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Descendants Of Slaves, Slave Traders Come Together

Dec 24, 2012



This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. And a Merry Christmas to you, if you celebrate. Your kids might've gotten a visit from jolly St. Nick last night, but did you know St. Nicholas was a real guy? We'll talk with the man who traveled the world in search of the man who would become Santa Claus. That's just ahead.

But first, the holidays can be a time to come together and set aside differences, and today we'll hear from two very different people who did just that, but for the purpose of racial understanding instead of holiday.

Sharon Morgan is black, and a descendent of slaves. Thomas Newman DeWolf is white, and his ancestors were some of the largest slave traders in the nation. But 150 years or so after the Civil War, they decided to team up. They wanted to study the roots of racism and figure out how they could stamp it out. The pair traveled together all the way to the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean and across this country, from the South Side of Chicago, to Oregon and the cotton fields of the American South. The book is called "Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trader," and it's the product of their three-year journey together.

Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf join us now. Welcome, and Merry Christmas.

SHARON MORGAN: Merry Christmas to you.

THOMAS NORMAN DEWOLF: Thank you, and Merry Christmas to you.

HEADLEE: Let me begin with you, Sharon. You were inspired to write this book - the both of you - and go on this journey as a way to heal and overcome racial barriers. So how had race affected your life before this? In the book, you say you came to this a little afraid of white people. Why?

MORGAN: I think that a lot of my feelings are informed by the fact that I'm a genealogist, and I have been doing research for many, many years. And part of what you get in revisiting these ancestral memories is the shock of how history was. And we've had years and years after slavery being disenfranchised, brutalized. The violence didn't end with the end of slavery.

I grew up in Chicago, so I didn't really experience things that were happening directly to me. A lot of it would be family memory. My grandparents - one of my grandfathers came from Mississippi, and the other one came from Alabama, and they had horrific memories of things that had happened to them. And they infuse you with this by bringing you up as a person where there are places you don't go and there are things that you don't do, because it could be dangerous to you. So that's the source of the fear.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you, Tom. For you, in the book, obviously, there are moments when you're self-conscious. You're unsure of how to behave around Sharon or her family, whether you can laugh at certain jokes. What had led you to this particular point where you felt like you didn't entirely understand African-American culture?

DEWOLF: Not just not entirely - I mean, not at all. Growing up as a white person, you know, in Southern California, I was around black kids in junior high school, but only during school. You know, it's like, yeah, your friends, but you don't really socialize out of school. And I was raised in white culture, raised to be, I guess, oblivious. The things that I learned over the past 10, 12 years, I never learned in school. It's not in the history books. It wasn't coming from the mouths of my teachers. And, you know, it becomes a self-exploration, I think, for a lot of white people to become aware of things that are outside of white culture. And, you know, the largest challenge, of course, in this country is black and white. But it spills over into every aspect of life, this privilege to be unaware, this privilege to be the default color. There's African-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Samoan-Americans, and then Americans. And that's me.

HEADLEE: So tell me, for example, Sharon, about one particular place that you visited, because you visited many. But tell me about one that really struck you and stayed with you.

MORGAN: The place that may have had the most impact was going to Lowndes County, Alabama, where my father's grandparents lived. They were 50 miles from Selma, where a lot of the civil rights movement occurred. And retracing those steps from Selma back to Lowndes County, and then onward to Montgomery, it really hits you that, you know, people went through so much, and there was so much violence. I cried that day. I mean, it was a really bad day, and I was very angry, and my reaction to Tom was like that. I mean, he didn't quite understand what was going on in my head. I didn't, either. I've been to these places before by myself, but going with somebody else that you kind of view as the enemy is different. So it raises a lot of emotion.

HEADLEE: And, you know, Tom, this was kind of a painful journey for both of you. I mean, especially for you as you ventured back into parts of your family history that you maybe don't like to think about. I mean, it must be tough to hear Sharon talk about you as the enemy sometimes. What was that like, as you traversed this path for three years?

DEWOLF: Part of the commitment that Sharon and I made to each other is to be just completely honest in all of our dealings with each other, to not hold back, to explore the painful areas, and to trust that as we build a relationship and, you know, and make a commitment to not just gather at the table, but to stay at the table, meant that we're going to be there for each other. And, you know, that day that Sharon is speaking of, it was really hard. And there's times when I, you know, maybe don't know what to say. There's also times where I realize it's just, you know, be quiet. Be still, and let the silence inform what we're going through.

I don't take, you know, any personal umbrage at what Sharon said, that part of that developing of this deep relationship that we've been working on now since we met is this faith that what we're doing is helping each other and helping ourselves. I mean, we both are there to support each other, and we're both there to heal in ways that may be quite different, and in other ways quite similar. It's really important, I think - as we have these deep and difficult conversations - is not to take things so personally in the way that you take in a wound, you know, a barb, a remark that's intended to harm. Our remarks, our conversations are intended to inform and to lift up and to really lead towards acknowledgment and healing.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're discussing the book "Gather at the Table." The book explores race through the lens of the woman who is a descendent of slaves and a man who is a descendent of slave traders. We're talking with the authors of the book, Sharon Morgan and Thomas Newman DeWolf.

So, most people do not have the time or the money to cross the Atlantic and then visit 27 states in order to help them understand other races. What are some of the lessons, Sharon, maybe that people could take from your book if they want to explore this without taking the three-year journey?

MORGAN: I think by reading the book, we know that people won't be able to do this. We would never advise that they do some of the things that we did, like get in a car and drive 6,000 miles. So writing the book was a way of sharing that experience so they wouldn't have to do it. And one of the biggest lessons is that in order to deal with all these skeletons that are in our closets, we have to confront the history and we have to be honest about it, and you can do that from wherever you are. And no one is suggesting that you go out and adopt a black friend or a white friend and engage in the same thing that we did, but more reading, more educating yourself, more understanding how the past informs what we do today. And I think everybody can do that wherever they are.

HEADLEE: It sounds to me like absolute honesty is pretty essential for that to happen. I mean, since President Obama took office I think a lot of people have been taken aback at the number of ugly racial comments and behavior that has come to the front and made headlines. I wonder what you think has to happen for us to put this behind us.

MORGAN: Because everybody's been in a state of denial forever. Nobody wants to admit that the ugly parts of American history. Nobody wants to really confront it and be honest about it. The economy of this country was built on slavery, and that is undeniable. And until you really look at that honestly and deeply, we're never going to be able to get out of this bind. It has been incredible to look at what's happening presently - I mean, up till today - to President Obama. And a lot of the, just, venom that has been expressed, it has amazed a lot of people, and that is part of what makes our book very timely. But people just have to go back. They have to look at this. They have to stop denying it, and they have to discuss it honestly. And it is a painful conversation, but it has to happen, or we really won't ever change.

HEADLEE: Thomas, what do you think?

DEWOLF: You know, as I listen to Sharon - which, you know, I do a lot. It's - we do come from such very different places, and yet the road we travel is quite similar in its intent. And it feels to me like we - and I'm speaking particularly of me as a white person - that we as white people far too typically are afraid of this conversation, and it's that fear that stops us.

And I remember reading a book by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, when she talks about inviting your demons in for tea, that facing the things you fear, that that's - there's your greatest teachers. If you're afraid of something, that's what you need to learn. And the other thing about this is once you take a step across that threshold, that's the road to liberation. The development of this relationship with Sharon - and, you know, both of us with many other black and white people around the country - it really is, it's the road to freedom. It's healing. It's joyful. I mean, this hard conversation, that's the place. I mean...


DEWOLF: ...if there's any gift you can give yourself on Christmas, on, you know, this holiday season, whatever faith you may subscribe to, it's that gift of honest recognition and liberation.

HEADLEE: Thomas Newman DeWolf and Sharon Morgan: They're the authors of "Gather at the Table." Thomas joined us from Bend, Oregon. Sharon joined us from Wurtsboro, New York. Thanks to both of you, and Merry Christmas.

DEWOLF: You're welcome, and Merry Christmas to you.

MORGAN: Merry Christmas to you, and thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.