Scratching the Surface of a Slave-Trading Legacy

I recently watched the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, produced and directed by Katrina Browne. The film follows Browne and nine others from her extended family on a literal and metaphorical journey to better understand their family’s history. Most of them grew up hearing that they had very important ancestors but knew little or nothing about the fact that from 1769 to 1820 their family, the DeWolf family, had made their fortune in the slave trade and off of slave labor. Starting in Bristol, Rhode Island, which had been a major port for slave trading, the group visited several places where DeWolfs had left their mark in the trans-Atlantic triangle trade. I am glad I watched it, but not sure that I would recommend it.

A question-and-answer refrain resounds through much of the film, even though it’s usually not said in so many words: when learning about the magnitude of the slave trade and the brutalities committed by their ancestors, you can see the family members ask themselves and each other, “Why were we never taught about this? Why aren’t these details in every American history textbook and every museum?” and the silent answer, “Well, we know why. It’s because these stories force us to face the fact that many of our heroes were not heroic, and force us to see the humanity of people our society was built on dehumanizing.” Through footage of tours and meetings that the family had with historians and community leaders at historic sites in Rhode Island, Ghana and Cuba, through an old nursery rhyme containing the names of enslaved children held in slavery by the 19th century DeWolfs, and the 21st century Dewolfs’ reflections on what this history means for them and their place in the world, this question and its answer are implicit throughout. This element is quite well done.  

Sharing comments from the ten family members who went on the trip, from all over the US and with varying degrees of closeness to one another, the film shows people as individuals, making mistakes and learning from their experiences. I think that’s one of the film’s strengths, but also one of its problems. It winds up being a documentary about the personal feelings of a group of people who already have plenty of opportunities to share their stories in any number of other media. I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible to do a film centering the experiences of the descendants of slaveholders that is truly moving and affecting to its audience, but I found myself not learning much from their journey.

In one scene, the family got into a debate about whether the various forms of privilege they held had contributed to their personal accomplishments. One proud Harvard alumnus was very confident that he would have gone to Harvard if he had grown up without money, without highly educated parents, or without the structural advantage of being white. He left an implication hanging in the air that if some of his classmates could do it without the advantages he had, saying that he might not have gone to Harvard in their position was to say that he wasn’t as smart or hardworking as them. The camera panned to several of his relatives saying it wasn’t that simple.

The film did not take an explicit side in this debate, although the fact that it was shown at all suggests that the filmmaker felt it was a meaningful question. While I think that the amount that the subjects were left to speak for themselves was a stylistic choice and a legitimate one, this scene ended up falling flat for me. I wanted the scene to have a point, not necessarily a lesson, but something that contributed to audience members’ own thinking on the subject of privilege. 

I think that the Harvard man was wrong, and was probably qualified and privileged. To get into a good school, to start your own business, to write a book, or most other accomplishments, you need some mix of factors. You need dedication, talent, strategy or savviness, structural advantages, and luck. The more of one or two of these factors you have in play for a particular accomplishment, the less you need of the others. On average, 2,000 undergraduates are offered admission to Harvard each year. The student who is the admission office’s 2,000th choice is probably not objectively more qualified than the 2,001st. Some students who don’t make the cut are exactly as qualified as those who did, but they aren’t the lucky ones. However, the more your parents teach you about what colleges look for in an admissions essay, the less time you spend figuring it out for yourself. Highly educated parents are a structural advantage, that mean you need less luck to get an edge over the other kids who are just as dedicated, talented, and strategic as you are. Watching the DeWolf family discuss this, I tried to keep an open mind, but I didn’t come away feeling like I understood the Harvard man's perspective any better or like the people I agreed with compellingly articulated their points.

I wonder whether this film feels a little disappointing because it helped create the foundation for better things after it. Traces of the Trade was critically acclaimed when it came out in 2008, and I have had it in my mental to-watch queue for years because the title gets referenced often in discussions of the slave trade and what that means for the white-dominated field of public history. However, after years of following discussions about white society’s culpability in racism and racist violence more broadly as well as in relation to the slave trade, I found myself wincing at the film’s well-meaning but self-centering white people, their tears over their personal emotions about atrocities that are of course deeply disturbing, and their journey of self-discovery (or lack thereof). At sort of the climax of the film, some of the family members are also fed up with how interior-facing their journey has been and shift the conversations towards action and towards how they can make change in contemporary society, but I couldn’t help but see this through a 2021 lens and feel it was too little, too late. Of course, the reckoning that is happening in some parts of society now is also very little and very late compared with the size of the problem of the legacy of slavery and the present reality of racism. 

A group of white people looking up at trees and old stone or cement buildings.
The travelers on a former plantation in Cuba.

Traces of the Trade made a valuable contribution to emerging discourse within public history when it came out, and if you’d like to do a deep dive on the topic of how 21st century white Americans grapple with race and slavery, it’s well worth watching. However, if you are looking for resources that will help you cut through the tangle of information and perspectives out there to further your own grappling or your conversations with others who are grappling, this film isn’t what I’d recommend. If your own ancestors were enslaved or may have been, I’d recommend going in with particular caution if you watch it, because while some scenes are moving and others are informative, the film’s and its subjects’ shortcomings are likely to be harder to sit through than they were for me.