In light of our current fractured moment, Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan discussed the roots of our division and the forms reconciliation can take by reexamining their book Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade. The discussion took place during their Unlearning Division, Coming Together online event on July 15, moderated by the book’s editor Gayatri Patnaik.
One of the forms of reconciliation they spoke about was reparations. Amid the protests over the unending police shootings of unarmed Black people, some US cities, such as Providence, Rhode Island, and Asheville, North Carolina, have proposed ways to finally work toward reparations and to funnel more funding toward programs for Black communities. Here’s what Morgan and DeWolf had to say.
Gayatri Patnaik: How do you feel about the government doing some type of reparations for descendants whose ancestors were enslaved?
Sharon Leslie Morgan: I absolutely feel like there should be reparations. But I feel they do not have to take the form that people immediately think about, which is, “Write me a check.” Because if you write a check, you’re absconding. You’re not really engaging the process. I think that it takes many forms.
The best form would be investing money in repairing the damage, not as much to individuals as to people on a societal level. There should be scholarships. There should be changes in mortgage lending. There should be things like that to give economic benefit to individuals, but not necessarily in the form of a check. And I would urge the House Bill 40, which was presented by Congressman John Conyers for years and years and years and never got any consideration. The US government has even not wanted to look at the possibility of researching what needs to be repaired. That is actually a first step toward reparation, which is looking at what happened, what needs to be repaired, and how much that would be worth, how much should be invested in that.
Thomas Norman DeWolf: I would support writing the checks to individuals. I look at the wealth in this nation, the disparity of wealth and how much more wealth white families own and control compared to African-descended families. The GI Bill at the end of World War II was supposed to support GIs coming home. Ninety-eight percent of that money went to white GIs who then built the all-white suburbs, left the cities. Our schools are funded by property taxes, and these all-white suburbs, with all of their higher property values, built these really nice schools. And the schools in the inner cities suffer as a result. So white folks have ten or fifteen times the wealth over Black folks.
[My organization] Coming to the Table has a reparations working group. We have a twenty-three-page reparations guide on what individuals and groups can do in terms of history, healing, connecting, and action. It’s a wonderful document and it’s available on the website.
I agree with Sharon on scholarships and what have you. I just watched a documentary on Asbury Park, New Jersey, and how fifty years ago this month, race riots just decimated this town that was famous for its music primarily. Over the five decades since then, all the repair has been done on the east side of tracks where all the white people live. On the west side of the tracks, where Black folks and Italian folks and people of color have lived, it’s still just devastated. That happens that way throughout the United States, where there’s always support for people who look like me.
Look at the parallels right now, how Congress provided the additional $600 per week in unemployment because people have lost their jobs. Well, this, to me, is much longer history of people being discriminated against who should be provided direct financial support. People of color, to Black folks in particular. Legacy of slavery is a perfectly reasonable approach to dealing with the economic disparity that has been set up within the systems of this country. It doesn’t take away from me. This is white people’s biggest fear. The word ‘reparations’ strikes fear in white people.
What we’re talking about is repair. We’ve created a breach. That’s what it talks about in the Christian bible—repairing the breach, the brokenness that we have created since the founding of this nation. And it’s going to take money. It’s going to take effort. It’s going to take change. Not always easy. But how can we imagine a difference in this world where we look at repair for the sake of repair, not repair for what’s in it for me or what’s going to cause me and my family harm. Get past that. Get past living in fear and imagine a better world we all know is possible when we create a world that is more equitable financially, educationally, justice-wise.
If you weren’t able to attend their event, you can watch it here in full.
About the Authors
Thomas Norman DeWolf is the author of Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, and co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, (both published by Beacon Press). His latest, The Little Book of Racial Healing, was published in January. Tom DeWolf facilitates workshops and speaks regularly about healing from the legacy of slavery and racism at colleges, conferences, and other venues throughout the United States, and serves as Executive Director for Coming to the Table. Learn more at http://tomdewolf.com/. Follow him on Twitter at @TomDeWolf and on Facebook.
Sharon Leslie Morgan is co-author of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American family research.