Katrina Browne

Koeshaar and Keti Koti

Katrina Browne

Traces of the trade
This is the translated title of an impressive documentary titled "Traces of the Trade." Film director Katrina Browne follows in the footsteps of her ancestors DeWolf, the greatest slave traders in American history. Together with nine relatives, she travels the route of the slave trade that has made her ancestor James DeWolf the second richest man in America. The same route as Katrina herself tells that laid the foundation for the fortune that made the descendants not only a prominent but also a very privileged family.

Departing from Bristol, an example city in the US state of Rhode Island where the first DeWolf settled, the group goes to a slave fort in Ghana, a ruined plantation in Cuba and then returns to America. It is not an easy trip. There is no blueprint for confronting such a violent past and emotions run high.

I was stunned when I realized that those emotions I recorded from this privileged White family from America were hardly different from those between us Black families from Suriname when it comes to slavery.

Keti koti
Until I decided to go frizzy I hardly really thought about the consequences of slavery. Growing up in Suriname, I was never short of anything. Without wishing to be immodest, I can say that I come from a good family of five, with plenty of opportunities to develop in any chosen field. Conscious of my blessings, I cannot possibly consider myself a victim of slavery.
July was a day off for us to commemorate how much we have been able to experience as a nation. In retrospect, I think that such a holiday contributes to processing, forgiving and continuing.

Even when I went to study in Amsterdam, it never really occurred to me to think about what slavery meant to the Netherlands. Except for a handful of Surinamese, the traces of trade were virtually negligible. It was clear that Suriname was not a subject in Dutch schools. The Dutch still know so little about Suriname that they are surprised that we "speak Dutch so well". When Suriname was mentioned, you were invariably told that the colonies only cost the prosperous Netherlands money.

On the rare occasions when slavery was unexpectedly discussed, I was told that the Dutch today have nothing to do with crimes committed by ancestors from centuries ago. Or, that the Africans who sold their captives are (partly?) guilty.


The discussion after the premiere in New York

frizzy hair
Frizzy hair literally drove me to uproot my slave roots. Hair straightening is so common in the Afro-Surinamese community that I never realized how harmful these chemicals are, nor that a vast majority of our women suffer from hair breakage and hair loss as a result of using these items.

What was really incomprehensible to me was that the vast majority of Black women take the serious consequences for granted, and that these visible disadvantages are hardly seen as a problem. What every frizzy haired person should be warned about is even being trivialized.

Looking for an explanation, it dawned on me that hair is a remarkably sensitive topic in the Black community. Although it's hard to put your finger on it, undeniably deep emotions always surface. These inexplicably intense feelings prompted me to investigate further.

I soon realized that Black people belong to the only race on this planet that has to get legal permission to wear their god-gifted hair naturally. What is a birthright to every other creature on Earth is not self-evident to a Black person with frizzy hair. Then it dawned on me that even in this new Millennium there are still injustices directly related to our slave past. No wonder that emotions often flare so high during a frizzy hair meeting.

I think the deep emotions that surface are directly related to an unresolved slave past. Why else would someone cringe painfully at a simple comment like “what is your hair frizzy?�? Why else don't Black women dare to apply for a job with frizzy hair?

Apparently, curly hair still carries a stigma whose pain, sadness and even shame are camouflaged in every possible way. “Bad hair�? is clearly one of the traces of the trade.

The discussions we have are therefore comparable to the discussions that can be seen in Traces of the Trade. During reasoning, incomprehensibly intense emotions creep up. Overcome with feelings that are hard to place, we try to explain our choices and put the past in perspective. Now I came to realize that the pain, the sorrow and the shame that we do not immediately understand, but clearly experience, can be traced back to an unresolved slave past.

Besides the fact that this film finally shows the consequences of Slavery from a different perspective, it gives me hope. Hope for new openings in an all too often deadlocked discussion. This is often held back by arguments such as “You should not live in the past and enslave too long ago to discuss its consequences.

With this new documentary, Katrina shows that the traces of the slave trade, however long ago, affect everyone in a society. More importantly, everyone can contribute in his or her own way to the discussion that should lead to more understanding race relations. As she puts it, not from a feeling of guilt but from a sincere feeling of suffering and sadness.

Register for the lecture on June 22: Bad Hair Uprooted
 

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