Two people a black woman and a white man confront the legacy of slavery and racism head-on
Sharon Leslie Morgan, a black woman from Chicago’s South Side, is a descendent of slaves on both sides of her family. She began a journey toward racial reconciliation with Thomas Norman DeWolf, a white man from rural Oregon who descends from the largest slave-trading dynasty in US history. Over a three-year period, the pair traveled thousands of miles, both overseas and through twenty-seven states, visiting ancestral towns, courthouses, cemeteries, plantations, antebellum mansions, and historic sites. Gather at the Table is the chronicle of their journey.
As DeWolf and Morgan demonstrate, before we can overcome racism we must first acknowledge and understand the damage inherited from the past-which involves confronting painful truths such as the unhealed wounds of racism. This book is a revelatory testament to the possibilities that emerge when people commit to truth, justice, and reconciliation.
“Gather at the Table is an honest exploration into the deep social wounds left by racism, violence, and injustice, as the authors work through their own prejudices in search of reconciliation—and ultimately find friendship.” —Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Laureate
“I could not put this book down. Gather at the Table is an extraordinary story of an honest, meaningful conversation across the racial divide. At times it hurts to read. And well it should. Centuries of injustice and trauma that face us every day in this country have no place for half-truths. Sharon and Tom took the harder road-searching for healing, they literally walked together into painful histories and found authentic friendship.” —John Paul Lederach, PhD, author of The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace
“What a courageous journey-communicated in an engaging, readable style with candor, humor, and deep feeling. This book shed light on the thoughts, questions, and feelings I have about race, society, culture, and historical, generational, and structurally induced trauma-and the human ability to transcend. In reading it, I realized there are questions I’m still afraid to ask about race, things I’m afraid to say, and yet I realized anew the power of acknowledgment, mercy, justice, and conflict transformation. I’m grateful to DeWolf and Morgan for not just taking the journey but for sharing their story with us.” —Carolyn Yoder, founding director of STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience
“Sharon and Tom take us on a heart-opening journey of awakening. As a nation, we owe them a deep bow of gratitude as they help us navigate the deep divides of race and otherness.” —Belvie Rooks, cofounder, Growing a Global Heart
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 mindWould 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 Ch&RSQUO;dr&RSQUO;n 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 wellcanwebepresentwiththedarknessofothers.Compassionbecomesrealwhenwerecognizeoursharedhumanity.”
We? all? inherit? damage? from? the? past.? We? spread? it? like? a? virus? anddon’tgenerallythinkaboutit.Toooften,wejustact.InDecember2007,I? participated? in? a? three-day? workshop? led? by? Crossroads? Anti-RacismOrganizingandTraining.Themostpowerfulmomentinanenlighteningweekend? came? on? the? last? day.? Harold? Fields,? a? man? I? count? among? myclosefriends,expressedhowthewhitefolks,withallourgoodintentions,continuedtoisolateandmarginalizehimandtheotherpeopleofcolorintheroom.What!Howcouldheincludemeinthiscompany
Irealize,ofcourse,thatwhitepeoplearen’ttheonlyoneswhodoandsaystupidthings.Blackandbrownfolksdo,too.It’ssimplythatIknowmore? about? white? folks? because? I? am? white? folks.? We’ve? perpetrated? agreatdealofdamage. Andbecauseofthatlegacy Ibelievewehavearesponsibilitytoacknowledge,speakout,andworktorepairit.
When? we? begin? holding? each? other? accountable,? committing? ourtimetoundoinginjusticeandinequality,andrespectingeachotherinallourrichdiversity,wewillbegintheprocessofhealingthebrokennessofoursociety.Whenwespendasmuchtimelearningaboutourselves,ourhistory,andallwehaveincommonaswedowatching”reality”televisionandtryingtoconvinceourselveswe’renothinglikethoseother people,theworldwillbecomearicher,moreharmoniousplace.
WeembarkedonthisjourneybecausewebelieveAmericamustovercomethe? racial? barriers? that? divide? us,thebarriers? that? drive? us? to? strike? outatoneanotheroutofignoranceandfear.Todonothingisunacceptableto? us.? The? legacy? of? slavery? remains? a? horrendous? and? unhealed? wound,adiseasethatmustbediagnosed,treated,andcured.Webelievetheapproachweshareinthesepagesmayjustmakeitpossibletoheal.
Foreword by Joy Angela DeGruy, PhD
Part One: Crossing the Rubicon
Chapter One: The Recalcitrant Bat
Chapter Two: Castaways from Security Island
Chapter Three: Friends on Purpose
Chapter Four: Lizard Brain
Part Two: Shades of Gray
Chapter Five: Many Rivers to Cross
Chapter Six: The Past Is Present
Chapter Seven: Colored Water
Chapter Eight:Cycles of Violence
Part Three: Forks of the Road
Chapter Nine: Grave Matters
Chapter Ten: The Crossroads of Liberty and Commerce
Chapter Eleven: Truth Be Told
Chapter Twelve: The Devilís Half Acre
Part Four: Truth, Mercy, Justice, and Peace
Chapter Thirteen: Ripples on a Pond
Notes on Methodology
- Read an excerpt in the Harvard Kennedy School Magazine
- Read an excerpt of Gather at the Table that appeared in Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum
- Listen here for an interview with WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show
- Click here to listen to Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan on NPR's Tell Me More
- Click here to watch the first part of an interview with authors Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry
- Click here to watch the second half of an interview with authors Tom DeWolf and Sharon Morgan on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry
Questions for Discussion
1) Joy Angela DeGruy writes of the authors, “…they neatly weave their individual perspectives of events and experiences; sometimes in such sharp contrast that it is difficult to believe they were in the same place at the same time.”
2) DeGruy writes, “For Sharon, race is a ‘real’ place where she has lived her whole life” and “For Tom, race is a place he has only recently chosen to visit.”
- Can you imagine yourself embarking on a difficult journey with someone with whom you have little in common?
- If so, how would you approach such an endeavor?
- What differences do you perceive in how people of color and white people approach issues of race?
- What are your personal feelings about race?
- How do your feelings about race affect your relationships with others?
3) Sharon was confronted by an angry white man in the parking lot of her local post office.
Chapter 1: The Recalcitrant Bat
- Why do you think the man erupted as he did?
- How would you react if you were in Sharon’s position?
4) Susan and Will encountered people of color who were descended from people their white ancestors enslaved and to whom they were related by blood.
5) Sharon and Tom felt led by ancestral spirits.
- Are you aware of people from multiple races in your family tree?
- How do you think you would you feel if you met previously unknown relatives of another race?
- If you are white, how would you feel if you found out there was “black blood” in your ancestry?
Chapter 2: Castaways from Security Island
- Do you share their belief?
- If so, what experiences have you had that reinforce your belief?
6) People who grow up in the North experience racism differently than people from the South.
7) This chapter introduces the “Cycles of Violence.”
- How did you experience racism where you grew up?
- Do you think your family or your community were racist?
- Is it possible for a black person to be racist?
Chapter 3: Friends on Purpose
- In thinking of traumatic experiences in your life, what points listed on the cycles have you experienced?
- Did you find yourself moving between the cycles of victim and aggressor?
8) Sharon and Tom built a purposeful relationship and created a series of experiences to grow and test that relationship.
9) Tom and Sharon encountered several “faith traditions” along their journey. The Mennonites are considered one of the “peace” churches with a focus on healing from trauma, and peacebuilding. Bahá’ís espouse a core belief in the oneness of humanity.
- Can you imagine doing something similar to what Tom and Sharon did?
- Are there reasons why they could not achieve healing on their own?
10) Sharon was uncomfortable in “backabush California.” Tom was uncomfortable in Harlem. Neither of them felt completely comfortable with each other’s families.
- If you have a faith tradition, in what ways has your faith community been engaged in confronting racism and other forms of oppression?
- In what ways has your faith community ignored or exacerbated the problems?
Chapter 4: Lizard Brain
- Have you had similar experiences?
- How much of your discomfort had to do with race?
11) This chapter discusses how people learn and discern “truth.”
12) The authors describe slavery experiences of people at ages 2, 5, 8, and so on.
- What were you raised to believe was “the truth” about race?
- Have you come to believe differently as you’ve grown older? If so, how?
13) Sharon finds it “almost impossible to imagine reconciling with white people.”
- What did you feel when you put yourself in those scenarios?
14) Research in neuroscience indicates that racial prejudice is rooted in the brain, has been inherited down through generations, and still governs our instincts today.
- Why do you think Sharon feels that way?
- Do you think it is possible for black and white people to reconcile their differences?
Chapter 5: Many Rivers to Cross
- Have you witnessed examples of these inheritances in yourself or those around you?
15) It seems that every major town, like Chicago, has a street named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that is invariably located in the black section of town.
16) America is a land of immigrants. People, black and white, have always been on the move. During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans left the South for the North.
- Why do you suppose that is?
- Do you think this is appropriate? Why or why not?
17) There are many cities that remain segregated, including Chicago, which is still considered the most segregated major city in the United States.
- What was your family’s migration path?
- What caused them to uproot their lives and move on?
18) Sharon expressed the fear that white people might herd black people into concentration camps, just as the United States has done in the past to American Indians, Japanese and Italian Americans.
- How segregated is your town?
- What issues does your community face as a result?
Chapter 6: The Past is Present
- Is it realistic to fear that this could happen again?
19) It is a given that people are most comfortable around those who are like them. Tom is from Oregon, which was designed to be “white on purpose.”
20) Sharon and Tom both have ancestors they would rather not be related to.
- Why is integration generally considered a better solution to achieving racial equity and justice than “separate but equal”?
21) Bettie Warfe and Robert Gavin had a long-term relationship and 17 children together. Such relationships between white men and black women were not uncommon.
- Why is knowing about one’s ancestry important?
- Is there anyone in your family tree that you would rather not claim?
Chapter 7: Colored Water
- Can such relationships be described as consensual – or even loving – given the disparity in power between male and female, white and black?
22) Sharon believes it is a lot harder for white people to deal with the issues of slavery and racism than it is for black people.
23) Sharon and Tom grew up in troubled times in very different circumstances and their experiences continue to inform their world view.
Chapter 8: Cycles of Violence
- Thinking about your own life, what formative experiences do you recall that informed your attitudes about race?
24) Tom and Sharon contend that violence is intrinsic to the American way of life.
25) Dr. Howard Zehr suggests that “restorative justice can help reframe the discussion of historic slavery, racism, privilege and present-day inequities.”
- Do you agree with their contention?
- If so, why do you think America as a nation, and so many individual Americans, are so violent?
26) Entire communities were either terrorized by or participated in horrific acts of violence.
- Do you agree or disagree with Dr. Zehr? Why?
Chapter 9: Grave Matters
- If you are white, do you believe you would you have stood up to your community or would you have gone along with an act of terror?
- If you are black and were the victim of or witnessed an act of terror, how do you believe you would have responded?
27) Genealogy is a central theme throughout Gather at the Table.
28) Tom and Sharon visited many sites related to the struggle for civil rights and experienced deep emotional reactions to what they saw.
- What do you know about your family history?
- Has this book inspired you to do further research into your family’s connection to slavery?
Chapter 10: The Crossroads of Liberty and Commerce
- Is there a difference between “civil rights” and “human rights”?
- Would you have been willing to put your life on the line for the right to vote or to sit at the front of a bus?
- How would you go about teaching young people who have no experience with this part of American history how significant and meaningful the civil rights struggle was?
29) Sharon and Tom encountered many symbols of America’s past that they found painful, including Confederate flags, historical markers and tributes to Ku Klux Klan leaders.
30) Sharon and Tom were impressed by the many instances they found of the intersection of “liberty and commerce.”
- Are any such symbols found in your community?
31) Sharon wanted to visit “the scene of the crime” by sleeping in an antebellum home and touring a plantation – Tom did not.
- Does money prevail over morals?
- Have you ever compromised your integrity in the pursuit of success?
32) Mrs. Feltus showed Tom and Sharon many artifacts that have been in her family for generations.
- Would you be interested in visiting such places or not?
33) The tour guide at Longwood presented a view of Uncle Frederick as a cherished friend and savior of the Nutt family.
- What is the most cherished possession you have that that has been passed down from previous generations?
- What does this possession symbolize for you?
Chapter 11: Truth Be Told
- How do you perceive Uncle Frederick’s role in the Nutt family?
- Is there a difference between being a “servant” or a “slave”?
34) Part of the “healing journey,” as taught in the STAR program, is finding healthy ways to resolve conflict.
35) The painful history of the Tulsa Race Riot was buried for generations.
- Have you learned anything from Sharon’s and Tom’s experiences that will help you more successfully resolve conflicts in your life?
36) John Brown used violence in pursuit of his goals.
- Do you know of any similar historical events that have been hidden in your community or state?
Chapter 12: The Devil’s Half Acre
- Can the use of violence be justified to help achieve equality and justice?
- Why was non-violence a successful tactic during the civil rights movement?
37) Historians generally agree that American history is filled with paradox. One example is that the white Founding Founders spoke vehemently of freedom while brutally enslaving African people.
38) Interpretive centers have a difficult time attracting African Americans to portray slaves.
- How do you resolve this paradox in your mind?
- Now that you know more about Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the United States, how do you feel about them?
39) Tee Turner spoke of how he allowed the Confederate statue in Richmond to keep him in bondage and spoke of enslaved people being reduced to a “slave mentality.”
- If you are black, is this a job you think you could do?
- If you are white, how would you feel about witnessing such a portrayal?
40) Part of Sharon’s and Tom’s healing journey was the recognition beforehand that it would be painful.
- How was Tee in bondage to the statue?
- What is a “slave mentality”?
Chapter 13: Ripples on a Pond
- Is experiencing pain necessary for healing?
- If so, why?
41) Tom and Sharon contend that “inequity and mistrust along racial lines are systemic throughout American society.”
42) “History teaches that every few generations society experiences upheaval.”
- Can you cite examples in your own life and community in which this is true?
43) Sharon and Tom claim that “today’s youth cannot escape the shadow of racism that has been passed down organically from parents and others who cling to a distorted image of American history.”
- Can you point to any examples today that prove this statement to be true?
- Do you believe society in general is on the verge of a paradigm shift to a new way of thinking?
44) Tom and Sharon claim “the real challenge is that the system is designed to protect the powerful and it feeds on isms—racism, classism, sexism—all methods to keep people divided and conquered.”
- Do you agree or disagree?
- Has America achieved a “post-racial” society?
45) Gather at the Table has a goal of offering productive ways to discuss race using an approach that leads to understanding and healing for individuals and communities.
- Do you agree or disagree?
- Can you cite examples from recent media stories that support your opinion?
- Do you think the model offered in Gather at the Table can be useful to you and/or others?
- What have you learned from Gather at the Table that you will incorporate into your life?