9th Circuit Court Andi Cumbo-Floyd A People's History of the United States Barack Obama Beacon Broadside Beacon Press Belvie Rooks Brown University Bruce Springsteen Center for Justice & Peacebuilding Children's Defense Fund Civil Rights CNN Coming to the Table Dr. Martin Luther King Eastern Mennonite University Facebook Gather at the Table George Orwell Ghana Goodwin Liu Inheriting the Trade James DeWolf Perry Jim Crow Jon Stewart Jr. Melissa Harris-Perry Michelle Alexander Michelle Obama Mike Dooley MSNBC NPR Our Black Ancestry PBS President Obama Sharon Leslie Morgan Sharon Morgan STAR Summer Peacebuilding Institute Susan Hutchison The Daily Show The New Jim Crow Thomas Jefferson Traces of the Trade Trayvon Martin
Most recent posts
Our Souls at Night
Gratitude for Being a Writer
Dear “White” People, please read Between the World and Me
The Bench: a short story
Meeting Randall Platt
The Beloved Community
The Immeasurable Distance Between Us
Remembering Peter Norman: an oft-forgotten white man in the Black Power movement
Most recent comments
Dear “White” People, please read Between the World and Me (1)
backtherethen: Loved the book. However, blacks and whites, old and young must still...
Meeting Randall Platt (1)
Jill Stanford: I met Randall Platt that weekend as well – very impressed with...
Remembering Peter Norman: an oft-forgotten white man in the Black Power movement (1)
Yoleen: I remember that moment, too, and I was six years old at the time. Tolerance and...
Today, April 25, is “Reversing Diabetes Action Day” (3)
jocelyn: I hope you're doing OK now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Simply...
Appearances by Tom
Author Stuff, Writing
Coming to the Table
Gather at the Table
Inheriting the Trade
Race, Oppression, Privilege
Traces of the Trade
Trauma and Healing
Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!
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.
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. 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
I hope you are as troubled and contemplative about Independence Day (and certain other American holidays) as I am.
I flew to Orlando, Florida on Wednesday, and flew back home Sunday. I’m speaking across the state tomorrow and in Indiana next Wednesday.
Then I’ll fly to Southern California to join Mom, my sister, our family, and friends to celebrate Dad’s life on the 31st.
It feels a little like a pinball machine is going full tilt in my head with all the silver balls bouncing around at once and the bells and whistles and lights celebrating the highest score ever on “Vampire Stimuli Juggling.” WoooHOOO!
I spent much of yesterday quietly thinking.
I thought about all I experienced over the weekend at the conference; the people I met, the ideas that were shared, my daily telephone conversations with my mom, the eyes of the 10-month old baby whose eyes locked into my 60-year old eyes in the lobby of the hotel just before I caught the shuttle back to the airport to fly home.
Lindi and I watched Boyhood last night. As Mason’s life and the lives of his family unfolded before us I was filled with sadness and hope and I thought what a perfect film to watch at a perfect time.
I thought about Dad being diagnosed with cancer more than three years ago, shortly before he and Mom celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary; about the precious blessing of having him with us these past three years, which offered many opportunities to be together, to talk, to hug, to share “I love you” over and over.
I thought about how my second book, Gather at the Table, was published more than two years ago, offering my co-author, Sharon Morgan, and me the opportunity to crisscross the country since, speaking with people at universities, corporations, conferences, book fairs, churches and other gatherings about healing the wounds inflicted through racism and the legacy of slavery. Even more, our journey offered us the opportunity to build our solid friendship.
I thought about the past few months; how in July I became certified as a STAR Practitioner, authorized to integrate Strategies for Trauma Awareness & Resilience into my work. How in November I read the top ten things dead people want to tell you (ah, the timing), by Mike Dooley, the man from whom I’ve been receiving daily Notes from the Universe for the past dozen years.
I thought about driving to Southern California in December to spend four days with my parents, talking about life and death, Boy Scouts and baseball, laughing through reruns of Family Feud on the Game Show channel, setting up a new laptop to replace their ten-year old desktop that was on its last legs, going to church together the Sunday before Christmas; the church they were married in, that I attended almost every Sunday of my childhood, where we will remember Dad together at a service to celebrate his life, across the street from the hospital where I was born and where he died.
I thought about talking with Mom when we knew Dad wasn’t coming back this time, about changing my plans to immediately fly to Southern California, about her encouraging me to go ahead and attend the conference in Orlando, about my gratitude for my sister for staying with Mom throughout Dad’s passing and for several days after.
I thought about life and death and the intimate and infinite relationship between the two, about feeling as close to my father now as I ever have. About talking with my 6- and 7-year old granddaughters about what happens to Pampa after he died; about cremation and how our bodies and our spirits are both connected and separate.
I thought about all I experienced during the conference, where I became certified as an Infinite Possibilities Trainer. Where I met, spoke deeply with, and held in my arms, Mike Dooley, who’s Notes from the Universe have greeted me each morning for so many years with a reminder of my power, of life’s magic, and how much I am loved. Where I learned more about our innate ability to shape our lives and live our dreams through understanding and working with our thoughts, words, attitudes, beliefs, and actions.
I thought of the intimate and infinite connections between this conference and my work with Coming to the Table, my writing, STAR, Gather at the Table, speaking appearances, and Mike Dooley’s 10-month old daughter, my children and grandchildren, my father, my mother, and how each moment offers the opportunity for me, and for you, to direct our future.
I thought about Deborah, Jeoffrey, Gretchen, Regena, Tracy, Craig, Roberto, Susan, Rebecca, Andy, Mike, and so many others I encountered this weekend; the words “I told you I would find you again” being whispered in my ear in the midst of a powerful embrace, and knowing they were true.
It’s a lot. Believe me, I know. And I’m paying attention; enjoying the game. I look forward to celebrating my father and continuing to create my future. How about you?
The Possibilities are Infinite.
There are times when I am “stuck” in my own writing for various reasons, but I always read. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading a book. I read for the joy of the story. I read to enter other worlds. I read to inspire my own writing. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin for a writer. Both are requirements for the job.
Since August I’ve participated in The Painted Steps, a small group of writers who have committed to working together for six months, to inspire each other to keep our writing at the forefront of our daily lives, and to complete the first draft of a manuscript by the end of January. We meet via video conference every week. The Painted Steps is the brainchild of Andi Cumbo-Floyd, author of The Slaves Have Names. Over the past couple weeks Andi asked us to share some favorite “opening lines” in books and then “closing lines.” The “opening lines” was easier. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “I am an invisible man.” Choosing closing lines to share with my fellow writers took more time; more thought.
The successful ending of a story not only offers a conclusion. Successful endings offer beginnings to further contemplation of what has gone before and imaginings of what’s next. What follows are the closing lines from ten books that have had a profound impact on my thinking; on how I view the world. I hope these lines don’t ruin these stories for anyone who has not read them. I don’t believe they do. hopefully they inspire you to read… Read the rest of this entry »
The National Gathering of Coming to the Table took place at Eastern Mennonite University during the Summer Peacebuilding Institute May 23-25. An article about the gathering, “Desire to address, heal, traumatic legacy of U.S. slavery sparks growth in Coming to the Table group“, shares the heart of what we hoped participants would experience.
My writing partner Sharon Morgan and I both served on the Planning and Facilitation Committee for the Gathering. We were pleased that we were filled to capacity and that participants were deeply engaged and satisfied with the experience.
This post was originally published at Gather at the Table
November 19, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. PBS and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns launched a national effort to encourage people to video record themselves reciting President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, one of the most important statements on human equality in American history.
Sharon Morgan and I participated in the project, as have President Obama, Stephen Colbert, Whoopi Goldberg, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Spielberg, and many others. You can watch our video at the Learn the Address website on PBS. Or you can watch it below from the Gather at the Table YouTube page.
We hope our participation will raise more awareness of the Coming to the Table approach to acknowledging and healing wounds from racism and the legacy of slavery that Sharon and I wrote about in Gather at the Table.
And may we all now re-dedicate ourselves “to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”
My wife Lindi and I went to see 12 Years a Slave yesterday. It wasn’t a film I wanted to see. It was a film I needed to see. It is harsh and searing and honest in its depiction of the institution of slavery in the United States. I hope (and encourage in particular) my white friends will watch this important film. 12 Years a Slave is now a key resource to understanding the traumatic wounds – physical, psychological, and spiritual – inflicted upon black people for the benefit of white people, and inflicted upon white people (whether directly or indirectly connected with the system of enslavement); wounds that have never been healed, have been passed down through generations, and continue to cause harm to all of us today.
My second request is you read the words of my Gather at the Table writing partner and friend Sharon Leslie Morgan. She wrote “400 Years a Slave” on her Our Black Ancestry blogsite after experiencing 12 Years a Slave the day before we did. I read Sharon’s words (click here) before we went to the theater, and again after we returned home. Her story is as powerful and haunting to me as the film because Sharon’s family lived and suffered and died in slavery and its racist aftermath. When white people make the effort to sincerely understand and acknowledge the experience and feelings of people of color as regards these historic wounds, and to understand how white people were and are wounded, and the present-day consequences of this damage, we take our first real step toward healing.
Akee Tree: A Descendant’s Quest for His Slave Ancestors on the Eskridge Planation, written by Stephen Hanks, was recently published by American History Press.
I was particularly interested in the publication of this book for a couple of reasons.
First, this is the story of a long journey of genealogical discovery. Mr. Hanks became obsessed with learning about the past. Anyone who has read Gather at the Table understands it is often the case for black folks in America that such a journey involves researching not only one’s own family, but the family that once enslaved yours. Such explorations can be both enlightening and painful.
Second, Hanks’s journey is one that fits into the Coming to the Table approach to healing: uncovering, acknowledging and understanding the full stories of the past in order to heal historic, traumatic wounds. In my role as Community Coordinator for Coming to the Table, it is exciting to see more books, films, and other resources becoming available for this and future generations.
Finally, I was honored to be asked to provide an endorsement quote for Akee Tree. That’s a first for me, and I only hope that my words of support for Stephen Hanks’s important work will help get his book into the hands of more readers. Here’s a couple images of the back of Akee Tree. I hope you’ll check it out:
I don’t know how many times I’ve spoken with reporters over the years, but it’s been a lot. My close encounters with news microphones began in the late 1970’s when I managed, and then owned, movie theaters, video, comic book, and frozen yogurt shops; human interest stories, Darth Vader appearances, you get the picture. Free publicity by way of news stories is invaluable to a small business owner and I was not shy. When I ran for city council in 1991, and began a 14-year spate of involvement in local politics and statewide arts advocacy, the frequency of interviews increased.
When my first book, Inheriting the Trade, was published, and the documentary Traces of the Trade both came out in January 2008, media requests began to come from around the country. As an author, being on The Early Show on CBS in connection with my first book, and Melissa Harris Perry on MSNBC with my co-author Sharon Leslie Morgan for our recent book, Gather at the Table, were invaluable opportunities for spreading the word about our work.
So what was it about this particular interview? Read the rest of this entry »
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…
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 »