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February 2, 2013

Coming to the Table: A Community Dialogue about Inequality

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/coming_to_the_table_a_community_dialogue_about_inequality/

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On January 25, CARE Multicultural Healing hosted an event called Coming to the Table: A community dialogue about inequality.  CARE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that provides holistic, affordable, multiculturally competent mental health education, training, and services.  At their event were two incredibly inspiring speakers, named Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf.  Sharon is a black woman from the Southside of Chicago, and Tom is a white man from rural Oregon.  They hold a common truth.  Both of their families had roles during the days when slavery was legal in this country, however they were impacted very differently.

Tom is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History (Beacon Press, 2008).  Before the thirteenth amendment was made to the United States Constitution and slavery became outlawed, Tom’s forefathers, the DeWolf family, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history, having transported around 10,000 slaves during the middle passage.  You can read on Tom’s website, about traveling with nine distant relatives on a life-altering journey through Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba to film the Emmy-nominated documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, in which he is featured.  Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to helping people appreciate and explore African American family history and culture.  For more than 25 years, Sharon has been researching her family history in Lowndes County, AL and Noxubee County, MS.  Professionally, Sharon is a marketing communications consultant. A pioneer in multicultural marketing, she is a founder of the National Black Public Relations Society; worked for a multitude of Fortune 100 companies; and spent many years living abroad in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.  

   

Tom and Sharon wrote a book together called Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.  You can read on their website how over a three year period, the interracial pair traveled thousands of miles through twenty-seven states and overseas, building an improbable relationship.  Using genealogy as an undercurrent, they visited each other’s families, ancestral towns, court houses, sites of racial terror, cemeteries, plantations and antebellum mansions, seeking to come to terms with the history out of which racism evolved. In an article I found online by Catalyst: A Social Justice Forumn, Gather at the Table is informed by trauma healing, restorative justice, and peacebuilding skills the authors learned through their work at Eastern Mennonite University and its STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) and Coming to the Table programs.  

     

After Tom and Sharon shared their stories, they opened the room up for a Q & A.  When they first opened the room up, people were shy to ask any questions.  After the first three questions were answered, you began to see many eager hands being raised.  I was one of the many unanswered hands that were raised.  I wanted to start off by giving gratitude to them for their work.  It is very clear to me that these individuals are role models, who are courageously walking on a path of truth.  They both strive to be free individuals…free from the bondage of self.  Sharon refuses to let her anger towards white people prevent her from having faith in humanity, and has come to find that there is hope for a truthful, loving and respectful world.   She refuses to let the injustices towards people of color, to close her up and stir hatred in heart.  I see this refusal to be a key reason in why Sharon is able to live as a free woman, even within the injustices of today’s society.  It is apparent that Tom’s life altering discovery about his family’s major role in the slave trade has been incredibly tough to face, but he believes in retribution and is doing what he can to make a positive mark on the world.  He is constantly exploring his own belief system, and is honest with himself about where any racist beliefs may still persist.  He is not letting the common impulse to protect ones ego, to stop him from looking truth in the face.  He even referred to himself as a racist at one point in the evening.  It is this process that helps him to be a free man.   They are both living examples of Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” 
 

"There is no greater agony then bearing an untold story."  ~ Maya Angelou

 

There are not enough discussions going on in this country that address the topics of racism, oppression and white privilege.  As someone who comes from "privilege," I have decided to truly look deeper into how racism pervades the nation, and is so embedded in the fabric of society.  Our society must be willing to hear personal stories and look deeper into these specific issues.  During the discussion part of the event, a participant shared her thoughts and frustration over frequently being categorized as “just an angry black woman,” rather then having people try to listen and understand where she is coming from.  Another black participant mentioned having realized how over the years, their impulse has been to make direct eye contact when someone who is white is speaking to them, but to look away when they are speaking to someone white.  What she described is something I frequently notice while on visits to my hometown of Tampa, Fl.  I have learned that slavery continues to have a horrible impact on the black community, and that it runs deep and must be understood.  There must be a discussion about how oppression is still present and has just changed shape over the years.  One of the major reasons why these conversations are not happening enough is because the participants must be open on some level, and may feel vulnerable. Tom and Sharon are two individuals who have learned how it is through walking through that fear of being vulnerable, that has helped them to gain a path of truth, healing and growth. 

As we have learned through the holocaust, when someone allows themselves to treat another human on such a horrific level, there is a total disconnect within that individual.  When a person can see and participate in such evilness, they are truly living blindly, and some incredibly tough inner work must be done.  There is some imagery I would like to share about the willingness to gain awareness... Imagine yourself standing alone in a pitch-dark room that you have not left in years.  All of the sudden a single match is given to you to help you see your surroundings.  When the match is lit, you become terrified as you see what has accumulated over the years.  You are shocked and scared.  The majority of the time, people quickly snuff out that match.  It takes a lot of courage to "see the ugly," and allow the flame to grow, so that you may transform your surroundings.  

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, was very active within the civil rights movement.  You can find photos of him marching arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr., during the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1965.  A famous quote of his is "When I marched in Selma, my legs were praying."  A powerful march does not always have to be a huge event.  Sometimes that prolific march towards racial healing is done through just the willingness to take the steps to walk through fear, and Gather at the Table.

       

- Order of appearence in above photo on left:  First row, from far left: John Lewis, an unidentified nun, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fred Shuttlesworth.

- Image above on right is Tom, Sharon, and the CARE Multicultural Healing team.

For more information about CARE, please click {HERE}

For more information about Gather at the Table, click {HERE}

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