The Ties That Bind: A Family Faces Its Dark History in 'Traces of the Trade'

Documentary filmmaker Katrina Brown was a seminary student when she received a letter from her grandmother disclosing the fact that she was a direct descendant of the DeWolfs, one of New England’s (and America’s) largest and most socially prominent slave-trading families.

Traces of the Trade, which airs this week on PBS’ P.O.V. to kick off the 21st season of the series, is the result of a painful examination of Browne’s past and the beginning of a dialogue in closing the racial divide of today. IDA caught up with Browne and other members of her team, via e-mail, to discuss the trajectory and emotional fallout of this epic and trying family journey.

Traces of the Trade
From Katrina Browne's 'Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.' Photo: Amishadai Sackitey. Courtesy of EBB POD Productions.

IDA: How did you feel when you discovered that you were descended from the largest slave trading family in US history—especially as this family history was largely covered up?

Katrina Brown: When I was 28, and enrolled in seminary in Berkeley, California, I received a small booklet from my grandmother. She wanted her grandchildren to know about our family history. In the midst of tales about all the artists, writers, ministers and other upright Yankees in our family tree, she mentioned our DeWolf ancestors being slave traders in Bristol, Rhode Island. I was shocked, and yet I realized that I already knew and had essentially buried it. So the bigger shock was discovering my own amnesia.

In researching the historical literature, I was horrified to learn that the DeWolfs were actually the largest slave-trading dynasty in US history. I don’t think anyone in my family realized the extent of it. Also, I soon learned that the DeWolfs were just the tip of the iceberg of this huge pattern of Northern economic complicity in slavery. So my family’s amnesia was a microcosm of Northern amnesia. In the beginning this did feel like a huge burden of guilt, but I’ve moved from unhealthy guilt that can just be paralyzing, to a healthier kind that is more about being conscious that I’ve inherited a lot of privileges, but that I’m not the one who did the harm. Now I focus on how I can make a difference, coming from a place of being inspired rather than over-burdened.

Traces of the Trade
From Katrina Browne's 'Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.' Courtesy of EBB POD Productions.

IDA: What has been the collective family response to your film? Do you feel some enlightenment and healing occurred within the family members who chose not to participate?


KB: I initially only had a list of 200 DeWolf descendants, but over the years I’ve been working on the film I have gotten e-mails from distant cousins all over the US who hear about the project, as there are thousands of DeWolf descendants by now. The vast majority of people who contact me are supportive, though sometimes they’ll tell me about family members of theirs who aren’t, or who are nervous. Of the 190 who knew about the journey in 2001 and did not participate, there are many who just didn’t have the time or money. Of those who were anxious about or against the project, some have come to see the value of it. Once they realized that we weren’t out to beat anyone up over this, or to make white people feel personally guilty (vs. responsible in a healthy way), it feels like even most people who were opposed in the beginning have softened their stance. Because of the family ties, there is a relationship there, so it’s possible to stay in conversation vs. just write each other off and move on. There are a few people who still question what good the film can do. There have certainly been a number of very difficult exchanges inside and outside the family, from the left and from the right, in a sense.

IDA: Has your grandmother voiced any misgivings about sharing the information about the slave-trading legacy? Has she been supportive of this documentary? How about your immediate family?

KB: My grandmother passed away in 1999, about a year after I decided to make the film. I’d gone to her first for her blessing. She was nervous about the idea of advertising this shameful family history, but she trusted me, noting that younger generations were doing things that hers would never have dreamed of. I hope somehow she can see what we’ve created and that she’s proud of what she set in motion. My parents and my brother have been incredibly supportive. The film is a real product of my parents’ influence on me and my neighborhood’s influence: I grew up in the historic area in Philadelphia, near Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. My mom researches and writes tours for the city that bring the history and values of our nation’s founding alive, and both my parents are really involved in civic life. When you’re raised on those values, it’s all the more striking when you realize that we’re not living up to them.

IDA: Making a documentary involving family skeletons is a very personal and emotional issue. How were you able to remain detached as an auteur while being part of the subject?

KB: I definitely wore multiple hats during our journey, but since I was a full participant I was completely immersed in the emotional conversations and issues that came up. My co-director during production, Jude Ray, helped keep distance during the filming as she was always behind the camera, whereas I was in front and behind. During post-production, I couldn’t even watch all the footage to make selects, I was too close to it, so Alla Kovgan, my other co-director, did. But since it turned out to be such a long filmmaking process, I got more and more able to maintain what I hope was a good balance between the big picture and immersion into my role as narrator. The other poles that we had to be faithful to in the edit room, and negotiate between, were the content and the form. “Art! Cinema!” Alla would say. “History! Politics! Issues!” I would say. We cared about both, so we found our way to some middle ground.

Traces of the Trade
From Katrina Browne's 'Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.' Courtesy of EBB POD Productions.

IDA: There were a few scenes where the nine members of your family seemed overwhelmed by the enormity and gravity of the family history—especially in Ghana— and there were some emotional outbursts that revealed the strain of this journey. Were there any surprises in their revelations, either on or off camera?

KB: One interesting dynamic is how we expressed ourselves. The WASP culture I’m from is very restrained. White people from other ethnic backgrounds, as well as black folks, will come up to me and say, “You guys don’t yell and interrupt and get worked up, do you?”—hence my cousin Keila’s eruption in the film that she was sick of us being “our nice Protestant selves!” This is one of the challenges that we faced—getting real with each other and dealing with conflict, rather than staying polite all the time and beating around the bush. One of the advantages of going on the journey was that it forced more intensity.

IDA: This question is for your co-producer, Juanita Brown. As an African-American woman, what are your thoughts about working on this project when, more than likely, your ancestors were impacted by the DeWolf family's slave trading? When you were in Ghana, how did you feel being among the descendants of slaves? Did you feel a kinship with them, and less with Katrina and her project?

Juanita Brown: I had a difficult time deciding if and how deeply I would work on the project. At the time, I was concerned about what role I might take on. What if this group of white people who, while they were courageous enough to grapple with these issues on camera, might frequently look to me as a representative of black people in the US who could make them feel OK about themselves along the way? That would be too taxing for me. But what made me feel ready for this journey was that in thinking about my own connection to the legacy of slavery and the ways it has ravaged me, I had also been dialoguing with white people and other people of color for a few years before the film began. I felt that I was able to understand my own inheritance around race and other people's with a degree of generosity. In the years before the journey, I noticed that I had begun to develop the ability to be openhearted in interracial conversation. I could create the space for dialogue that I thought would really facilitate the white family members in getting at some aspects of slavery, the current racial climate and human psychology that they otherwise might not. 

Whenever we were in a predominantly black or Latino setting—such as in Ghana or Cuba—I was always very aware of how we as a crew seemed to be moving through the space. I wanted the camera crews to be as mindful as possible, given the fact that this project is about restoring respect, balance and truth. I did feel a kinship with the people of African descent I came in contact with. I could also sense their skepticism around how groundbreaking this endeavor could really be and their curiosity around why would I put myself through something like this. For me, the answer became very clear. There are all kinds of permutations of conversations that African-Americans have been having around race since we arrived in this country. I felt that part of the change needed in this country is for white America to really understand this history and how it impacts them in their relationships, behavior (individual and institutional) and self-concept. Even when there weren't a lot of people of color around, I always held a sense of inserting into the conversation a perspective that would respond to what could be characterized defensiveness, denial or guilt. At the same time, this journey was not about trying to tear anyone to pieces. It was important to keep things flowing, yet very candid. 

Now, as much as I had developed a more expanded sense of how people enter the racial conversation, I could not but help feeling emotionally triggered and saddened during the trip. Why is it that this was the first time that many of these white family members could choose to be in a predominantly black setting (in Ghana) for a short period of time, whereas I was often one of a few African-Americans in a professional or academic setting back in the US on a daily basis? The ways in which the family and others' white privilege manifested definitely saddened and incensed me at times.

I don't think a lot about this as healing and restitution work in terms of “forgiveness,” so I can't say that I've forgiven anything and moved on. I think in terms of where we as black, white and other people of color are now, what caused that, how people best respond to change and challenge, and how to go forward to heal myself and open up the hearts of the people of color and white people I come in contact with. Because I believe that people are inherently good and that my life's work is about human liberation, I felt this project was too important to not be a part of . 

IDA: This question is for your co-director, Jude Ray. How many weeks did your sojourn last and what were the biggest challenges to shepherding the family members to Ghana and Cuba—especially with the knowledge that they would be facing and grappling with some sobering and painful issues?

Jude Ray: We were together for about five weeks during the summer of 2001, for our international journey to retrace the Triangle Trade. Making this film with ten family members on three continents was the ultimate in reality programming before the term was even conceived of! The logistics involved were as complex and massive as the subject. Katrina, Juanita Brown and I decided to use two camera crews at all times, in order to get coverage of large groups, and also because of racial dynamics, as well as because we felt it was important to incorporate the perspective and vision of our local crews, who would literally "see" the film differently. We worked with one consistent US crew throughout, all white, as well as 2nd unit crews—Ghanaian, Cuban and in the US, sometimes African-American and sometimes white. We wanted to be as respectful as possible wherever we went. In some instances, for example, in Ghana during Panafest (a homecoming event for people from the African Diaspora), the Ghanaian crew would cover an event that felt inappropriate for the family to attend, but at which cameras were allowed.

What made this film so fascinating to me, as a filmmaker, was corralling this large group and helping them move through so many different experiences, making sure the cameras captured their characters developing over time, all within the crucible of the process we'd set up. The drama was in their going through these often profoundly uncomfortable experiences, so supporting the family psychologically, during moments of emotional catharses, called for enormous tact and sensitivity to their process, all while keeping an eye on how to tell the story. Staying alert to what might become a key dramatic moment, one we had to push and facilitate rather than allow people to stay on safe ground, being a gentle interviewer while encouraging more honesty from our subjects—these were our directorial challenges. There were certainly tensions on the journey, with so many people and so many different agendas. We needed to cover events, locations, interviews with historians/experts, inter-racial dialogues, family “debriefs” and individual family interviews, all in short time-frames, and with a subject matter that could hardly have been more intense. So there were rough spots, but everyone was really committed to the ultimate mission, so that held us together.

Traces of the Trade
From Katrina Browne's 'Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North.' Courtesy of EBB POD Productions.

IDA:  Katrina, there was a healing ceremony for the slave descendants that took place in a river in Ghana— and a very poignant moment when your family asked for healing and forgiveness and were politely rebuffed. How did that feel? Was there much discussion among you, as this was a clear indicator that unification and forgiveness was more complicated than it appeared?

KB: I wasn’t actually there when Dain approached the man who was performing the healing ceremony, but to clarify: I don’t think Dain was asking for forgiveness, but rather a cleansing. The man told Dain that we—white folks—needed to heal ourselves and approach our white elders to perform appropriate ceremonies. As a family, we talked about Dain’s experience; it was one of several that forced us to face how wide the gulf can be at times. It lead to some heated discussions about what work African-Americans and European-Americans need to do together and what work we need to do apart from each other. The leader’s words took on even more significance back in Rhode Island four years later, as viewers will see in the film.


IDA: Your group also held a Q & A with the Ghanaian descendants, who were very candid and pointed with the questions they posed to your group. They seemed open, yet resentful—and that scene clearly brought out the fact that there would be no easy reconciliation. Are you hopeful you can transcend that in Ghana someday, or is the damage too deep and complex?


KB: The Q&A you’re referring to actually included African-Americans as well as Ghanaians. For most of the Ghanaians we met, this wasn’t as emotionally intense as it is for Americans. We were told that many people in Ghana haven’t dealt with this slave trade history either, in terms of being victims and perpetrators. It isn’t being taught widely in schools. What is more in your face is the legacy of colonialism (which is connected, of course). The poverty was overwhelming for us to witness.

With the African-Americans who came to the dialogue, we engaged in very frank conversation about the impact of race and racism on all of us and our country. It’s true: reconciliation isn’t easy. It takes commitment to engage in deep conversations and deep listening. It takes establishing and nurturing relationships. And it takes following through with concrete action.

The damage is deep but avoiding it won’t solve anything, and I’ve found that it’s ultimately more liberating to face it than avoid it. Professor Kofi Anyidoho, a revered poet in Ghana, believes we are living with a patchwork of scars over an unclean wound. It is necessary to dig down and clean the wound properly if we are ever to heal.


IDA:  Back home, the (primarily white) Episcopal congregation and bishop seemed very ready and eager to heal, and it ended your film with hope for future dialogue and healing. Has your film inspired any bringing together of the groups since its premiere?


KB: Several of us who made the journey in 2001 attended the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2006. They were considering resolutions dealing with the church’s role in slavery and its aftermath. At the previous convention in 2003, a similar resolution was killed on a technicality in committee, never making it to the floor for discussion. In 2006 we screened a rough cut of Traces of the Trade several times for attendees. They ended up passing significant resolutions: apologizing for the church’s involvement in slavery and the century of racism and discrimination which followed the Civil War; and calling for detailed study of how the church benefited from slavery and what appropriate steps could be taken to “repair the breach.” They also encourage everyone in the United States to engage in a truth and reconciliation process led by our federal government. Many bishops told us that the film helped people see these issues in a different light. It helped people not to be so afraid of these incendiary topics. The church will hold a service of repentance at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC in October this year.

We’ve worked also with the Unitarian Universalist Association, which has passed a truth and reconciliation resolution, and we are starting to partner with other denominations and faith traditions as well, all of which have clear commitments to anti-racism. The rough cut and film have been used by many groups already, and it seems to be opening important pathways for people to go where they need to go.

IDA: This question is for your co-director/editor/writer, Alla Kovgan: How was the editing experience?


Alla Kovgan: From the editing point of view, Traces belongs to category of “longitudinal” documentaries that take very long to edit and the more you edit them, the better they get. The structure of the film—the family journey—was clear from the moment I came on board. However, the elements to compose the narrative arc of the film out of 300 hours of material and Katrina’s arc as the main character were figured out in the cutting room. Our biggest challenge was how to keep the film personal and not preachy, yet reveal all the politics, history and concepts that Katrina cared about. Stylistic choices (home movies and animation) as well as the wording of the narration were key to giving our film cinematic texture. Writing narration, I tried to steer us away from using jargon language. “Inspiring, not tiring!” was our motto. “Poetic and philosophical rather than didactic!” Katrina and I would always discuss, “How would you say what you want to say to a friend on the phone? How would you describe what you experienced?”

I also wanted our film to have a cinematic signature of a sort. From the footage collected by Liz Dory, the DP, I pulled a lot of beautiful shots of empty spaces, where once upon a time the DeWolf ancestors had conducted their dealings. We used these images to evoke this ghostly spirit of the past and to provide space for Katrina’s musings. We worked closely with the composer Roger Miller to design soundscapes and scores to support this feeling we were after.

There was a lot of material left on the cutting room floor so there will definitely be extras included on a later release of the DVD. Thankfully, Katrina‘s cousin Tom DeWolf has written a book called Inheriting the Trade about our journey, so it covers a lot more than could fit in the film (It’s in bookstores and online;


IDA: Is this film being used in educational settings?

KB: Yes. Excerpts of the film have been shown by various members of our family in middle school and high school settings. Tom and I have also worked on college campuses. Schools are key because most of us did not get taught about the role of the North in slavery. And young people are often more ready to talk candidly about race and racism than we are as adults. And of course these days, using media in the classroom helps! There is a lesson plan for the film available through our website ( and POV’s (

IDA: I imagine you came up with personal revelations and insight into yourself, your legacy and the healing that is yet to come; is there anything you would like to share along these lines or any other aspect of your journey?


KB: Senator Obama’s historic speech about the complexity of the issues of race in April in Philadelphia was a real inspiration to me. He talked about the “racial stalemate” between black anger and white resentment, both of which have to be understood by the other. This year is also the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the US slave trade. And Congressman John Conyers has a bill, HR40, that is basically calling for a national truth, repair and reconciliation process. I hope we can use these great opportunities to get down into the heart of all of this unfinished business.

Former Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather is a freelance journalist and development director based in Austin, Texas. She puts the Fun in fundraising. You may reach her at