Sunday, June 10, 2007

Remembering the Ancestors

I'd gotten in late the evening before, but I got up, threw on some clothes and after packing some books to share with those gathered headed over to Lake Merritt Saturday, June 9, 2007, for the libation for our African ancestors who died during the European slave trade.

The day was unbelievably warm and as the morning progressed grew even hotter. I found a great parking space on Bellevue Avenue and walked up to the pier to see if anyone had come. As I was driving I called people on the cell phone to wake them up and remind them to pour libations at 9 a.m. When we spoke later, all said they had. I wish I'd had more time to call others but I stopped at 8:55 a.m.

The boathouse pier was busy. Lots of people were taking vessels out. I hiked up the trail a bit for solitude and took my bottle out and began calling names once my cell phone alarm went off indicating it was time to begin. As I looked over the body of water I thought about my African ancestors whose legacy I was indebted to. I called the familiar names and then began to call others, like my family and friends who'd crossed over.

A friend of mine in Vallejo who'd been at the ceremony last year called me back to ask if we were pouring exclusively for those ancestors who died in the triangle of death or for everyone--historic figures and family and friends. I told her we were remembering everyone.

My bottle still full, I was amazed at how fast I was finished. I stood there and read from Funk Lore by Amiri Baraka, then from Black Pearls of Love by Eric Copage. Black Pearls had great stories and sayings about how to attract loving relationships; it also had some great African folktales. I then opened the book on Harriett Tubman, a recent book (2004) which Marcus Shelby used to as a resource to write his opera on her life. My last book looked at kinship groups during enslavement, the chapter I flipped to was called, "But he was my cousin," or something like that. Oh, I also read from Chinosole's book about famous African Diaspora autobiographies and read the chapter that compared Assata Shakur (Assata) to Harriett Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl)as I walked back to the pier and sat down.

I walked into a tree branch. Luckily I'm short and it just scraped my forehead.
Considering how quickly I'd grabbed these materials, it was amazing how apropos they were.

I'd called Brother Alaman earlier because I knew he was coming to tell him I wasn't arriving early, but just before 9. I called him back to tell him I'd moved up the hill. After I poured and read a bit, as I said I went back to the spot we'd agreed on because I didn't want to miss anyone who'd come late.

A father with two children arrived on the pier, and others walked by me. A man without fingers asked me to secure his padlock. And then I read some more. I left Harriet Tubman for last. Then Ebun called and said she was in the parking lot of the boathouse and where was I. I got up and walked over so she could see me. Sister Linda was with her. Both were dressed ceremonially in all white, as were Linda's three children, two boys and a girl.

Linda had her djembe, but for some reason she left it on shore when we went onto the pier which we imagined was the slave ship. As the deck moved beneath our feet --swaying gently on the water, the idea was an easy thing to do.

It's funny how I'd never really looked at the pier before. I'd chosen it because Sister Makinyah has a celebration for her parents on her birthday in July yearly here and I thought most people would know the site.

But there was a wooden door that looked like it could be the "Door of No Return." Padlocked and made of heavy wood, it wasn't far from a chain attached to a board--sort of like a noose, which put one in mind of an auction block.

It was erry.

There are no accidents and the ancestors whose will I was following don't make mistakes. So there we were the sisters, children and I...spirally back in time. Ebun's cries whispered, while Linda was more audible, the older children anxiously waiting their turn to pour.

As I was pouring and talking about my experiences earlier and who I'd forgotten like the children who died by handgun violence and the blade, here and elsewhere--the Black Holocaust we are contributing to daily throughout the world, Brother Alaman rolls up. It was perfect. Our elder, he blessed the occasion.

He said he hadn't had time to bring along guidelines for pouring libations, but when doing so, he said we don't want to call those whose disturbance would be troublesome.

After we finished, we took photos of each other. I wanted a photo near the Door of No Return. I tried not to smile since this was serious and not a happy occasion, but then again it was: we were here together. We'd survived and that in itself was a blessing.

Ebun announced she was about to go to Ghana for the 200th anniversary of the end of the British slave trade, then onto Nigeria. Sister Linda was a world traveler before becoming a mother, so I listened in awe. Ebun and I had both gotten an email from Carol Yates about her wonderful time in Egypt and Nubia with Brother Manu. I hope they were pouring libations with us there as well which would have been about 5 p.m. the night before.

I thought about Osei Terry and the brothers and sisters in Charleston, South Carolina, Augusta, Georgia, Long Island, New York, Panama, West Indies, Cape Coast, Ghana, Richmond, Vallejo, Oakland, and San Francisco, California, pouring libations at the same time, the names in certain instances--depending on the historic linkages, the same--others different, and felt great when the sisters had gotten into their cars and took off and Brother Alaman and I parted ways to begin our day.

Photos by Wanda Sabir

Slaves who died at sea being honored By BRUCE SMITH, Associated Press Writer
Sat Jun 9, 6:06 AM ET

Eighteen years ago, Tony Akeem organized a ceremony in New York City to honor the millions of Africans who died crossing the Atlantic during the slave trade. Similar observances have since spread around the world.

On Saturday, offerings of water, honey and rum were to be poured along the shores of South Carolina and elsewhere for Middle Passage Remembrance Day. The remembrance is held the second Saturday in June.

"We must, we must, honor our ancestors," said Tony Akeem, who has been organizing an observance at Coney Island, N.Y., ever since a 1989 conference on the slave's brutal trip was held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he works as a photographer.

The observances have spread from Philadelphia to San Francisco and from Brazil to Ghana. Most were started by people who have attended the New York event, Akeem said.

Saturday marked the 10th year South Carolina was participating in the remembrance. As many as 100 people were expected at a Fort Moultrie dock on Sullivans Island near Charleston.

The first slaves arrived in Charleston in 1670, the same year the Carolina colony was created. Historians estimate nearly 40 percent of the millions of slaves brought to what became the United States passed through Charleston. Many others died at sea.

"The stories run pretty strong that there were people who realized they were enslaved and would rather drown than be enslaved and when allowed up on the decks, would just jump into the water," said Fran Norton of the Fort Sumter National Monument, which includes Fort Moultrie. "It commemorates those people who gave up their lives for freedom."

Just how many perished in the slave trade will never be known.

"We know that many died of disease because they were packed in the ships like sardines," said Osei Terry Chandler, a project director at a Charleston education facility who is helping organize the South Carolina memorial.

Participants at the ceremonies in New York and South Carolina planned to drizzle water, rum and honey into the waves Saturday. Some were to toss flowers into the coastal waters. Some were to beat drums.

"Pouring libations is simply to venerate your ancestors," said Bill Jones, who helps organize the Coney Island ceremony. "It gives the ancestors a cool drink of water, or a little bit of gin or a little bit of rum, whatever you pour the libation with.

"In African spirituality we believe we are in constant contact with our ancestors. They are not someplace in heaven, they are right here with us."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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