It is impossible to hear the call for a conversation about race without thinking about Barack Obama’s “A More Perferct Union” speech, which he delivered in response to the growing controversy over comments made by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. And while columnists including Eugene Robinson praised Obama for establishing “new parameters for a dialogue on race in America,” it was equally dispiriting to encounter the disingenuous responses to Obama’s call for dialogue from conservative pundits such as Pat Buchanan and Jonah Goldberg, who both resist any such conversation, likely out of fear that their version of history will not hold up very well. In short, the responses to Obama’s comments only underscore the need for such a conversation. It is in this context that I viewed Katrina Browne’s important new documentary, Traces of the Trade, which will be airing on the PBS series, P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 24. In Traces of the Trade, Browne makes use of her own physical and psychological journey to map out the history of the slave trade in North America and its continued implications in the present moment and should play an important role in our ongoing conversations about race.
Traces opens with Browne reflecting on her own family’s long history in Bristol, Rhode Island, a small, bucolic town on the Atlantic coast, images that suggest what Browne herself calls a “fairy tale of old New England.” We see her family participating in marches to celebrate July 4 and backyard barbecues, the home movies casting a nostalgic sheen over what appears to be an idyllic past. However, Browne discovers, through a booklet authored by her grandmother, that her family’s status in Bristol is based, in part, on wealth earned by several generations of the DeWolf family through the slave trade. Later, Browne acknowledges in voice-over that she knew about this family legacy, but that through a willful historical amnesia, she and other members of the family chose to bury it.
In order to confront this part of her past, Browne decided to go on a journey to the three points that made up what was called the Triangle Trade, Bristol, Ghana, and Havana, Cuba, a practice the family continued even after it was declared illegal to buy slaves from Africa. This history serves as an important reminder of the northern complicity in the slave trade, even after slavery was abolished in northern states. The northern economy strongly benefited, of course, from the cheap cotton produced by slave labor; ship builders certainly would sell to the DeWolfs and other slave traders. These details often get lost in traditional histories of the United States. As Browne writes in her director’s statement about the film: “victors write the history books, and thus forget their guilt.”
Browne invited well over 200 descendants of the DeWolfs to join her on the trip, and while nine other family members chose to join her, including one person who was a seventh cousin, Browne remarks on the extent to which many family members were unwilling to confront this part of their history. However, the decision to share her journey with others in her family was a wise one, in that it allowed Browne to model the kinds of conversations that are often sorely lacking when it comes to race. When they arrive in Ghana, for example, family members confide that they feel out of place at several ceremonies meant to commemorate the history of slavery. But they also are provided with a tangible sense of this history by exploring the dungeons where slaves were held before being put on crowded ships that would cross the Atlantic, a journey that Toni Morrison memorably evoked in her discussion of the Middle Passage in Beloved. Later, in Havana, a family member worries that the documentary will simply be a “nice” family travelogue that fails to truly acknowledge the history of slavery. Another fears that the film will appear as a “self-indulgent” attempt for them to assuage their guilt about the past. And I think it’s this willingness for Browne to question the ability of her documentary–and in some sense documentary in general–to address these potential limitations that makes Traces of the Trade work.
In addition, once the family begin to fully understand this history, they turn to the implications in the present, what one family member, James DeWolf Perry VI, describes as “the living consequences” of the slave trade. Traces addresses the possible impact of financial reparations and other forms of restitution. Others talk about the legacy of the church in failing to address the morality of slavery. But one of the more compelling questions raised by the film goes pretty much unanswered. At one point, a family member observes that today’s consumers are complicit in an economic system that continues to rely upon sweatshop labor to produce the cheap goods that we purchase at the malls and big box marts across the country. Of course, given the film’s goal of provoking a conversation about these issues, what matters is that someone is asking that question.
I’ll admit that in a couple of places, I found Browne’s voice-over narration of her experiences a little intrusive. There were places that a subtle camera movement would have sufficed; however, I appreciated Browne’s willingness to openly address her own family’s history and its complex relationship to the history of slavery in America, and I hope that Traces of the Trade receives the attention it deserves. As the debates about the Barack Obama campaign illustrate, this is still a much needed conversation.
Update: This is the first of several posts I will be writing on documentaries from PBS’s P.O.V. series. I also wanted to mention that Thomas Norman DeWolf, one of the participants in the journey documented by Katrina Browne, has written a memoir about his experiences, Inheriting the Trade, and has kept a blog discussing the reception of his book.