Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: Traces of the Trade, Take Two

The film explores, through a very personal lens, the sordid tale of the slave trade in the pious American north.

Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2008: Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North
Photo: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Beginning with home movie footage of an Independence Day parade in Bristol, Rhode Island—the longest running in the U.S., so director Katrina Browne explains in voiceover—Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North explores, through a very personal lens, the sordid tale of the slave trade in the pious American north. In addition to being a first-time filmmaker, Browne is also a descendant of the prominent, revered DeWolf clan: New England royalty who amassed a fortune through the blood, sweat and tears of the estimated 10,000 Africans they tore from their homeland, the biggest traders in American history. After sending letters to 200 relatives with an invitation to join her on her quest to retrace the steps of the “triangle trade” from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba, Browne and nine of her kin (including active church members and an Episcopal priest) set off on their own truth and reconciliation journey.

Guided by somber music and Browne’s shy lilting narration over images of the DeWolf family crest (in archival materials, ancient maps, history books and meticulous business logs, in street signs bearing the family name, in the stained glass at the local church paid for with their wealth) we’re forced to confront the oxymoron of a dark secret hiding in plain sight, one that Browne and her relatives have lived with all of their lives. The disconnection is overwhelming. One of the most powerful moments occurs at the headstone of Adjua, one of two African children purchased as a Christmas present for a DeWolf wife, the image accompanied by kids’ voices eerily chanting an innocent nursery rhyme inspired by the young slaves. Browne finds mention of a shopkeeper’s complaint (he asked that the slave whipping post be removed from in front of his store as blood was getting all over his windows). Slaves were big business and the DeWolfs practiced what is now known as “vertical integration.” In other words they controlled all aspects of the trade, from the rum made with slave labor at their Cuban plantations, to the buying of people with that rum in Ghana, to the shipment of live flesh back to the states to be sold (or sent back down to Cuba, a hub for illegal slave activity). The DeWolfs were even granted a favor from Thomas Jefferson to conduct their (illegal at the time, we’re reminded!) family business, for the whole town of Bristol as well as most of the north lived off those profits as sure as they would any other lucrative industry.

Juxtaposing this history with present day interviews (reactions from the descendants), Browne is able to create a dialogue with her ancestors, and often a painful one. Family members are moved to tears when they see the steel manacles and leg irons on the ships—like confronting Nazi grandfathers who carried out the Holocaust. Browne unwaveringly shoots the horrors of place like the dungeons in Ghana where slaves were held before setting sail, after Christian missionaries had baptized them and taken away their African names, making them slaves in the name of the Lord. A child in Ghana asks one of Browne’s relatives “Are you not ashamed of coming here?” (Never mind that the DeWolfs traded with African kings.) “Yes, I am ashamed,” he answers honestly, and in so doing pinpoints the exact reason Traces of the Trade is so poignant. The ten DeWolf descendants are a thoughtful, forthcoming, from the heart group—willing to doubt, to not have answers, to admit both fear and internalized racism. One exasperated woman voices concern that the film will turn out to be a “travelogue through slavery” rather than a conversation about racism today. She’s tired of speaking to the past and wants to expand the circle to change the present. Browne’s African-American co-producer is unwittingly dragged into the debate, expressing her hope that the film will further both a liberation of her people (from anger) as well as of whites (from guilt).

In fact there is limitless drama (the stories in Traces of the Trade could easily fill a PBS miniseries) with everyone involved in a perpetual soul-search—this is what makes cinema (and life) so interesting. Slavery has been dealt with in American history in the same way as the Native American genocide and the Holocaust. It’s always the “good guys” (the North, the cowboys, America) vs. the “bad guys” (the South, the Indians, Hitler) when the reality is you can’t be a moral “good guy” if you’re only looking out for number one. The slave trade existed not so covertly after the Civil War because it was economically lucrative, the Native Americans were slaughtered because they were in the way of the white settlers, and America entered WWII because Pearl Harbor got bombed, not because Jews were dying. A female relative even compares the slave trade to sweatshop labor (we’re willing to look the other way if that direction is more convenient).

The DeWolfs started a great many legitimate businesses with their blood money—like all underground illegal activity the earnings eventually float back up to the top. So Browne takes her camera to African-American academics, asks about reparations (something largely supported by her own recently enlightened kin). Having finally found common ground with the descendants on the losing side of history, Browne and two family members take public action within their own Episcopal Church, issuing a call at a convention for the church to face its own slave trading complicity, for investments in education and low income communities (rather than for writing individual checks). There’s something sweet and humble in this, in Browne’s constant commentary describing how unsure and awkward she feels. Ending her journey where she began in Bristol she takes to the pulpit of the church (stained glass erected over slave blood). She offers an anecdote about a healing ritual in Ghana in which the family asked to participate. The reply from the tribal elder was, “Yes, I could do that, but I think you should ask your own elders.” And the liberation continues, one brave voice at a time.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 16—30.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Lauren Wissot

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker and Documentary magazines. Her work can also be regularly read at Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus, and Hammer to Nail.

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