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All The Light We Cannot See
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When I got The Other Wes Moore last week I anticipated reading it once I finished a couple other books I’m presently reading. But when I read the first couple pages I stopped with the other books and dove into this one. I simply couldn’t put it down.
How is it that two boys, about the same age, born within blocks from each other, raised by single mothers, end up in such different places. One Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison for the murder of a police officer. The other Wes Moore–the author of the book–is a Rhodes Scholar, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, worked in the White House, and is now a successful businessman and author? Many factors were at play in the lives of both of these young men. And yet, as it states on the cover of the book,
I’ve never met the author but I look forward to doing so one of these days. Both his mother and his older sister are dear friends of mine. You may conclude that this factor makes me biased. It’s true that I read the book because I know members of this family. But I would not highlight the book on my blog unless it had a powerful impact on me and I believed it would do the same for others.
I encourage you to read The Other Wes Moore and discover for yourself the power of this very American story. It is filled with tragedy and triumph, with despair and hope, and a look at some slices of life in our nation that many of us have never seen. It is a reminder of what is possible when things go well, and just how easy it is for things to go tragically wrong. It is also a reminder to me of the importance of communities like Coming to the Table that are committed to addressing the legacy of enslavement, racism, inequality, and injustice that remain today.
In reading this book, you’ll understand, as I do, why Wes Moore has appeared on Oprah, the PBS News Hour, Tavis Smiley, why The Other Wes Moore debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list, and why former U.S. senator and secretary of defense William S. Cohen said,
UPDATE: watch Wes Moore’s excellent interview on The Colbert Report from June 21, 2010 here.
I turned on my computer this morning, checked my e-mails, read Doonesbury, and then began perusing a few news sites; a ritual I follow pretty much every day. When I got to CNN.com I was stunned by two faces at the top of the page. My friends Betty and Phoebe Kilby were smiling out at me–and the whole wide world.
Phoebe’s ancestors were once owned by Betty’s ancestors. Their story, “When kin of slaves and owner meet” is both inspiring and important. What Betty and Phoebe have done is to model what healing from traumatic historic damage can look like.
I met Betty and Phoebe through Coming to the Table, the program I’ve participated in since early 2006. The descendants of both the enslaved and the enslavers gather together to consider the history of enslavement and racism that continue to impact all of us today. We commit to connecting; to being in relationship with each other. We take action together in communities, at conferences, online, and with other individuals to highlight the importance of acknowledging the damage. And we’re working together to develop a model of healing that can be utilized by others who want to finally deal with the lingering trauma that continues to impact all of us today, whether we are aware of it or not. As Susan Hutchison, one of the founders of Coming to the Table says in the article,
As you read the article I encourage you to also check out some of the comments below the story. They run the gamut from gratitude that these issues are being prominently told to charges of race-baiting on the part of CNN. I find the comments very useful in that they show just how wide the gaps are in our recognition of how much race continues to impact our nation. They highlight the need for Coming to the Table.
UPDATE: I learned this evening that this story is the “most emailed link” from CNN.com today. According to the author of the story, Wayne Drash, it was also the most-read story of the day with 600,000 views. Over the past few years we’ve found that many, many people would like to find ways to face the past, to deal with present-day inequities and injustice and search for models of healing. Coming to the Table is a good place to begin.
I’m not sure that anyone loves America more than Pete Seeger. He’s been a lifelong supporter of the labor movement. He was at the forefront in the struggle for Civil Rights. Pete and his music have been used to support peace and end war. He’s always been an active and vocal participant in cleaning up the environment. He used his influence to almost single-handedly insure that the Hudson River was restored to a state of health. He had the distinct honor of being blacklisted by HUAC.
I’ve started a photo album on my Facebook page called “Tom’s World View Influencers.” Whether you’re on Facebook or not you can see the photo album here. We each have stories about people that have influenced what we believe and who we have become. Today I added Pete Seeger to my growing collection of memories about people who made a difference in me.
I love Pete Seeger. I love his music and his message. I’ve seen him in concert, purchased his albums, and read about him in the media. Throughout my life I have been inspired by Pete. If you want to stop war; if you believe in clean water and air; if you love justice, if you want to undo racism, then you are a friend of Pete Seeger.
I recently watched Pete Seeger: The Power of Song. It’s available on DVD. Check it out on Netflix. We have much work to do to achieve justice. Pete points us in the right direction. I encourage you to watch this wonderful film.
In March I reviewed the book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil. If you didn’t catch it then I encourage you to add this important book to your reading list.
The human impact from our past actions continues to harm the most vulnerable people the most severely. The damage we inflict on people and communities in other nations, and the damage we inflict on the environment, because of our addiction to oil is staggering and unconscionable. Sadly, we (meaning the human species) don’t tend to take serious action to change our habits without being confronted with catastrophe. I can only hope that the catastrophe that is currently unfolding in the Gulf will lead to a fundamental shift in our national conversation regarding energy reform.
For a quick primer on how this crisis, combined with national and worldwide policies regarding energy, may play out I also recommend this article in The New Republic: The Crisis Comes Ashore: Why the oil spill could change everything.
I’ve thought a lot over the past month about Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s decision to revive the practice of “recognizing” April as Confederate History Month. It is easy, and perhaps accurate, to chalk it up to politics. There has been no such recognition during the past eight years when Mark Warner and Tim Kaine–both Democrats–held the office of governor. By reviving the practice, McDonnell appeals to conservative Republicans who talk of supporting state’s rights and opposing federal intrusion. It would also be easy for a supporter of McDonnell’s proclamation to dismiss the concerns of someone like me as a Northerner who can’t possibly understand.
I understand this: highlighting Confederate History in the way Governor McDonnell did last month does nothing to help heal wounds that still fester from the Civil War that ended in 1865.
Events in our nation’s history have occurred in the month of April that deserve recognition by the state of Virginia, and all American citizens, for their significance in connection with our difficult journey to become the “more perfect union” envisioned in our Constitution. Our Union was preserved when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln drew his last breath less than a week later on April 15, 1865 in a bed across the street from Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. where he had been shot the night before. Jackie Robinson played his first game as a Dodger–and broke Major League baseball’s “color barrier”–on April 15, 1947. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 seven days later on April 11.
From Governor McDonnell’s proclamation:
By recognizing April as the month Virginia joined the Confederacy, Governor McDonnell took a giant step backward on the road to equality and justice for all.
The act of violating allegiance to one’s government is treason. This is what Virginia and ten other states did in 1861 when they voted to secede from the United States of America. President Lincoln rejected the secession and ordered military action to preserve the Union. No country on earth recognized the Confederacy as a sovereign nation. Virginia has been one of the states of this Union–with the exception of four years from April 1861-April 1865–since independence was declared in 1776. In other words, Virginia acted as though it was not one of the United States for a total of four years out of our nation’s 234 year history. And the act of secession in April 1861 is the moment in Virginia’s long, glorious history that Governor McDonnell chose to celebrate?
Many reasons have been given for why the Confederate States chose to secede. States rights vs. federal rights, economic and social differences between the agrarian South and industrial North, Southern honor, the growth of the abolition movement in the North, and the election of Abraham Lincoln–who many in the South believed was completely unsympathetic to their beliefs–were all contributing factors. At the core of all of these concerns was the South’s insistence on the preservation of slavery which was the foundation of the economies of the Southern states. White people owned black people so that white people could benefit economically from the forced labor of black people.
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell decided to officially recognize an act of treason in support of white supremacy.
In his original proclamation, Governor McDonnell failed to mention slavery in connection with the Confederacy and the Civil War. A firestorm erupted. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour defended McDonnell, saying that the controversy over the original proclamation was “…trying to make a big deal out of something that doesn’t matter for diddly.” Yet McDonnell apologized and revised the proclamation.
My intention here is not to beat up on Virginia or the South. One key point of our DeWolf family journey–as evidenced in the film Traces of the Trade and my book Inheriting the Trade–is to highlight the North’s complicity in the slave trade, the nationwide system of slavery at our nation’s founding, rampant racism in northern states throughout our history, and the North’s willful white-washing of its own sordid history in this regard. My home state of Oregon, for instance, became a state in 1859. Oregon’s constitution at that time prohibited the immigration of free blacks into the state. 89% of voters supported this provision. 75% of voters also rejected slavery in Oregon. The voters of Oregon overwhelmingly wanted an all-white state.
John Wilkes Booth was not a southerner. He was born to a prominent Maryland family of first generation immigrants from England. Yet his sympathies, like those of many people in the North (some officials in New York debated seceding with the South because slavery was key to their own economic prosperity), lay with the South. He volunteered to guard against the escape of John Brown after the rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and witnessed Brown’s execution. Booth blamed abolitionists for divisions in the United States. He stood mere yards from Lincoln when the President gave his second inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol building and later bragged to a friend, “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President if I had wished!”
No, my intention is not to beat up on the South. It is to take strong exception to Governor McDonnell’s proclamation and hope that no Southern governor will replicate his folly in the future.
I hope that most people would agree that the “defining chapter in Virginia’s history” is the efforts of its citizens over the past 145 years to repair the human damage caused by slavery and racism, to support our republic, and to commit itself to further the understanding of what it means to be a “free” nation of all people; not just white people.
Governor McDonnell’s proclamation drew support from those who seem to long for a civilization Gone with the Wind. Those days are thankfully over, Governor. And that is significantly more than “diddly.”
“We stood in El Mina slave dungeon, on the Cape Coast of Ghana on a recent trip to West Africa, overwhelmed by despair, grief and rage. Without needing to verbalize it, we were both imagining what reaching this spot must have felt like for some long-ago, un-remembered African ancestor as she stood trembling on the precipice of an unknown and terrifyingly uncertain future.
“It was hard to process the fact that for over three hundred years, millions of women, men and children, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, brothers, potters, weavers, had begun their long and brutal journey of being captured, kidnapped, sold and enslaved from the very spot where we now stood the portal now infamously known as the door of no return.”
These are the words of my friends Belvie Rooks and Dedan Gills from their website Growing a Global Heart.
Belvie and I have worked together several times over the past two years, bearing witness to the profoundly transformative impact our separate journeys to the slave dungeons of West Africa had on each of us.
Belvie and Dedan have “a powerful vision of helping to heal the planet from the ravages of catastrophic climate change while honoring and bearing silent testament to the “many thousands gone”–one tree at time!”
Their goal is to help plant one million trees along the route of the Trans-Atlantic slave route to honor and remember the millions of unnamed, unheralded, and unremembered souls who were lost. The planting of the trees will help combat the ravaging effects of global warming and catastrophic climate change and actively highlight and support African-inspired sustainable solutions.
Please visit their website today. Purchasing a “Growing a Global Heart” stainless steel water bottle will help plant 40 trees. Using the bottle will help reduce the use of plastic drinking bottles in your life.
Dedan and Belvie say that what they need most “…are your hopes, prayers and any ideas that you have that might help move this project forward. If you have any suggestions or feel that you can help in any way, we welcome your input.”
I ask you, my friends, to support this work and to please forward this message to your friends and colleagues via e-mail or re-posting on your blog.
Healing ourselves and our world takes many forms. Growing a Global Heart is what healing looks like.