Thomas Norman DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade (Sept 21-Oct 2)

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Thomas Norman DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade (Sept 21-Oct 2)

Edited: Sep 21, 2009, 3:22 pm

Please welcome Thomas Norman DeWolf, author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. Thomas will be chatting on Librarything until October 2nd.

Sep 21, 2009, 1:41 pm

Thank you! I look forward to chatting with folks over the next couple of weeks. During the summer of 2001 I traveled with 9 distant cousins to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba to retrace the steps of our ancestors through the notorious Triangle Slave Trade route to learn about aspects of our family's--and our nation's--history that had been hidden from us; to confront the legacy of slavery and the impact in continues to have on all of us today; and to consider some thoughts on healing from this historic trauma. Our journey resulted in the publication of my book by Beacon Press and Brilliance Audio as well as the Emmy-nominated, PBS/P.O.V. documentary film "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North."

You can learn more at my website ( I'm also quite active at my blog (

I'm happy to discuss anything from history to current events such as Jimmy Carter's comments about the connection between racism and attacks on President Obama, Van Jones' resignation from the Obama Administration, or thoughts on other relevant subjects such as modern-day slavery, the rise in militias and racist organizations, systemic racism that plagues organizations and communities today, as well as thoughts on toning down the hysterics and looking for ways to heal together.

I also enjoy discussing books and films and I spend time on Facebook ( I'm deeply involved with a group called Coming to the Table ( as well. Thanks again for inviting me to participate here at LibraryThing.

Sep 25, 2009, 9:20 am

What are your thoughts on why racism is often denounced as merely a race card by whites?

Sep 25, 2009, 2:12 pm

It comes down to fear; fear of being labeled racist.

I believe that most people of European descent consider themselves decent, good people who are not racist. They genuinely want everyone treated fairly, justly, equally. They definitely don't want to be considered racist. By claiming that someone is playing "the race card" they can distance themselves from any connection to racism.

I had a professor--a man of African descent--who spoke about this during a class on privilege, power, and race. I write about it in my book. He said that as long as he keeps me locked into a conversation about racism he can avoid dealing with his own stuff like sexism and homophobia.

It's very complex and it all comes down to relationships and vulnerability. We (white folks) fear being labeled "racist" so much that we don't tend to look at the ways we walk in the world that evidence our privilege. Google and read Peggy McIntosh's article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to honestly look at ourselves and to enter into accountable, authentic relationships with people who are different from us we can learn and grow a lot.

Sep 25, 2009, 5:26 pm

Hi! I had some follow-up questions from the book.

First: did the black film crew mentioned in the book who was doing a similar project ever finish getting the funding they needed? Do you know what the current state of their project is? Do you consider the film project you participated in to have helped, hurt, or had no effect on their project?

And related: One of my core beliefs about anti-racism work is that white people absolutely must participate, but that the work and goals should center people of color. Unfortunately, in most situations that involve both people of color and white people, systematic biases tend to funnel attention and resources away from people of color and toward white people. As a white author working against racism, is that tension a concern for you? And if so, how do you address it?

Sep 25, 2009, 9:01 pm

The Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage took place a few years before our journey. It was quite different from what our family did. It was a year-long, multi-racial, interfaith journey organized by a Buddhist group that also included Christians, Muslims, and others. Based on what I've read (here's a brief description: it doesn't appear that making a film was the primary purpose, though I don't know that for certain. I do recall that parts of what they filmed was incorporated into another documentary. I'm not aware of any film being produced specifically on that project. I also don't know if there was any intention for it to be an ongoing project or not. I don't find anything recent online. Here's another article from the Washington Post from 1998:

I wasn't involved in the production side of things with Traces of the Trade but I never heard of any impact one way or another on the Interfaith Pilgrimage, or any other, projects. It is a huge challenge to get documentary films funded (unless your name is Spike Lee, Michael Moore or Ken Burns). I've heard this from many other documentary filmmakers. And I also believe that our project was helped by the privileges the filmmakers possess due to their white skin. You can read more specifically what I believe about this on pages 233-34 of my book.

Recognizing one's privilege is usually challenging for white people. I encourage folks to read Peggy McIntosh's excellent article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (easily found online) to recognize that, first, we can't get rid of it, and second, we can choose to use our privilege in ways that can help make the world a better place.

In response to your second question, yes, that tension is a concern for me. I haven't found any simple answers. This work is complicated by a long history of disparity. What I believe is that people of European and African descent need each other as allies. Joining together brings all our disparate resources to the table. Joining together models the potential for healing. Joining together allows us to hold each other accountable. I participate in an organization called Coming to the Table ( that brings together descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers to consider both our connection to this history and to work together for truth, justice, reconciliation, and peace.

To confront and address the systemic racism that permeates so much of America we have to be committed to staying in the conversation, staying in the relationships, and staying in the work together. We must recognize our shared humanity and our shared responsibility. We will stumble. We'll say and do the wrong thing. But addressing the tension you name requires us to get back up when we stumble and stay.

Sep 27, 2009, 6:47 pm

Thank you. Tell me your thoughts about Jimmy Carter's comments about the racist attacks on Obama.

Sep 28, 2009, 2:18 pm

I wrote about President Carter's comments on my blog recently. Here's the link:

If you have any additional thoughts or questions after reading the post please let me know.

Sep 29, 2009, 10:42 pm

Thomas, I saw your film last year while visiting the Bluntschliis in Port au Prince. It's WONDERFUL! Not easy stuff to look at and kudoes to you folk for taking it on.

Sep 30, 2009, 2:11 pm

Thanks for your comment about the film. For those who want to know more here's a link to the film's website: