I recently read The Slave Ship: A Human History, and it included all the details of slave ships and how people came to be on them.
While halfway through reading that, I found out about an even more interesting book, called Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. After finishing it, I wish everyone in the country would read it, or at least watch this clip of the author’s relative behind the project:
Thomas DeWolf has had a bunch of psychotherapy, and is therefore capable of writing honestly about things that make him look bad. He seems to “get it,” but not for the reasons you would’ve hoped. More on that below. He quotes lots of black people saying things like:
I I believe white people don’t talk about race relations, or that they don’t talk honestly about race relations, or that they don’t talk honestly about race relations with people of color.
Thomas DeWolf is an honest man. Here he is, describing his trip to Ghana:
The moment we step off the bus, teenage boys swarm us. I’m separated from my companions and alone, surrounded on all sides by a group of boys at least a half-dozen deep. They compete for my attention by shouting that they want me to buy all sorts of things, from necklaces to wood carvings. Those without goods simply join the crush and ask for money. They push each other around to gain advantage and grab my arms, trying to force pieces of paper into my hands. They want to give me their addresses and want me to sponsor them, whatever that means. With so many shouting simultaneously, I can’t focus on any of them…
It is truly uncomfortable and I can’t concentrate on anything except these boys. A policeman soon approaches and begins slapping them to chase them away. I’m startled and even more conflicted. I don’t want him abusing these children on my behalf. It flies in the face of all the reasons we’re here, yet it provides a few moments of respite and the brief opportunity to locate my cousins.
It’s like a microcosm of America and the rest of the world. The thing is, the emotions he’s describing are human. Even if you’re ashamed of enjoying privilege, it’s apparent that you’re enjoying it. What’s inhuman is denial:
There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating. Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.
To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. “Go and embrace him,” she told her, “and then ask him suddenly: ‘What now?'”
The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it.
“An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,” replied the monk somewhat poetically. “Nowhere is there any warmth.”
The girl returned and related what he had said.
“To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!” exclaimed the old woman in anger. “He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion.”
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.
Many white people are afraid of talking to black people about race, but it can go poorly for this very basic reason: the white person is being dishonest, and the black person can tell. This isn’t something uniquely difficult about black people. It’s something that happens when you’re dishonest with anyone and they can tell. There’s no fundamental reason modern-day white and black people can’t get along. Early slaves were able to forgive and take pity on their own slave ship crews, in some cases:
Those so-called “wharfingers,” “scow-bankers,” and “beach horners”–sick, broken-down seamen all, forced by captains off the slave ships–haunted the docks and harbors of almost all American ports, from Chesapeake to Charleston, to Kingston, Jamaica, and Bridgetown, Barbados. They had no work, because no one would hire them for fear of infection. They had no money, because they had been bilked of their wages. They had no food and shelter, because they had no money. They drifted around under the waterfront, sleeping under the balconies of houses, under the cranes used to hoist cargo in and out of the ships, in the odd unlocked shed, inside empty sugar casks–anywhere they could find to protect themselves from the elements…
They had “cadaverous looks,” and indeed many were near death. They more able ones “beg[ged] a mouthful of victuals from other seamen.” One well-traveled sea captain called them “the most miserable objects I ever met with in any country in my life.” These “refuse” sailors depended on charity…
An officer in the Royal Navy, a Mr. Thompson, noted that some of these pathetic sailors died, but “upon others the negroes have taken compassion, and carried them into their huts, where he has often seen them so ill, as to be almost at the point of death.” Other observers in other places noticed the same pattern. “Some of them,” explained Mr. James, “are taken in by the negroe women, out of compassion, and are healed in time.” Seaman Henry Ellison noted that the wharfingers had trouble finding a place to stay dry, “except that a negro was now and then kind enough to take them into his hut.” The people who took them in would have known exactly who they were, recognizing the specifically West African maladies from which they suffered, and perhaps how to treat them. Some likely knew the sailors personally.
The compassion did not end with the giving of food, shelter, and nursing. It extended into the afterlife. When the sailors died–“in the greatest misery, of hunger and disease”–they were “buried out of charity, by the same people,” said Mr. James…
What was the meaning of this compassion and charity? Is it possible that those who had survived the slave ship as prisoners knew precisely how horrible the experience had been for everyone aboard and that, moved by such knowledge, they could show sympathy and pity to those who had been their prison guards?
Contemporary white people are correct that they didn’t personally torture someone across the Middle Passage. Some level of reconciliation might’ve been possible even if they had! This anecdote from a slave fort in Ghana illustrates what pisses black people off:
Against the wall, a black pedestal with an open book on top stands below a sign that reads, “Comments About Your Visit Are Welcome.”
One page bears a long list of Americans with one note left on behalf of all. “Africa, please forgive us, and our ancestors.”
I read on. “Excellent tour. Please put real shackles on the wall for more emotion.”
A Ghanaian American wrote, “It’s nice, but my only problem is, I’m finding it a little bit difficult to forgive the whites after going through this tour.”
From a Dutch person, “Terrible thing my country did.“
An American then wrote, “Glad I’m not Dutch.”
That’s bullshit. If the descendants of the people most responsible for the American slave trade can visit the sites of their forefathers’ atrocities and even begin to understand intersectionality, so can other white people:
Elizabeth, now standing, says she wants to hold the men in the group accountable for the underlying “silent stuff” that is so strong in WASP culture. Juanita asks her to explain.
“It’s the ‘Daddy Knows Best’ bullshit, like ‘we know what’s best for you.’ I feel that with you, Dain.” She looks at him but gets no reaction from Dain.
She also feels like she’s supposed to protect him. As a woman, she’s not supposed to tell him these things because it’s going to be too hard for him. Consequently, it won’t be safe for her. It sounds very similar to the way Juanita described the feelings of black people in relation to whites in Jim’s room in Ghana.
Elizabeth says she’s never been allowed to say she’s angry. Growing up, she was ridiculed for being angry. She describes a systematic mode of operation in which men make many choices that women are supposed to go along with, and which, she says, also extends to race and class relationships. Juanita asks her how she has experienced white men who come from a background similar to hers.
Elizabeth pauses. Tears well up in her eyes. She says the best thing to do is just keep her mouth shut. If she doesn’t, she’ll be labeled as overly emotional, overly sensitive, told that she thinks too much, or that she’s a bitch. “I’ll get called a dyke, or get my space violated, my body violated, you know?”
…Then Holly says she’s beginning to realize that what men don’t understand about women is similar to what she doesn’t understand about white privilege. She says there are things she isn’t aware of about being white. Now she hears men speaking in the same way of things they’re unaware of regarding women. Many times in such situations with men, she’s silently rolled her eyes and thought, “Oh, brother,” but now she sees the parallel.
The book is also right to emphasize that the Trail of Tears happened to make room for plantations. The core of what’s not being owned up to, which persists to this day:
“People get greedy,” says Elizabeth, “but not everybody.”
“No,” James says, “but many people in every society seem to be willing. It’s not a few evil people. It’s a lot of very ordinary people.”
“What makes it hard for me to imagine,” says Katrina, “is what they risked in order to do what they did. Sailing across the ocean, given the dangers involved, means the greed had to be so strong. To hear the moaning of people below deck, for as much as the Africans were supposedly viewed as animals or subhuman, the sounds of their voices were human sounds. If your own wife or child were sick she would groan in the same way. So to hear those sounds and…”
Ledlie finishes her thought. “And submit them all to your desire for quick money and comfort. What a son of a bitch.”
“And his grandson, Samuel Pomeroy Colt, was a son of a bitch,” she adds.
Reading this stuff, you start to feel hopeful about the possibility of progress. A plot twist at the end took the wind out of my sails. The book doesn’t go into the details (of course), but this newspaper article does:
The public groping of a Deschutes County employee by County Commissioner Tom DeWolf remained a secret for 20 months even though at least three other county employees knew what had happened, according to documents released Tuesday by the Lane County District Attorney’s Office…
DeWolf, 51, resigned Monday and couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday…
Last week, Lane County authorities released details of an investigation alleging DeWolf had touched the genitals of two women without their consent.
Prosecutors opted not to file criminal charges against DeWolf.
They said the statute of limitations had expired in one of the incidents. In that incident, a woman told authorities that DeWolf put his hand down her pants and touched her genitals about 12 years ago when they were part of a community theater production in Bend.
The alleged victim in the Eugene case told prosecutors she didn’t want to press charges against DeWolf, so the Lane County District Attorney decided not to…
According to the documents:
* The county employee said she was afraid to report the incident with DeWolf because she might lose her job. She told investigators that at that time she was still in her first year as a county worker and considered a ”probationary” employee.
* When he was initially interviewed by private investigators about the juvenile department probe, DeWolf said the investigation would have never been authorized had he not taken a month off over the summer to attend a public policy school at Harvard University.
* DeWolf admitted to county-hired investigators that he touched the county employee’s groin area. ”You are looking at the aggressor,” DeWolf said to investigators, in an Aug. 18 interview. ”The ironic part is I try to devote my life to combating sexism, yet I have done this, I am disappointed in myself.”
* The alleged victim in the Eugene incident told investigators that an attorney working for DeWolf attempted to contact her six or seven times after the juvenile department investigation began, according to a state police report. She said the attorney wanted her to sign a form releasing any legal claims regarding the incident.
Remarkable quote from the book. I’ve always known this, but even Freud tried to deny it. He would’ve sooner accepted the Oedipus complex than the fact of how widespread abuse is. Confirmed by DeWolf:
Friends and strangers offered commiseration and encouragement. Some confided how they had caused harm to others. I lost count of how many people said, “I’m glad I’m not in politics,” or “If people only knew what went on at my office parties,” and “I’m glad no one knows about the skeletons in my closet.”
You start the book out thinking that maybe education is possible. I mean, the man goes to the dungeon of a slave fort in Ghana and really imagines what it would’ve been like to be locked in a dark room with 18 inches of dried human waste coating the floor. “For the first time in my life I have an inkling of what total despair feels like. Unimaginable horror envelops me, pierces me. Tears stream down my cheeks.” He writes about his disgust that women were lined up in front of the church, for the slave fort commander to choose a rape victim. How is that not enough?
I spent our entire journey through Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba distancing myself from people like James and George DeWolf, thinking “I am nothing like those guys.” But through my subsequent experiences, when I pondered the fundamental issues of power, privilege, and selfishness, I realized I wasn’t quite as different from them as I imagined.
I made choices that harmed people I care deeply about. My privilege and position of power allowed me to get away with it for a while. When I apologized to Heather that next day in 2003, it was over for me. I barely gave it another thought. I should have remembered what Kimberly James said back in Bristol: “It’s not over for me.”
…Eileen once observed that people have parallel experiences, and that’s how we connect with what we need to learn. This ordeal was my parallel experience, and through it I learned invaluable lessons.
Eileen’s insight was correct. The legacy of slavery was too big, too removed, too distant to fully get my mind around. It was when I experienced utter fear of losing the things I held dear–friends, reputation, freedom–that I began to understand the depth of my inherited legacy in a new way. In my world systemic sexism is the closest parallel to systemic racism. My ordeal helped me understand both more clearly.
In other words, taking him down a notch was required. He had to experience fear and helplessness.
Is that really true, though? He was a Republican politician in Oregon, and strangers wrote in to support him for grabbing women’s crotches (he’s married). “Bad luck, man, it could happen to anyone” seemed to be the attitude. It’s literally inconceivable that a Republican politician wouldn’t hear atrocious stuff all the time.
[A] black woman said we’ll get somewhere when white people get as animated, outraged, and angry as black people. I’m sensitive to what Holly is expressing. I’ve listened to racist jokes without saying anything. I don’t tell them myself anymore–not about any race. I don’t laugh at them. But I don’t always say anything either. When I have told people I’m offended by their humor, they’ve been surprised and apologetic. Maybe it had an impact. Mostly I felt the impact on me. Each time I’ve said something, I’ve felt a little bit more prepared for the next time.
The reason people act like dickheads is that it’s socially acceptable. If someone is able to say openly racist things and nobody objects, it means everyone values friendship with an obvious asshole over the dignity of people who’ve suffered enough. Of course that makes them angry. White people get to tell black people where to go to church when they’re running for President. Trip down memory lane, now without shameful editing by white racists:
“God damn America, that’s in the Bible, for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and she is supreme. The United States government has failed the vast majority of her citizens of African descent.”
Barack Obama rejects these statements “completely,” because they’re more offensive than nigger jokes.
If parallel experiences are necessary, good news! America’s been niggerized since 9/11. I hereby welcome white people to the experience:
“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”