As some of you know, there is a documentary film coming out about several of my ancestors and their role in the slave trade.

Traces of the Trade tells the story of the D’Wolf family of Bristol, R.I. and follows ten of our family today, as we retrace the route of the triangle trade and discuss the implications of this family legacy for U.S. race relations today.

My great-great-great-great-great grandfather, U.S. Senator James D’Wolf, was the patriarch of a prominent Rhode Island merchant family. What family history has downplayed for generations is that this was also the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history.

In the documentary, directed by my cousin, Katrina Browne, ten of us travel from Bristol to the coast of Africa and to Cuba, visiting trading posts, slave dungeons, and ruined plantations. We meet with a variety of scholars, activists, and ordinary people to explore, through conversation and reflection, what our family’s past might mean for the legacy of this country and for race relations today.

Those of us in the film range in age from 32 to 70, and include sisters, brothers, a father and son, and distant relatives who had never met before. We brought a variety of perspectives to the conversation, and we disagreed at least as often as we agreed. But we were all convinced that an honest exploration of the history of our family, and this nation, are essential to resolving and, one day, moving beyond the legacy of slavery.

The film was completed in June 2007 and will be shown publicly beginning in the fall of 2007.

14 Responses to “Slave traders in the family”

  1. Howard Ross says:

    Reparation has as much validity as Mexicans trying to get part of the Southwest returned to Mexico, or Native Americans trying to get their land back. Game is over and we lost, end of discussion. White folks are not ruling the world because they give [deleted] back. You have to take it then you can legalize and justify it in books. We as African people got out asses kicked and still are getting our asses kicked. So wasting time trying to get white folks to pay for [deleted] that happened hundreds of years ago is a lost cause. Most of us do not understand or even know about the history of the slave trade.

  2. jonah says:

    "we" didn't lose anything. even a lazy bit of research into the history will show that the US legalized what it did…breaking treaties is akin to breaking laws. yet the US has never held itself accountable for this but still expects everyone else to conform to the rule of law that it has no respect for. since there is no statute of limitations on genocide, or the type of land theft and fraud the US engaged in with indigenous peoples' homelands, then, no, it isn't "game over". indigenous peoples all across the globe are only getting started with the battle against colonialism. and just this last thing: when WWII ended, the international community bent over backwards to accommodate Jewish families whose property had been stolen by nazis. the principle with indigenous peoples is the same, yet the support for returning rightful title to stolen communally held properties is, of course, not as nearly supported. but not because the logic is flawed, only because there are colonial actors in key positions who intentionally continue to bury these issues. but it wont be thus forever. the tide is turning and capitalism is proving itself to be the inherently dysfunctional and unsupportable system of oppression it is…there will come a time when colonialism and capitalism will be regarded with as much distaste as nazism and racism.

  3. James says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Howard.
    I would hope that even if there's no undoing the past – whether slavery or the territorial expansion of the U.S. – there could be social justice to address the lingering consequences of those events on people today.
    You may be right, of course, that it won't be possible, in the end, to get a majority of whites to agree to take real action to address the legacy of the past. But I'm not sure that it isn't worth the effort, especially if so many people say that they aren't even aware of our history. Learning about that history and its effects on today's society may just change more than a few people's minds.

  4. dino says:

    damage done to my people my your family can never be repaired or repayed.Your family like many others that profitted from the trade needs to attempt to establish an educational center discussing the evil of the trade and how its legacy has not been addressed and how it continues to harm blacks today.

  5. James says:

    Dino, I agree with you completely. My family can't establish an educational center, since we aren't a wealthy family, but we're trying to do our part to promote education about the evils of the slave trade and its enduring legacy today.

  6. Sepia Noir Jenkins says:

    I just watched the documentary. It was painful on so many levels. I also noticed that your family members seemed to get physically weaker and weaker as the journey progressed. The faces went from anxious/excited to having an expression of almost doom. The bodies of your family members while in africa and Cuba seemed almost broken.

    I think the thing that bugs me most is the total eradication of blacks from american history. In high school i hated history even though i loved my teacher. she got to the part about slavery, said "it was not a peculiar institution" and moved to the next chapters. I've only come to love history since attending a black college and meeting other people who stressed our importance in the founding of this nation. I think not knowing our history, and not knowing that the african american experience is so very interwoven in the founding of this country is devastating to african americans. We basically are influenced to believe that blackness is bad and whiteness is everything there is to aspire to. I don't know how i really feel about reparations. I have stories i could tell you about what happened to my landowning black grandfathers, but i think the lack of education about black people and their very integral role in this country is crippling to both blacks and whites.

    I'm glad your family had the courage to undertake this journey. Many don't.

  7. Sepia Noir Jenkins says:

    Also, just wanted to say it was eerie watching the family discussion about privilege and how many of you were ivy league educated, yet didnt feel that was privilege. I recall the comment about learning to read at 4 and getting good grades. I think the point is precisely that! there are many african americans who are smart and who have achieved good grades but due to skin color could not even consider a Harvard or Princeton education. At that moment i wanted to tap him on the shoulder and say you aren't the only one who is smart and high achieving. Great documentary though.

  8. Isaabian Bryant says:

    The only thing I would say is that it's about time that someone in the white community had the guts to learn about themselves, and the guts to let the world know. I blog all the time to white people concerning heritage and race, and some of the more stupid statements are made by foolish white people with no understanding of self. My ancestors were actually owned by a half white half black man. Yes even blacks owned slaves! Does that make the situation easier to deal with? Of course not! Does it make the situation easier to understand? I think it does. As a Black Man in America, I have struggled from the day I was born. Now I have a black cousin who is half white, and passes for white, and she has had the easiest time! She went to the best schools, got new cars as gifts, and even to this day, has a better job than I do! I'm I bitter? No, but I understand better than she does about race. Keep in mind that race only started once white people started seperating themselves from other races in order to preserve there own.

    Once white people realized they couldn't make more white people if they had sex with a race outside their own, it would make sense for them to act superior than others, to control whats going on around them, and to insure the purity of the white race! Keep in mind that white people are not the mojority on this planet. So no, I am glad that I am from strong stock, that survived the middle passage, was able to survive slavery, jim crow, racism, and every other thing that white people could think of. I am PROUD to be a BLACK MAN in AMERICA, PROUD of my slave ancestors, and I hold no ill feelings toward the white race! Hell, I just don't like stupid people that want to feel superior becuase of there lack of UNDERSTANDING. Chuuuuurch!

  9. jonah says:

    well, there is definitely a lot more to be learned about this whole concept of "race" that's for sure. i have had a similar experience. both me and my gf are american indian, however, only i fit the stereotype of what an american indian (according to popular culture) is supposed to look like. she can pass for white. but she grew up on a reservation her whole life. i had a mixed setting of rural, reservation and urban up bringing, so i am a lot more experienced in non-native ways. but she grew up in a well off family and her mother is somewhat of a believer in status symbols, so my gf was "spoiled" with presents from burberry, armani, coach, gucci etc. our expeirences in the world are strange to say the least…..she gets white privilege but was almost totally oblivious to it as white privilege because psychologically she is not white. its odd, when she looks in the mirror its like she doesnt see her green eyes, fair skin, or blond hair (she has classical indigenous bone structure though and i always knew she was native–she gets this whiteness from an ancestor on her fathers side from way back in the 1600s). but when we go out thats what the world sees and they treat her very well. we make a game of it, and it doesnt bother me that she gets white privilege because she doesnt buy into it. for her, its hurtful that people read her as white. its like a negation of her american indian identity. until she left the reservation, she never experienced being mistaken as white. and that other natives not from her community especially hurts her that they think she is white because she gets some bad treatment from that side.

    that being said, this whole idea of "racial purity" is a mental illness that infects the spirit and emotions as well as the mind. it is perhaps the most heinous crime against humanity to have created and promoted this terrible terrible idea as a legitimate one.

  10. James says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Isaabian. I think it's easy for people to assume that hostile attitudes arise out of bigotry, and I appreciate that you're able to recognize how often the cause is actually ignorance and lack of understanding.

    I particularly like the fact that you're openly proud of your black heritage and what your enslaved ancestors went through, and yet, at the same time, you can still acknowledge that race is merely a social construct started by a white-dominated society to serve its narrow interests. These two ideas are not incompatible, and yet too often people will seize onto one of them, and reject the possibility of the other.

  11. Kevin says:

    I was web surfing and was fortunate to come upon this well constructed and informative web site. I am going to obtain a copy of Traces of the Trade. I can tell it is a well put together, important work.

    I am an amateur historian. Decades of reading, research, visiting, pondering and interacting and more.

    And I have found, and this is not off the subject of Traces of Trade and this site, that there are so many lessons we learn about others and ourselves, when we find out what people actually did or do versus what they say or profess.

    Oh, the West African Slave trade… My poor tortured ancestors… How would old man D'Wolf have liked it if someone raped and kidnapped his wife or daughters? A rhetorical question of course. I hope he died a painful death and is in hell.

    I am a black american – a big and black male – and I have "caught hell" for years and years. Not because of my skin color, but because certain white americans use my skin color as an excuse to steal.

    I am unhappy with it all but I know that whites, are not unlike so many other "types" of humans regarding the extent they will go to steal.

    I have no kind words for the "brothers" in Ghana and so many other parts of Africa who were so complicit in the Slave Trade.

    Documentaries like the Living Consequences – I am sure – and this well constitued website, remind me of a couple of truths that seems to ring clearer and clearer to me over the years. One is that people – regardless of color, race ot creed, will do almost anythng to other preple if there is something to be gained from it and if they can get away with it. The other truth is that people who talk about how "superior" they are—are really trying to explain why they are "entitled".

    What whites have done to black people and native americans is almost unspeakable. What all the "know nothing" whites continue to do or allow to be done to blacks and native americans is also shameful.

    Their motives are just like those of the slave traders.

  12. Susan Howland says:

    My grandmother was Frances D'Wolf Howland. She died in 1922 when my dad was 9. They were married in Cuba. My great great… Grandfather was Henry Howland who came over as a type of indentured servent. This fascinates me and I believe that often the sins of our fathers' fathers are passed down in barely conscious patterns. We were whalers and the fact of that aches my heart. I have a film in the works about my father's epifany at age 90. The more research I do, the more clearly the pieces of the stories my father told me duriing the end of his life. I know now that he didn't have dementia. He was putting together facts and memories that made sense to him for the first time in 90 years.

  13. Tiffany Hale says:

    I have a white parent and a mixed race black and Native American parent. They were married two weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. They endured so much racism in their mostly-white community at the time that they left and took up residence on an Indian reservation.

    I grew up with a mix of cultures, but I have always held on to the moral philosophies of my indigenous American roots. As it turns out, many of these teachings appear to have much in common with those still carried out by the native peoples of Africa. I was humbled and moved to see my distant relations on the shores of Ghana making prayers for the spirits of those ancestors who were taken. I was aware of this happening but only vaguely since, of course, we are not taught those kinds of things in school. Thank you for including the African perspective in your film.

    The challenge for any of us, always, is to be a good descendent to the relatives who came before us. If you study your ancestors and implore them for guidance they will respond to you. Sometimes their lessons will require that you do something or change your behavior in such a way that acknowledges their historical presence.

    This may sound foreign to some readers. Most white people including those in my own family seem unwilling to face their relationship with history. Privilege insulates them from the responsibilities of historical consciousness. The result is a disconnect that breeds the kind of pathological thinking that allows racism and social inequality to persist.

    I applaud the descendants of the DeWolf family for answering their ancestors' call to action and adding their voices in telling the story of the Slave Trade.

    Please continue your good work.

  14. latrice carothers says:

    the book as great and it told alot about the slave trade'

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