In Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, filmmaker Katrina Browne discovers a horrifying family secret. Her family, the DeWolf’s of Rhode Island, was the largest slave trading family in U.S. history. In an attempt to discover more about the family’s legacy, Katrina and nine of her cousins embark on a voyage retracing the Triangle Trade —a slave trading route from Bristol, Rhode Island to Ghana, West Africa and on to Cuba.
Upon hearing the premise of the film I had two reactions. Firstly, how refreshing it was that a story like this was being told. We are taught, and for the most part accept, that the South played the largest role in the history of American slavery. We are taught that the North was a place that slaves could be free from bondage and treated as human beings. What we are not taught is that all of America, North and South alike, had much to gain from the enterprise of slavery. The slave trade was big business that fueled the American economy and produced some of the wealthiest white citizens of the time. My next reaction was that the DeWolf’s would complete this journey, go back to their everyday routine, and not deal with the lingering effects of race today. Maybe they would feel absolved of their guilt about the family’s past and whatever guilt they held at being white and having all the privileges that go along with that. My gut told me that this would play out as a nice travel documentary of a family that had a peculiar history and once the cameras stopped rolling the story would end there.
As the family visits the three ports of the Triangle Trade, they begin to make transformations and discoveries that not even I could have expected. Eyes are opened, and people begin to see the world, their own lives, and upbringing in very new and surprising ways. In one scene, the DeWolf descendants have a discussion with a group of black Americans in Ghana. One of the DeWolf’s talks about his upbringing and how he could have at one time been considered a racist, but does not see himself that way anymore. He was challenged by some in the group to examine if that was really the truth, if it had really been that easy for him to change all of the racist thoughts he once held about blacks. The blacks challenged him and the other DeWolf’s to step outside of their comfort zone from time to time and see an all black film or go out with a group of black friends. These were the things they could do to begin to make changes.
Once the group returned to Rhode Island and reflected on the discoveries and transformations that had occurred the question of what to do next was in the air. Ultimately, what the family chooses to do becomes an individual and very personal decision for each DeWolf. What I learned was that my gut was wrong, the family did not retreat to their safe, privileged world. The experience brought the family closer to understanding what must be done in order to heal from America’s racist past. In the end, they discover the issue of race will not go away in this country, especially if it is ignored. They discover that we must all confront the horrible history and legacy of slavery in America. They are doing what they can and hopefully the film will inspire others to speak out and not ignore the issue any longer.
Editor’s note: You can visit the official Traces of the Trade website to view a trailer here. One of the filmmakers and one of the subjects in the film came to Columbia College Chicago’s Doc III class recently and discussed the film. You can watch video from their Q&A here.