Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

Gratitude for Being a Writer

Posted November 17th, 2015 by Tom

I love my life as a writer for several reasons. Primarily, I enjoy the craft of writing; the satisfaction I get from putting my thoughts into words. I love the research, the impact on my own thinking, and turning it all into words on a page; the art of creating stories – both nonfiction and (coming in the not-so-distant future) fiction. I love the wonder and magic and awe of what writing does for me. I love working alone in my pajamas on a rainy day, taking a walk along the river on a warm, summer’s day to think about a particular chapter or paragraph or sentence, hanging out at the library, or taking a short break by walking into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and returning to my laptop to dive back into the words.

Book Cover (300dpi)There’s another aspect of writing for which I’m grateful. I recently received small royalty checks from Beacon Press for the sales of my two books during the first half of 2015. Inheriting the Trade was published almost 8 years ago; Gather at the Table more than 3 years ago. They’re both definitely “catalog” titles now. Major publicity and media coverage for both books is in the past. In case the first two sentences in this paragraph misled you, it isn’t the royalty checks for which I’m primarily grateful. GATT Cover (compressed)Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to receive income from my work, but that income is, ahem… modest (I haven’t yet achieved Stephen King or John Irving levels of success).

No, it’s that people read my books. They give Gather at the Table and Inheriting the Trade to friends and children and parents and colleagues. They check them out at the library. They save them on bookshelves in their homes. They sometimes write to me to tell me how my stories impacted their thinking.

All this time after they were published, more than 300 copies of my books – in hardcover, paperback, and ebook – were purchased between January and June of this year. I find that amazing. I love receiving royalty statements to see how many more people now hold one of my books in their hands. For THAT, I’m forever grateful. Keep reading, friends, and we authors will keep writing. I appreciate our relationship more than you probably know.

Thank you.

Thank you, Ben Affleck. Now what?

Posted April 27th, 2015 by Tom

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.

06_tracesofthetradeShe 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…

Dear Ben,

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.

Spirit of Freedom Award presented to Tom DeWolf by African American Jazz Caucus

Posted July 9th, 2012 by Tom

Let Freedom Ring: From Justice to Jazz.

On Friday, June 29, 2012, the African American Jazz Caucus held a special awards ceremony at the Indiana Landmarks Center in Indianapolis. The Jazz Masters Award was presented to Melvin Rhyne (jazz organist and original member of the Wes Montgomery Trio), Frank Smith (jazz bassist; performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Zoot Sims), and Benny Barth (jazz drummer; performed with Duke Ellington; original member of the Mastersounds).

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A Prayer for Jim Bailey

Posted July 7th, 2012 by Tom

When I was a child in the 50’s and 60’s, there were two black families who attended the same church my family did. Mr. Bailey owned a grocery store. He gave several of my friends their first work experience when he hired them to work for him.

In November 2001, Jim Bailey still attended church with my folks after all those years. He came to their 50th wedding anniversary celebration. This was shortly after I returned from Ghana, Cuba, and Rhode Island with 9 distant cousins on the journey that was chronicled in the film Traces of the Trade and my first book, Inheriting the Trade.

With a room full of people surrounding us, I took the opportunity to share with Mr. Bailey how I had learned so much about slavery, racism, and the history of my country that I never learned in school.

He leaned toward me. “We always learned those things in our schools, son.”

Read the rest of this entry »

If you think technology is isolating, you’re using it wrong

Posted May 25th, 2012 by Tom

Eric was 16 years old when we met in Ghana in 2001 when we were filming Traces of the Trade. We became very close friends. I don’t think 2 weeks has gone by since then that we haven’t communicated via email. I had hoped to get back to Ghana by now to visit him, but it hasn’t happened. So Eric and I rely on technology. We talk via email and Facebook. We spoke by telephone one time a few years back, but it is SO expensive!

Yesterday, we succeeded in connecting via Skype. Though I’ve seen pictures of Eric, and he of me, over the years, this was the first time we saw each other “live” since 2001. It was an unexpected encounter. We’ve been trying to connect via Skype for a few weeks now but I’m not all that savvy when it comes to Skype. For whatever reasons, we just couldn’t get it to work. Then yesterday, bingo! We did something right and it just worked.

Neither of us really knew what to say. Mostly we just laughed at the thrill of being together on our computer screens even though 7 time zones separate us. The warm glow of seeing Eric, and hearing his voice, has not left my heart since.

I’ve read the stories about how technology has created more isolation among people. Though I acknowledge that being “plugged in” a lot can harm one’s relationships in the “unplugged” world, it doesn’t have to. People have always found ways to keep themselves from dealing with the challenges in their real-world lives. But don’t blame it on technology.

I just spoke with my friend in Ghana, face to face, through Skype. Until we are able to be together in person, it does not get any better than this!


Tim from Far Away

Posted November 26th, 2010 by Tom

I want to introduce my friends to a special young man. Tim Howe is a junior in college. He’s presently concluding a “study abroad” program in Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) through Lewis and Clark College. Tim is my 7th cousin. Our common ancestor was born in 1695. Anyone who has read my book, Inheriting the Trade, will recall Tim’s father, David Howe, who introduced me  to an entire side of my family I never knew before. That introduction led me to participate in the journey that became the Emmy-nominated film Traces of the Trade, as well as my book.

Tim has been blogging regularly while on his journey. This experience is changing my young cousin’s life in ways that will serve him and our world well. His first post in late July included this…

…what I think I am is confused. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose I have my life “together”. I’m a junior at a midlevel liberal arts college, I write music and draw on a regular basis, I run and swim and play frisbee, and for the most part, enjoy a standard shenanigan as much as the next schmuck. I freakin love the concept of cooking, but probably because of the end result more than anything. What I’m CONFUSED about is where I am positioned in this exponentially grandiose and simultaneously shrinking planet we chill on.

Over the past few months my cousin has learned and grown. He’s experienced other cultures–so far from that in which he grew up–and has matured in ways that he never would have without this amazing opportunity. From his most recent post:

I can’t believe I’m here right now. Not in the sense of location, I think I’m finally coming to terms with where I stand latitudinally and longitudinally; my stomach can tear through literally any cut of grizzled meat they throw at me; my Swahili is at a point in which I could survive if I decided to set up camp for good here; my feet are like rhino hide, as they should after weeks of tortuous barefoot land walking (although the occasional acacia thorn the size, shape and sharpness of an eagle talon tends to find its way into the depths of my heel, still). What I can’t believe is where I am in the program, a week away from our final culmination, our retreat and departure. On another note, I cannot believe the immense amount of experience we’ve acquired here. I’m convinced that this is a trip that cannot be replicated unless you are Oprah Freakin’ Winfrey. The people we’ve stayed with, the places we have been able to walk on foot, these are things that don’t come with just a phone call to a tour agency, but lifetime relationships of trust and understanding that we conveniently are allowed to view peripherally.

I encourage you to spend some time at Tim’s blog. If you have some influence with young people of his age I hope you’ll encourage them to take advantage of international study programs. Our world will benefit from their experiences.

Inheriting the Trade selected for national reading program

Posted October 26th, 2010 by Tom

United Methodist Women, the largest denominational faith organization for women with roughly 800,000 members, has selected Inheriting the Trade for their 2011 Reading Program.

A diverse range of books are selected each year, spread among four categories. Inheriting the Trade is the featured book in the Nurturing for Community category. An article about the book and author–“Family Roots“–appears in the October issue of Response, the official magazine of UMW.

I’ll participate with UMW members in a “live chat” online this Thursday, October 28 at 4:00pm (PDT; 7:00pm EDT) around the issues of race, diversity and healing from the damage caused by the historic oppressions and injustice that continue to impact all of us today.

I’m honored and excited that UMW has selected ITT and encouraged at their members’ willingness to grapple with this–and other–challenging subjects.

I was also excited to learn recently that continued interest in the story of the DeWolf slave-traders, and the ongoing impact from the legacy of slavery, has resulted in Beacon Press ordering a second printing of the trade paperback edition of Inheriting the Trade.

Working with Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda

Posted October 23rd, 2010 by Tom

I spent the past week working in Bermuda. I know, I know, rough duty but someone’s gotta do it, right? The fact is that racism grows in tropical climates as effectively as anywhere else and it takes dedicated people of good conscience to work toward uprooting it.

C.U.R.B. is just such a group. In the past they’ve brought in such speakers as Tim Wise, Lee Mun Wah, and my cousin Katrina Browne. Watch this video of the Q&A with Katrina following one of the Traces screenings last April.

C.U.R.B. asked me to join them as they implemented The Big Watch (Traces of the Trade was screened on the government-run, public television station (CITV) three times a day, every day throughout October) and The Big Read (as Bermudians were encouraged to read Inheriting the Trade).

C.U.R.B.’s mission is to identify and dismantle racism in all its forms and to address its effects. Bermuda is one of the wealthiest places on earth. And yet racism, and its negative impact on both people of color and white people, persists. We spent the week meeting with students at four different schools, with folks at several community gatherings, and with a Rotary Club. I participated in half a dozen radio, television and newspaper interviews which definitely helps spread the good word!

To see a few photos from our week’s work, click here. Big thanks to my friends Lynne, Haile, Tina, Mark, Cindy, Larry, and everyone else connected with C.U.R.B. All blessings to you as you continue your work toward Uprooting Racism in Bermuda. I look forward to our paths crossing again in the future.

Big Watch and Big Read: Traces of the Trade returns to Bermuda

Posted October 1st, 2010 by Tom

Inheriting the Trade has been selected for “The Big Read” this summer and fall in Bermuda.

Last April, my cousin Katrina Browne–producer/director/writer of Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North–was invited to Bermuda to present the film and speak with high school students and community members. Katrina spent several days there with the support of C.U.R.B. (Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda).

C.U.R.B.’s name is its mission. They are people who believe in the fundamental human right of equality and who understand that racism continues to divide us. They work hard to ensure that the issue of racism stays in the forefront, and that ongoing, honest and open dialogue continues. People who participated in gatherings last April were so moved by the story of the DeWolf family and our journey as told in the film that C.U.R.B. wanted everyone in Bermuda to have the opportunity to see the film.

I’m excited to announce that CITV, the Government of Bermuda television station, in partnership with C.U.R.B. and Ebb Pod (the Traces of the Trade production company), has agreed to broadcast Traces every single day during the month of October. This is the first “Big Watch” in what Ebb Pod plans to become a regular program in coming years in communities throughout the United States and elsewhere.

In connection with the “Big Watch” and the “Big Read” I will spend several days in Bermuda in the latter part of October working with high school students and other Bermudians. I look forward to this opportunity to connect with more people around the world dedicated to undoing racism.

Visit the C.U.R.B. website:, check out their YouTube page, and join them on Facebook.

Controversial Obama 9th Circuit nominee Goodwin Liu update

Posted April 19th, 2010 by Tom

On March 30 I wrote about a “weapon” opponents of Goodwin Liu’s nomination have employed: comments Liu made during a panel discussion on May 6, 2008 that I attended following a screening of Traces of the Trade at the Newseum in Washington, DC.

This is a process I’m going to follow closely.

Last Friday, April 16, Liu’s confirmation hearing began before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans attacked. Democrats defended. Truth and decorum were battered. Politics as usual these days, eh?

But this post isn’t a report on those hearings. THIS update is to thank my friend Jennifer Carr of Borderline Media for locating a YouTube video of Liu’s comments from the panel discussion 2 years ago that is just a tad longer than the 2 minute, 18 second clip that opponents were using to claim that Liu supports financial restitution (reparation) for historic slavery.

Watch this 6 minute, 46 second clip for a more accurate contextualization of the discussion of reparations that evening.

As I reported on March 30, if you actually listen to (or read the transcript of) the whole discussion of repair that evening it is clear that Liu believes that each of us has a moral duty to make things right in the United States; to repair the lingering damage from historic oppressions including enslavement, Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination. Until we repair systems (education, housing, employment, health care, criminal justice, etc) so that they become equitable and just for all Americans, the legacy of slavery will continue to both haunt and harm us all.

Count me as being in total agreement with Goodwin Liu on this issue.

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