Trauma of slavery and epigenetics

Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that can switch genes on and off.  Recent epigenetic studies have shown that stress, socio-economic deprivation, racism and other traumatic experiences of our ancestors can play a part in turning on or off certain genes in our DNA. That is to say, for instance, the trauma of slavery can be passed on transgenerationally.  See an example in the work by Professor Ariane Giancobino.

Several of the forthcoming UNESCO Symposium contributors have argued for the importance of healing the trauma of slavery, such as in the work of Professor Joy DeGruy, who maintains that the systematic dehumanising effects of slavery have continued to impact many African American people’s experiences in the world.  Equally, Professor Aimé Charles-Nicolas has called for systematic healing of transgenerationally transmitted traumas inherited directly from slavery or passed down through racism rooted in slavery.  Such an imperative has been reinstated in the International Scientific Colloquium on “Slavery: what is its impact on the the psychology of populations?” in Martinique and Guadeloupe on October 2016.

Professor Benjamin Bowser and others also urge our societies to pay more attention to how education might continue to perpetuate such trauma, and likewise, new approaches to teaching and learning about trans-Atlantic slave trade and slave history may contribute to healing and cultural transformation.

Traces of the Trade

TRACES OF THE TRADE: A STORY FROM THE DEEP NORTH

In this Emmy-nominated documentary, filmmaker Katrina Browne discovers that her Rhode Island forefathers were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.  She and nine relatives decide to retrace the Triangle Trade: from a port town in Rhode Island, to slave forts in Ghana, to the ruins of one of their family’s sugar plantations in Cuba.  Step by step they uncover the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery, and thus come to see that slavery built the nation, not just the South.  They meet with people of African descent abroad and at home and grapple with questions of white privilege, healing and repair in the present day.

While still in rough-cut form, the film contributed to the Episcopal Church’s 2006 decision to issue an apology for its role in slavery and embark upon research, repentance, dialogue and repair processes in dioceses around the country that are still on-going.

Traces of the Trade premiered in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, and then aired nationally on PBS.  The film has contributed significantly to the growing public awareness in the last 10-15 years about the role of the North in slavery.  It has also been broadcast in Canada, Cuba and Bermuda, and has screened in numerous European, Caribbean and African countries.  Family member Tom DeWolf published a book about the family journey: Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.

The film is used extensively in schools, universities, museums, religious denominations, workplaces and professional conferences for education and heart-felt dialogue.  A nonprofit was formed out of the film, The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery.  It helps museums and historic sites improve how they interpret slavery for the public (including via a published collection of essays) and on helping teachers improve how they teach slavery.  Another ripple has been the formation of the Center for Reconciliation out of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.

Ms. Browne specializes in bringing attention to “racialized emotions” and particularly the psychological legacies of slavery for white Americans and how those hinder restorative justice.  She contributed a book chapter on how these legacies manifest in the classroom to: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery: New Directions in Teaching and Learning.  She is currently developing a multi-session film-based race dialogue series curriculum for the Episcopal Church and other interested denominations.

Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility

For over two decades, Initiatives of Change (IofC) USA has developed Hope in the Cities which aims to transform Richmond, VA, from a symbol of racial division to a model for reconciliation. Richmond was the nation’s largest interstate slave market in the first half of the 19th Century and capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War.

Hope in the Cities is a citizen-led effort which brings together a network of leaders in non-profit and business sectors, local government, media and education, from across the political spectrum and of all cultural and religious backgrounds. By facilitating honest conversations, by focusing on acknowledgement, healing and understanding, and by encouraging personal responsibilities, Hope in the Cities continues to help build capacity of community leaders who are working for racial healing and equity.

Rob Corcoran, founder of Hope in the Cities, is a facilitator and trainer, and the author of Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility. The book captures the processes, experiences and learnings from engaging in the work and its application to other communities. His paper for the National Civic League entitled Building Trust in the Heart of Community reflects further on this deeply transformative and ongoing journey.

Richmond was selected by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation as one of 14 locales to implement Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.