Today's post is from Thomas N. DeWolf, the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, published by Beacon Press. Tom speaks regularly at schools, conferences, and other events around the country. For further information go to: www.inheritingthetrade.com, where you can also read find his Inheriting the Trade blog.
The inauguration of Barack Obama represents hope but not simply for a change from the policies, actions, and directions of the recent past with which I’ve disagreed and found offensive and disheartening. My hope is for the healing of wounds that have been inflicted and experienced over centuries in America. Our nation has a complicated and checkered past. While building a nation based on the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, and offering high hopes and dreams to people from around the world, those in power have also stolen land from, and annihilated, indigenous people. They enslaved African people. They have oppressed people of Asian and Hispanic descent and discriminated against people based on their religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. This historic moment of change, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office and becomes our president, offers great opportunity.
My own family's history mirrors that of America's in many ways. I'm a white man whose ancestors terrorized and killed American Indians in King Philip's War in the 17th century. I'm related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history. Three generations of DeWolfs from Rhode Island, over the course of five decades, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, brought 10,000 African people in chains to the Caribbean islands, and North and South America. They received a political favor from President Thomas Jefferson that allowed them to continue their evil commerce in human flesh long after Rhode Island declared the slave trade illegal. The most successful, James DeWolf, became a United States Senator from Rhode Island in 1821. When he died in 1837 he was reportedly the second richest man in America.
Others of my ancestors were active abolitionists. Calvin DeWolf helped found the Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois in 1839 and was indicted in 1858 for aiding in the escape of a fugitive slave. They've been farmers, carpenters, ministers, lawyers, writers, secretaries, and sales people. Like so many other families they were the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons of America.
The citizens of the United States have experienced terror and have caused terror here at home and elsewhere. We have exploited other people and nations for our own greed and we have been generous beyond measure to those in need. We are a complex mix of freedom and slavery, of love and fear, of horror and hope.
We have come a long way in trying to live up to those noble ideals established by our founders. We still have a long way to go. What we as a nation have accomplished for good gives me hope that we will achieve more justice, more tolerance, more caring for each other, and more acceptance of those with different beliefs, and from different cultures, than ours.
On January 20, I will join the throngs of people who will gather among buildings constructed long ago by enslaved African people. I have no tickets to anything. I simply wish to be present at the National Mall that day. I am drawn to our nation's capitol for a glorious moment in history. I've stood in slave dungeons in Ghana that represent the worst of what mankind has done. I look forward to standing with fellow Americans for a ceremony that represents the best of possibilities for mankind.
The inauguration of Barack Obama, a diverse mix himself of Kenya and Kansas, doesn't solve racism and other forms of oppression and inequity. President Obama won't get us there. The hard work of continuing to create our "more perfect union" is up to all of us, working together. But his election to the office once occupied by men who enslaved people of color is a giant symbolic step along the road to freedom.
He was ridiculed by his opponents for his focus on hope; accused of offering false hope. But I, and millions of others, paid no attention. We believed. As Obama said during his campaign, "In the unlikely story that is America there has never been anything false about hope." I will continue to hope. And I will stand with our new president as we continue the great American struggle to heal from our historic, collective wounds, and to seek more freedom, equality, and justice for all.
You might also be interested in hearing Thomas DeWolf discuss the complicity of the uninvolved, and in reading his previous posts on Beacon Broadside about the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, attending the Sundance Film Festival when the film Traces of the Trade was shown, and discussing the historical import of this year's presidential campaign.