Tomorrow, the Boston Globe offers a review of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, entitled “Facing up to a family’s past as slave traders.”

The review is occasioned by the screening of the film tomorrow night at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as part of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. The film will be screened at 8:00pm, and afterward, Katrina Browne and I will participate in a question-and-answer period, along with editor Alla Kovgan and co-producer Elizabeth Delude-Dix.

The review, by Joel Brown, is mixed, giving the documentary two stars out of four. Some of his criticisms of the film are ones we’ve come to expect, and in a few cases, I’m quite sympathetic to his reactions. For instance, at one point he uses the word “self-involvement” to describe his response to some of what he’s hearing and seeing on screen; the word I use in the film is “self-indulgent.” He also takes issue with Katrina’s deeply personal and psychological approach to the subject matter, offering that perhaps “white liberal guilt is inherently risible.”

Brown’s critique, however, appears to be aimed primarily at the attitudes and reactions of the ten of us in the film, and not at how well the documentary was or wasn’t made. For instance, he mocks Katrina’s clarification that none of us inherited any wealth from our slave-trading ancestors. Instead of using this observation, that we’re remarkably ordinary Americans, to focus on the less tangible and more widespread forms of privilege explored in the film, Brown implies that we must have wealth from other sources, so that he can suggest we’re self-involved for not caring more about the sources of this fictitious money.

His major concern seems to be what he understands to be the family’s response to the experiences chronicled in the film. He derides the four family members who, after the journey to Africa and Cuba, appear at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to lend their voices in support of a resolution apologizing for the church’s role in slavery. He suggests that this response would not be seen favorably by those who most deserve our help. Instead, he says, the participants in the film ought to considering “tutoring poor children in their hometowns” or “creating a scholarship for a kid from Ghana.”

This may be a legitimate criticism of the film, insofar as the ending suggested, at least to this reviewer, that the sum total of our reaction to this experience was to support a resolution on the subject.

In fact, for those who are curious, I have spent countless hours tutoring children in underprivileged neighborhoods, and I am hardly the only family member depicted in the film who does so. Of course, we’re hardly alone in this society in recognizing contemporary problems and engaging in public service. None of us in the family began activities like this only after filming the documentary, and I’m not sure why Mr. Brown believes it would take an examination of slavery or the slave trade to lead Americans to engage in activities of this kind.

As for creating a scholarship for Ghanaian children, this was probably not the best example for the reviewer to have chosen. First of all, several members of the family have, in fact, remained closely involved with Ghana since filming. Secondly, the legacy of American slavery and the slave trade is not best addressed by aiding African nations. The descendants of those harmed by slavery live on this side of the ocean, not on that side. Those societies were willing participants in the slave trade, and benefited enormously (in material terms) from their involvement. If Africa deserves assistance from Western nations, it is because the continent later suffered under colonialism, and because its nations are in need today, not because of the slave trade.

Most importantly, however, this reviewer seems to be focused on the idea that those in film aren’t typical Americans, but rather must be wealthy members of the elite who can afford to fund scholarships. In fact, there are family members in the film who are relatively wealthy, and those who have no money at all.

Why does this matter? Because the film means very little if it is only about the unique burdens of the descendants of a particular slave-trading family from Bristol, R.I. In fact, using the DeWolf family, the film tries to illustrate that all Americans have inherited privileges from our nation’s legacy of slavery, and that we must wrestle with this reality if we are not to ignore important truths about ourselves and our society.

To the extent that the film fails to convey this message, and leaves the impression that those of us in the film carry unique burdens because of our particular ancestry, then Brown is right to criticize how the film has turned out.

Brown also makes several factual errors in the review, most of which, consistent with the misconceptions above, are concerned with those of us who appear in the film.

So, for instance, he describes us as “white, well-off, middle-aged liberals – all but one with Ivy League degrees.” While those of us in the film are certainly all white, we are not all well-off, nor are we all liberals by any stretch of the imagination. We aren’t all middle-aged, ranging in age from 32 to 70 when we appear in the film. Finally, most of us do not have Ivy League degrees; Brown is mis-remembering a scene which discusses the fact that several of us had parents who went to such schools.

Finally, Brown claims that in the film, “the current-day Africans are mostly indifferent and sometimes downright hostile to their mission.” In fact, most Africans we met on the journey, from scholars to schoolchildren, were delighted with our visit and, while occasionally they struggled to understand why we would make this effort, they were almost invariably quite pleased that we wanted to retrace our ancestors’ footsteps and acknowledge their misdeeds. Many of these Africans are depicted in the film. Perhaps, however, Brown is thinking of the one African-American who was hostile, not to our mission, but to my uncle’s brief attempt to introduce himself to her during what she considered a sacred moment.

Leave a Reply