In the feature documentary “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” filmmaker Katrina Browne, a Springside School graduate, tells the very personal story of her forefathers, the DeWolfs, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne’s ancestors were Northerners from Rhode Island.

by Len Lear


On the cover of Local Life last week was an article about Katrina Browne, a 1985 graduate of Springside School who went on in 1999 to make the highly acclaimed documentary film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” about her own ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade. Katrina was the producer, director and writer of the film, which took nine years to make. Following are some more questions we asked Katrina and her answers:

•What do contemporary white Americans owe to the descendants of slaves?

“I feel it is incumbent on white Americans to address persistent inequities, to ‘repair the breach.’ We also owe it to have our history classrooms and our museums tell the whole story, such as that slavery built the nation, not just the South. I could go on … ”

•What do you want the world to know about your ancestors and about the legacy of slavery today?

“I want people to know that the North dominated the slave trade, with Rhode Island leading the pack. Northern states also financed the trade, held people in bondage for over 200 years and had a manufacturing economy built on raw materials harvested by enslaved people in the South and the islands. Racism and de facto segregation were certainly the norm long after slavery was abolished.

“So white Northern self-righteousness vis-a-vis the white South is ill-founded and self-serving. I think it has seeped into our national politics in a way that is deeply problematic. White Southerners resent that white Northern ‘liberal’ arrogance, and we just dismiss that resentment because we don’t know ourselves. So the unhealed legacies are multiple, and our ability as white folks to show up for racial equity work is hampered by the narratives we have about ourselves (e.g. that we are beleaguered or already a ‘good person’).

“On another note, I wish we white folks could hear people of color when they say that they want us to address ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ racism, inequities that are baked in at this point (e.g. how public schools are financed). So it is less a matter of whether we are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — ‘not racist’ or ‘racist’ in any kind of individual sense — but more about rolling up our well-intentioned sleeves and getting to work on systems-level change.”

•What are your plans for the future regarding your film?

“I’m curious if things might align for a national rebroadcast at some point, whether on PBS or a cable channel. It almost happened this year for our 10th anniversary. The film first came out the same month that Barack Obama won the Democratic primary in 2008, so it was a very different moment in our country’s history vis-a-vis racial dynamics than now. I think the film would thus be even more of service now. I will continue to do screenings/dialogues with the film in schools, churches, conferences, museums, etc. I go where I’m invited.”

•Will there be other films in your future? If so, what might they be about?

“I doubt it, but if there were, it would be about the relationship between white Northerners and white Southerners, with emphasis, as per the above, on white Northern self-righteousness that isn’t as merited as we think. I’m stuck by the biases that arise in me when I hear a white Southern accent. I’m struck by how many white Southerners consciously or unconsciously lose their Southern accent when they move to other parts of the country in order to avoid being stereotyped.”

•What is the best advice you have ever received?

“Take a deep breath, and pay attention to the wisdom of the body.”

•What is the hardest thing you have ever done?

“The behind-the-scenes of making the film was harder than what happened in front of the camera. It was so humbling-ly difficult to manage all the moving parts and all the super-intense dynamics (racial and otherwise) between all of us in my family and all of us working on the film and then distributing the film. I was certainly a flawed leader.”

•If you could meet and spend time with any individuals on earth, living or dead, who would they be and why?

“Michelle Obama. Since we worked together in our 20s, it would be so meaningful to me to be able to sit with her and hear her off-the-record insights into the ways of the world and specifically, her wisdom on issues of race and racism in our country for her vantage point.

“I’m also thinking about how amazing it would be to be able to time travel to some community of early humans (and be able to speak their language) in order to see what their emotional lives were like and how similar or different they were from us.”

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