To Be Black In America

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[Notes From The Frontline]


Whatever happens this Autumn, or even afterward, Senator Barack Obama has rendered our country an enormous service.

If only for making race into a reality, one that's less easily ignored as some hang up, only existing in the hate-filled heads of Blacks, he has earned our gratitude and a place in history.

CNN's special report, Black in America, airing on July, 23-24, is only the latest example of a rich sampling of forthcoming TV programming that's long overdue. Sure to get people to start to think more critically, perhaps it can even inspire conversations that promote more positive action?

Some people go throughout their entire lives imagining everything’s okay; that one needn’t feel obligated to do any thing to try to effect change—even that one can’t. Yet, if you’re fortunate, sooner or later the time arrives when you’re compelled to begin to question the status quo.

As a young girl from a patrician New England family, film maker, Katrina Browne felt, if imperfect, that most things were all right. Nicest, was her place, as an adored fair-haired girl, whose family was regarded as Bristol, Rhode Island’s, first citizens.

Cosseted by affection, she enjoyed the kind of security that assures, no matter what bad the future brings, somehow, it will be made bearable.

True, the days are long past when her ancestors counted among the richest people in the nation. It’s also the case though, that among a clan numbering over 200 today, no one is remotely destitute.

What most affected Browne’s more discerning outlook, was becoming better acquainted with the means by which her family’s once immense riches, had first been established and accrued.

De Wolf’s fortune, diversified, through inter-marriage with the Colts, Howes, Faleses and Cuttings, and via shrewd investment into cotton mills, banking, firearms and the U.S. Rubber Co., had originated, in the lucrative slave trade.

I take you to the summer of 1992; I’m near Bristol, at Newport, exploring. Few places are as hauntingly beautiful as this spot that time forgot, atop cliffs, beside the sea. There are dozens of incredible houses here. A little less than 100 years earlier, the ones I’ve come to view, were designed by architect Ogden Codman.

Newly disillusioned by Southern plantation houses, the classic beauty of which, becomes marred by knowing of slavery’s ugliness, little by little, Newport’s houses have become my favorite. By-in-large, the men who built them were sons of self-made industrial barons or banking millionaires.

Compulsively competitive, these plutocrats and their designers sought always to out-do each other with lavishness and magnificence. By distinction, Codman made his work exceptional; by echoing the most beautiful buildings from the past he could find.

Massively made of rock-faced stone, replete with multiple gables, and tall chimneys, Mrs. John Jermaine Slocum’s Victorian house, hardly has what one thinks of as a welcoming appearance. Here, Codman was only responsible for the interiors.

Straw hat in hand, Clinton button removed, armed with a letter of introduction from an impeccable source, I’m poised to meet the grande dame of Newport Society.

Only, as she’s consulting with her secretary, there’s a delay. How relived I am to have an opportunity to straighten my tie and compose myself; to examine, unobserved, some of Codman’s handsome decorations in the first Empire Style associated with Napoleon.

Supremely realized, the sole fault of these formal surroundings is the way in which they’ve been subtlety augmented by innumerable inherited treasures. The ever so slightly oppressive result proves decisively, something that I had previously believed was impossible. At least where décor is concerned, one can suffer by being too rich.

My hostess is as handsome, resilient and polished as her environment. Most graciously, she shows me everything of interest. Ending, beside a venerable portrait, she offers me tea. “This,” she beams with genteel pride, her voice a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt’s and Jacqueline Kennedy’s, “is my most famous ancestor! He made his fortune in shipping.”

Uniformed, Mrs. Slocum’s 18th Century forbearer was a Brown without the final “e”. I knew of his key role in American history, but I hadn’t counted on finding him here.

Nor frankly, was I quite prepared for Mrs. Slocum’s effusive, insensitive enthusiasm for her relative, someone who might very well to have imported my forcibly enslaved African ancestors.

Understandably enough, as the benefactor of so much that she’s long accepted as her due, my hostess admires the pluck of an esteemed antecedent. How clever, that he was able to amass so much, that his bounty has endured for over 2-centuries.

Hell, sipping the specially blended Earl Grey tea, from a Meissen cup, even I am enjoying Brown’s bounty of things; I appreciate as much as Eileen Slocum does. Certainly, none of it has changed. But, in one transforming instant of recognition, I have.

It was deliberate and it was ill-mannered. But, I couldn’t resist. Indulging myself I responded to Mrs. Slocum’s boast: “Ah, yes, the Triangular Trade?”

If at later meetings she has been fanatically unapologetic as a Republican stalwart, then at least, Mrs. Slocum was becomingly chastened. Summoning sufficient dignity, she answers quietly, resigned, smiling: “Yes, yes. Mr. Adams. The Triangular Trade. But you know, life is so surprising, isn’t it? We never know what it might bring us, do we? You know, for instance, I have a grandson, who looks very much like you. You know my daughter, Beryl, she married Adam Clayton Powell III.”

Katrina Browne knew all about her family’s slave trading past, before suppressing the painful memory. So had I known of, and forgotten, the May, 1969 wedding of former debutante of the year, Beryl Slocum and the great-grandson of a slave, the oldest son of Harlem Congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 

This alliance of two of America’s most distinguished families had shocked Mrs. Slocum’s select and conventional circle. A measure of the betrayal they felt, is revealed by the remark of an aunt, with whom the engaged girl had lived during high school. “Of course, if you do this, we can never speak to you again.”

Not only was this threat carried out, to the letter, but summarily, the new bride was also stricken from the Social Register. At pains to present a decorous façade, her parents bravely forbore a wedding they had tried hard to forbid. Her father gave her away and her mother carried off the crowded reception at her Georgetown house, with great aplomb.

Seeing them together, even for a stranger, it’s clear how Eileen Slocum loves her Black grandsons; eagerly anticipating their children. But none of this has prevented their mother’s disinheritance. A visceral humiliation, their proud grandmother has hardly forgotten her daughter’s disobedience.

Only nine of Ms. Browne’s relations joined her on her voyage. It formed the basis of her poignant film, “Tracing The Trade.”

Many scorned the research that identified the De Wolfs as the most prolific slavers in the Americas. Certainly they wanted nothing to do with an enterprise depicting all the great figures of their history as monsters, law-breaking demons capable of, “scuttling, a slave woman ill with smallpox.” What might any of it lead to, other than the sullying of their illustrious name?

Who knows, perhaps one day soon, there will be package tours for African American pilgrims also eager to experience the sorrow of the Triangular Trade?

Venturing from Bristol, where the De Wolf’s distilled molasses into rum, Ms. Browne and fellow descendants traveled to West Africa, where liquor and other goods were once traded for slaves. In Havana, Cuba, they explored ruined buildings, on one of several plantations, once owned by De Wolfs , were slaves grew sugar cane.

For me, merely witnessing the shame of these well intentioned white people was disquieting enough. As Katrina Browne confesses, in Ghana, “at the slave forts, going down into the dungeons forces a kind of reckoning.”

But, why? Why with all the 200-years plus of persisting inequality still so evident here, was this trip even necessary? Initially reluctant, to presume to judge his ancestors, so moved was Thomas Norman De Wolf by this emotionally charged sojourn, that he wrote his own powerful account of the family saga, called, Inheriting the Trade, (Beacon Press). It's his emphatic response: “Bull shit! I sit in that dungeon and know, know as I didn’t before. It was evil and they knew it was evil! And, they did it anyway?”

That rates as one of the documentary's highlights.

There are plenty, like me, who contend that Senator Obama or no Senator Obama, that the hobbling legacy of the De Wolf’s, of American slavery, insidiously endures. Sure, we’re supposed to be in this “post-racial” epoch. But, I’m not buying it.

A few weeks ago, on Tuesday, there was a charming book party, hosted by Norma Darden, for fashion designer Jon Haggins. His new memoir is entitled, Yes I Can. It’s not idle talk either, to state that, nearly 40 years ago, Haggins as a Black designer and Darden as a high fashion model, did change the world by capturing the public’s imagination and expanding the possibilities of Black accomplishment.

Meant to censure the same American fashion industry, Darden and Haggins once took by storm, that’s now bereft of any serious Black presence, Italian Vogue has released their July issue with great fanfare. Nearly exclusively, it features Black models. But, if what Haggins and others did was “real” why is it even necessary?

“That’s simple enough to figure,” smiles Ms. Darden, “they taught us in grade school how even Jefferson said, ‘in every generation, the tree of liberty must be nourished by the blood of patriots.’ Back then, we shed ours. Oh boy, did we ever. The young kids have no idea. But, they’ll learn. Because, now it’s their turn. ”


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