Blog: Here's what Tom says about that!

The Walk

Posted February 4th, 2016 by Tom

PetitI feel a special connection to Phillipe Petit, the man who walked back and forth across a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center for almost an hour; some 1,350 feet above the ground in 1974. In 2008, the documentary film Man On Wire screened at the Newport International Film Festival in Rhode Island. I was there with many of my cousins with our film Traces of the Trade. When Petit was introduced after his film ended, he pretended to trip and fall walking on stage. His fake pratfall is one of my fondest memories from the festival. His extraordinary accomplishment left me in awe. His focus, not on cheating death, but fully living life… what an inspiration. Man on Wire went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary of 2008.

Now comes the dramatic retelling of the same story in The Walk, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. It’s brilliant! My heart pounded, my mouth went dry, I had to stand up because I just couldn’t stay seated as he walked back and forth, stopped, turned, stood, kneeled, and lay on his back on that thin cable so high above the ground for fifty minutes while police on both towers and in a helicopter above tried to coax him off.

Look, I knew how the episode ended. I met a very-alive Phillipe Petit in Newport 34 years later, but I feared for his safety. Dude is crazy for sure… crazy for life. He inspires me to live my life as fully… doing what I love because I love it. Check out The Walk. You’ll be inspired.


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 »

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!


National Endowment for the Arts cuts PBS funding

Posted April 26th, 2012 by Tom

It was announced today that the federal National Endowment for the Arts has made sweeping funding cuts to established PBS shows. More details are available here.

I can’t measure the the impact of this, or fully wrap my head around it. This will take time (and more information) to assess the impact, but I’m initially struck by two points in particular here. First, I’m sorry to see such a big cut to POV, the program that sponsored Traces of the Trade on PBS.

Second, Alyce Myatt, a friend of mine who is the endowment’s media arts director, said that while public television and radio remain “the leads, we also know we have a generation — not of kids but adults — who are consuming content online and on mobile.” This is definitely true for me and many people I know.

It is fascinating to read that the endowment made “78 grants, up from 64 in 2011, totaling $3.55 million, down from $4 million last year. Eligible applications more than doubled to 329, Ms. Myatt said.”

“There are limited resources, so the resources are parsed out as best as can be. This is not anything against any particular program, any particular network or anything.”

Technological advances continue to change the world in profound ways. The impacts will be felt by all of us, including to programs near and dear to our hearts.

I look forward to hearing, and learning, more.

From Slavery to Stardust

Posted August 3rd, 2011 by Tom

Part of what kept us centered throughout this beautiful, tumultuous, and sometimes painful journey was that we sometimes had to remind ourselves that our story did not begin in these hard and musty dungeons but that our journey started billions of years ago in the darkness of time and space. And that like the particles of ancient stardust that pulsates through our bodies we have paused but a moment in slavery’s path.    — Dedan Gills

I am as proud of the radio show “From Slavery to Stardust: What Would Healing Look Like?” as anything I’ve participated in since Traces of the Trade.

One of the blessings of my life is my friendship and working relationship with Belvie Rooks and Dedan Gills. They are the co-founders of Growing a Global Heart. Their mission is to plant one million trees along the routes of both the Transatlantic Slave Trade in West Africa and the Underground Railroad in the United States “to honor and remember the millions of unnamed, unheralded and unremembered souls who were lost during the slave trade” and “to help combat the ravaging effects of global warming and catastrophic climate change.”

One of the many times we have worked together was at the Bioneers Conference in California in October 2010. As a follow-up to the breakout session that Belvie, Dedan, and I presented, Bioneers produced a half-hour show for their Revolution from the Heart of Nature radio program that is heard on more than 370 stations worldwide in eleven nations.

I hope you’ll listen to the broadcast online here. I look forward to your reactions.

My Perestroika

Posted July 27th, 2011 by Tom

This wonderful documentary introduces us to five ordinary Russian people. They grew up in the Soviet Union, watched that system collapse during their teenage years, witnessed the extraordinary political changes that resulted, and raised families in post-Soviet Russia.

Of particular interest to me is that one of the editors of My Perestroika is Alla Kovgan, the talented artist who edited, co-directed, and co-wrote the film of our family journey: Traces of the Trade.

My Perestroika can be viewed online through August 28 through the P.O.V. website.

From the film’s website:

In this film, there are no “talking head” historians, no expert witnesses, no omniscient narrator telling viewers how to interpret events. Instead, Borya, Lyuba, Andrei, Olga and Ruslan share their personal stories. They were the last generation of Soviet children brought up behind the Iron Curtain. They take us on a journey through their Soviet childhoods, their youth during the country’s huge changes of Perestroika, and let us into their present-day lives.

The film interweaves their contemporary world with rare home movie footage from the 1970s and ‘80s in the USSR, along with official Soviet propaganda films that surrounded them at the time. Their memories and opinions sometimes complement each other and sometimes contradict each other, but together they paint a complex picture of the challenges, dreams, and disillusionment of this generation in Moscow today.

I encourage you to watch this wonderful film.

American Idol: Randy Jackson pops my cousin in the mouth–and sends her to Hollywood!

Posted January 28th, 2011 by Tom

My sister wrote to ask me if we’re related to Molly DeWolf Swenson, the phenom who sang Sitting on the Dock of the Bay on American Idol on the January 26 episode. Molly became an instant sensation both for her terrific voice as well as for her encounter with Idol judge Randy Jackson’s hand.

“Of course we are,” I wrote. Molly is our 7th cousin, twice removed. Our common ancestor was born in 1695 in Connecticut. We’re descended from that guy’s older son, Simon D’Wolf; Molly is descended from his younger son Mark Antony D’Wolf.

Those who have read my book Inheriting the Trade will recall Nancy Abercrombie, in whose home my roommate Ledlie Laughlin and I stayed while we were filming portions of Traces of the Trade in Bristol, Rhode Island. My dear friend Nancy is my 7th cousin. Consequently, her granddaughter Molly is my 7th cousin, twice (two generations) removed. My grandchildren and Molly are 9th cousins. Got it? (if not, please inquire about genealogy lessons… ;o) Read the rest of this entry »

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