Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

The Immeasurable Distance Between Us

Posted July 4th, 2015 by Tom

Before I signed a contract with Beacon Press to publish my first book, the working title of my manuscript was The Immeasurable Distance Between Us.

IMG_7936I envisioned the cover of my book long before publication, with an image of a young teacher from Chicago and me walking side-by-side in Accra during the Panafest Pan African Historical Festival. Visualized it. Printed it. Framed it. Then signed a contract with Beacon Press and the title changed to Inheriting the Trade.

That’s all to the good. I trust my publisher and the book has done (and continues to do) well in getting into the hands of readers.

And today, July 4, 2015, I look at the image of my envisioned book cover that still hangs in my office. And I think about all I’ve learned over the past 15 years. Earlier in my life I didn’t think much about Independence Day, or Columbus Day, or Thanksgiving… just enjoyed them, or partied with friends or family, or whatever. Now, thanks to new friends, authors and others who challenge my thinking, such commemorations have become far more complicated in my mind. I don’t celebrate them much anymore. I think about what’s behind and beneath them.

My initial chosen book title comes from a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 4, 1852 in Rochester, New York.

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary. Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Sadly, much of what Mr. Douglass spoke about 163 years ago remains true today. Racism and injustice are alive and well. Florida. Missouri. New York.  Maryland. Since 9 of our African-descended brothers and sisters were assassinated by a racist terrorist two weeks ago in Charleston, South Carolina, 7 black churches have burned. None of this is an attack on Christianity. It is an attack on black people. If you are white and don’t understand this fact, you haven’t read my books. Please do.

You can read the full text of Douglass’s speech here. Please do. Or you can watch Danny Glover read powerful excerpts from  Douglass’s speech here. Please do.

I hope you are as troubled and contemplative about Independence Day (and certain other American holidays) as I am.

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.

Breaking into Norway

Posted June 2nd, 2013 by Tom

When I fantasize about international acclaim, I think about my books being published in the countries included within their pages (in the case of my first two books, Ghana, Cuba, and Tobago), as well as many other countries and languages. I haven’t achieved that level of success with my writing… yet. But I did get interviewed by a Norwegian newspaper, Vårt Land, last month. It’s a start…

Vart Land Logo 2

If you understand Norwegian, you can read the article here: Vart Land Interview (Norwegian Newspaper, 10 May 13)

The reporter, Ingrid Hovda Storaas, contacted me through my publicist at Beacon Press. She wrote that she was working on a story on “inherited responsibility” for a Norwegian daily print Newspaper. They had recently “published a story on German youths working voluntarily in Norway as a way to ‘pay’ for the fact that their forefathers participated in the German occupation of Norway. A 20-year old boy was asked if he feels he is atoning for his grandfather’s sin (he was a soldier), and put it like this: ‘In a way. I have not inherited his guilt, but I feel I have inherited a responsibility.'” They were now doing a follow-up story with a more global view and had come across Inheriting the Trade in her research.

I agreed to respond to her questions via email. I was particularly interested in this opportunity because my great grandfather, Ole Nicholson, was born in Norway in January 1853. He came with his parents to the United States when he was 4 years old. His wife, Martha Ryen, was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants as well. They lived in Illinois and Iowa. Their daughter, my grandmother, Lida Nicholson married my grandfather, Giles DeWolf around 1915. Consequently, I have very fond feelings for Norway and hope to visit someday. Read the rest of this entry »

International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Posted March 21st, 2011 by Tom

(UPDATE: Click here for photos from the post-screening discussion at the U.N. — I was glad to see that roughly 300 people were estimated to be in attendance.)

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North will be featured during the 2011 week of commemoration. On March 21 at 6:30pm at the United Nations building in New York, Katrina Browne, James DeWolf Perry, Elizabeth Sturges Llerena and Tom DeWolf will be present to discuss the film, its implications, and the ongoing legacy of slavery with those in attendance.

In 2007 the General Assembly of the U.N. declared 25 March the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They schedule a series of events each year in honor of this time of remembrance and commemoration.

Our family is honored to be selected to join in this year’s series of events.

At the same time it gives me pause to spend an evening at the U.N. when its members, including my country, is presently bombing Libya in the name of democracy and freedom. What complex and contradictory people we humans are. And how good we are at creating weapons and enemies. And how much we need to learn to survive such creations.

What’s Hidden Underneath

Posted October 25th, 2010 by Tom

I’m excited to spread the word that my cousin Elizabeth Sturges Llerena will have an exhibition of her artwork–dynamic images that explore New England’s complicity in the system of enslavement and its legacy today–at Linden Place Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island October 29 – November 13.

This Friday, October 29, from 6pm – 9pm, Linden Place will host an opening reception, performance piece and gallery talk by Elizabeth in the mansion.

Linden Place is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the construction of the mansion by George DeWolf in 1810. As noted in Traces of the Trade and Inheriting the Trade, the house was built with the proceeds from the slave trade after it was declared illegal in 1808.

From the press release: Elizabeth will display a variety of artworks regarding the subject of slavery, which incorporate or imitate objects in Linden Place’s collection. Watercolor paintings of Ghanaian women, sketches and African face casts, which symbolize New England’s involvement in the slave trade, are juxtaposed with Linden Place Mansion’s original collection of paintings and antique furnishings. Her piece “What’s Hidden Underneath” explores her family’s collective silence about slave traders in the family using a dress based on a 19th century design with the legacy of slavery made visible only by pulling back the front panels of the dress. This unique period dress cleverly hides images of the Triangle Trade, highlighting this part of Linden Place Mansion’s and the Northern states’ often overlooked history.

Elizabeth is an accomplished artist and also teaches art in New York City. She confronts audiences with the history and legacy of slavery and institutional racism and encourages people to reflect, reconsider assumptions and adjust ways of thinking about U.S. involvement in slavery. She has exhibited at Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery, NYU’s Bronfman Gallery among other venues.

I’m sad that I won’t be able to attend the opening but do plan to see the exhibit when I’m in Rhode Island the following weekend. A few friends and cousins will be there Friday. I’ve seen much of the work that will be on display and it is quite powerful and moving. You can see more of her work on my website here.

I’m sure you’ll find, as I have, that Elizabeth Sturges Llerena is an amazing artist and is using her gift to make the world a better place.

A Family Secret Helps Others Talk About Racism

Posted October 8th, 2010 by Tom

Kudos to my cousins Dain and Constance Perry. They stay very busy traveling around the country, screening the Emmy-nominated documentary film of our family journey Traces of the Trade, and inviting people into a deep conversation about racism and the legacy of slavery. They estimate that they’ve screened the film some 200 times over the past couple of years. Their work is making a difference. It’s getting noticed.

Watch television news stories about the work the Dain and Constance are doing here, and what participants are saying here.

Thank you to our cousin Holly Fulton for sending the link to what WKYC in Cleveland wrote (after Dain and Constance participated in 12 screenings/events in 10 days in Northeast Ohio):

Dain Perry and his wife, Constance, are traveling the country, having candid conversations about racism. And they start that talk by showing a documentary about Dain’s family history.

Traces of the Trade: a Story from the Deep North retraces the journey the DeWolf’s ancestors took to bring Africans back to America to become slaves.

In the documentary, relatives talk about how the DeWolf’s were the largest slave trading family in the U.S. and brought more than 10,000 Africans to America. The DeWolf family is from Bristol, Rhode Island.

“I didn’t do it. But that fact gives me the opportunity to help get the national conservation on race a little deeper. I see it more as an opportunity than anything,” says Dain Perry, a DeWolf descendant.

That is why Dain is taking about his painful past and sharing it with others, to help open up the dialogue about race in American. The Perry’s spent more than a week in Northeast Ohio showing the documentary to many groups. They say the conversations have been more difficult in the North than in the South.

“The conversation in the south is much more open, much more honest, much less denial. In the north there is still deep denial. Great discomfort of making excuses. You can see people squirming,” says Dain’s wife, Constance Perry.

At the Forest City discussion, many thought the film was painful to watch, but an eye opener.

Bill Sanderson says “to be in a room full of people that don’t look like me. And I think people of a color to be in a room with white people so they will know there is frustration on our part. We don’t always know what everyone expects of each other and it goes both ways.”

“Open to conversation and willing to hear their perspective. And understand where they came from and how their life experiences have shaped their realities and their perceptions,” says Cariss Turner.

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.

Obama re-nominates Goodwin Liu for 9th Circuit Court

Posted September 14th, 2010 by Tom

My cousin James DeWolf Perry has a new post today at his blog The Living Consequences about the ongoing saga of law professor Goodwin Liu’s nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by President Obama.

I first wrote in March about the controversy surrounding Liu’s nomination AND his connection to our family journey as documented in the film Traces of the Trade. The controversy began in June 2008 at a Council on Foundations conference of all places. I wrote this update in April and discussed how Senate Republicans blocked Liu’s nomination just last month.

We’ll continue to follow this saga as long as it drags out. I encourage you to also take this opportunity to spend some time at The Living Consequences. James maintains a terrific blog with many thought-provoking subjects and comments.

Senate Republicans block Obama circuit court nominee

Posted August 7th, 2010 by Tom

So what? Political wrangling over political nominees happens regularly. But this time the Emmy-nominated film of my family’s journey, Traces of the Trade, is tangled in the intriguing web.

Thank you to my cousin James DeWolf Perry for alerting me to this latest action through his excellent blog The Living Consequences.

Earlier this year President Obama 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 to the nomination 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.

Much like the recent controversy over comments made by Shirley Sherrod, in which clever video editing gave a false impression of her views, Goodwin Liu’s comments from 2008 have also been taken out of context.

Senate Republicans have now employed a rarely invoked rule to send Liu’s nomination back to the White House. My cousin James notes that President Obama plans to re-nominate Liu when Congress returns from recess in September.

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