Sunday, February 05, 2012

My Take - Traces of the Trade (2008)

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North
By: A. L. “Toni” Anderson

This 2008 documentary by Katrina Browne certainly started me thinking… again. What exactly does it mean to benefit from “white privilege”? How complicated is it that all of these generations after legalized slavery in the U.S. my people are still downtrodden, long after other, voluntary immigrants have caught up to us and prospered? How can anyone possibly think that racism does not still exist here in the land of opportunity?

I viewed the abridged version of this film in the Laney Community College Theater, one place I would not generally be after dark. Yet I thought this film was important enough to risk life and limb. Thought-provoking, yes, for some of us. Yet others are probably still deluding themselves.

The story begins in Bristol, Rhode Island, the site of the longest-running 4th of July parade in the country, a place built firmly on the back of the slave trade, undeniably in the North.

The filmmaker is a direct descendant of Mark Anthony D’Wolf (DeWolf), who arrived in this country in 1744, when it was legal in the U.S. to import slaves. The Dutch DeWolf family was the largest slave-holding family in Bristol, having brought over approximately half a million slaves from Africa during the “legal” trade.

The DeWolfs are steeped in the Episcopalian religion, and have attended Mass at St. Michael’s in Bristol for over two hundred years. Nevertheless, they make it a point never to discuss “politics, religion, or Negroes,” until this film. Maybe that was an attempt to avoid connecting Christianity with the control of slaves.

Several DeWolf descendants traveled backward over the Middle Passage in search of our interwined destiny, through Havana, Cuba, and on to Cape Coast, Ghana. The DeWolfs’s shared history has been revised and beautified to have them appear as abolitionists as opposed to slave traders, pirates as opposed to murderers.

Slavery in the South is generally thought of as Africans singing while picking cotton and harvesting tobacco; slavery in the North apparently went more into building stone walls, involuntarily nonetheless. Slaves were traded up and down the Northern Coast of the Atlantic, geographically far above the Southern states we generally think of as slave-holding.

Rum made in Cuba was the chief currency of the slave trade, as Northern slave traders picked up rum from Cuban plantations to trade for Africans on the West African Coast. Of the Northern states, Rhode Island was the “most complicit” in the United States slave trade, but these Northern slave states included New York, Connecticut, and others.

As the modern-day DeWolfs discovered on their pilgrimage, there were approximately 70 slave forts along the West Coast of Africa, built primarily by the Portuguese, and run by the Spanish, the French, the Dutch and the Danish. Their Christian churches were built right on top of the slave dungeons. A foreign religion for every ounce of a human being’s culture, language, and name. What a trade.

Centuries after the legal slave trade allegedly ended, Africans and other people of the African Diaspora still mourn in ritual. Yet the DeWolf family who witnessed this ritual in Ghana never let it cross their minds that their presence might be an intrusion… a delusional frame of mind if I ever saw one.

One of my favorite scenes in the film involved a family dinner wherein each of the DeWolf descendants tries to convince the others that everything they have, they obtained on their own merits. What a coincidence that all except one attended either Harvard, Princeton, or Brown University. I think not! Through Katrina, the family protests that all of the slave-trading family fortune was lost long ago and that they made their Ivy League money the old-fashioned way. Right!

Surely not every European family in the Americas profited as greatly from the various branches and contributory products of the slave trade, yet it is obvious to me that the leg up that was obtained long ago purely by virtue of a white skin still exists, no matter how much they protest!

I know the film was thought-provoking and stimulating for the few audience members who are descendants of Africa; I have no idea what it meant to the privileged many.

© 02/05/2012


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