A Northern Family Confronts Its Slaveholding Past

Filmmaker Katrina Browne discusses her family’s role in American slavery

Katrina Browne and a Ghanaian child on the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle slave fort. (Katrina Browne)

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When you visited Ghana it was during Panafest, which is attended by many African Americans. What is that event, and what was it like to be in the midst of it?
We were totally nervous and always walking on eggshells. It's a time of pilgrimage for people of African descent who, for many, are the first ones to be coming back to West Africa since their ancestors were taken away. The reactions that we encountered were completely across the board—from people who really appreciated our being there and our desire to face the history to people who really resented us being there and felt we were invading their space. It was such a sacred moment for them that the last people they wanted to see were white Americans, let alone descendents of slave traders.

How did your family members' attitudes toward their slave-trading history—or towards contemporary race issues—change as the trip progressed?
A lot of us were really inspired to get involved in public policy debates—the reparations debate and how to think about repair. I think everyone [on the trip] would say we have a sense of responsibility because we know that we had a leg up, and therefore we think there's a responsibility to use those privileges to make a difference. Most of us would say we don't feel personally guilty.

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