Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North chronicles a unique and disturbing journey into the history and legacy of the U.S. slave trade. The documentary tracks what happens as filmmaker Katrina Browne comes to grips with the discovery that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Her film is a probing essay into divergent versions of a nation’s history.
Browne invites 200 DeWolf descendants to join her in facing their shared past and its relationship to their own lives. Nine end up traveling with her to retrace the Triangle Trade, from Bristol, Rhode Island, to slave forts in Ghana to sugar plantations in Cuba and back. Theirs is an emotional trek, with each step raising important questions about culpability and compassion, hurt and healing.
The family confronts not only their own assumptions, but also America’s depiction of slavery as a predominantly Southern institution. As the film reveals the North’s vast complicity in slavery, it forces viewers to examine the mythology of Northern innocence and the repercussions for race relations.
Katrina Browne says that it can seem as if white people like her have only two choices: “Either listen to African American calls to deal with the history, which can make us feel guilty and bad about ourselves, or shut it all out so we don’t have to feel bad.” What is a third way? In what ways does our knowledge of history influence our current beliefs and actions?
Juanita Brown tells the group, “It’s important for me that white people take responsibility and that ultimately it’s about human liberation — liberation of my people and also about your liberation.” Do you agree with Juanita? What does “taking responsibility” mean for you?
Katrina talks in Ghana about being glad that her cousin Dain Perry was on the “hot seat,” not her. What are the everyday ways in which you find racial dynamics challenging? In which situations do you get stuck or tongue-tied?
Candid and compelling, Traces of the Trade challenges viewers to ask themselves the same contentious questions that Browne and her family ask: Why is it so difficult for Americans to have a conversation about the legacy of slavery and racism? As a nation, how do we deal with what we inherited from our country’s history?
Share your thoughts and opinions in comments.