I’m working on a piece about white supremacy, but in the meantime, it’s Sunday, and maybe I should start with my ongoing learning about the far-reaching effects of slavery and the foundation of white supremacy on which our country, sadly, rests before I get on my soapbox. Katrina Browne, director of the documentary film Traces of the Trade, was our guest preacher today, along with artists from the American Slavery Project singing, acting, and drumming. After church we stayed for a screening of the film.
If you’re not familiar with the film, Browne, who is white, learns, in her twenties, that she is descended from one of the largest slave-trading families in America, the De Wolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island. Yes, Rhode Island. She invites members of her family to visit the sites where Africans were captured and enslaved in Ghana, and forced to labor on sugar and coffee plantations in Cuba. Throughout the film, they try, with varying levels of success, to develop a theory of accountability and reconciliation for the role that white Northerners played in the slave trade (a significant one) and the ways in which white folks continue to benefit from slavery all these years later.
For contemporary white folks trying to make sense of how they personally continue to benefit from slavery, it can be really hard, especially if most or all of your ancestors came to the United States after the Civil War. But as soon as you think about infrastructure, both physical infrastructure and the infrastructures of systemic racism, it makes sense. Browne’s relatives start to “get it” when they realize that their slave-trading ancestors didn’t just trade slaves: they founded banks and insurance companies to propel and underwrite their insidious business; they networked with shipbuilders, distilleries, and other businesses that relied on slavery and the rotten fruits thereof for survival. The wealth that accumulated from these ventures didn’t die with their ancestors, of course; it got passed down, along with the vast privileges, visible and invisible, that both wealth and skin color have long provided. Nor did the infrastructure: roads, shipping routes, banking and insurance systems…all of it the fruit of the same poisonous tree. “Complicity and amnesia,” in Browne’s words, are the twin sins of otherwise well-meaning white folks: benefiting from white supremacy while simultaneously ignoring or forgetting the same.
Situated beside Browne’s testimony were the artists from the American Slavery Project: Jadele MacPherson offered two incredible songs, and Baba Don Eaton’s drumming propelled not just Jadele’s singing but also the congregational hymns; actor J.D. Mollison interpreted a monologue called “London’s Last Laugh” by Dennis Allen II. They reminded us, a still-largely-white congregation, of the moral urgency and necessity of white responses to racism that, harkening back to last week’s service, honor the humanity of our brothers and sisters of color.
Forthcoming: my thoughts on white humility as another tool in the anti-white supremacy toolbox.