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genealogy, morality and the slaving legacy

Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade has now been seen at Sundance, and Thomas Norman DeWolf’s book on the subject has now come out too: Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. This is a Rhode Island story, and a genealogical one. It’s also something I’ve been studying closely for a while. The DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, got their start in the slaving business when Mark Antony DeWolf was set up in slaving voyages by his brother-in-law, Simeon Potter, slave-ship financier and ex-pirate. Potter (who died without issue) had nine sisters, one of whom married DeWolf and became the DeWolf matriarch (my children descend from another sister). Katrina Browne, a DeWolf descendant, got together nine of her kin and made a fascinating film about their communal investigation into their family’s nefarious slaving past. The film raises the issues of moral accountability for past social injustices as a component of genealogical introspection, much in the way that Ed Ball’s thoughtul work Slaves in the Family did, and as others are beginning to do.

Browne’s film is thought-provoking and has probably improved in its exploration of nuances in the two years or so that it has been shown in provisional cut form (I saw it, I think, in 2005). Thomas DeWolfe’s book may or may not strike as many good nuanced points in this regard: I haven’t yet seen it, but it was panned by Luther Spoehr, a history & education professor at Brown University and a board member of the Rhode Island Historical Society, in today’s Providence Journal-Bulletin. Spoehr writes (implicitly indicting the film as well as the book): “Nobody warned these purposeful tourists that earnestness does not guarantee insight, and exhibitionism is inappropriate baggage for a journey to understanding and atonement.” Spoehr’s dismissal presupposes that penitence must be a private act, when at least in Christian traditions it began as a very public one. He also dismisses these works (particularly the book) as naive and unoriginal revisions in the vast, complex, changing stream of historical discourse over slavery which has played out over the entire twentieth century. But he somehow misses the novelty of this type of moral breastbeating in a genealogical context—a genre which has been until very recently entirely self-congratulatory, and quite safely insulated from historiographical fashion. Of course, Ed Ball’s work, now a decade old, may be superior to this effort: but it is noteworthy that the genre of inculpatory genealogy is spreading.

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