In this Emmy-nominated documentary, filmmaker Katrina Browne discovers that her Rhode Island forefathers were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine relatives decide to retrace the Triangle Trade: from a port town in Rhode Island, to slave forts in Ghana, to the ruins of one of their family’s sugar plantations in Cuba. Step by step they uncover the vast extent of Northern complicity in slavery, and thus come to see that slavery built the nation, not just the South. They meet with people of African descent abroad and at home and grapple with questions of white privilege, healing and repair in the present day.
While still in rough-cut form, the film contributed to the Episcopal Church’s 2006 decision to issue an apology for its role in slavery and embark upon research, repentance, dialogue and repair processes in dioceses around the country that are still on-going.
Traces of the Trade premiered in 2008 at the Sundance Film Festival, and then aired nationally on PBS. The film has contributed significantly to the growing public awareness in the last 10-15 years about the role of the North in slavery. It has also been broadcast in Canada, Cuba and Bermuda, and has screened in numerous European, Caribbean and African countries. Family member Tom DeWolf published a book about the family journey: Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.
The film is used extensively in schools, universities, museums, religious denominations, workplaces and professional conferences for education and heart-felt dialogue. A nonprofit was formed out of the film, The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. It helps museums and historic sites improve how they interpret slavery for the public (including via a published collection of essays) and on helping teachers improve how they teach slavery. Another ripple has been the formation of the Center for Reconciliation out of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.
Ms. Browne specializes in bringing attention to “racialized emotions” and particularly the psychological legacies of slavery for white Americans and how those hinder restorative justice. She contributed a book chapter on how these legacies manifest in the classroom to: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery: New Directions in Teaching and Learning. She is currently developing a multi-session film-based race dialogue series curriculum for the Episcopal Church and other interested denominations.