Film

A family’s troubling legacy

'Traces of the Trade' makes personal a heritage of slave ownership

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An official selection of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” follows Katrina Browne, the filmmaker, and nine of her cousins in their discovery that their ancestors belonged to the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.

The film documents their travels from Bristol, Rhode Island, to Ghana, to the ruins of a sugar cane plantation in Artemisa, Cuba, and what they found along the way about their family history and, eventually, themselves.

The documentary has been shown on the PBS series “Point of View” and won the Henry Hampton Award for Excellence in Film in 2009. In July 2009, it was nominated for an Emmy Award for historical research.

“Traces of the Trade” will be screened Sunday (March 5) at 3 p.m. at St. James Episcopal Church, 208 Camino de Santiago. The event is sponsored by the St. James Episcopal Church, the Unitarian Congregation of Taos, the First Presbyterian Church of Taos, along with the Taos Interfaith/Intercultural Alliance. Admission is free.

The facilitators

The film will be presented by Dain and Constance Perry, who participated in the family’s journey of discovery of their history and legacy and the healing of racial wounds.

“Since I got the first 20-minute trailer of the film back in 2002, I have been showing it,” Dain Perry said. “After it was completed in 2008, my wife, Constance, and I have traveled all over the country and abroad, screening the film and facilitating conversations on race. We have taken it to over 160 cities in the United States, as well as to Australia and West Africa.”

Dain Perry worked for 30 years at the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network. Constance Perry worked with nonprofit organizations helping people who were out of the workforce to get back into it. They are now retired and devote most of their time to facilitating group discussions about the legacy of slavery. Up to now, they have conducted more than 360 screenings at schools, places of worship and public gatherings.

“The reason we do it is to get people talking about racism and what it means to America,” he said. “We are an interracial couple. I descend from slave traders and slave owners and Constance is a descendant of slaves. Based on both our personal and family history, we have embarked on this journey of reconciliation and healing.”

A time to share

After the screening, the facilitators will invite people in the audience to share their stories and memories about how racism has affected their lives.

“I believe this exchange is actually the most important part of the event,” Constance Perry said. “We talk about the legacy of racism and how it is directly connected not only with the slave trade and Jim Crow, but with what came afterwards — a part of our history that not many people know about because it isn’t taught in our schools.”

“Racism affects every people of color in America — black, brown, Asian, American Indian … everyone,” Dain Perry said. “They are all very negatively impacted by the systemic racism and the personal racism that still exists here. And we need to talk about it.”

The documentary also inspired other family members to contend with their complicated legacy and share it. Thomas DeWolf, one of the 10 cousins, wrote a memoir (“Inheriting the Trade,” Beacon Press, 2008) about his experience and what he learned during the production of the film.

“This is very important in today’s world,” Dain Perry said. “A leader of the Episcopal Church, recently retired Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said that we needed to give people a better understanding of their past so that in the future we all can heal as a nation. People have great difficulties talking honestly about racism and understanding it. We hope that, with this film, we can facilitate an honest conversation about it.”

Voices from the Taos community

The Rev. Mike Olsen, rector of the St. James Episcopal Church, said he felt that the film was an opportunity to facilitate a discussion about “how we have denied our Christian heritage by how we treat others.”

“Taos is filled with much uncertainty and fear, certainly among our undocumented immigrants,” he said. “I think it is important to see the inhumanity and injustice that our nation has practiced in history so that we make sure it never happens again.”

“Some people might say that slave trade is an old story that does not have any relevance today,” Daniel Escalante, founder and coordinator of Taos Reading to End Racism, said. “The truth is that many continue to benefit from the system of oppression upon which this country was founded. We each need to ask ourselves: ‘How do I benefit from the wrongs of the past, and what is my responsibility in making things right?’ We have to be willing, like the white family in the documentary, to work through uncomfortable feelings that will arise so that we can take courageous action.”

For more information on the screening, call (575) 758-2790. For more on the film, visit tracesofthetrade.org.

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