We know what kind of campaign they’re going to run. They’re going to try to make you afraid. They’re going to try to make you afraid of me. “He’s young and inexperienced and he’s got a funny name. And did I mention he’s black?”
—Barack Obama, 20 June 2008
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that three in 10 Americans “acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice.” As disturbing as this number may seem, the more troubling point is that it’s likely under-representative, since that most people speaking to pollsters don’t admit to prejudice. Add to this that the phrase “most people” is imprecise, and it’s difficult to say what the result actually means. One thing that might be stated without much argument is that Americans find it hard to talk honestly about race, especially across racial lines.
Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North wades into this enduring mess with a mixture of good will, nerve, and occasional naïveté. Frequently disconcerting and necessarily unresolved, Katrina Browne’s documentary—which opens this season’s POV series on PBS—begins as a door creaks open into small, rustic, stone-walled quarters, a gesture that blasts the screen with bright white light. The image is telling, as the film will begin to reconsider whiteness, metaphorical and literal, as a site of privilege and pain. This unsettling abstraction gives way to images more quaint and pop-familiar, home movies from Browne’s childhood in Bristol, Rhode Island, specifically, a small townish Fourth of July parade, complete with fifes and drums and a man in faux coonskin. Looking back on this “fairy tale world of old New England,” Browne reveals how her ancestors came to own a white mansion called Linden Place: the DeWolfs “were the largest slave-trading family in American history,” she reports, as the film shows roiling seas tinted black. They “brought over 10,000 Africans to the Americas in chains.”
Browne sets out to uncover this miserable history with the help of some relatives. Though she wrote to some 200 around the U.S., only 60-some responded at all (one, she notes, expressed worry that if his background came out, his black colleagues might treat him differently) and only nine agreed to go with her, to retrace the Triangle Trade route used by the DeWolfs—from Bristol to Ghana to Havana, Cuba. Their journey, Browne says more than once, is difficult and eye-opening, as they come to different terms with a history of slavery and legacy passed on in the form of wealth and status. The trade persisted illegally (after the federal ban in 1808, with help from President Thomas Jefferson, and after the Civil War), yielding immense profits. The descendants’ reckoning with this “evil” includes pilgrimages—to the gravesites of two slaves bought as children and given as Christmas presents to his wife by James DeWolf, to a collection of artifacts (including maps, record books, rope manacles), and to Ghana’s Elmina castle and the Cape Coast—as well as ongoing debates about how to take responsibility for what their ancestors did.
Katrina Browne and a Ghanaian child on the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle slave fort.
In Ghana and then again in Cuba, the relatives try to confront this past and their feelings about it, including guilt (often voiced), resentment (mostly silent), and painful self-awareness. “One of the rules in our family,” announces neuro-muscular therapist Keila DePoorter, “is the no-talk rule. It’s very big. You don’t talk about unpleasant things.” Indeed. The relatives inspect a room where negotiations once took place (Browne reads from a letter dated July 6, 1795: “Bought one man boy slave, paid for him rum. Six handkerchiefs for the women slaves”) and traipse into erstwhile holding cells (here Tom DeWolf rejects his previous efforts to understand the slavers as products of their time: “I sit in that dungeon and I say ‘Bullshit.’ It was an evil thing and they knew it was an evil thing and they did it anyway”). As they hike overgrown trails or wave off mosquitoes at a former plantation, the group is mostly quiet, Browne’s narration filling in perversely poetic details: “Cockroaches were crawling on the walls, there was something unspeakable about the packed earth floor.”
By the time they’re sitting down to a “so-called slave meal” (five courses served on china, with silverware), you’re feeling like Browne’s meticulous activity arranging is a bit too cruise directorish. Keila is compelled to speak out, again: “A lot is going on between us and we’re just being our nice Protestant selves and I’m sick of it,” she says, her exasperation evident in her red face, her companions nodding.
Even if they all agree and even though they’re willing to look beyond typically white U.S. perceptions and assumptions, the DeWolf descendants remain stuck inside themselves. The film precedes and follows Keila’s (relatively contained) outburst with their encounters with black people, including “experts” Browne solicits to speak with them. History professors note that all of Bristol was invested in the business of slavery, providing context for the familial guilt; in Africa, they’re asked whether they feel “superior” still, as white people, a moment that encourages reflection on the lingering effects of pervasive racism, even on individuals who know it’s wrong. They’re all stopped short when Josephine Watts submits they make an effort to feel what it’s like to be “the only one.” Though she does it daily, being a black primary school teacher, she observes that whites only ever do it by choice.
Old DeWolf warehouse on the Bristol waterfront, built in 1818. Sugar and rum came and went here.
Here the relatives make explicit what they’ve been hinting at throughout the film: they feel uncomfortable among black people. (This raises a question concerning black descendants, likely to exist within a slave-trading and slave-keeping family, but never mentioned in Traces of the Trade.) Elly deWolfe Hale tries to accept “being treated unkindly” and talks about finding ways to redirect anger on all sides; Dain Perry is troubled when an African American woman at one of the memorial ceremonies they attend rejects his extended hand: “I’ve never had that experience before,” he says, “I felt that I invaded a space she considered sacred.”
Stymied, the relatives turn to the only black person traveling wit them, producer Juanita Brown (“She came on the trip to lead discussions” with black participants, notes Browne in her voiceover), ensuring that she feel like the “only one” in the room. She soothes them, assuring Elly she’s a “good person,” before affirming her own anger. “If you grew up where I grew up, you’d be pissed off,” Brown says, “The fact that white people are not pissed off means they are not paying attention.”
Again, the point is made that it’s a choice for white people to pay attention, to feel alone or alienated, to enter into situations that are difficult, where they need to recognize another experience, hear another language, empathize and communicate with someone who seems “other.” At this point, the film tracks the descendants’ trip home, where they no longer spend time with black people, but instead talk among themselves. It’s understandable, seeing how rattled they’ve been, that they would choose to continue their work among themselves (for several members, within the Episcopal church), but the choice they are making is plain. One member worries that the film will show him in an untrue or unfavorable light, they all discuss what it means to be privileged, whether their Ivy League degrees are functions of hard work, aptitude or access—or some combination.
As their discussion folds into a larger national discussion concerning reparations, the DeWolf descendants make more choices. Their “journey,” as Browne calls it repeatedly, reveals limitations of vision and aspiration, even as it opens the way toward expanding their own and others’ experiences. The film documents their difficulties as well as their compassion, their efforts to see themselves as someone else might. As Browne puts it, they have trouble “looking at ourselves in the mirror,” coming to terms with being white in the United States. As the current political and media climates make race and racism visible, make the U.S. legacy an ongoing, daily topic of conversation, it is crucial not to be afraid. Traces of the Trade offers one of many places to start.