Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Inheriting the Trade

Inheriting the Trade:
A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History
by Thomas Norman DeWolf
Beacon Press
Hardcover, $24.95
276 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8070-7281-3

Book Review by Kam Williams

“If you are able to see [your ancestors’ role in slavery] differently, you can get a feeling that one’s own family, one’s own reality, is built on a pile of corpses. It seems almost as though our own comfort is in inverse relationship to the things that produced it…

The sense of place, entitlements and ease in society that I feel is in direct inverted relationship to the blood and violence that created it. That’s an awful contradiction to try to inhabit.

I’ve never understood the concept of inheriting the ‘sins of the fathers’ so clearly as I do now. Oppressors are damaged by what they perpetrate against others, but it’s not just the oppressors and their victims who suffer. Like a stone dropped into a pond, the consequences of oppression ripple out in all directions, impacting everything and everyone.” -- Excerpted from Chapter 18, “Sankofa” (page 231)

Most Americans think of slavery as an institution which primarily benefited Southern plantation owners. However, truth be told, the North profited just as much from the evil enterprise. For not only was slavery legal there for over 200 years, but the bulk of the trafficking in human chattel was also run from the region.
Today, most of the descendants of such slave traders maintain a “willful silence” about their ancestors’ legacy, and are raised safely separated from African-Americans. Nonetheless, they live in fear of “losing our privilege, money, and respect” according to Thomas Norman DeWolf, “even when those things are unearned or phony.” DeWolf, author of the author of Inheriting the Trade, knows whereof he speaks, because his own kin had been the most successful slave-trading family in the history of the United States.
In fact, one of his forbears, Senator James DeWolf of Rhode Island, was the second richest person in the country at the time of his death in 1837. Moreover, the long-hidden truth revealed here indicates that, with the help of President Thomas Jefferson, he had been able to continue buying and selling Africans for years after the practice had technically been declared illegal.
The author only started learning about the strange fruit on his family tree in 2001, reading entries from an overseer’s journal on one of the DeWolf family sugar plantations in Cuba:

“April 9, 1821: Negroes look wild.
April 14, 1821: The first Negro I struck was this evening for laughing at prayers.
May 20, 1821: Two Negroes deserted.
September 28, 1821: Found two [slaves] this morning suspended by a rope in the woods not too far from the house. They were the two best on the plantation. I have not yet learned the cause of the unfortunate circumstance… Suffice it to say they are no more. They had been hanging undoubtedly three days previous to the discovery.
January 20, 1823: The two that deserted yesterday came back this day… Four days in the stockade heavily ironed… Twenty-four lashes on the naked bottom each, after which lanced and rubbed down with rum and salt.”

That summer, he and nine other relatives decided to explore their genealogy thoroughly by retracing the route of the Triangle Trade, from New England to West Africa and back to the Americas via the Middle Passage.
DeWolf’s transformational journey is recounted in this moving, intimate and brutally honest memoir, which is compelling on its own, but should likewise serve as a fitting companion book to the family’s upcoming TV special,“Traces of the Trade,” airing on PBS on Tuesday, June 24th at 10PM. (Check local listings) experience

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