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Local woman, documentary filmmaker confront slavery from white perspective

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - The moment that changed Carolyn Langston's life happened around a wide kitchen table, surrounded by her cousins, shuffling through old papers. First, they passed around the family tree. Then, they laughed over the old-fashioned names their ancestors had -- like Zorobable.

And then a photocopied page came into Langston's hands. It was the last will and testament of John Langston, a relative from North Carolina on her father's side. Like the other family documents she looked through that day a few years ago in the kitchen of her aunt's house in southwest Missouri, Langston read through it lightly.

Until she came to a line that detailed to whom his slaves should go.

John Langston was a slave owner.

Sick. She was sick. Sour bile filled her mouth. Had no one else seen this? Langston was unable to believe what she was reading. Her ancestor gave one slave woman to one of his children, her husband to another, splitting up the family.

Well, one of Langston's cousins said, I'm sure he was good to them.

"What?" Langston remembers saying then. "He bought them like cattle."

She was sick. And mad. And she wanted very much to understand -- not what her family in North Carolina had done; she knew that now. She wanted to know what those actions meant to the black people they enslaved, and what those actions meant to their children and the generations of black people after them.

She wanted to understand, and more than that, she wanted to do something about it.


Katrina Browne was in seminary when she got a small booklet from her grandmother about her family history. As with Langston, just a few lines told her that her family had been slave traders. But unlike Langston, Browne realized she'd always known this and had simply allowed herself to forget.

She began researching the documents that told the story of her ancestors, the DeWolf family of Bristol, R.I., and learned that the family she knew through black and white photos and family stories had been one of the largest slave-trading families in U.S. history.

Browne invited 200 of her fellow DeWolf descendants to journey with her from Rhode Island to Ghana, then Cuba, retracing the triangle that made up the largest part of the family's slave trade and wealth.

Nine of them joined her, and in the documentary "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North," Browne and her family face the legacy slavery left, both for them and for black Americans.

Before seeing the film, which is nominated for a news and documentary Emmy award, many white people tend to have the same reaction, says Browne, the film's writer, director and producer.

"There's a lot of white folks who's reaction is, well, that's your problem and good luck dealing with it."

That, or they think she's just deep into the whole guilt thing. And "Traces of the Trade" does face the guilt issue, Browne says. But then it moves past it, as she has.

"By the end of the film, I say that I've moved from guilt to grief." And that, she thinks, is much more productive.

So productive that since the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008, it's been shown around the country and on television. And now Browne's work is deepening the dialogue the film started.

"I've learned how to connect the dots between the past and the present in the way African Americans do much more easily," she says.

And she wants others to do the same, to see that the legacy slavery has left an impact on everyone, from immigrants who settled and prospered in this country because it was built on unpaid labor, to the inequities in the current education system.

The challenge has been bringing white people into the discussion, and that's involved finding new dialogue to talk about the issues. The term racism isn't the best place to start, she thinks. "Most people don't consider themselves racist."

But talk to people about their reactions and all the emotions that come up when race is discussed, and most people will admit they have racial baggage.

Now, Browne is working on a national community engagement campaign, training educators in schools and museums to include the role of the North in the history of slavery. She's also working toward an ongoing dialogue for racial reconciliation and justice.

But how?

When the word reparations is brought up, people tend to go directly to their corners, and Browne thinks there's more complexity to the issue. The misperception is that reparations mean a check should go out to individuals. But for Browne, it means that change needs to happen both in public policy and on the spiritual and emotional levels.

"Most advocates support funding for social programs that would benefit African Americans still in poverty," she says. And that's fair, she thinks. "It's the legacy of slavery, there's no question in my mind."

Those policy changes have to come along with relationship building, Browne says, and that has to happen community by community.

In St. Louis, Mike McDowell, a member of the Episcopal Diocese Commission on Dismantling Racism, has seen the film several times and was part of bringing it and Browne here this Friday.

"We began to say that this is a message that St. Louis needs to hear," he says.

The film has several important lessons, he thinks, from dispelling the myth that slavery was just a Southern practice to understanding how it continues to impact our economy.

For McDowell, the film has a profound impact in showing that slavery is really our collective history. And it's not easy to watch, he says. "On a human level, it's painful."

While he's read many comments on blogs complaining that films like Browne's are just full of wallowing and guilt, that wasn't the message of the documentary, McDowell says.

"What happens now? What's the next step?" he says. "That's really the theme of the film."


What happens now? What the next step? That's also been a big part of Langston's journey since that moment around her aunt's kitchen table.

For her, the changes have been small, but many. After a divorce, Langston moved from West County to Rock Hill, from mostly white to diverse. She joined the NAACP. She's read and continues reading everything she can about slavery, both fiction and nonfiction. And now, Langston doesn't put up with veiled racism when she hears it.

When a woman in her old neighborhood mentioned a family had looked at their house and she hoped they didn't buy it, Langston asked why.

They were a "C" family, the woman replied.

Langston knew where she was going, but acted dumb. Oh, you mean sailors?

No, the woman said.

Langston made her say it -- colored.

And then she said, good, I hope they move in.

Now, Langston isn't sure where to go next. Now, she's looking for the place she can do the most good. "My struggle has been to find a way to give back," she says.

And as she tries to understand her family's place in history and searches for her own place in the future, she's telling her story, even if it makes other white people uncomfortable -- which it usually does.

"I do consider myself part of the problem," she says. "I do think I and my people should have stood up a long time ago and said we were so wrong. Our ancestors were so wrong and we need to do something."

"At the very least," she says, "we need to be outraged and we need to talk about it."