This is an essay for my GBL 102 course. It’s a discussion of a film we watched for class called Traces of the Trade.
When one learns about one’s place in the system of oppression that is inherent in one’s society, the natural response should be to try to think about the people who are oppressed, rather than focusing solely on one’s own feelings about being part of the system. Katrina Browne’s documentary, Traces of the Trade, documents the experience of 10 DeWolf descendants as they respond to their ancestors’ establishment of the largest slave trading family in United States history. They retrace their ancestors’ slave trade route to Ghana, Cuba, and back to the United States, and through this they learn about their family history as well as some of the horrific realities enslaved people faced. However, outside from learning this factual information and discussing the guilt they feel stemming from their family’s involvement in these atrocities, the DeWolf descendants come out of this trip having changed very little. From the beginning to the end of this film, the family’s focus is on white people, and specifically themselves, rather than the black people who are facing the harsh consequences of the oppression directly caused by their DeWolf ancestors. They are very self-absorbed throughout, and while this is understandable to some degree, their failure to grow out of this attitude by the end of the film is disappointing.
One of the most disturbing aspects of this documentary is the constant self-absorption of the family members. Throughout the journey, they focus mainly on their own emotions and how they feel about everything they encounter. Before the family leaves the States, they do some research on family history and see chains used on slaves. One family member, Holly Fulton, immediately responds, “I didn’t know that was gonna be there. It’s upsetting me.” Rather than expressing any thoughts of how upsetting being chained must have been for slaves, or even saying that she is upset that these chains were used to shackle innocent African people, her first reaction is to comment on her discomfort at seeing the chains at all. She comments on her own feelings first, rather than acknowledging the horror of the history itself. She seems not to realize this at all as, when the family is nearing the end of the trip and having a discussion while they are in Cuba, she responds to another family member’s concern that they are being self indulgent with, “I wanna know what you mean by self indulgent.” She shows through her words that she has not been concerned at all about being self-absorbent, that the idea has not even occurred to her once.
Holly is, of course, not the only family member to live in her own head. During this very discussion, another of the family, Elly DeWolfe Hale, begins to cry, as she is concerned about how their Black colleague, Juanita Capri Brown, must feel about them. Juanita is supervising their discussion and is not meant to join, but she is put on the spot and forced to answer that she thinks they are “good people,” though she is also angry about slavery and white people’s lack of attention or concern about it. When Elly does this, she is thinking only of her own image in the eyes of her friend, but she does not consider how Juanita might feel in being put on the spot and forced to answer such a personal question on camera. By focusing on her image rather than the real-life problems the family ought to be grappling with, given their abhorrent heritage, she fails to think about those truly affected by her family’s explicit involvement in slavery. Thus, this journey seems to have taught her very little.
When the family comes back home to the States, another family discussion reveals another family member’s failure to grasp any lessons that might have been gained during this journey. The family is discussing privilege and education is brought up, and Jim DeWolf Perry V immediately insists that his Harvard education is not a result of privilege, but solely a product of his own hard work. In the beginning of the film, he explains that he does not feel guilt for his ancestors’ part in the slave trade, and that he feels very removed from it. He disassociates himself from the slave traders then, and now, by not acknowledging any privilege that would allow him to attend an institution such as Harvard, he is attempting to remove himself once again from the connection of slave traders and how he might be profiting from this connection. The rest of the family attempts to show him that he does, indeed, have privilege in that regard as they go around the table and discuss just how many of them have Ivy League legacies. Only one out of the ten people does not have a parent who attended an Ivy League institution, which is a clear indication of privilege. Certainly, if they were not white upper- and middle-class Americans, attending such institutions would be much more difficult. Jim only becomes upset at this, and refuses to agree with the rest of the family in that privilege has played a huge role in his ability to attend an elite institution like Harvard. Even after the journey, even after speaking to Ghanaians and African Americans and learning about his family’s history, he does not want to acknowledge his level of privilege.
The film ends with discussion of reparations and resolutions. It seems hopeful until one actually watches it and hears Katrina’s speech at the Episcopal Church in Bristol. She explains that Black people must heal from the effects of slavery, but they are not the only ones. White people, according to her, must heal, too, from the scars inflicted on them by learning the sins of their ancestors who were complicit in the slave trade. This statement is rather shocking. This woman has organized a trip, retracing her family history and learning about the horrors that enslaved Africans had to endure, and her lesson from all of this is that white people must heal. Where one would think her focus would be on helping the Black community, she insists on focusing on white people and their feelings. She does not address the scars Black people in the United States face, not just from emotional trauma but from systematic racism that is a remnant of the system of slavery upon which this country was founded. In fact, besides reparations, which is first brought up by a Black person in Ghana, there is little to no mention of the effects of systematic racism on Black Americans today. The failure to acknowledge these issues and the decision to focus instead on white people’s feelings shows a clear gap in her logic and highlights a lack of shift in focus that would have been necessary for a full learning experience from the trip.
There are many other instances of clear resistance to change that the family members display. While it cannot be said that they learned nothing at all, or that they had even the slightest ill intention, their mindsets toward race and privilege do not seem to have broadened. Their insistence on focusing on their own feelings, their own image, their own “trauma,” reveals that they are thinking more about themselves than they are the people of color whose lives their family has affected. Though they have completed an incredibly educational journey about their family history and the mechanics of the transatlantic slave trade, they have failed to use this information to fully grow out of the people they were before the trip. Thus, from this constant self-absorption and sole inner focus, the DeWolf descendants do not transform from having participated in this travel experience.