Tag Archives: historical sociology

Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North

There’s something alarming about the fact that Traces of the Trade wasn’t made sooner—decades sooner. But, now that it’s available, audiences should watch it. Especially Americans. People living in the US have a largely amnesiac view of their own society; even while people “know” that African slavery and Indian genocide occurred, most do not know details, understand why they happened, or realize what the continued significance of them are today.

Traces of the Trade is directed by a descendant of the DeWolf family (Katrina Browne), who were the largest slave traders in United States history. While many white people are fond of saying: “My family didn’t own slaves” (although most of those people have never actually looked, to find out!), few have asked if their family benefited in any way from slavery. And few have likely benefited as much of the institution of slavery—outside of owning slaves—than wealthy slave-traders and their financiers. Thus, the director gathered together as many sympathetic family members as she could find, to travel their family’s history along the infamous slave-trade triangle: from their base in Rhode Island, to the source of African slaves in Ghana, to where the family’s economic interests in Cuba were. She invites many of her relatives, but the majority never bother contacting her, while some caution her not to take this journey, as it would bring attention and shame to the family name.

Her trip ends up being transformative for her family, but it will also be illuminating for audiences, too. The documentary helps to adjust the common assumption that slavery was exclusively a Southern thing. Of course, slaves had lived in Northern colonies for a very long time, too. But, more pertinent, was that Northern slave-traders and their financial backers were often based in the North (thus the strong economic centers of capital, banks, and the like in the Northeast). In order for the Southern institution of slavery to exist and persist, someone had to help support it economically—and many Northerners did. The message is clear: don’t be so smug, white Northerners, about the South’s history of slavery. The blood and violence the institution wrought has tainted all of America.

In order to reconcile what white DeWolf family members knew of their own family history and what the institution of slavery was really about, their travels provided them with numerous opportunities for reflection. One DeWolf cousin experiences a transformative moment when the family is visiting a slave fortress in Ghana. They spend time in a slave holding cell, then later in the day he reflects with his cousins upon how all sorts of “experts” had been telling them along their journey that they had to understand slavery in the context of its time. Allegedly, slavery must be understood on the terms of those historical figures, not via a modern, reflexive lens. But, he remarks that this is “bullshit”, since “they knew what they were doing was wrong”. Due to these experiences, a small slice of the director’s DeWolf family becomes active to pressure for changes. The director herself pursues efforts to influence the Episcopal Church’s (her religious faith) official statements about slavery. As white parishioners, they work alongside Black parishioners to influence stronger language against slavery, including for reparations.

Unfortunately, the voice features no real prominent Black voices in support reparations, except for the Black woman the director uses to engineer her family’s travels and interviews. This woman sometimes travels in front of the camera to forcefully explain some of the historical realities of slavery and what it means for present-day race relations. The irony of the DeWolf family members’ connection to slavery is that while they can profess to be non-racist today, the benefits of white supremacy have been accumulated within the family already, thus providing a class privilege. Nearly all of the cousins have Ivy League backgrounds, yet often cannot see how their family’s slave-trader history contributed to that upward mobility. One claims that the DeWolfs lost their money at one point, as if to explain away any possibility of them gaining advantage in America.

Traces of the Trade raises an important, but likely scary question—one that needs answering, but that most whites will wish to fervently avoid. How many other white Americans can trace their family genealogy to slavery? How could the process of searching for this history—and possibly finding something that most whites assume their families have no connection to—transform their perceptions of white privilege? Would they think differently about the regular claims of white Americans that to be “color-blind” is the best approach to dealing with racial inequality? Given how incredible the institution of slavery has been—to say nothing of genocide against Native peoples—how can we not afford to come to clearer terms with the legacy of these phenomenon and try to rectify their devastating consequences in a way that transcends simplistic and cop-outs (like declaring discrimination to be illegal and thus irrelevant today)?

Topics: race, inequality, historical sociology, social change, economic sociology