I just returned from watching this film. It was a screening organized by my employer, Public Allies. The filmmaker, Katrina Browne, is half of the pair who founded the organization almost 20 years ago. Staff, friends and guests brought in pizza and sweets, and settled into chairs more suitable to a half-hour meeting than a 90-minute film.
But it was hardly the chairs that created the discomfort.
“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” is about some descendants of the DeWolfs, who made an incredible fortune in the slave trade. Katrina is one of those descendants. The film’s basic premise — a group of people go on a journey to understand a shared, shameful family history — could be intriguing enough, but what I walked away with was a profound sense of never-ending complicity.
The movie has many streams that split, merge, cross and mix with each other. The stream that I’m reflecting on now was crystallized, for me, by a scene in Cuba, when the group –retracing the triangle of rum/slaves/sugar their ancestors so cleverly exploited — visited a plantation once owned by a DeWolf. There, they came across a large contraption that extracted juice from sugar cane by pushing a wheel that turned gears. We see the DeWolf descendants attempting to use it, with the suggestion that slave labor once made the gears turn. The contraption’s origins were stamped on its side “Buffalo, N.Y.,” dated (if I recall correctly) early 1800s.
It was one of many ways the movie smashed my facile assumptions about who’s responsible, and about who can relax by feeling not responsible. I shouldn’t need to hear it again, but apparently I do: No one has clean hands.
Your forebears came to the U.S. after the Civil War, you say? Check the long list of nations that built slaves fortresses in Ghana to get in on the action, they might very well hail from one of them. They farmed in the Midwest, you say? If the Midwest wasn’t growing wheat and selling it to the south, the south could not have afforded to plant so much land with lucrative cotton — picked by slaves — hence giving them resources to buy the wheat. You come from poor folks, you say? Yes, but if your granddad was educated on the G.I. bill, he could not have been black, and that’s probably why by the time you came along he had climbed into the middle class.
The logic trots on along those lines. And as I listened to the discussion, I started thinking about Native Americans …. child labor … the Jewish Holocaust … Japanese-American displacement camps … . How many of us can claim that nothing about our lives has benefitted from some aspect of exploitation, and very likely still is? If you truly can say you are not part of that group, you are probably among the exploited.
Katrina didn’t stop when the film is over. She and many of the people on the trip have pursued various ways of raising consciousness, seeking repatriation, advocating for change. That’s the whole point, after all. Stop the cycle. Acknowledge, admit, act. I liked what she said about letting the guilt and defensiveness give way to anger and grief, because the latter creates a starting point while the former gets you nowhere. I liked so much of what she said. Only part of it is being processed right here. I’ll continue to think.
But in what way will I act?
:: Katrina Browne has started a nonprofit that is dedicated to exploring the legacies of the slave trade. It’s called the Tracing Center: www.tracingcenter.org
:: One of the family members on the trip has written a book about the experience, “Inheriting the Trade”: www.inheritingthetrade.com
:: You can find out more about the film — including information about organizing classes or workshops around it: www.tracesofthetrade.org.
:: Find out about Katrina Browne’s connection to Public Allies here: www.publicallies.org.