I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
Growing up in Southern California, I didn’t think much about family beyond my sister, parents, and grandparents. But when I was in my 20s, in the early 1980s, my friend David Howe told me he suspected we might be related because his father’s middle name was DeWolf. David’s father Halsey, an avid genealogist, confirmed that David and I were sixth cousins once removed, with a common ancestor born in 1695. Halsey told me about scoundrels in the family: “slave traders, rum runners, and privateers.” I envisioned something out of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Twenty years passed before I learned just how involved my family was in the slave trade. In December 2000, David received a letter from Katrina Browne, one of 200 she sent to far-flung relatives, inviting them to join her in retracing the triangle trade route of our ancestors. David shared the letter with me and suggested I call Katrina, who turned out to be my seventh cousin. After multiple conversations I was invited to be one of nine relatives to join her on a journey from New England to Ghana and Cuba and back.
During that summer of 2001, we learned facts of history I never learned in school; like that 95 percent of all slave-trading was done by Northerners, and half by people from Rhode Island. And that people were enslaved in all 13 original colonies. As for our family, three generations of DeWolfs, over 50 years, were responsible for transporting more than 10,000 people from West Africa into slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean islands.
The result of our journey that summer was the Emmy-nominated documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, which premiered at Sundance and aired on PBS. I wrote Inheriting the Trade about my experiences in making the film.
Some members of our family did not appreciate our unearthing the family skeletons. We heard things like, “Why bring this up? That was so long ago. I’m not responsible for what my ancestors did. Black people are better off in America anyway. Why don’t they just get over it?”
As I learned by listening to African and African-American people on both sides of the Atlantic, “We don’t just get over it, because it’s not over.”
We stood in a slave dungeon in Cape Coast, Ghana, where as many as 200 men would be crammed together in a sweltering, 450-square-foot cell for up to 12 weeks waiting for a ship to take them away to be enslaved in a foreign land forever—sometimes by people I’m related to. Professor Kofi Anyidoho, distinguished national poet of Ghana, told us, “Slavery is the living wound under a patchwork of scars. The only hope of healing is to be willing to break through the scars to finally clean the wound properly and begin the healing.”
When traumatic wounds are not healed, we can literally pass them on to our descendants through our DNA (watch the documentary The Ghost in Your Genes). Unhealed wounds are passed on structurally as well. The legacy of slavery continues to benefit people who look like you and me, Ben—and they harm people of color. We only have to read the newspaper headlines to see that inequity and injustice based on race remains deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation.
You’re right. The harm our ancestors caused is not our fault. But repairing the present-day consequences of that harm is a responsibility we all share. I’m proud that Katrina decided to confront our family history—and that she made a commitment to deal with these consequences—head-on. Expressing regret is one step, but regret doesn’t amount to much without a commitment to repair the damage.
Here are a few suggestions. First, do the research, or hire people to do the research, on your ancestor, Benjamin Cole. You will find more ancestors who were involved in slavery. Find their wills, deeds, property documents, and letters: anything that offers evidence or clues to the identities of the people whom they owned. The descendants of enslaved people need this information, and white descendants of their owners control those records. Make those records readily available. Contribute your findings to Our Black Ancestry, a website dedicated to providing resources for African-American genealogical research.
Support efforts like The Slave Dwelling Project, which works to identify and preserve extant slave dwellings from demolition. To fully understand our personal and national history, it is critical to preserve and share as much of the history—physical, written, and oral—as possible.
You may have seen that several people posted links to Coming to the Table on your Facebook page. I’m the executive director of Coming to the Table, a community of descendants of enslavers and the enslaved who work together to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that are rooted in the United States’ history of slavery. We—white people—need to come to the table in support of these and other such efforts.
And now I have a confession, Ben. I’m writing this “open letter” because you’re in the news. My real interest is to invite all white people in the United States to recognize our shared obligation in this work. Rather than distancing ourselves from culpability, let’s recognize that slavery drove the economy and built this nation we proudly call home. Every white person—directly or indirectly—participated and benefited. Everyone who has immigrated here has benefited.
Ben, you can wait for this story to fade and do little or nothing to make a difference. Any white person can do the same. But America won’t change until enough white people change. You have the unique benefit of using your celebrity to make a difference. All people of European descent can use our power and privilege, to whatever degree we have them, to make a positive difference. When we commit to doing so, we will heal wounds and achieve a better nation and world.
Thomas Norman DeWolf is executive director for Coming to the Table. He is the author of Inheriting the Trade, and co-author, with Sharon Leslie Morgan, of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (both Beacon Press).