Thursday, February 05, 2009

Traces of The Trade - A Story From The Deep North

What does a family do when they discover their ancestors were the largest slave importers and traders in American history?

Slavery has existed since the beginning of time, but the American chapter surpasses all others because of its brutality, disregard for human life, and a profit margin.

Katrina Browne and nine of her extended family members set out to retrace their family’s injustice in the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story From The Deep North from the POV series.

The opening image of a tool shed fills the screen, as what appears to be either a heartbeat or a drum underscores the first frame. This location could double as a slave quarter or hideout, given its rustic look. Ms. Browne steps through the door, and thus begins our journey into her family’s colorful past.

The old gives way to the relatively modern with a celebration down a main avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island, famous for the longest 4th of July parade in the country. Ms. Browne somberly narrates the documentary, as succeeding images of white Americans flitter across the screen and we end up at Linden Place, a big mansion in the center of town that her family used to own.

The DeWolfs were once known as “the great folk” in Bristol, whose ranks included doctors, lawyers, professors, writers, and Episcopal ministers.

Our tour guide was at first fascinated by family legacy and love, which eventually gave way to a full investigation. Ms. Browne was in a seminary, undoubtedly on the path to become yet another Episcopal minister, when she received a family booklet from her grandmother who had compiled their history. The family had a no talk rule. “You don’t talk about unpleasant things: sex, religion, politics, and the Negroes.”

Mark Anthony DeWolf first came to America as a sailor in 1774 and began a long, profitable, and ultimately illegal enterprise as a slave trader. Katrina tries to chastise herself, if only for the listeners, that she knew the DeWolf history but buried it deep within her mind. What might she want to accomplish or set right acknowledging that her ancestors brought over 10,000 slaves to the Americas?

She began retracing her family’s presence in the slave trade from her apartment in Boston. The planned journey took her from Rhode Island to Ghana, to Cuba, and back. She felt unprepared to handle this alone and enlisted nine of 200 living survivors to travel back in time in search for answers, understanding, or reconciliation.

Katrina wanted to repair the damage and suffering her family caused to the estimated one and a half million survivors. I learned that Bristol was the historic center of the American slave trade.

The historical society that oversees Linden Place, built by George DeWolf in 1812 (one of the two prominent slave traders in the family), was concerned about the trip. A connection between slavery and the museum might surely affect visitors. They weren’t allowed to film inside. It was best not to soil the DeWolf name with their investigation. Truth, lies, and family deception ebb and flow throughout the 86-minute film.

The entire town of Bristol was involved; they all reaped the benefits of slavery. Boat makers, iron workers, coopers, and distillers were integral to three generations of the Christian-minded DeWolf family’s dominance on the slave trade.

One family member reasons that it was hard not to name his son after James DeWolf as he had been. Troubling because he had to know what it might mean to his son growing up. Why knowingly inflict the family legacy on yet another generation? He states, “It’s hard to break a chain once it’s started.” I wonder if he thought the same of slave shackles.

Rum was the currency of slavery that fueled the Triangle Trade. Sugar and molasses entered the DeWolf warehouse in the Bristol Harbor, and out went rum. Rum. Africans. Sugar. The slave trade was illegal most of the time the DeWolfs were practicing it. To work their way around this loophole, Thomas Jefferson appointed his brother-in-law as the customs official who looked the other way when slave ships arrived in port.

One of the more telling moments in the film takes place in Ghana, when a student asks a family member, “Are you not ashamed to come here?”

He replies, “Yes, it is a shaming thing.”

Where does one place their anger? Should all African descendants be enraged or accept that slavery was primarily a logical economic model, and that the earliest DeWolf pioneered vertical integration (controlling all aspects of an industry)?

The subject matter is too broad to encapsulate in an 86-minute documentary. What would create wholeness for people of African descent? What would create wholeness for people of European descent?

There will always be African Americans and others of African descent who feel they deserve reparations, written formal apologies, and legislation to soften the grip slavery has on history. We’re discussing American slavery, not world slavery. If that were the case, we’d be in court indefinitely.

What would suing for reparations do for those who were beaten, dragged, tarred and feathered, or lynched? Would I get closure if I were to successfully sue the American government for what might have happened to my ancestors? Will an apology cleanse any breach slavery has caused?

One,” by U2, is the closing song as the documentary ends, rolling through snowcapped white neighborhoods. Did the filmmakers miss the point, or should we read something different into the lyrics? The lyrics speak of love, unity, compassion, and slavery had nothing to do with either. The song is optimistic at best.

“Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same? Will it make it easier on you now? You got someone to blame. You say…”

1 comment:

James said...

As one of the descendants of the DeWolf slave traders appearing in Traces of the Trade, I very much enjoyed reading this review.

As a point of possible interest, the rustic building in the opening shot was, in fact, the warehouse owned by James DeWolf in Bristol, R.I.

That warehouse is now an acclaimed restaurant and bar, the DeWolf Tavern.