Imagine a Time Machine taking us back into the history of our family, our congregation and our larger community? One of the universal spiritual questions we ask ourselves all the time is: Does my life have any real meaning?
Going back in time sounds like a good idea. Remember how well this idea resolved Jimmy Stewart’s spiritual questions in “It’s a Wonderful Life”?
But, what if something was horribly wrong in the past and what you discover isn’t uplifting truths about the compassionate impact of your family down through history?
What if you discover your family was evil and their impact was horrific? What if, even by the standards of their era in history, they were international criminals?
In a remarkable PBS documentary, nine descendants of the DeWolf family, once one of New England’s wealthiest clans, attempt the next best thing to a Time Machine. They design an elaborate family pilgrimage into the past — spending months and crossing thousands of miles to retrace their family’s history on several continents.
These nine present-day DeWolfs realize even as they set off on this trip that they’re facing deep trouble. They are trying to come to terms with the fact that their family fortune — and their family’s home town in Rhode Island — and their family’s historic Episcopal Church — were dramatically shaped by three generations of DeWolfs who ranked among the most powerful titans in the global slave trade.
Along the way, for example, these nine modern pilgrims discover that their ancestors purchased the gorgeous stained-glass windows in the Rhode Island church that they had always regarded as their family’s sacred home turf — by imprisoning 10,000 men, women and children in Africa and shipping them into slavery.
Not only that, but after the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves was halted by U.S. law in 1808, their ancestors used political influence and a host of other clever strategies to keep this hugely profitable trade going for many more decades. These ancestors seemed to have no problem building the white mansion in the photograph above, elaborately decorating their Episcopal church and employing other families throughout their region of Rhode Island — all on illegal windfall profits made by trafficking in human lives.
As the film opens, Katrina Browne is a DeWolf descendant who has completed her Masters of Divinity studies at an Episcopal seminary and feels a deep stirring in her conscience over a piece of unfinished family business. Children in the family had always been vaguely aware that their ancestors had been involved in the slave trade, she tells us.
Post-seminary, though, as she is setting her own spiritual life in order, she decides that she must fully explore this past. So, she contacts 200 other DeWolf descendants around the world and finds eight of them who will agree to make a pilgrimage with her. It’s an ambitious trip. They dig into family historic sites and archives, then make a pilgrimage to the slave-trading fortresses where their family once conducted business in Africa — and they even visit Cuba, where their family sold slaves and also owned their own huge plantations, run by slave labor.
This journey into the past was a process of exorcising what Katrina once had thought of as “this fairy tale world of old New England.” Growing up, she had known that her family was wealthy and influential — “professors and writers, artists and architects and many Episcopal ministers,” she tells us as the film opens.
“It never occurred to me to ask how we got so established,” she says.
However, scratching the surface of the past in the opening scenes of the film soon reveals that Katrina’s family was “the largest slave-trading family in American history.”
Half a million African descendants living in the Americas today, the film’s experts estimate, are direct descendants of slaves traded by the DeWolfs.
That’s the stunning territory into which PBS will take us at 10 p.m. June 24 in the 21st-season debut of the “P.O.V.” documentary series. It’s a 90-minute film, called “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.”
Yes, I know that broadcast date a little more than a week away — but we are publishing our review of the film right now because I urge you to consider inviting small groups from your congregation to watch this film — then discuss it at their next regular meeting.
Although PBS is not especially promoting the religious themes within the film, the fact is that Katrina Browne and her eight relatives drive the narrative of this film directly into the heart of mainline, white Christianity. Again and again, they question how their ancestors could have engaged in this illegal trade “and call themselves Christians at the same time.”
One entire sequence toward the end of the documentary takes us to an Episcopal general convention, where the DeWolfs now are among the activists pushing their entire denomination to repent and make reparations.
You won’t have any trouble finding questions to raise in your small group. For example: What can a tiny handful of people, like these (or like members of your own group), hope to achieve in correcting an imbalance so vast and so deeply rooted in American history?
Throughout the film, Katrina and the eight other pilgrims — all of whom are white — try to talk with Africans and African-Americans about what they should do with this horrific new awareness in their family. They interact with everyday people, including students in Africa — and they also seek out leading African-American scholars to discuss these issues.
So, after watching the film, you’ll certainly have many new questions about our American legacy of racial oppression and division.
Katrina Browne eventually wound up listed as Producer, Writer and Director of the film you will see next week. She even narrates much of the documentary. And there are moments in the film in which she completely surprises us by adding other voices to the story — including scenes at the very end of the film.
Rather than neatly wrapping up with a triumphant sense that these modern DeWolfs have exorcised their demons — Katrina chooses to close with the humbling reality of confessing their sins — and realizing that this is a never-ending process. At the end of the documentary, these men and women still are discovering stark implications of their family’s wealth and privilege, built on these crimes against humanity.
Katrina ends the film with Johnny Cash singing, “One,” which includes these words:
“Have you come here for forgiveness?
“Have you come here to raise the dead?
“Have you come here to play Jesus
“To the lepers in your head?”
“We’re one — but we’re not the same.
“Well, we hurt each other —
“And we’re doing it again.”
CARE TO READ MORE?
All this week at ReadTheSpirit, we’re exploring the spiritual question: How can we see the world more clearly?
On Tuesday, our weekly quiz focuses on slavery — specifically on
modern forms of slavery and new groups that have sprung up to
combat the continuing problem. You’ll learn a few fascinating things tomorrow —
and the quiz is a great tool to print out and share with group members.
PLUS — along with that Tuesday Quiz, we’re publishing a list of helpful links, provided by PBS, to resources congregations will find very helpful, if you decide to discuss the film.
On Wednesday, we’ll carry this question about “seeing the world
more clearly” in an entirely new direction. We will introduce you to
one of the world’s leading scholars on an emerging religious movement
On Thursday and Friday, you’ll meet some truly remarkable people
who are doing things like helping school children to confront their
anxieties about diversity — and who are picking up hammers and saws to
build new kinds of urban temples that can bridge our differences.
It’s going to be a great week here at ReadTheSpirit. Don’t miss a story! (And check out our “Share This” feature on the page — which makes
it even easier for you to share these stories and features with
TODAY’s PHOTO CAPTIONS AND CREDITS:
Today’s photos are courtesy of the PBS “P.O.V.” series.
At the very top, we see DeWolf family members and Ghanian woman Beatrice Manu while attending a river ceremony in Ghana to spiritually heal old wounds. At this river, captured Africans were brought for a last bath before they were sold and shipped away. Photo by Amishadai Sackitey.
The family mansion, now a historical landmark, is called Linden Place in Bristol, R.I. The photo was taken by Katrina Browne (shown at right).
The third photo was taken by Tom DeWolf of leg irons, used on slaves owned by the DeWolfs. Their discovery in the family’s archives — along with whips used on slaves — is an especially jarring moment for some of the descendants.
The fourth photo shows the pilgrims in Cuba, where they trek through the countryside to discover ruins of plantations their family operated, even when the trans-Atlantic slave trade was illegal, to make it easier to skirt laws and to reap windfall profits. Ruins of the mansion are overgrown with tropical vines. In its heyday, the plantation was called affectionately “Noah’s Ark” by the DeWolf slave traders. Photo courtesy of Katrina Browne.
The final photo by Amishadai Sackitey is from a candlelight procession DeWolf pilgrims take part in along the coast of Ghana.
TELL US what you think. You can click on the “Comment” link below. Or you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly.