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A Story of Slavery From the Deep North

A review of the documentary film, Traces of the Trade.

What would it be like to discover that your ancestors were not just involved in the slave trade but built a fortune buying and selling other human beings, not just before but even after the legal prohibition of the slave trade? And what does one do with such information after learning it?

These are the question that first-time filmmaker Katrina Browne tries to grapple with in Traces of the Trade, a documentary film that follows her and several members of her family as they discover and confront their own New England family's slave-trading history.

In an early scene, Browne's voiceover informs us that she invited 200 family members to participate in this project. Less than a dozen responded and nine decided to go along for the ride, which not only includes visits to library archives and interviews with city historians to learn about the specifics of the family's slave business but also trips to Ghanna, where many of the slaves were apparently purchased, and Cuba, where the DeWolf family (Katrina's slave-trading ancestors) owned a plantation and rum factory and where they trafficked in African slaves both before and after the United States government abolished the international slave trade in 1808. You can watch the trailer below.

This project took courage. While Browne and her relatives did not themselves own slaves or even profit directly from the immoral business dealings of their DeWolf ancestors, the film is honest about the privileged status of everyone involved in the project. Of the ten family members in the film, nine were ivy-league educated at either Harvard, Princeton, or Brown. The tenth is an M.D.  If these 10 are representative of the larger family, the DeWolf descendants have done well for themselves, a fact that is not lost on either the audience or the family members themselves, some of whom wonder on camera how viewers will perceive them.

The awareness of the camera creates more than a few awkward moments, but then confronting this kind of history is generally awkward at best for White Americans who often find the subject and its moral implications psychologically challenging and unnerving, which creates an internal pressure to disengage. I suspect that this internal pressure to bury one's head in the sand so as to know as little as possible may be even more keen for Northerners. Not that it seems easy for White Southerners to talk about slavery but then they've had almost 150 years of practice. The contemporary narrative of the Civil War, on the other hand, seems to have provide enough cover that most Americans living North of the Mason-Dixon line (where I have myself spent my entire life in the U.S.) are likely unaware that slavery even existed in the North after the country was officially formed in 1776.

Ghana slave castle
Katrina Browne at Cape Coast Castle, Ghana, in a room where slave ship captains, including DeWolf, negotiated to purchase slaves
tracesofthetrade.org, photo credit: Elly Hale
That's the primary purpose of this film: To write a more accurate version of history, because before we can collectively heal from the trauma of slavery, we have to acknowledge it in all of its ugly forms. The film does this effectively.  Although I've been teaching and writing about race, including racial history, for more than 10 years, there are forms of ugliness in this film that I had not previously heard about, especially the slave forts that lined the shores of Ghanna during the slave trade, as well as Cuba's prominent role in circumventing the prohibition of the international slave trade.  Perhaps this says more about my own education than anything else, but I have a hunch that just about everyone who decides to watch this film will learn something new.

But learning is just the first step and Katrina clearly understood this from the start. One cannot learn something of this nature and not be impacted by it. One cannot learn such things and then go back to living the exact same life as before. An additional question, from the very start of this project, is what would Katrina and others in her family do once they've learned about this history and thought about its consequences. I won't spoil this part of the film but it's a vital part of the project. It is this commitment to action that turns the film into something other than a self-indulgent stroll through family history.

Bristol Historical and Preservation Society
DeWolf descendants looking at family records from the slave trade at the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society, RI.
tracesofthetrade.org, photo credit Holly Fulton
I mention self-indulgence because it's something that came up during one of the family meals early in the film and also because I observed some privilege that was never unacknowledged, such as the family's ability (in terms of both time and money) to make the trips to Ghana and Cuba. As I was watching the film, I found myself hoping that the family would do something more with their new awareness than just this film.

Does my intellectual analysis of the film make it seem boring? It isn't. Though awkward and tense in parts, these elements of the film drew me into the story and its characters. I watched the film as part of a large multi-racial, multi-continental gathering of race scholars and racial-justice activists hosted by Initiatives of Change and supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's America Healing initiative. One scene drew impromptu applause. Other scenes triggered sadness and tears. Everyone seemed emotionally impacted. I appreciate the film for its history and inspiration, but I like and recommend it for its emotional engagement.  I tweeted as much to @TracesOfTrade immediately after the film, mentioning that I enjoyed it about as much as it was possible to enjoy a film of this sort. "You're right," the return tweet read, "We aimed more for 'awkward' and 'difficult' than 'enjoyable'." In my opinion, they hit the mark just about right.

 

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the department of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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