Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Traces of the Trade tangled in controversy surrounding Obama’s 9th Circuit Court nominee

Posted March 30th, 2010 by Tom

I did not see this one coming.

President Obama has nominated Goodwin Liu, an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law, to serve on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents have seized upon comments Liu made during a panel discussion on May 6, 2008 following a screening of Traces of the Trade at the Newseum in Washington, DC that was sponsored by the Council on Foundations (I wrote about the event here).

The distinguished panel was moderated by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and PBS Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff. Panelists discussed the major themes in the film and how they connect to the world of philanthropy; how foundations can effectively facilitate discussions on race, the legacy of slavery, and the need for healing. When government lacks the capacity–or will–to lead the way in creating a more just world, how can we best encourage grass roots leadership in undoing racism and other forms of oppression.

Goodwin Liu’s comments were right in line with these themes. Yet if you Google “Goodwin Liu, Traces of the Trade” you’ll find several links to a YouTube video clip, just over 2 minutes in length, titled “Obama Appeals Court Nominee – Goodwin Liu – on Reparations for Slavery.” You’ll find an article by Ed Whelan, prominent conservative legal analyst and blogger, in which he claims Liu “…would make those who were not complicit in slavery pay the price of his grandiose reparations project.” You’ll find many other bloggers chiming in.

But if you watch the entire discussion (which you can download here) you’ll find that what Liu was advocating in saying that each of us has a moral duty to make things right is that,

…instead of looking for the single national strategy, which is what everybody always looks for, think about what you can do on a much smaller scale in much smaller communities, around specific problems that people face, whether it’s in their schools, in their workplaces, access to health care, in their housing; whatever it may be.

For far too long we have allowed extremists and the media to define “reparation” for historic slavery as that “single national strategy” in which people who never enslaved anyone pay the price for checks being written to people who were never themselves enslaved. Such a definition serves well those who rely on division and controversy to serve their own ends. But it isn’t helpful to those who want to make a positive difference in the world.

Reparation is repair; repairing damage from past harms to the best of our ability. And there remains much to repair in connection with injustice and inequity in connection with race. Goodwin Liu rightly asked, “What are we willing to give up to make things right?” He mentioned several. I would add to his list two important things I hope we will give up: our silence and our ignorance.

I hope as a result of this controversy that more people will see Traces of the Trade and read Inheriting the Trade. People who read the book will find much of the last chapter “Repairing the Breach” and the “Afterword” devoted to the issue of reparation. I believe some folks will be surprised by my conclusions. Hopefully people will then embark on their own journeys of discovery about what impacts still linger from the legacy of slavery that cause inequity and injustice in the United States today.

And then, as Goodwin Liu encouraged those of us gathered at the Newseum that evening, I hope we’ll join together to repair the damage.

NOTE: I’m pleased to report that this essay has been re-posted at Beacon Broadside.

New online resources for healing from the legacy of slavery

Posted March 28th, 2010 by Tom

A new website was launched last week by The Tracing Center on Histories and Legacies of Slavery. The mission of The Tracing Center is “to create greater awareness of the vast extent of complicity in slavery and the transatlantic slave trade and to inspire acknowledgment, dialogue and active response to this history and its many legacies. We do this for the purpose of racial and economic justice, healing, and reconciliation, for the benefit of all.”

Also new this past week on the Coming to the Table website are four brief YouTube videos that highlight the four stages of the Coming to the Table approach that address the legacies and aftermaths of slavery in the US as well as other historic harms: Facing History, Making Connections, Healing Wounds and Taking Action. In these videos you’ll meet many of my friends who are working to undo the systems of oppression that continue to impact all of us (even when we don’t recognize it).

I hope you’ll find these new resources inspiring and helpful in your own healing journey.

The Scott Sisters: double life sentences for $11 robbery

Posted March 25th, 2010 by Tom

On Christmas Eve in 1993 Jamie and Gladys Scott left a mini-mart near their home in Scott County, Mississippi. Their car broke down. They hitched a ride from two young men, one of whom they knew. Later that evening the two men were robbed at gunpoint by three teenagers in another car. The robbers took an estimated $11 from the two young men. No one was hurt. Police accused the Scott sisters of setting the victims up.

The young women denied any involvement. They had no criminal record. A jury found them guilty of armed robbery. On October 13, 1994, a judge ordered them to each serve double-life sentences in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, where they remain today.

Two co-defendants testified against the Scott sisters and served ten-month sentences. They later recanted their testimony and claimed it was given under police pressure.

Complicating things is that Jamie, who is now 38 years old, is suffering from kidney failure and may die without a transplant. The mother of these two women, Evelyn Rasco, says that Jamie’s sister Gladys, age 34, offered to donate her kidney but the Mississippi Department of Corrections won’t allow the procedure.

Do you suppose this has anything to do with race? Can you imagine two young white women being in this situation?

Even if Jamie and Gladys lied and they were involved in this crime in which no one was hurt and netted $11 and the boys who actually held the gun spent 10 months behind bars, how on earth can anyone say it is “just” for Jamie and Gladys to serve two life terms for this crime?

I learned about Jamie and Gladys on Facebook. You can learn more by joining the FB group THE POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN INC. I encourage my friends to join. I also encourage you to research this situation yourself. Mrs. Rasco maintains an active blog.  Here’s the story of the Scott Sisters on The Grio.

Then spread the word. Raising more awareness about injustice will hopefully make a difference. One thing I believe with absolute certainty. This situation has nothing to do with justice.

Standing up to bigotry (and media/congressional leaders who encourage it)

Posted March 22nd, 2010 by Tom

Do these people kiss their mothers with those mouths?

Calling Rep. John Lewis a n****r?! Rep. Barney Frank a f****t?!

Watching and reading the news, it appears that civil debate is presently almost non-existent in our nation. This isn’t about health care. It’s much deeper than that. This is about fear. I understand the fear; fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear when people feel so vulnerable for themselves and their families due to the economy, job loss, wars being waged, and so on. But that is no excuse for abusive behavior.

When we stand silently by and not hold the abusers accountable for their behavior we become complicit in the rise of incivility and the potential violence that may follow.  And it isn’t just the citizen “tea baggers” who must be held to account (though well they should be). It is those who hold positions of power within the media and in congress who, by their example, offer these folks fortitude for their public displays of bigotry.

What example was set when Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” at President Obama during his speech to a joint session of Congress last September? When Texas Rep. Randy Neugebaure shouted out  “baby killer” during Michigan Rep. Bart Stupak’s testimony during the health care debate? When people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck foment hatred with their vitriol they incite the worst in people. And how on earth can Rep. Devin Nunes justify the racist and homophobic slurs of the “tea partiers”? But he did. And he bears responsibility for his own words and for encouraging further displays of bigotry.

And when people of good will stand silently by when we witness incivility in our own communities, when we say nothing as angry protesters portray President Obama with racially disparaging posters, we become complicit in this behavior. And as much as I believe the uncivil protesters should be ashamed of themselves and held to account for their actions and the actions they inspire, so should we.

These spectacle are ugly. And they remind me of the 1960’s. Racist segregationists mercilessly beat, and almost murdered, a much younger John Lewis. They did murder four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church. They murdered Medgar Evers. And the mobs were supported by people in positions of leadership; people like Governor George Wallace and Bull Connor. Yesterday bricks were thrown through the windows at two Democratic Party offices in western New York as well as through a window at Rep. Louis Slaughter’s office in Niagra Falls.

What will happen next? And what can civil people do to help calm the rage?

Our children are watching. And they are inheriting.

UPDATE: Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., House Majority Whip in response to this weekend’s hateful comments.

UPDATE #2: Bob Herbert’s powerful column in the March 22 New York Times, “An Absence of Class.”

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil (Book Review)

Posted March 20th, 2010 by Tom

It reads like a Stephen King novel–fast-paced, thrilling, and frightening. The problem is that this isn’t a novel about a rabid dog. It’s the true story of our world-wide addiction to oil, what it has done and continues to do that makes the world less safe, less moral, less sustainable.

This is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Peter Maass, an author and journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post, among others, details the tremendous damage that the extraction of oil has wrought in countries that possess it.

Evil is not people with mustaches who look like they’re doing bad things. Evil is done by people in suits sitting in boardrooms making horrible decisions. They do it because it’s worth it.

After reading this book you’ll no doubt have strong feelings about the greed of oil companies, corrupt dictatorships, and several powerful governments. What I’ve found most troubling is that I also have to come to terms with my own greed and willing blindness to the impact my addiction to oil has on people and communities throughout the world.

Now the world’s eighth-largest exporter of oil, Nigeria earned more than $400 billion from oil in recent decades, yet nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday.

Like the system of enslavement 200 years ago, oil today touches every aspect of our worldwide economy. I couldn’t help but notice as I read Crude World that the vast majority of people who suffer from the damage caused by the oil industry are people of color.

Though oil provides fuel for our cars and warmth for our homes, it undermines most countries that possess it and, along with natural gas and coal, poisons the environment.

This is yet another “inconvenient truth” of our modern lives. 200 years ago, white people in the North could oppose slavery in the South while wearing cotton clothing, smoking tobacco, and adding sugar to their coffee. They were silently and indirectly complicit in the preservation and continuation of the system. There are parallels to the oil industry today. Like many northerners in the 19th century, we receive all the benefits of the system without having to listen to the screams of the victims.

When we wake up tomorrow, we will still be dependent on petroleum and complicit in the forms of violence–physical, environmental and cultural–that are the consequences of its extraction.

We will run out of oil within the next few decades. Every legitimate study concludes that oil extraction has peaked. If our addiction to oil does not decrease dramatically, then as extraction slows–which it already has in many places around the world–prices will rise and governments will fail. If you think gasoline is expensive now, just wait 5 or 10 years. We need serious conservation efforts, fuel efficiency, and renewable energy.

The United States is by far the worst offender. It is the world’s largest consumer of energy and the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

We are most complicit in the activities that will prove the undoing of the lifestyle we’ve (some of us, anyway) have grown accustomed to.

We owe it to ourselves and to our grandchildren to read Crude World, understand the implications for our lives and the lives of our fellow humans in other countries, and make some challenging, moral, and sustainable changes in how we live.

DeWolf descendants to return to Cuba with Freedom Schooner Amistad

Posted March 18th, 2010 by Tom

It was announced this morning that The Freedom Schooner Amistad will visit Cuba next week as part of the United Nations commemoration of March 25 as the global Day of Remembrance for the victims of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Joining the Amistad team will be my cousins Katrina Browne and James DeWolf Perry along with Tulaine Shabazz Marshall, the Project Director for the partnership between Amistad America and Traces of the Trade.

The Cuban premiere of Traces of the Trade will take place on March 27 at Casa de Africa in Old Havana. Katrina and James will be reunited with many members of the Cuban crew that worked on the film and they hope to reconnect with several friends we made when we visited Cuba in 2001.

Amistad America, Inc. is a non-profit educational organization headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. The Freedom Schooner Amistad is a replica of the ship that sailed from Cuba in 1839 with a group of enslaved people, most of whom had been kidnapped from Sierra Leone. They revolted, killing the captain and the cook. They were recaptured two months later near Long Island, NY and eventually freed after 2 years and 3 trials. The story of the Amistad is well-known in the United States due to the 1997 Stephen Spielberg film.

From today’s announcement:

The Amistad will enter Cuban waters on March 22, 2010 for a 10-day, two city Cuba tour that will culminate its recent Caribbean Heritage Voyage. The ship will first visit Matanzas, site of a new UNESCO-affiliated slavery museum. On March 25, the Amistad will sail into Havana Harbor to commemorate the historic “triangle of trade” connections between America, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. The next day, the vessel will host a three-hour simulcast about the shared slave trade heritage, connecting Cuban students to classrooms across the Atlantic Ocean and at the UN in New York. In addition to public tours of the boat and academic panels on its history, the Cuba visits will focus on the impact of the slave trade on our transatlantic cultural heritage – including religious ritual, film, music, dance, poetry and visits to former plantations.

‘The sale of the Amistad captives in Havana was a small transaction in the thriving international slave trade,’ said Gregory Belanger, president of Amistad America Inc. ‘But the resulting events arguably turned the tide against slavery itself – and the historical connections across the modern African diaspora are direct and profound.’

On June 21, 2008, several members of the Traces of the Trade family (Katrina, James, Jim, Holly, and I) had the good fortune to sail into port at Long Wharf in New Haven, Connecticut aboard the Amistad which was returning home after a year-long, 14,000 mile, trans-Atlantic journey. I wrote about that experience here.

Following the current Caribbean tour, The Amistad will visit five North American cities with links to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I encourage my friends in or near Savannah, GA, Charleston, SC, Norfolk, VA, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to board the ship and learn more about the history that continues to impact all of us today. Hopefully this is another productive step toward ending the embargo the United States has enforced against Cuba for almost 50 years.

You can see several photos from our 2001 Traces journey to Cuba here.

Inheriting the Trade featured in Pennsylvania’s statewide “Live & Learn” program

Posted March 17th, 2010 by Tom

The Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Pennsylvania’s Quest for Freedom have partnered together (along with other PA organizations) to offer Live & Learn Weekends to residents and visitors throughout Pennsylvania. The intention is to increase public understanding of the Underground Railroad, the Civil War era, and Pennsylvania’s and the nation’s history. Between now and October, each region throughout the state will host three weekend-long events that will include a book discussion program (led by an expert scholar to generate dialogue in communities) and tours of local historical sites where attendees can interact with living history performers.

Three books have been selected for the 2010 Live & Learn program because of their focus on the themes of flight, resistance, social change, and self-empowerment. I was honored to learn that the first book, scheduled for regional weekends held during March 15 – April 15, is Inheriting The Trade. The second book, scheduled for June 15 – July 15, is What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War by Chandra Manning. The third book, scheduled for September 15 – October 15, is Slavery and the Making of America by James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton.

The programs take place throughout Pennsylvania in Chambersburg/Carlisle (Franklin County), Erie, Lancaster, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Franklin County Visitors Bureau has announced their Live & Learn program for this weekend, March 19-20. Watch the 30-second YouTube video they created to promote the event here.

It’s good to know that programs like Live & Learn Weekends are offering information to folks from episodes in our nation’s history that have been kept hidden for a very long time.

Re-writing History: time to Mess with Texas

Posted March 14th, 2010 by Tom

We are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan — he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last 20 years because he lowered taxes.”

– Dr. Don McLeroy, chairman of the Texas Board of Education

One of the goals of those involved with Coming to the Table and Traces of the Trade/Inheriting the Trade is to rewrite history. More accurately stated, we are committed to supporting efforts to update school curricula to include all of the rich stories throughout our history that went into the making of the United States; many of which have been hidden and/or buried–the result of which has been that many generations of students have been given a false picture of our nation’s history, and consequently, a false picture of who we are today.

Recently-deceased historian Howard Zinn went a long way toward beginning to address this lack of completeness and truth with the 1980 publication of A People’s History of the United States. Many additional important books have been written in the past few decades that address the history that has long been hidden. I encourage you to watch the DVD (available on Netflix where we watched just last week) of The People Speak. This wonderful documentary, with performances by Viggo Mortensen, Sandra Oh, Sean Penn, Rosario Dawson, Don Cheadle, John Legend, Bruce Springsteen,and others, portrays the rich history of dissent in the United States, and explores why it is so relevant and urgent today.

Now, according to the Dallas Morning News, the State Board of Education in Texas has voted to rewrite history in a different way. Why should the rest of the country even care what a few ultra-conservative folks in Texas foist upon their school children? Because of these realities:

The standards will remain in place for the next decade, dictating what is taught in all Texas schools and providing the basis for future textbooks and achievement tests.

Texas standards often wind up being copied in other states because national publishers tailor their materials to Texas, one of the nation’s biggest textbook publishers.

Concerned yet? You should be. Here’s one example of what just went down:

In a decision split along party and ethnic lines, Republicans rejected a move by the panel’s five Democrats – all minorities – to require that history standards include by name the Tejanos who died in the fall of the Alamo, 174 years ago this month.

In other words, school children will continue to learn about the “great white men” who built this country and will not learn about people of color who fought and died beside them.

Text books will be modified to teach high school students about leading conservative groups from the 1980s and 1990s, but not about liberal or minority rights groups. Fair and balanced it is not.  History teachers and textbooks will not be required to provide coverage about Senatior Edward Kennedy and new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, but President Ronald Reagan will be elevated to more prominent coverage.

I strongly encourage you to take a few minutes and read the New York Times story about what looks likely to be adopted by the Texas Board of Education in May after a 30-day period of public comment.

Battles over what to put in science and history books have taken place for years in the 20 states where state boards must adopt textbooks, most notably in California and Texas. But rarely in recent history has a group of conservative board members left such a mark on a social studies curriculum.

Don’t mess with Texas? Wrong. This is definitely the time to Mess with Texas.

UPDATE: March 18. Jon Stewart weighs in pointedly, ironically, and hilariously, with his “Don’t Mess With Textbooks” segment from last night’s “The Daily Show.” Watch it here.

Flat Justin receives Birmingham Civil Rights History tour

Posted March 9th, 2010 by Tom

I had never heard of “Flat Stanley” when my lifelong friend Mike Godfrey wrote and asked if his son could send me his “Flat Justin” to spend some time with me. Mike and I grew up together because our parents were best friends. We went on vacations together and our families jointly owned a cabin in the mountains. We had some serious snowball fights over the years. I’m not sure there is anyone I spent more time with growing up than Mike until I moved to Oregon to attend college almost 40 years ago. I was honored that JJ chose me to send Flat Justin to.

As I understand it the Flat Stanley Project is an international literacy and community building project where elementary school students create a Stanley character that can be mailed in an envelope. Students from one school would mail their flat characters to students from a school in another part of the country (or the world) and those students create a journal that tells about where Flat Stanley is visiting.

So, variation on this theme, Mike’s son JJ sent his Flat Justin to me and I was to create a journal with pictures of Flat Justin in various places in and around our Central Oregon home/community. Well, Flat Justin learned about our home town all right, but my life takes me to many places around the country so I took Flat Justin with me to Alabama last week where I spoke at three different colleges in Birmingham and Mobile. I don’t know if JJ expected to learn about Birmingham in addition to Bend, but he’s going to nonetheless. I spent most of a day last week touring sites that were significant to the history of the Civil Rights movement and I hope that JJ, his classmates, his teacher, and even my buddy his father, are inspired to search more deeply into our nation’s history than is often the case; that JJ will know more than I did at his age about truth, justice, and equality and just how hard they are to achieve and maintain in our sometimes-not-so United States. (For anyone interested in seeing more photos than are included here, I’ve loaded quite a few onto my Facebook page).

After giving Flat Justin a tour of Central Oregon, here’s what I wrote to JJ:

In addition to being a writer, I speak at colleges and universities around the country about events in the history of the United States that have often been hidden. There are some pretty shameful things that have taken place that have caused a lot of harm to people. Many of those things continue to cause damage to people today. SO, we’re off! Tom and Flat Justin hopped on a plane and flew to Portland, then on to Atlanta, and finally to Birmingham… a LONG day’s travel.

Birmingham, Alabama was the sight of some of the key events in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. This is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to spend time there. I’m so glad that Flat Justin could go with me. I hope that my grandchildren, and YOU, JJ, have the opportunity to visit Birmingham some day. It is important to learn about our nation’s true history in order to understand why things are the way they are today. When you are a little older I hope you will read A People’s History of the United States in order to understand history from the perspective of people from other cultures, the workers, and disenfranchised people. It’s important to see things from all sides and to have compassion for others.

We went to Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park). This is a place of both “revolution” and “reconciliation.” Many black people were attacked by white people. Policemen with dogs even attacked black children. Kids as young as you, JJ, were arrested and thrown in jail for wanting to have equal rights with white children. Black people were attacked with dogs, fire hoses, bricks, chains, and bombs. It is hard to believe that these things took place during your dad’s and my lifetimes. There were so many brave people who stood up to injustice in non-violent ways. They changed America and the world. They helped us get closer to “liberty and justice for all.” They are my heroes.

This is 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963, white men, members of the Ku Klux Klan, planted dynamite at the entrance to the basement of this church. When it exploded, four little girls (one was 11, the other three were 14) who were in the basement were killed because of the acts of these terrorists. It took many years before some of the men who killed these girls were finally convicted of the murders. There is a wonderful movie called 4 Little Girls that your dad and mom can rent that tells the whole story. I hope you watch it someday. It is hard to watch because what took place was so horrible. But knowing the truth, seeking justice, and working for peace is what matters.

This is a statue of Fred Shuttlesworth outside the Civil Rights Institute. He is one of the true heroes of the Civil Rights Movement from Birmingham. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped found the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) which was one of the leading civil rights organizations.

Reverend Shuttlesworth is 88 years old and today he lives in downtown Birmingham. I would love to meet him and thank him for his commitment to justice & freedom.

We next traveled from Birmingham to Mobile on the bus. I thought about the Freedom Riders, black people, and some white people, who rode buses into the Deep South in the early 1960’s to protest segregation. They were non-violent protesters and did not fight back when they were attacked and beaten. We had a layover in Montgomery and a friend picked me up and drove me by Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Dr. King was the pastor from 1954-1960. This is where the Montgomery Bus Boycott was organized in 1955 after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a white person.

In Mobile, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina, we visited the University of Southern Alabama where I spoke to a sociology class. That evening I spoke at Spring Hill College at the invitation of a group called “The Quest for Social Justice.” I’m so happy that there are lots of people around the United States who believe in peace and justice and equality and truth and compassion and continue to work for all of them.

JJ, I don’t know if you were expecting to learn things about the Civil Rights movement when you sent Flat Justin to me, but here you go. I believe that we have come a long way on the road to justice in the United States during your dad’s and my lifetime. I also believe we have a long way to go before everyone has an equal chance for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I hope you will read many, many books about our nation’s history. More of them tell the “whole story” now than ever before. I hope you have teachers with the courage to tell all the stories, no matter how difficult they are to hear. It is important to learn the whole truth. A wise person once said, “the truth will set you free.” If you ever want some good ideas on books to read or movies to see that will help you on your journey toward justice and peace, just let me know. There are good stories for boys and girls your age and there are more for when you grow older.

There is a lot I didn’t go into with JJ. I hope this introduction will peak his interest and that he’ll explore more on his own and with his dad’s help. For instance, 45 years ago this past weekend, March 7, was Bloody Sunday, when hundreds of Civil Rights marchers attempted to walk from Selma to Montgomery and were brutally attacked by police with billy clubs and tear gas.  It is a challenge to figure out how to tell our children the truth about American history. Some of it is horrific beyond words.

But this is our work if we want to leave our descendants a more just and peaceful world than the one we inherited, and the one we currently live in. I look forward to hearing back from JJ once he has a chance to read my journal of Flat Justin’s travels to Oregon and Alabama.

JJ, there are many more places to go…

One of the toughest challenges in discussing the legacy of slavery

Posted March 6th, 2010 by Tom

Yesterday my cousin James DeWolf Perry posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog, The Living Consequences. I encourage all my friends to read it. James explores one of the most difficult challenges we all face in discussing historic enslavement and its present day impacts.

I (and I’m sure James) look forward to your thoughts.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf | Website: James DeW. Perry