Not Fear, Not Guilt. Grief.

“I do this out of grief not guilt.”

Katrina Browne, the producer/director of the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, made this statement while sharing the story of her family’s centuries-long leadership in the slave trade. The act she took out of grief not guilt was advocating for the truth and for repair.

In Traces of the Trade, which was made in 2008 the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Browne tells the story of her ancestors, the DeWolfes, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Browne makes it clear that all of the U.S. was involved in the trade—her family in Rhode Island, manufacturers of a sugar press in New York State, the cotton industry throughout all states and plantations of the southern states—all benefited except those people enslaved. The film documents the revelations of Browne and nine family members as they travel from Bristol, RI, to Ghana, Cuba, and back to Bristol, mirroring the journey of the slave trade.

At one point, at a dinner back in Bristol, one family member admonishes Browne, saying “I hope you represent us fully.” He was concerned that she made certain he stated that he went to Harvard. He goes on to say that he earned his way into Harvard on merit alone. When other family members asked, “Didn’t your dad go to Harvard?” He said yes, but no matter what family he came from he would have gone to Harvard. The dinner erupts as one person points to each around the table—Harvard, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Brown, Harvard, Harvard. “You had a leg up,” that family member said. “We all did.”

Three smiling women in a classroom. The staff at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center viewed Traces of the Trade together as part of our Cultural Humility Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training with Kamora Herrington. During this training we examined our own identities, explored a variety of personas looking for ways to connect with even the thorniest of people, examined ideas about deep listening, bringing people along, shifting perspectives, and ultimately opening ourselves to methods of connection that lead to understanding. This was a great experience for each and all of us.

Understanding the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, being open to individual lived experience and culture is essential to the mutual respect needed to move us all forward. At the Stowe Center we strive for that kind of respect and for facilitating open discussions that help deepen and expand understanding. We also want to inspire commitment to social justice and positive change. We believe the wrongs that Harriet Beecher Stowe protested against in the 19th century persist today and, like Katrina Browne, we want to advocate for truth.

We understand that white privilege and systems of oppression continue to hold us back—all of us. We understand that liberation is intertwined—that none of us is free until all of us are free. And we grieve the fact that those who would hold others back in order to retain power are hard at work.

The idea that diversity, equity, and inclusion training, advocacy, and monitoring is harmful is absolutely antithetical to positive change. We are distressed by the decisions made in Texas and Florida to eliminate DEI offices and censor history. We believe these decisions impede us as a human people and disrespect our ability to handle the truth and do better. The Supreme Court’s landmark decision six days ago to stop affirmative action and make it unlawful for colleges to take race into consideration as a specific factor in admissions should be followed by a decision against legacy admissions also. Eliminating DEI initiatives, banning books, curtailing broad histories, and making equity illegal are decisions made out of fear, cowardice, and power mongering. We cannot sit by and just shake our heads –“…because now is the only time there ever is to do a thing in.” (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852)

Stowe aimed her agent for change at our hearts—she wrote a sentimental novel that illuminated humanity. In Traces of the Trade, Browne aimed at our hearts and our heads—she expressed grief, but she did not wallow, she acted to do better and asked that others also do better.

Here is what Browne says on her website:

The issues the DeWolf descendants are confronted with dramatize questions that apply to the nation as a whole: What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery—for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes who what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation? What would repair—spiritual and material—really look like and what would it take?

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and histories that include many, interconnected lenses are essential to the reckoning we all must experience in order to build the world we want.

Josiah Henson, whose piety inspired Stowe’s main character Tom, ran for freedom with his family only after he realized that conforming to the rules created by the powerful would never lead to his dreams. His enslaver cheated him out of the money Henson earned to buy his own freedom. Henson escaped to build a new system in Canada that included schools, industry, and community built on mutual respect.

We need to act not out of guilt, fear, or belief that the system will change if we are good people, we need to act out of righteous indignation. Our task is to build an equitable world. How will you act to make positive change?

Karen Fisk, who was the director of marketing and communications at Springfield Museums, talks Monday, Dec. 17, 2018 about “At the Noon Hour”, a painting by Isabel Bishop that is part of “Isabel Bishop’s Working Women: Defying Convention” in D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at Springfield Museums.

Karen Fisk is Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. The Stowe Center’s mission is to encourage social justice and literary activism by exploring the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe. We strive to encourage the activist in everyone.