2008 marks the bicentennial of the United States’ abolition of the slave trade on its shores. That’s a landmark event in the nation’s history, and yet, it’s been largely overlooked. Maybe it’s because we like to pat ourselves on the back about the quantum leaps we’ve made in the two centuries since, or perhaps it’s because old wounds leave ugly scars best left unmentioned in polite conversation. It’s more likely a combination of the two, made all the more muddled by mythologies on all sides regarding the evolution of race relations in the United States.
Traces of the Trade, the season opener of the PBS acclaimed documentary series P.O.V., looks at some of these issues from a uniquely personal perspective. First-time filmmaker Katrina Browne discovers that her privileged life is linked to her lineal ancestors’ business in the slave trade. In fact, her Rhode Island ancestors, the DeWolfs, were the largest slave-trading family in United States history.
The news is something of a shock to Browne, considering the DeWolf name is revered in the family’s hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island. The family has a prominent place in history, with a lineage of professors, philanthropists, legislators, Episcopal priests and bishops. Slave trade was hinted at in the family annals, brushed off as poor relations in the family.
As she looks deeper into the family’s slave-trading roots, and learns more, she embarks on a journey with other DeWolf descendants, to retrace the routes of the infamous Triangle Trade — from Ghana, where the slaves were bought to the family’s sugar plantation in Cuba, where the slaves labored in the sugar fields, to make it into rum, to Rhode Island, where the product was sold, and the cycle began anew.
While Traces of the Trade falters in parts, veering dangerously from objective history into moments of white guilt and overly intellectual rationalization, it manages to point out that the history of race relations in America has been drastically altered over the generations. In so doing, it points out many of the myths of our history. In the end, we find that it wasn’t a matter of North versus South. It was more a matter of regional economic interests, wherein everybody was more complicit than textbook history suggests. There are wounds in our history that need to be healed, and the most expedient way to do that is to accept that history, as we were taught it, has some serious flaws.
As much as it drips of white guilt, and as much as it focuses on one family’s attempt at forgiveness for the sins of the fathers, Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North forces us to look at look at our sometimes unsavory past.
Traces of the Trade, part of the PBS series P.O.V., premieres on PBS Tuesday, 24 June, at 10P EST. Check your local listings, of course, but make it a point to view it.