Everyone has secrets—shameful episodes in our past that we try to keep buried. Heaven forbid that anyone should find out. What would people say? This book is about one family’s secret: my family’s. It is also about an American secret of which too few are fully aware.
When I was a child, I was taught with pride about our Founding Fathers. I reveled in hearing the patriotic stories about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. I imagined myself carrying on their legacy and basked in their glory. I share the human inclination to believe that the noble acts of our ancestors are reflected in who we are today. If new information tarnishes those stories, our pride tends to diminish. What I’ve learned in the last few years challenges the stories I grew up with.
During the summer of 2001, I traveled to New England, West Africa and Cuba with Katrina Browne and eight other distant cousins to retrace the steps of our ancestors—the DeWolfs—who were active in the slave trade. Katrina had decided to make a documentary feature film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, and the memoir you now hold is my story about not only that journey but about what comes after.
I learned new truths about myself, my ancestors, and the founding of the United States, and that it’s impossible to think constructively, and honestly, about race without simultaneously examining issues involving gender, class and privilege. I learned that slavery wasn’t limited to the South: black people were enslaved in the North for over two hundred years, the vast majority of all U.S. slave trading was done by northerners, and, astonishingly, half of all those voyages originated in Rhode Island. Compromises made by my childhood heroes ensured that slavery would continue as the driving force in our nation’s economy. Throughout this country’s history, white people have benefited as a direct result of the riches in land, money and prestige that were gained because of slavery.
A question that white people sometimes ask each other about black people in regard to slavery is, “Why can’t they just get over it??” During our journey, several African Americans provided a terse and accurate response: “Because it’s not over.”
Even after the Civil War, blacks were prevented from becoming equal citizens through Jim Crow laws, racial violence, lynching, and various other forms of terror and discrimination. Though civil and voting rights laws were adopted in the 1960s, the pecking order that has been in place for hundreds of years—with major disparities between blacks and whites in terms of education, housing, employment, health care, and treatment within and by the criminal justice system—continues.
It’s easy to agree that slavery prior to the Civil War was wrong. It’s much more difficult for whites to reflect on the systemic racism that lingers today. In my experience, one of the major impediments to discussing the legacy of slavery is that the subject is so overwhelming. My hope is that focusing on one family’s history will help readers get a better grasp on it, so that we can all begin an honest dialogue about race in the United States.
Our nation was founded on the ideals of equality and freedom, but these “unalienable rights” have never been secured once and for all for all people. It is a perpetual struggle, an ongoing journey. The journey you are about to embark upon began when nine people responded to an invitation. It altered my life. I invite you to join us.