Fri 1 Feb, 2008
Tags: History, Media coverage, Providence, Rhode Island, Slave trade, Slavery, The North
The Providence Journal, which has frequently covered Traces of the Trade and other stories relating to the history of Rhode Island and the slave trade, has a review in Sunday’s edition of Tom DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.
The book review is a companion to a feature story about the film leading the Sunday arts section, but the review is available online now. The review is not kind, but I think the reviewer’s reasoning is highly instructive about Tom’s intended audience.
The reviewer, Luther Spoehr, is a specialist in the history of education and the author of more than 150 book reviews. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Stanford, and is a lecturer in education and history (and director of undergraduate studies) at Brown.
Spoehr rejects much of what Tom is attempting to do in the book: he mocks the encounter groups, facilitators and efforts at “healing” about which Tom writes, as well as Tom’s “self-abasing emotions” throughout the journey and his focus on his feelings about slavery.
Spoehr is especially harsh regarding Tom’s previous lack of exposure to the history of slavery and the slave trade. He rejects Tom’s recollection of not having learned much about slavery in school, suggesting that his memory is faulty, and criticizes his argument that the full story of slavery has been hidden from many ordinary Americans. In response to Tom and others who felt that they learned important history during the journey, Spoehr refers to school textbooks and a “mighty stream of writing about slavery” which he considers “unavoidable” to average Americans, and asks rhetorically of these family members, “Where have they been?”
The narrow basis of this review is perhaps best indicated by how Spoehr tentatively suggests that Tom, in learning about these issues for the first time, may have stumbled onto something important — and then dismisses the entire notion without saying why:
Perhaps because he had known so little about slavery and the slave trade, he writes with a convert’s zeal, which provides much of the book’s energy — and undermines its effectiveness.
I have a broadly similar background to Spoehr, and I had some of the same issues with Tom’s book as I read successive draft manuscripts. Like Spoehr, with his doctoral training in history at Stanford, I felt that I was already familiar with the basic historical material which Tom covers in the book. And as someone who has taught history to students at an Ivy League university, I was certain that we now teach young people a reasonably balanced history of slavery and the slave trade, including the extent of Northern involvement.
This persective, though, misses the point of Tom’s book. He is correct that many ordinary Americans were not taught the history which he relates in the book, including how the North was deeply complicit in slavery and the slave trade, and the extent to which slavery helped to build this nation. In fact, when we screened Traces of the Trade for the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in the fall, fully half of the social studies and history teachers in attendance that day said that they personally had not known the history depicted in the film, much less the more extensive treatment in the book, prior to viewing the film. Obviously, many high school students in Rhode Island are learning this history today, while many others are not — and surely their parents and grandparents are even less likely to be informed on the topic.
Inheriting the Trade is addressed primarily to those Americans to whom much of this history will come as a surprise, or who have not previously thought through its implications consciously. Tom chose to engage this audience by chronicling his feelings on a journey of self-discovery, hoping that this process would lead readers to ways of exploring the nature of responsibility, atonement, and forgiveness.
I can understand that Spoehr wishes more Americans knew the history of slavery as well as he does. I can also sympathize with the fact that he has no interest in a book which dwells extensively on feelings of shame and sorrow about a history which is old news to him.
But I am disappointed that Spoehr was unable to recognize that many Americans remain in the dark about this history, just as Tom had been. And I wish that he had been able able to provide more guidance, critical or otherwise, about the book to readers who might not be as quick as he is to dismiss all this talk about “feelings.”