Connect with those we’ve been raised to think of as ‘the other’

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“You have to tell the truth, even when it gets ugly,” says Sharon Leslie Morgan. She wrote a book with Thomas Norman DeWolf about their physical, emotional, and spiritual journey uncovering their roots on either side of the slave trade.

A black woman and a white man have been on what they call “a healing journey.” They have written a book that describes her as a “daughter of slavery” and him as “a son of the slave trade.”

Sharon Leslie Morgan says she does not think of herself as a victim. But, she says, “I have been trained to look at almost everything through the prism of race … We’re taught to be wary.”

Thomas Norman DeWolf says he was “raised Christian, raised racist.”

The pair spoke in Albany, at the state museum auditorium, during a conference earlier this month organized by the Underground Railroad History Project.

“Together, we’re here to talk about the elephant in the room,” said Morgan as DeWolf spread open his jacket, revealing the picture of a giant elephant’s head on his shirt, and the crowd laughed.

“This is not funny,” said DeWolf.

“People are being encouraged to treat people as other,” said Morgan.

The founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website that helps people explore and value African-American family history, Morgan said that, through her research, she has found two dozen people enslaved on both sides of her family.

“Slavery is so engaged in my family history, there is no escaping it,” she said.

Her interest in genealogy began in 1969 when her son was born, Morgan writes in the book; she wanted to provide her son with a legacy. “The only thing I could pass on was the resilience I knew had come from our history as slaves,” she writes. “Physical slavery inhibited us from the start. By the time I came along, in spite of cries that ‘Black is beautiful,’ the slavery was psychological.”

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“Embracing Equity in a Global Society” was the theme of this year’s conference organized by the Underground Railroad History Project. The project’s founders, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, welcome people to the keynote address.

 

DeWolf, who hails from the Pacific Northwest, said that he is related to three generations of the most successful slave-trading dynasty in United States history. He wrote a book called “Inheriting the Trade” and is featured in the documentary, “Traces of the Trade.”

He now serves as the executive director of Coming to the Table, a not-for-profit organization that grew from what he learned on his journey with Morgan. The organization started in 2006 with two dozen people, DeWolf said. It had grown to 3,000 or 4,000 per month before last November’s elections when it jumped to 10,000 or 11,000 per month, he said.

Coming to the Table’s mission is to “provide leadership, resources, and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism rooted in the United States’ history of slavery.”

DeWolf and Morgan have criss-crossed the United States, a country they consider to be in crisis, trying to bridge the divides.

“Once you knock down one of the ‘isms,’” said Morgan, “all the other ‘isms’ tend to fall like dominoes.”

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“A lot of the work we do is Johnny Appleseed work,” says Thomas Norman DeWolf. He and Sharon Leslie Morgan, pictured on the screen behind him, speak across the country about healing wounds from racism rooted in slavery. “Some seeds will sprout; some will get crushed,” DeWolf said.

 

“That time is now”

One of their inspirations is Solomon Northup, an African American, born free in New York State in the early 1800s but kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. He wrote about it in a book called “Twelve Years a Slave.”

“There is a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever,” Northup wrote. “There will be a reckoning yet … it may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”

“That time is now,” said Morgan. “I can’t even imagine how much lower we can go.”

She also quoted from Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

“That is what ‘Gather at the Table’ is about,” said Morgan of the book she wrote with DeWolf, detailing their physical, emotional, and spiritual journey. “Our big experiment.”

They met through a program at Eastern Mennonite University in Pennsylvania and then, over the course of three years, traveled to 27 states and overseas, using genealogy as a guide, visiting each other’s families and ancestral towns. They went to cemeteries, antebellum mansions and plantations, and sites of racial terror — all to come to terms with the history of racism.

“We both committed to engage one person from ‘the other side’ in a meaningful, platonic relationship that might embody a way forward for confronting issues of race,” said Morgan.

She said that all of America, both the North and the South, were complicit in building and sharing the wealth generated by slavery. “The wealth of our society was built on slavery,” she said.

Morgan also spoke of cognitive dissonance, which she defined as “the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

Forty-nine of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention owned slaves, she said, and 12 of the first 18 American presidents were slaveholders.

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
“American history cannot be told without black history,” says Congressman Paul Tonko in comments before the authors of “Gather at the Table” speak. “The Underground Railroad reminds us of the struggle for justice,” said Tonko. “We hear messages coming out of the White House that
are demeaning, condescending … We should always have that spirit of persistent justice,” he said to applause.

 

“Learn about yourself”

DeWolf urged, “Google ‘Harvard, implicit bias.’ You will learn so much about yourself … buried deep beneath the surface of who you are.”

He also gave examples of what he called “racial micro-aggressions.” One instance was of “color blindness”; for example, saying, “When I look at you, I don’t see color,” which DeWolf said denied a person of color’s racial and ethnic experiences.

“If I said to Sharon, ‘I don’t see your color,’ she’d throw me out of the car,” he said.

Morgan referenced a book called “Post Traumatic Slave Disorder” by Joy DeGruy Leary, who wrote the forward for “Gather at the Table.” She cited adaptive survival behaviors in communities throughout the African Diaspora that are associated with centuries of abuse including kidnapping, enslavement, dehumanization, cruelty, destruction of families, breeding, medical experimentation, sterilization, lynching, segregation, Jim Crow terror, social disenfranchisement, peonage, and massive incarceration.

“I found incidences of all those things in my one family,” said Morgan.

DeWolf went over what he termed “systemic inequities” such as economic inequality, disparate health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, and community violence. “We’re all wounded here,” he said. “Any time we’re not working against the system, we’re complicit.”

“The Ghost in Your Genes”

The pair screened excerpts from a BBC film, “The Ghost in Your Genes,” detailing the work of British scientists who believe your genes are shaped in part by your ancestors’ life experiences. Conventional science holds that DNA carries heritable information and nothing a person does or experiences will be biologically passed to children.

The controversial field of epigenetics holds that things people experience can cause heritable effects in humans through a mechanism of switches in genes that act rather like memory. Using records from a remote town in Sweden, Marcus Pembrey, a professor of Clinical Genetics at the Institute of Child Health in London, showed that a famine in the lives of grandparents affected the life expectancy of their grandchildren, the film says.

DeWolf said scientists are looking at descendents of Holocaust survivors and of famine survivors to see what has been passed down to later generations.

“We don’t want to just talk about problems,” said Morgan. She described her relationship with DeWolf as a solution.

“We met as strangers … drove thousands of miles — I had to threaten several times to put him out of the car … You have to tell the truth, even when it gets ugly … Fortunately, now we’re friends. It took a lot.”

“Coming to the table is easy. Staying at the table is hard,” said DeWolf. “It’s hurt people that hurt people.” He urged to stop the cycle of violence: “See the problem as the problem, not the people as the problem.”

He also said, “If we don’t heal the wounds, we pass it on to our kids.” But he cautioned, “White folks want to jump to reconciliation and make the guilt and shame go away … The only way out is through … It takes time and doing it together.”

Restorative justice

He cited Howard Zehr’s “The Little Book of Restorative Justice,” and recommended that, when a wrong has been done, it needs to be named and acknowledged. Those who have been harmed need to grieve their losses, tell their stories, have their questions answered, and have the harms and needs caused by the offense addressed.

At the same time, those who have done wrong need to accept their responsibility and take steps to repair the harm as much as possible.

“Ask who has been harmed, including the perpetrator,” said DeWolf, “and see what can be done to create wholeness.”

He concluded, “It’s so much easier to lock someone up and throw away the key.”

Coming to the Table, DeWolf said, is about “making connections with those we’ve been raised to think of as ‘the other.’”

Morgan concluded by talking about “ripples on a pond.” She said, “Stand where you are and do something … Collective action can change the world.”

She also said, “A lot of problems in the world would be solved if we talked to each other, not at each other or about each other or over each other.”

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