White Racism and Media Reactions to Dr. Wright

        Assertions now count as data in the mainstream media and often among liberal bloggers, especially if they are white. For example, I see little attempt in any of the mainstream media to understand that Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s excerpted sermons and recent comments on them and other racial issues at recent press conferences are, with very few exceptions, grounded in a great deal of data about the nearly four centuries of extreme racial oppression in the United States, as well as centuries of U.S. oppression of people of color overseas.

           Why is it that college-educated whites (some with progressive instincts) cannot understand the foundational reality and great weight of the extreme oppression visited on African Americans and other Americans of color, to the present day? Apparently, yelling that someone is wrong, as the media and many bloggers are now doing at Dr. Wright, now counts as intelligent argument and as data among the “educated” segments of this society.

          Note the characterizations below of Dr. Wright, all presented in analyses with no serious examination of the data that might have led Dr. Wright to his mostly reasonable critiques of this demonstrably white racist society. Indeed, it appears that they have not actually read Dr. Wright’s critical sermons and have made no attempt whatsoever to understand why a Black ex-Marine, distinguished pastor, and minister in a leading predominantly white denomination (whose sermons are studied by white and other divinity school students for their quality) might be upset at the past and present realities of white-on-black oppression in the United States.

        For example, Tristero on the Digby site speaks of “Wright’s wacky ideas.” On mydd.com Todd Beeton speaks of “Jeremiah Wright’s recent antics” And Marc Armbinder also makes similar comments. There is no attempt here to understand where a leading Black minister, and critical thinker, is coming from. Then there is this very loaded and unreflective New York Times editorial:

It took more time than it should have, but on Tuesday Barack Obama firmly rejected the racism and paranoia of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., and he made it clear that the preacher does not represent him, his politics or his campaign. . . . Mr. Wright has not let that happen. In the last few days, in a series of shocking appearances, he embraced the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. He said the government manufactured the AIDS virus to kill blacks. He suggested that America was guilty of “terrorism” and so had brought the 9/11 attacks on itself.

None of this is true just as stated here. The Times has decided that distorting and data-less journalism is good journalism. Wright is not “racist” or “paranoid.” Those are common charges that whites often make against African Americans when whites are charged with the systemic racism they have created and maintained now over several long centuries. Even in 2008 whites at the “top” of US journalism cannot face the contemporary significance of nearly four centuries of white oppression of African Americans, which is the focus of many of Wright’s reasonably critical comments. Wright also has not embraced anti-Semitism. He has been critical of the Israeli government, which is not anti-Semitism. Even Wright’s argument about AIDs is that, given the long history of the U.S. government’s extreme and destructive medical experiments on African Americans (and, by the way, where is the media outrage over that very long history?) that one cannot without evidence rule out some role of the U.S. government in spreading the AIDs virus. You can disagree with this latter point, but do get his view right before attacking it.

            Clearly, the debates around Dr. Wright and Senator Obama are not mainly about these two distinguished, high-achieving black men. If they were, the media would seriously examine Dr. Wright’s conclusions about US racism. (And they would also quit intentionally disrespecting him, such as by calling him DR. Wright.) These media commentaries are actually, in the main, about fearful whites who are very offended that anyone should dare to argue that this is still a white-racist country where much work is needed to get the majority of whites to stop viewing people of color from a white-racist frame and acting in many discriminatory ways daily against those Americans of color.

Political Dirty Tricks behind Press Tour?

It seems clear to me, given the pervasive illiteracy about both race and gender or the ways these intersect in our society, that the recent press tour by Rev. Wright is a disaster for the Obama campaign.   While I certainly agree with Joe’s point about the data supporting much of what the Rev. says, the fact is, mainstream [read: predominantly white] audiences in the U.S. are simply not equipped with the vocabulary to be able to discuss these issues in any way that captures the nuances.  Multiply that by the reverberation-chamber and dumbing-down effects of the 24-hour news cycle, and I am less optimistic than ever about Sen. Obama’s prospects for getting the nomination.   And, now this.

Errol Louis is reporting in the NY Daily News that the person who arranged Rev. Wright’s National Press Club appearance is an ardent Hillary Clinton supporter (hat tip: thanks to my friend Paul at BS for bringing my attention to this story).   Here’s the top of the story, describing who Barbara Reynolds (picture here, photo credit) is:

A former editorial board member at USA Today, she runs something called Reynolds News Services and teaches ministry at the Howard University School of Divinity. (She is an ordained minister).  It also turns out that Reynolds – introduced Monday as a member of the National Press Club “who organized” the event – is an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton supporter.

Louis also includes some bits in his story about Reynolds’ trashing Obama’s “audacity of hope” theme.   Fair enough to criticize, but why orchestrate this event which is going to have the obvious result of throwing Obama under the proverbial bus?   If we were able to have a more nuanced discussion of racial and gender politics in this country, we might be able to talk about what it means that a black woman played a role in this and why black women (except for Michelle Obama) have been noticeably absent from the ‘race versus gender’  trope for talking about this election.  And, if were able to have a more nuanced discussion, we might talk about how Clinton is responsible, as a white woman, for a nasty little set of identity politics.

Yet, we won’t be having those conversations.

Instead, we’ll be listening to pundit after pundit talk about the personal jealousy between the “kooky” (how else to make sense of Black Liberation Theology?) Rev. Wright and the “political dirty tricks” of Rev. Reynolds.     Thus, leaving the collective debate stalled at the inadequately personal level and obfuscating real understanding than race or gender meme, rather than talking and thinking about the ways that race and gender intersect at the same time, in the same individuals within a broader social context of inequality.

Dr. Wright is Still Right on Racism: Check the Research Data

        There is an excellent interview of Dr. Jeremiah Wright, who is now speaking out about the stereotyped and hostile, and mostly white, attacks on him, including the many distortions of his ideas and sermons on racial matters. The interview was done last Friday, April 25, 2008, and I highly recommend it (and the full texts of Dr. Wright’s sermons too), if you want to understand just how white-racist most of the attacks on Dr. Wright have been.

        In his interview Moyers asks this question (photo credit):

One of the most controversial sermons that you preach is the sermon you preach that ended up being that sound bite about Goddamn America.

And then provides the listerners with a significant segment from the end of Wright’s sermon:

Where governments lie, God does not lie. Where governments change, God does not change. And I’m through now. But let me leave you with one more thing. Governments fail. The government in this text comprised of Caesar, Cornelius, Pontius Pilate – the Roman government failed. The British government used to rule from East to West. The British government had a Union Jack. She colonized Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Hong Kong. Her navies ruled the seven seas all the way down to the tip of Argentina in the Falklands, but the British government failed. The Russian government failed. The Japanese government failed. The German government failed. And the United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of their racist bastions of higher education and locked them into position of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law, and then wants us to sing God bless America? No, no, no. Not God bless America; God damn America! That’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating her citizen as less than human. God damn America as long as she keeps trying to act like she is God and she is supreme!

Moyers asks: “What did you mean when you said that?” Dr. Wright responds with this rather obvious comment, that is obvious to any open-minded person who listens to the whole prophetic sermon itself (which very few critics have, it seems):

When you start confusing God and government, your allegiances to government -a particular government and not to God, that you’re in serious trouble because governments fail people. And governments change. And governments lie. And those three points of the sermon. And that is the context in which I was illustrating how the governments biblically and the governments since biblical times, up to our time, changed, how they failed, and how they lie. And when we start talking about my government right or wrong, I don’t think that goes. That is consistent with what the will of God says or the word of God says that governments don’t say right or wrong. That governments that wanna kill innocents are not consistent with the will of God. And that you are made in the image of God, you’re not made in the image of any particular government. We have the freedom here in this country to talk about that publicly, whereas some other places, you’re dead if say the wrong thing about your government.

Then they discuss some of these issues further:

BILL MOYERS: Well, you can be almost crucified for saying what you’ve said here in this country.

REVEREND WRIGHT: That’s true. That’s true. But you can be crucified, you can be crucified publicly, you can be crucified by corporate-owned media. But I mean, what I just meant was, you can be killed in other countries by the government for saying that. Dr. King, of course, was vilified. And most of us forget that after he was assassinated, but the year before he was assassinated, April 4th, 1967 at the Riverside Church, he talked about racism, militarism and capitalism. He became vilified. He got ostracized not only by the majority of Americans in the press; he got vilified by his own community. They thought he had overstepped his bounds. He was no longer talking about civil rights and being able to sit down at lunch counters that he should not talk about things like the war in Vietnam.

BILL MOYERS: Lyndon Johnson was furious at that. As you know-

REVEREND WRIGHT: I’m sure he was.

Wright then adds how angry people, many white and some black, got at King for telling the truth about racism and militarism in the Vietnam era (just like today):

And that’s where a lot of the African-American community broke with him, too. He was vilified by Roger Wilkins’ daddy, Roy Wilkins. Jackie Robinson. He was vilified by all of the Negro leaders who felt he’d overstepped his bounds talking about an unjust war. And that part of King is not lifted up every year on January 15th. 1963, “I have a dream,” was lifted up, and passages from that – sound bites if you will – from that march on Washington speech. But the King who preached the end of- “I’ve been to the mountaintop, I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land, I might not get there with you,”- that part of the speech is talked about, not the fact that he was in Memphis siding with garbage collectors. Nothing about Resurrection City, nothing about the poor.

          Wright continues by making the point that prophetic critiques of government wrongdoing are morally necessary, and common especially in the Black church. It is time for this country to listen, especially its nonblack citizens (Black Americans seem mostly in agreement with him), for the social science data show that Dr. Wright is right about racism in the United States and about government collusion in that systemic racism to the present day.

In Memory of Sean Bell; In Recognition of the Devaluation of Black Men

         This morning I learned that the officers who faced trial for the 2006 murder of Sean Bell were acquitted of all charges. For those who don’t know, Sean Bell was murdered on the morning of his wedding as NYPD officers fired a torrent of over 30 bullets into his car. The officers were working undercover at the club where

        Bell held his bachelor party. They allegedly heard a member of Bell’s group say he was going to get his gun, and followed the group outside. Though the events immediately following are disputed—the officers claimed they identified themselves as police, witnesses claimed they did not and opened fire without provocation—the end results are unambiguous. Bell was murdered in a hail of gunfire hours before his wedding. There were no weapons on him or in the car. At age 23, he left behind a fiancé and two daughters.

        Few incidents drive home the bleak devaluation of Black men’s lives the ways that stories like this do. Even one case like this is too many, but New York police officers are developing quite a record of murdering Black men with little to no punishment or repercussions. In 1999, Amadou Diallo lost his life in a hail of 41 bullets after trying to produce his wallet for identification. Abner Louima was one of the “lucky” ones. In 1997, he escaped police custody with his life, but only after officers savagely beat him and sodomized him with the handle of a toilet plunger. As Black men are increasingly represented among the ranks of the un- and underemployed, in prison, and in caskets, I find myself almost overwhelmed with sadness that our society can’t seem to view—and value–these men as people with loved ones and lives that can’t be replaced. Sean Bell could have been my husband, stepson, or cousin; indeed, he was someone’s father, someone’s fiancé, someone’s son. Cases like his, however, are a cruel reminder that at the core of racism is a denial of someone else’s humanity, complexity, and inherent value and worth.

        It’s interesting to me to connect the life and sad death of Sean Bell with Bill Cosby’s recent news coverage for coming to the defense of an African American judge who kicked white lawyers and spectators out of his courtroom to deliver a stern lecture on appropriate behavior to black defendants. The judge initially claimed to have been inspired by Cosby’s speeches chastising the black poor for failing to take responsibility for their lives and recognize the value of hard work and education. The biases, logical errors, and factual misrepresentations of the implication that the black poor are primarily for their plight have been articulated in several spaces, so I won’t repeat them here. I will say, however, that Sean Bell’s tragic death (and the criminal justice system’s sanctioning of it) does more than any verbal argument can to illuminate how taking personal responsibility falls far short of changing the social systems, institutions, and ideologies that reproduce the racist thought that contributed to Sean Bell’s murder.

         Sean Bell was the responsible, upstanding citizen Cosby exhorts poor blacks to be, but ultimately, personal responsibility couldn’t save his life. Instead, the racist framing of black men as criminals prevailed with deadly consequences, and social systems worked to reflect once more how little value our society places on the lives of black men.

Black Male Scholars Need Not Apply

      For me as a young Black male, it has been a blessing and curse to apply for academic positions in predominately White Universities. First and foremost, it has been a blessing for my talents, education, and scholarly writings on social justice have gained enough attention that I am granted an opportunity to discuss my research among scholarly peers who more than likely have never heard of the significance to my area of study in regards to children. Therefore, God has simply allowed a platform to exist for me to spread the seeds of information that will hopefully translate into pushing others forward to attacking the machine of oppression. Since I have a job (not in higher education), I am not in a position like my other peers who are searching and have no financial cushion. For them they will probably have to sacrifice in order to take a position at a university. I can afford to be picky.
       The curse comes into play particularly for me in terms of my academic fields of social work and education. Now I know the academy itself is a haven for racist practices. Therefore, I should get over it, right? But social work programs more than others advocate for social justice, equality, and equity for all. But in actuality, they are practitioners of hypocrisy. Evidence of marginalization within social work departments and colleges can be seen through lack of attention within the curriculum in terms of people of color, lack of males of color (i.e., students and faculty), and a lack of actual racial empathy within MSW programs. As I interviewed this year, I have witnessed this and much more. So far, I have been met with smiles from faculty, until I present my research on the social reproduction of racism toward children in public schools. Due to my interests in social control and oppression targeting Black males (K-Higher Education), my current research has raised new questions about the political dynamics and current political tensions within today’s educational structure, particularly as these relate to race and class.

        I aim to expand my research by providing scholarship that illustrates how the White racial frame continues to covertly negate, oppress, and control People of color, specifically Black and Hispanic/Latino males within public school and within the university setting. (See: Fitzgerald, T. (forthcoming). [Book Untitled as of yet], Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers; and “Control, Punish, & Conquer: U.S. Public School Historical Attempts to Control Black Males,” Challenge: A Journal of Research on African-American Men, 12(1), 39-54).

        Now they see that I will not be scholar who is interested in the status quo in regards to research (i.e., welfare, mothers, gay and LGBT issues, and etc.). Smiles then turn to frowns followed by the racially motivated barrage of attacks that strike from the mouths of those who claim to stand along side the marginalized. This has occurred during 90 percent of my job talks. Interestingly enough, the room is filled with a vast majority of White females. If there are people of color, they typically are not Black. If some Blacks are present, they are more than likely female as well. And it is my experience, as Patricia Collins noted, that they too can move from oppressed to oppressor. The other 10 percent of my experiences have been filled with departments overtly and covertly letting me know that I am wanted for not the content and importance of my research, but for my hue and male genitalia. For them, it is a numbers game. I have come to the conclusion that a disproportionate number of SW programs speaking with the tongue of equality, even while the discipline and its practices fails to adequately address its own racism, female bias, and oppression.

Latinos Continue to Be Racial Targets — Hundreds of New Nativist Groups

         The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Spring 2008 newsletter has numerous articles on the growing attacks on Latinos in the United States. The lead story is about how anti-immigrant nativism has fueled the growth in racist groups targeting Americans of color. They estimate that there are now about 844 U.S. “hate groups,” with an additional 300 anti-immigrant groups that are not part of that total. Of the latter they estimate that about half are “nativist extremist” groups.

          A second frontpage story in this newsletter is about a SPLC lawsuit against one Klan group (IKA) for violent attacks on a teenager that the white Klan attackers thought was an “illegal immigrant”: 

The Southern Poverty Law Center today filed suit against the nation’s second-largest Klan group and five Klansmen, saying two members were on a recruiting mission for the group in July 2006 when they savagely beat a teenage boy at a county fair in Kentucky. The lawsuit claims that as part of an official recruiting drive organized by the leadership of the Imperial Klans of America (IKA), several members went to the Meade County Fairgrounds in Brandenburg, Ky., to hand out business cards and flyers advertising a “white-only” IKA function. Unprovoked, two of the Klansmen at the fair began harassing a 16-year-old boy of Panamanian descent, calling him a “spic,” according to the lawsuit. The boy, who stands 5-foot-3 and weighs just 150 pounds, was beaten to the ground and kicked by the Klansmen, one of whom is 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds. The beating left the boy with two cracked ribs, a broken left forearm, multiple cuts and bruises and jaw injuries requiring extensive dental repair. 

(The teenager is a US citizen.) These frontpage stories clearly show that anti-Latino oppression is very serious today, as it has been now for more than a century, and is finally getting some attention in the United States, although much of it still remains off the radar for the traditional news media and congressional policymakers.

        Latino demographic growth and voters do seem to be of more interest to those traditional media these days, but these media often pick up on nativist and white supremacist lines of argument about undocumented immigrants to the United States and about other Latino issues. There is also growing social science research on Latinos that these media almost always neglect to examine.

(Note too: This spring 2008 issue of the SPLC newsletter also deals with abused Asian-Indian workers brought to New Orleans for clean-up work and on continuing efforts to deal with brutal prison conditions for African Americans and others in Mississippi. It is a good source of information on racial matters these days.)

Al Young and Great Teachers of Black Poetry

On NPR news this morning Renee Montagne did a good interview with Al Young, who is poet laureate of California and has a new collection of his poems called Something About the Blues. The NPR.org write-up on the interview notes that:

Al Young  took to writing poetry, as he describes it in one poem, “to make out the sound of my own background music.” Though he’s lived in California for decades, the 68-year-old poet was born in rural Mississippi and had the good luck to find himself in one very special classroom in the second grade.

Young’s account of that very stimulating classroom decades ago highlights the great achievements of many African Americans under the extreme apartheid conditions that constituted U.S. segregation (a type of near-slavery for most):

In the segregated South of the 1940s, Young attend a black-only school. “At the Kingston School for Colored, we put a lot of emphasis on things that would be now called African American, on Negro literature and Negro culture,” he tells Renee Montagne. “So we memorized poems by people like Langston Hughes, of course, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.”

The reason the children read these poems and sometimes learned to be outstanding poets themselves was, of course, many fine teachers, almost all of them being African American. One of the sad tragedies of the early years of school desegregation in many areas of this country was the firing or exclusion of many of these excellent Black teachers (and principals) because whites who controlled the desegregation process wanted it that way — that is, they wanted the least desegregation possible and no education of their own children by such excellent Black teachers.

In 2004 there were numerous recollections and social science research discussions of the Brown school desegregation decision, by educators and activists across the land — and of the role of the Black civil rights movement in bringing change in U.S. schools, often for the better in terms of access to improved school socioeconomic resources. However, school desegregation has often been an overall failure in creating better learning settings for all children, and especially for children of color, mainly because white decisionmakers have made it such. Young’s account highlights the greatness of these previous generations of Black teachers.

The NPR account then accents how Young got to the West Coast and about his concerns in his poetry with all Americans:

Young moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960, “under the sway, all of the hullabaloo. The Beat Generation was sounding its horns … and there was just a lot of romance about it.” He had $15 and a guitar. Young’s poems touch on not only blues and jazz music but also, not surprisingly, life in California. In “Watsonville After the Quake,” he writes about the Mexican immigrants forgotten in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

(The NPR.org website today has some of his poems to read.)

(Not) The End of Racism

I’m really trying to stay off this blog so I can finish the book, but this is difficult to do when good stuff like this pops up in my Google alert box.   David Neiwert, writing at Firedoglake, offers a lengthy analysis of the elections confirming what Joe’s been saying here.   He ends the post like this:

Too many white voters, especially in rural and suburban precincts, on both sides of the partisan aisle have absorbed these attitudes. Too many of them continue to believe that a black man, no matter how well educated, will ever have “the stuff” it takes to be president. And that’s why we’ve seen the racial voting trends in Democratic primaries that we have.

Indeed.   And, there’s a vibrant set of replies of the post (277 comments!) which is mainly a pretty good discussion.   Of course, my question (which I didn’t post because I just didn’t want to register at Firedoglake) is: what’s the source for the image? (Shamelessly copied here from Niewert’s post.)  Someone should do a follow-up on the good scholarship out there about whites in “lynching photographs” by analyzing images of whites in civil rights era photos.   I wonder where there’s an archive of such photos?

Until Google introduced me to him, I didn’t know Neiwert or his writing, so I spent far too long reading his really interesting blog, Orcinus.    Neiwert describes himself as a “freelance journalist” based in Seattle, but from where I sit, he sounds like a sociologist. Dale McLemore, a professor of mine at UT-Austin, was fond of saying, “Sociology is slow journalism.”  And, as we get deeper into what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture,” – his notion that old and new media are colliding in various ways – perhaps we’ll also see more convergence between sociology, journalism, and blogging.  For now, it’s back to the current old media endeavor – putting words, in paragraph form, for the printed page.

Republican Official Admits Racism Helps Them Win Against Senator Obama

         Finally, and belatedly, the mainstream media and websites, in this case Roger Simon at politico.com, have begun to analyze some white-racist-attitudes issues basic to the Republican party campaign and strategy from the beginning:

I was talking the other day to a prominent Republican who asked me what I thought John McCain’s strongest issues would be in the general election. Lower taxes and the argument he will be better able to protect America from its enemies, I said. . . .  The Republican shook his head. “You’re missing the most important one,” he said. “Race. McCain runs against Barack Obama and the race vote is worth maybe 15 percent to McCain.” 

He then asks what percentage of white Americans are shown in polls to have trouble voting for a black person: 

An AP-Yahoo poll conducted April 2-14 found that “about 8 percent of whites would be uncomfortable voting for a black for president.”. . .  I was amazed that 8 percent of respondents were willing to admit this to a pollster. And I figure that the true figure is much higher. The same poll, by the way, found that 15 percent of voters think Obama is a Muslim. He is, in fact, a Christian. But thinking a person is a Muslim probably does not encourage you to vote for him in America today.

Notice too the link to the stereotyped Muslim story I dealt with some time back. He then quotes from a Post article by Kevin Merida and Jose Antonio Vargas in Scranton, Pa.: 

“Barack Obama’s campaign opened a downtown office here on March 15, just in time for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. It was not a glorious day for Team Obama. Some of the green signs the campaign had trucked in by the thousands were burned during the parade, and campaign volunteers — white volunteers — were greeted with racial slurs.” 

And now we have the North Carolina Republican Party about to run skewed anti-Obama ads saying because of Dr. Wright he is “too extreme” for North Carolina, even as Senator John McCain asked them not to do so. 

          Recall the numerous research studies I have cited before that show that the apparent decrease in whites antiblack prejudices and stereotypes in opinion surveys from the 1930s to the present day is very misleading and probably reflects to a significant degree an increased white concern for social acceptability, especially in public frontstage places, including phone calls with pollsters (strangers). Today, it is less socially acceptable for whites to publicly avow strong old-fashioned racist attitudes in diverse public spaces, so many whites may reserve most of their blatantly racist comments for the private spheres of home, locker room, and bar—usually with friends and relatives. This does not mean, however, that these old racist views and the white racial frame of which they are part have died out or have no effect on much white thought and action in more diverse public places.


         I repeat too what is necessary to reduce racism in our public affairs, including elections: Among others things, we need to actively teach whites (and others) how to “out” backstage racist ideas and performances, those which generate discrimination frontstage. Whites (and others) can counter racist performances by using humor (“Did you learn that joke from the Klan?”), feigning ignorance (“Can you please explain that comment?”), and assertively reframing (to justice, fair play, stewardship, responsibility). Teaching to disrupt racist performances is one key, as is creating support groups for such interveners in everyday racist actions.

        These social science research studies strongly suggest that all Americans concerned with significant racial change must get out and intervene in racist performances. They, and we, must work actively for that change. Such change will not likely come from rather short political campaigns, but only from years of hard action disrupting racist performances — and from hard organizing for racial change, as in the 1930s-1960s civil rights movement.

Our Major Slave-Trading Family, In the “Deep North”

African American slavery is the economic foundation of this country, yet that deep systemic reality and its major and continuing impacts on the present are usually papered over or ignored, even by most contemporary scholars. A new film and book by the white descendants of the country’s largest slave-trading family, a northern family, make this neglect both obvious and problematical.
The PBS program, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” by Katrina Browne, is scheduled to be broadcast June 24, 2008 at 10 PM (presumably Eastern time). The PBS summary describes the centrality of the De Wolf family in the slavery system:

First-time filmmaker Katrina Browne makes a troubling discovery — her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine fellow descendants set off to retrace the Triangle Trade: from their old hometown in Rhode Island to slave forts in Ghana to sugar plantation ruins in Cuba. Step by step, they uncover the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery while also stumbling through the minefield of contemporary race relations. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, “Traces of the Trade” offers powerful new perspectives on the black/white divide. An official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

This important and revealing racial journey is also described by Thomas Norman DeWolf, author of the fascinating new book, Inheriting the Trade (Beacon Press, 2008). He too is a current descendant of the largest slave-trading family in the United States, the DeWolf family. A Barnes and Noble summary puts it this way:

In 2001 . . . Thomas DeWolf was astounded to discover that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history, responsible for transporting at least 10,000 Africans to the Americas. His infamous ancestor, U.S. senator James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island, curried favor with President Jefferson to continue in the trade after it was outlawed. When James DeWolf died in 1837, he was the second-richest man in America.

Today Tom DeWolf, his direct descendant, kindly sent me this (somewhat duplicative) summary of both the film and the book:

In Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne’s ancestors were Northerners. The film follows Browne and nine fellow family members on a remarkable journey retracing the Triangle Slave Trade which brings them face-to-face with the history and legacy of New England’s hidden enterprise. Inheriting The Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History is Thomas Norman DeWolf’s powerful and disarmingly honest memoir of the journey. An urgent call for meaningful and honest dialogue, Inheriting The Trade illuminates a path toward a more hopeful future, and provides a persuasive argument that the legacy of slavery isn’t merely a Southern issue but an enduring American one. . . . For further information, go here: http://www.inheritingthetrade.com/.

This is from DeWolf’s website as just noted:

Inheriting the Trade reveals that the Northern involvement in slavery was as common as it was in the South. Not only were black people enslaved in the North for over two hundred years but the vast majority of all slave trading in the United States was done by Northerners. Remarkably, half of all North American voyages involved in the slave trade originated from Rhode Island, and all the Northern states benefited.

Tom DeWolf and Katrina Browne are scheduled to be on the CBS’s The Early Show on April 29.
Finding hopeful signs in a highly racialized society is not easy these days, but here is a very big one to chew on.