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HERE'S What Tom Says About THAT
An article I wrote, “Dear Ben Affleck, My Ancestors Were Slaveowners, Too” was published this morning.
I was contacted this past Wednesday by an editor with Zócalo Public Square, an L.A.-based not-for-profit that hosts live events and publishes daily humanities journalism. They describe themselves as an “ideas exchange” — their mission is to connect people to ideas and to each other.
She wrote, “I’m hoping you’ll consider writing a piece for us. As you probably heard, Ben Affleck asked producers of the PBS documentary series “Finding Your Roots” to not reveal that his ancestors were slave owners. I thought it would be interesting to get a response from you — as a writer who has delved so deeply into the story of your family history …and as the head of an organization devoted to healing the wounds rooted in our nation’s history of slavery. I thought you could write an open letter to Ben Affleck that essentially tells him why it’s OK (and actually really good) to dig into one’s family history, even when it involves something as painful and horrible as slavery.”
The article begins…
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
You can read the full article here.
My dear friend and fellow author Andi Cumbo-Floyd posted a blog entitled “6 Reasons I Don’t Get Author Autographs.” I didn’t need to read what she wrote to know we are polar opposites on this one. But I did read her post. She doesn’t like crowds, knows what it’s like to give a talk and then sign books, knows that writers often don’t necessarily love the person they write, “love, Andi (or Tom)” in their copy of our books. I get it. And I feel totally different about it.
I LOVE getting books autographed. My prized possession is a signed copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, my personal favorite novel of all time. I remember when my friend Brad called me and said, “Hey, Tom, there’s a signed copy at…” and he told me it cost seventy-five dollars and this was around 1979 and I was a poor, working stiff who still owed on college loans and I told Brad to forget about it. I called him back an hour later and told him I’d find the money to pay him back.
Why? Because Somerset Maugham hadn’t just written The Razor’s Edge. He’d held this particular copy of his book in his hands; had signed it. His DNA was on this sucker. So as I read my new, signed, copy, Maugham was there with me, physically; literally. The book became more alive, more connected, to me. I’d read it before. This time was different; more personal.
I sometimes write to authors when I’ve been particularly moved by their book. And sometimes they write back. Though I won’t share their names here, the notes I’ve received in return are cherished treasures. And sometimes I have received notes from people whose books of mine I have signed… including just yesterday from a student at a college I visited with my writing partner Sharon a couple weeks ago. “Thank you for your encouraging words,” she wrote, amongst other things. “Whatever your next big project is,” she wrote, “you can count me in.”
I’ve felt nothing better as an author than the feeling I get when I receive such a message.
Richard Bach wrote that some of his best friends are people he’s never met… authors… the words on the pages of their books. I get that. And I respect Andi’s position. And for me? I feel differently. I LOVE meeting authors and owning their books they have held and signed.
And yes, Andi, I have Sherman Alexie’s autograph… in a few of his books. I respect your choice. Truly, I do. And I’ll be waiting in line for my next signed book…