Homecoming pilgrimages back to Africa by black Americans whose ancestors were kidnapped into slavery from those shores, is not unusual. But that same kind of emotional and spiritual journey to Africa back through slave history by white Americans, certainly is. Except that the pilgrims in this case, are the descendants of the largest slave trading family in US history, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island.
This quest is the subject of a remarkable documentary, Katrina Browne’s Traces Of The Trade: A Story From The Deep North. Browne herself is the seventh generation descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, the family’s first slave trader.
And though we tend to learn in grade school that the US South was the prime culprit in the deplorable institution of slavery, it was actually the North. And of all places, presumably more enlightened New England. Specifically, Bristol, Rhode Island. Minister turned filmmaker Browne – whose family name graces that Rhode Island Ivy League university – was appalled to discover her DeWolf roots in the inception, expansion and perpetuation of the international slave trade.
And Browne was moved to create a documentary about that both personal and historical dark past, revisiting with other family members the numerous crime scenes along what has come to be known as the Triangle Trade, from Rhode Island to Africa, Cuba and the Caribbean, and the deep South. This brave and sobering documentary has been a labor of love that, according to Browne, was inspired “not out of personal guilt, but grief.” The same was apparently not true of the rest of the DeWolf family tree. Out of 200 descendants scattered around the US whom she was able to locate, only nine of them would agree to take that painful and difficult path back in time with her, around the planet.
Browne begins her investigation in a dusty back room of the local Bristol historical society, where the records detailing James DeWolf’s deplorable deeds reveal him to have accumulated enough wealth from buying slaves – often for some mackerel – that made him the second richest man in America back then. In fact, as Browne discovers, that family business continued past the Civil War, and long after the slave trade was declared illegal.
And when the practice was officially banned, the DeWolf clan simply paid off or pressured politicians – Thomas Jefferson in particular – to look the other way as ships entered and departed the harbors. Apparently they were able to gain political favors from Jefferson in return for having supported his political campaigns.
And while Browne as the film’s narrator expresses her dismay as to “what kind of crazy partnership did we have in all these centuries of determined silence,” she recalls in personal flashbacks how glimpses of that troubling family history were imparted to her as a child. Which included bedtime stories of the DeWolf patriarchy as merely good ole boys, embarking on an exciting high seas pirate kind of adventure, as if they were headed off to a spring break frolic.
And when Browne and her family members reach Ghana, there are “mixed feelings of sadness and awkwardness,” as if intruding on sacred ground. A visit to a coastal slave dungeon crawling with roaches, enforces that dread and that sorrow for them. In particular, a church erected on top of this dungeon, where the kidnapped slaves were oiled, baptized and renamed, in a different sort of despicable identity theft.
But before they depart from Ghana, there’s an illuminating discussion with a scholar there, raising an old debate about the culpability of Africans who sold their own countrymen into slavery, and were they responsible too. And the answer is quite a surprising one for these pilgrims, who are enlightened about the primary role in slavery of class, rather than race. For it was not ordinary Africans who engaged in the slave trade, but landowners and royalty elites instead – the most wealthy and powerful.
And finally, the journey to Cuba, one of the largest slave markets in the world long after being declared illegal. And Browne describes the sobering plane ride, along the same path of the Middle Passage, where eleven million Africans were taken by ship, and a million and a half perished in the Atlantic.
Once in Cuba, Browne searches for the slave plantations there that had once belonged to her family. They’ve been declared historic sites, where the Cuban government pays tribute to these wronged people – something the US government has yet to do, or even apologize for. At one plantation, the family members sit down in the cafe there for the only meal available – consisting of exactly what slaves ate back then. And these visitors look neither happy nor hungry.
One of the most eerie events in Traces Of The Trade, is the gleeful singing by children of a traditional DeWolf nursery rhyme passed down through the generations. It’s about two slave children James DeWolf purchased for his wife as a Christmas present. And the DeWolf youngsters giggle as they sing about pushing them down into the cellar where they must live, and how funny it is when the slave children keep bumping their heads on the cellar door.
Though this documentary leaves too vague as to what can be done about America’s unresolved past – beyond the closure embodied in truth and reconciliation – Browne does observe that ‘In a strange way we’re already there, just waiting for each other.’ But it’s that nursery rhyme that may have the greatest power to reveal just how inhumanity gets passed down and perpetuated from one generation to another, through its most impressionable minds. And how that may also be exactly where the key to change lies.
Traces Of The Trade: A Story From The Deep North will be featured at the Human Right Watch Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater in NYC, which runs June 12-26th. This is a rare event for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival that sheds a spotlight on wrongs committed by the US, instead of the rest of the world.
More information is at HRW.org and TracesOfTheTrade.org. There are also details at the film’s website about the DVD, and organizing to gather and take action in your community around issues raised in the documentary.
Traces Of The Trade will have its national broadcast television premiere on the PBS independent documentary series P.O.V. on Tuesday, June 24 at 10 p.m, check local listings.
3 1/2 stars