PSR alumna shows documentary, tells “A Story from the Deep North”

April 17, 2009

While she was a student at PSR, Katrina Browne received a family history from her grandmother. The DeWolfe family history made a brief reference to the family’s role in the slave trade. On further exploration, Browne discovered that her venerable New England Episcopalian family, the first family of Bristol, RI was the largest slave-trading family in United States history. As Browne discovered, “They brought 10,000 Africans to the United States in chains.”

Browne and her collaborator, Juanita Brown, came to campus on April 15,and gave two screenings and discussions of the documentary Browne created in response to this new understanding of her family’s history. The screenings of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, at PSR’s Ecumenical Center, were part of PSR’s annual Advancing Racial Justice Month.

Katrina Browne is a Master of Arts graduate of PSR, where she studied Greek tragedy as a vehicle for creating dialogue around issues in public life. “PSR was such a fertile field for exploring the issues that led me on the journey to make this film,” leading to her interest in making a film about her family’s experience as a means of sparking conversation about modern-day racism.

The film was nine years in the making, and several attendees of the PSR panel were seeing the film for the first time after being present at its first fundraisers and conceptualizations.
The film made its world premiere in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, and was later broadcast on P.O.V., an independent film series on PBS.

Browne spoke of the need for not only rational approaches but emotional and personal, even bodily understanding of the history of racism in the United States. In the film, close and far-flung descendents of the DeWolfe family trace the “triangle trade” of molasses, rum, and enslaved Africans from Bristol, RI to Cuba, to Ghana, sharing their feelings of guilt and grief.

Browne spoke about the importance of faith communities as sites of discussion on race. She is working with the Episcopal Church, helping the denomination as it comes to terms with its complicity in the slave trade. She has also worked with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ in finding ways to promote dialogue.

“There’s a way in which faith communities can and should hold this conversation. So many of us from all backgrounds carry a lot of racial baggage,” Browne said. “Faith communities, where people have already created a container for holding difficult issues and emotions, can be a very effective resource for discussing these issues.”

To spark this conversation, the film’s Web site offers copies of the film for home use, for faith-based settings, and for other educational institutions, as well as academic curricula and discussion guides to accompany the film.

Marquita Chamblee, director of the Dismantling Racism Program at PSR, announced that Advancing Racial Justice Month events will close with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, performing on April 28, at 7 in the Chapel of the Great Commission.