The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples’ Stories: Coming to the Table

The First Time I Really Heard Black Peoples' Stories: Coming to the TableTwo years ago, I got into my car and drove up the mountains to Eastern Mennonite University for the National Gathering of Coming to the Table. I had no idea what I was in for.

At this gathering of black folks and white folks from all over the country, I sat and had real, deep, meaningful conversations with black people for the first time.  (Goodness, it’s hard to realize that.)  My experience of life until then – growing up in the South and then moving into academia – had meant that white supremacy had limited my opportunities to know people of color, and I had not ever done the work to make those opportunities for myself.  Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have “black friends,” to pull in that excuse so many white people use for why we are not racist. I did have black friends, people I really cared about. But at the CTTT National Gathering, I sat and really listened to these people’s experiences for the first time. . . I was 39 years old.

At the end of those four days, my entire perspective on life shifted, and still, I’m not sure I can articulate that shift except to say that I would never be blind – even for a moment – to the legacy of slavery in our world today.

Now, that’s not to say I don’t get it wrong . . . a lot. I do.  I still walk around in my white skin, and I still don’t see the privilege that appearance carries sometimes.  But that National Gathering cracked open the hard shell of white privilege and let in some light so I could see that “my way” of doing things was usually a raced way of doing things, and the “white” way of doing things was not always the right way of doing things.  I still have to learn that lesson most every day.

But that National Gathering moved me, broke me, healed me . . . and taught me that I am on a constant road to healing and that I have a responsibility – a responsibility that is free of shame or guilt, but a responsibility nonetheless – to work for real, meaningful, honest reconciliation.  It was that Gathering that led me to join the Board of Coming to the Table and that hardened my resolve to be a lifelong researcher and writer about the people who were enslaved in the United States.

In two days, I will travel back over those mountains to EMU for the 10th Anniversary National Gathering of Coming to the Table.  This time, I’m leading a session with my friend Lorenzo Dickerson*, but this time – like the last – I go with a heart that is open to listen.  That is my prayer for this week . . . that I will have ears to hear because my life is so much richer and wiser and truer when I do.

If you’d like to know more about Coming to the Table, we welcome you to join us.  You can learn more about the organization and sign up to get our newsletter here.  We welcome you. 


*Lorenzo runs an amazing film company called Maupintown Media.  On June 24th, Lorenzo will be coming to screen Tim Wise’s film White Like Me here on the farm.  We welcome you to join us. You can get the details here.  The event is FREE and open to the public.

The Bittersweetness of Being Linked Through Slavery

Bittersweetly Linked Through SlaveryI have the honor of serving on the board for an organization called Coming to the Table (CTTT).  CTTT began with the mission of healing the historical harms rooted in the history of slavery in the United States, and as part of that mission, we work to help the descendants of enslaved people and of enslavers connect and, if all parties are willing, to heal together.

One of the aspects of this work includes a wonderful blog called, Bittersweet.  There, people talk about their experiences, discoveries, and challenges as “linked descendants,” people who are linked to others through their ancestor’s enslavement or enslaving, through place, or through other forms of shared connection.

We have featured stories of descendants of enslaved people who are seeking their own families by researching the white families who “owned” their ancestors, and we have shared the stories of the descendants of enslavers who are seeking to find the descendants of people their families enslaved as a way of making amends or seeking healing.  Some of our stories are about particular families and some are specific to certain places.  All of the stories are powerful and honest about a subject that we often try to skirt around or avoid seeing with our eyes wide open.

If you are researching your family’s history, you might check out Bittersweet to see if the site has any information relevant to your search. Or if you are simply interested in reading some stories to help you heal your own wounds that are rooted in slavery – and I believe we all, black and white, have those wounds – I hope you’ll stop by and read a bit.

Bittersweet accepts queries about posts on these themes, so if you are interested, please visit this page and review the guidelines for submissions.  Then, we hope you will submit your stories. Goodness knows, we need to hear them.