The relationship between Sharon Morgan and Thomas DeWolf did not get off to a good start. They met at a conference in Virginia. She was a black woman from Chicago, a successful communications writer with a strong interest in genealogy. The descendant of people deeply involved in the slave trade, he was a white man who was the executive director of a West Coast-based nonprofit that focused on the continuing impact of slavery in America.
She was put off by him. He was not sure how to deal with her. But step by step, they got to know each other and had break-through conversations about their backgrounds.
During an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday, DeWolf said, “What we got to was revealing ourselves to each other in ways that we were taking off the masks. . . . The masks, if you’re willing, can come off.”
As part of Marquette University’s Mission Week program, Morgan and DeWolf spent two days on campus this week, describing what can be gained by dealing seriously and openly with difficult subjects such as the legacy of slavery and the trouble white and black people have in communicating. The theme of this year’s Mission Week is “Truth to Reconciliation, Pathways to Peace.”
The efforts of DeWolf and Morgan to learn about each other and the impact of the past led to a shared journey that covered three years, and took them to 27 states (including a 6,000 mile road trip) and several other countries. It led to the 2012 publication of a book they co-authored, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade.
DeWolf told the audience in Eckstein Hall that you can name any social indicator in the United States — health, education, housing, wealth , and more – and white people are doing better than people of color. “It’s better to be white in this country,” he said. “That’s all part of the legacy” of slavery and the way minorities in general (Native Americans particularly) were treated. “It’s all understandable if we really pay attention to the history of our country,” DeWolf said.
But the two said breaking down the social barriers to learning about others and the lives they lead can be a healing step toward dealing with that legacy and the resulting gaps.
“We are two normal people,” Morgan said. “If we can do this and come together across the wide geography that separates us, the black and white, the male-female, if we can overcome all of these opposing things and end up with this level of understanding and this amount of peace in our lives, then anybody can do it.”
Morgan said, “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I have a black friend.’ That is not the answer.” You have to experience their environment and how they were raised, she said.
DeWolf said white people should “really profoundly think about that stark difference between how we are raised in this county.” He said people rationalize behavior that they know is not the kindest, the wisest, the best . But people should get past compromises that diminish their souls and open themselves to really learning about others.
To learn more about Coming to the Table, the non-profit that DeWolf leads, click here. To learn more about the book Morgan and DeWolf wrote, click here. And to watch the hour-long conversation with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, click here.