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.

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.

My Favorite Media Interview

Posted June 24th, 2013 by Tom

MyWindowInterviewI recently participated in one of my favorite media interviews ever.

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 »

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 »

Society’s Child

Posted May 3rd, 2013 by Tom

JanisAutographWhen I closed the cover after finishing Janis Ian’s autobiography, Society’s Child, I took a deep breath, sighed, and wished there were more. It was a walk through her life, and by extension, my own… a walk through the music and history of Janis Ian, other musicians I’ve listened to all my life, our country during the turbulent last half century as we’ve grown and changed our perceptions of each other in terms of race, gender, sexual identity and so much more.

I first saw Janis Ian in concert in the early 1980’s. My significant memory from that show was some guy shouting out, “Play Society’s Child! I insist!” Janis waved dismissively at him. She didn’t play the song; didn’t play it for years. Reading her autobiography, I now understand why.

I next saw her in concert in 2009 when she played with Joan Baez. I was thrilled to be Janis’s “front row guy” and wrote about the experience here. When my daughter Emily and I went to see Janis together recently at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland, I brought along the photo above of Janis and me taken after that 2009 show. And though I was already part way through reading Society’s Child, I bought the audio version at the concert. Hearing her stories again, in her voice, with her music accompanying them, will be a real treat. After all, she won the 2013 Grammy for “Best Spoken Word Album” when her competition was Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Ellen Degeneres, and Rachel Maddow, for crying out loud!

The way Janis described it, “There must be a joke in there somewhere. An ex-president, a first lady, and three lesbians walk into a bar…” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Discussing “race” in Kalamazoo

Posted April 13th, 2010 by Tom

I recently completed what is likely my last public presentation in connection with Inheriting the Trade for awhile. I don’t anticipate any speaking appearances until at least mid-September. When we schedule future appearances I hope that many of the organizers will follow the highly successful model that was employed last week in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Donna Odom is the president of the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (SMBHS). I just mailed in my membership application. I’m hopeful that as a result of all the powerful encounters people in Kalamazoo had last week that SMBHS will now gain many more new members.

Donna contacted me last year through my publisher (Beacon Press) to discuss the possibility of my speaking in Kalamazoo as one part of a series of events designed to engage community members in serious discussions about “race” in advance of the “Race: Are We So Different?” exhibit that is coming to the Kalamazoo Valley Museum in October.

I’m blessed to have had many wonderful experiences working with colleges and community groups over the past two years. Working with Donna and her team provides another great example of how to put together a successful series of events that will hopefully move people to action. You can view photos from my two days in Kalamazoo here.

The SMBHS partnered with the Fetzer Institute, the Kalamazoo Race Exhibit Initiative, and many volunteers to plan several different events for community members to participate in. Over the course of two days (April 8-9) I stayed quite busy.

On Thursday afternoon I met for two hours with students in an anthropology class (African Cultures in the Context of Globalization) at Kalamazoo College to discuss my 2001 journey to Ghana that led to my writing Inheriting the Trade and some of the images and assumptions I had about Africa that were dismantled during that process. We also discussed the effects of the slave trade on Africa as I have come to understand them through my journey and subsequent research.

The Little Theater at Western Michigan University (WMU) was packed that evening for a screening of Traces of the Trade. The discussion that followed was rich and powerful as folks shared their stories about how their own lives are impacted by race and the legacy of enslavement in the United States as well as thoughts on healing.

On Friday morning I met with several members of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Michigan regarding the work they are doing to dismantle racism in their lives and congregations. The luncheon held at The Fetzer Center at WMU sold out. Students from Phoenix High School, a highly regarded alternative school in Kalamazoo were among those in attendance at both the screening Thursday evening as well as the luncheon. We discussed Inheriting the Trade, how racism continues to impact all of us today, and more thoughts on healing and offering each other grace and respect. Each attendee received a signed copy of Inheriting the Trade. The students from Phoenix High will read it and then we will meet once again, via Skype, to discuss it. I can’t wait!

The final event was a reception for educators at the Kalamazoo YWCA at which we discussed some of the opportunities and difficulties teachers face in presenting challenging information in the classroom. I was particularly pleased that we met at the YWCA, whose mission is “eliminating racism, empowering women.”

I know one thing for certain. If the dedication and passion of the organizers transformed automatically into results then difficulties arising from racism in Kalamazoo, Michigan would be over. Of course, that is not the case. It will take continued commitment from the good folks who organized these events, people who attended, and those whose lives will be touched as a result.

Here are a few things I hope will result from our work together last week:

  1. Many new people will join Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (here’s a link to the membership form)
  2. New partnerships will form among natural allies in this work from schools, churches, and the community at large.
  3. More people will know about the Race Exhibit and check it out when it arrives. For those of you who live somewhere other than Michigan, here’s the link to the schedule of all the museums around the country at which the exhibit will visit over the next few years. From the website:

RACE: Are we so Different? is a powerful, thought-provoking family exhibit which uses history, science and lived experience, to explore human variation and reveal the reality – and unreality – of race. Through film, still photography, interactive components and programming, the exhibit invites us to explore race as well as the impact of race as an economic, political and cultural construct.

I love meeting with folks around the country. I hope that the stories of our family journey, the film and book, will inspire many people to take action in their own lives and communities to undo racism and other forms of oppression. Whenever I return home from a trip such as this recent one to Kalamazoo I realize that people will either shift the way they walk in the world in some important ways–or–watch the powerful events of last week fade into a dot on their life’s road map.

I hope many folks in Kalamazoo choose the former.

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