thomas DeWolf:
Thomas Norman DeWolf was born and raised in Pomona, California. In 1972, he moved to Eugene, Oregon to attend college. He graduated in 1978 with degrees from both Northwest Christian College and the University of Oregon. Tom served on the Oregon Arts Commission for nine years and as a local elected official for eleven. His years of public service focused on the arts, literacy, children’s issues, and restorative justice. Tom began writing Inheriting the Trade in 2001, during the summer in which he joined Katrina Browne and eight additional distant cousins on their life-altering journey to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba, to make Katrina’s film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which was chosen as an Official Competition Selection for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Tom has been writing full time since 2005. He and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.
Thank you so much to Thomas for joining us today! If you'd like to pick up a copy of his book Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History click on the cover image below