WALNUT CREEK -- Once upon a time, a white man -- a descendant of one of America's largest slave owning dynasties -- and a black woman, who descended from slaves, traveled for three years over 6,000 miles and through 21 states seeking a bridge.
Then, they wrote a book about it.
"Gather at the Table" chronicles the efforts of authors Sharon Morgan and Tom DeWolfe to grasp hold of their ancestral roots while reaching across the paralyzing divide of slavery.
At a mid-January Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center presentation and book signing, more than 50 people packed a small room at Walnut Creek's Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church to hear them talk about the journey that began in November 2009.
Accompanied by PowerPoint visuals showing everything from beaming families at holiday celebrations to worn, abandoned gravestones to a jostling, homemade video montage from their trek, Morgan and DeWolfe stripped aside pretentious protocol to speak honestly about their -- and our nation's -- difficult, painful, ongoing path to racial reconciliation.
Morgan recalled how her "white people alert system" was triggered by a staring white man in a pickup truck in the upstate New York town where she is one of 24 African Americans in a population of just over 1,000. She admitted that a war was raging in her mind.
The battle to reconcile the anger she harbored as a slave descendant while retaining her desire to live a life of peace, truth, justice and mercy as founder of the National Black Public Relations Society drove her to seek solace in a most unlikely place: her family's slavery-ravaged history, explored in the company of a white man she didn't trust, and sometimes didn't like.
"I have questions (about my ancestors)," Morgan said. "In most instances, I have no answers (to) how many were sold, how many were terrorized and lynched. More than anything, what part of them is in me?"
DeWolfe, who struggles to understand and assume responsibility for the damage he and his ancestors have caused the black population, said, "Slavery is like a disease that needs to be diagnosed and healed."
Meeting at a June 2008 peace-building workshop at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, they crossed paths on subsequent occasions as they individually strove to uncover and expose the trauma of American slavery. Then they agreed to chart the evolution of their friendship within the context of reconciliation.
During a looping road trip through historically significant landmarks and museums -- under grass-covered gravestones, in segregated cemeteries -- they were uncomfortable amid arguments and stormy silences. But they ultimately broke through barriers of distrust and fear.
DeWolfe, who lives in Bend, Ore., discovered a family history filled with "heroes and heels."
Morgan confirmed that racism is "so awesome and so ugly, it must be strangled out of existence."
Together, they realized the only way to break slavery's bondage, to take even one step towards restorative justice, was to join hands, open the dialogue -- and gather at the table.
"Over time, individuals can get stuck," DeWolfe said. "It is this construct that must be torn apart."
Recommending four steps, Morgan said, "Honestly explore and share personal history; connect within and across racial lines; explore healing together; and actively seek to make systemic change to support reconciliation."
Their ideas, supported with resource links on the Gather at the Table website and outlined thoroughly and poignantly in their book's narrative, make plain the difficulty of the task and why they believe it is the quintessential task of the 21st century.
"We would love to say of our experiment, 'This is it!' but it's never that easy," DeWolfe confessed.
Morgan said she is still "working on" diminishing that white people alert system. She worries that if she relaxes, everyone else will too, and that progress will stop.
"In the North, segregation is insidious. You don't have to sit in the back of the bus, but you have to live in your own community ... and don't come downtown," she said.
Agreeing with DeWolfe's statements that "The cheap way out would be to write a check," and that "understanding one's own darkness" is key to game-changing interracial relations, one audience member spoke with passion, saying, "Unless the change is a core change in the soul, the disease that lives in the spirit will be unchanged."