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Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Tradeby Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan
From the Introduction
“F**k that dumbass Obama!”
I live in a small town in a rural community in the Northeast; a working-class town of 1,230 people, predominately white. My arrival in 2010 increased the black population to twenty-four.
There are many differences between where I live now and Chicago, where I grew up, not least of which is my status here as a member of an extreme minority. There are fundamental aspects to country life that I never considered when I lived in an urban setting. I buy food at the single small grocery store near the highway. The electric power grid crashes when it storms. Four-wheel drive is required to get from my house to the road when it snows—and it snows a lot. I’m wary of the bear that regularly rifles through my garbage can. And I must go to the post office in person to collect my mail, which is where I had an experience that is indelibly etched in my mind.
I usually go to the post office once a week, on Friday. On this particular day, I collected my mail as usual, returned without incident to my car, and prepared to head home. As I paused to wait for traffic before exiting the parking lot, a man pulled up beside me in a silver SUV. After some moments, I realized he was staring at me.
My “white people alert system” revved up. I jumped to the conclusion that this man was looking at me because I’m black. I hadn’t been here long enough for it to be anything else. Although I’m fair-skinned, there is no way most people would mistake me for anything other than black.
Not wishing to give in to my paranoia, I smiled, as any neighbor would do. To my shock, he yelled the Obama invective at me and sped off, tires spitting gravel.
I was speechless. Why did this man target me? Was it the Obama sticker on my bumper? Was it my Illinois license plate (Obama’s home state)? Does he think black people were solely responsible for electing Barack Obama to be the first African American president of the United States? Do I represent all black people in his mind?Would he have said the same thing to a white person?
No, I don’t think so.
I don’t think so because I have been trained to look at almost every- thing through the prism of race. My reactions to many incidents in life have been honed by years of communal black experience. We are taught to be wary; suspicious that every comment has hidden racial connotations and that every act is racially motivated. I don’t yell “race” at every turn. I do not think of myself as a victim. I don’t blame others for human failings that I am rightfully responsible for. However, I have a whole deck of race cards I can play at a moment’s notice. I have an ever-present, oppressive feeling that never allows me to be totally comfortable.
Within my lifetime, not thinking about race could get you raped, beaten, killed. Stop after dark to use a toilet or eat in a “sundown” town and you could end up arrested or disappear forever. Walk in the wrong neighborhood in Chicago and you could be attacked by white people wielding baseball bats. The FBI compiled a report in 2009 of 3,816 cases of race-inspired hate crimes for that year alone; 83 percent of the victims were people of color.
White people are people to fear because they have no compunction about hurting you—with words or physical violence. This lesson has been reinforced over and over. Heeding it enabled us to survive. It is hard to purge.
In my younger years, I would have followed his white ass and given him a piece of my mind. Today, I merely record his face and car in my memory. In a country with a generous mixture of neo-Nazis, Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists, and survivalists, I would be a fool to do anything else.
Don’t get me wrong—there are many sensible white people through- out this country and in my town, like the checkers at the grocery store, the man who fixes my car, the real estate agent who rented my house to me, and my friendly neighbors next door. Yet inbred paranoia and constant wariness are the burdens I brought with me when Tom and I decided to take this journey. All I know is that I want to heal. I want to live in a community, a country, and a world where race is not the defining factor of who I am; my humanity is.
When Sharon told me the story of the man at the post office, I too was shocked—and sad. As I thought about her experience, I considered several possibilities that might have contributed to this man’s vitriolic outburst. In addition to maybe politics, probably sexism, definitely an upbringing in which he didn’t learn common decency or respect, one obvious factor is racism. What bothered him more: having a black president or having a black woman living in his almost-completely-white town?
White people have a long history of ignorance and kneejerk reactions to anything that frightens us. I’ve certainly been there. But I know from my study of trauma and its long-term impacts that it is people who have been harmed that inflict harm on others. This harm is passed down through generations. Though I have empathy for racist people and the unhealed wounds they carry, they still must be held to account.
I am a white man who lives in a town that is very white, much like Sharon’s. Because of my growing relationships with people of color, I’m more aware than ever before of the pervasiveness of the ongoing problem of race.
There is a long history of white people saying and doing stupid, racist, and horribly damaging things to people of color. When the transatlantic slave trade was abolished by the US government on January 1, 1808, many white people—including my distant relatives—ignored that law for a long time. The Ku Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, and others waged a war of terror on black people well into the twentieth century.
Today, increasing membership in white supremacist organizations is a growing cause for alarm.
Irrational fear is a product of ignorance, leading people to say and do some pretty stupid things. We hear it regularly, even from high-profile people who should know better. During the 2008 presidential contest, Senator Harry Reid observed that candidate Obama could succeed in his campaign for president in part because he was “light skinned” and had “no Negro dialect.” When former president Bill Clinton sought Senator Edward Kennedy’s endorsement for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, he told Kennedy that in the recent past, Obama would have been serving them coffee. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich claimed to be blacker than Barack Obama. When Virginia governor Bob McDonnell apologized for leaving out any reference to slavery in his Confederate History Month proclamation in April 2010, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour dismissed the controversy, sneering that it “doesn’t amount to diddly.” Kentucky senator Rand Paul compared himself to “idealists” like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., while at the same time expressing his conviction that private businesses should be allowed to turn away customers because of their race.
Thank goodness I’m not like any of those white people, but one of the good ones. After all, I wrote a book about my family’s commitment to truth, justice, and undoing racism. Inheriting the Trade documents my descent from the largest slave-trading dynasty in US history and the journey I took with nine distant cousins to retrace the triangular route of the slave trade from Rhode Island to Ghana and Cuba. I speak at colleges and conferences around the country about the legacy of slavery and its present-day consequences, share progressive articles with friends on Facebook, and regularly write blog posts about these issues. Sitting at my desk in Oregon—which has a population that is 90 percent white, and in1857 voted to ratify the state constitution with a provision that prohibited black people from moving here—I write about stupid white people who live somewhere else.
But the hard truth is that I am like other white people. As Pema Chödrön so powerfully wrote in her book, The Places That Scare You, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
We all inherit damage from the past. We spread it like a virus and don’t generally think about it. Too often, we just act. In December 2007, I participated in a three-day workshop led by Crossroads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training. The most powerful moment in an enlightening weekend came on the last day. Harold Fields, a man I count among my close friends, expressed how the white folks, with all our good intentions, continued to isolate and marginalize him and the other people of color in the room. What?! How could he include me in this company?
But Harold was right. The privilege I possess as a white man makes it easy for me to remain blissfully unaware of the negative impact I might have on others.
I realize, of course, that white people aren’t the only ones who do and say stupid things. Black and brown folks do, too. It’s simply that I know more about white folks because I am white folks. We’ve perpetrated a great deal of damage. And because of that legacy I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge, speak out, and work to repair it.
When we begin holding each other accountable, committing our time to undoing injustice and inequality, and respecting each other in all our rich diversity, we will begin the process of healing the brokenness of our society. When we spend as much time learning about ourselves, our history, and all we have in common as we do watching “reality” television and trying to convince ourselves we’re nothing like those other people, the world will become a richer, more harmonious place.
We embarked on this journey because we believe America must overcome the racial barriers that divide us, the barriers that drive us to strike out at one another out of ignorance and fear. To do nothing is unacceptable to us. The legacy of slavery remains a horrendous and unhealed wound, a disease that must be diagnosed, treated, and cured. We believe the approach we share in these pages may just make it possible to heal.
This is the story of two people who decided to try.
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