MAAFA 2015: We Remember the Ancestors
The sea foam covered the edges where the ships departed. Caked foam spread where the spirits of our ancestors rose higher than buildings and marched toward us all morning. Several times during the ceremony the tide actually entered the circle and wet our feet. This was a first.
We started the procession once the sun rose at 7 a.m.; the journey was long yet everyone was patient, both the freed and captive and those on the precipice waiting and wondering where they were headed.
As I mingled with the captives like a spirit or familiar, I noticed a patience and loving kindness among everyone there, as we knew we could not continue until all of us had made it, however long that took – and that was OK. The roar of the ocean was tremendous, overwhelmingly tremendous. The ancestors were with us and there was no denying it.
Our elders were present 20 years later and, though I could not capture it on film or tape, I will never forget the stories people told of who was not there – the missing, those who had departed too soon and those who were struggling to remain on this side of the precipice. We did not forget and have not forgotten any of them. I think the time is certainly ripe for doing the rescue work.
As the circle formed and we moved closer together, Zochi started the liberating movement meditation he called Mu-i Taiji or fearless within divine. He led us through the 10 centering intentional affirmations which are, he says, “grounded in the work of self-cultivation and social activism.”
The procession took at least an hour for everyone to go through the Doors of No Return, where on the other side there was a chain of shackles (rope) which symbolizes captivity. I had time to greet everyone as they progressed through the horrors of the Middle Passage. The drummers who played outside the Doors were really strong and powerful.
Everywhere I went I felt the preciousness of the moments, whether that was a conversation with a brother who had been at the ceremony 20 years ago, or meeting a sister and her husband from Sacramento, the woman a former classmate from Visitation Valley Junior High, where we were both students in seventh grade.
Later at the Egungun program at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, I met another classmate from that period in my life. I was 37, 20 years ago, when Rev. Donald Paul Miller and I started this community celebration of our ancestors. Now, in its 20th year, the need is greater than ever, not just to honor our ancestors, but to preserve life.
This commemoration we looked at our legacy as a people and how we have a legacy of forgiveness and love, a legacy we are not allowing to come forward when we kill or hurt one another. What Dr. Nobles calls suicide (when we kill each other) is not a part of our legacy as a people.
Brother Tahuti was present at the ball named in his honor. Sister Adama Fulani Mosely did a really special dance with a masked egun (ancestor). The Egungun spoke to us multiple times; one of his messages was to love one another.
The program featured musical and poetry performances. I couldn’t stay for the entire program, but it was really lovely. Paradise knows how to throw an ancestor party.
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Maafa 2015 talkEvery year, I prepare a talk. This year was no different. However, like last year, I didn’t feel compelled to share it, since everyone in this expression, where we passed the microphone around the circle, expressed what I’d planned to share and more. There are a few action items in the reflection, which is why I want to share it now (smile).
One cannot think about John Coltrane (Sept. 23, 1926) and not reflect on “A Love Supreme,” recorded with Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and, of course, Coltrane on tenor saxophone in 1964. The suite, divided into four movements, includes “Acknowledgement” (which contains the chorus – “A Love Supreme”), “Resolution,” “Pursuance” and “Psalm.” When I reflected on “Psalm,” for which Coltrane wrote the words, I thought it perfect for this year’s commemoration. With Brother Larry Douglas on trumpet, with Brother Bryant Bolling singing the song with us, we committed the words to heart that morning.
“The Psalm” speaks to the four little girls killed early morning, Sept. 15, 1963, while they prepared for a church service, in Bombingham (oops, Birmingham), Alabama. It also speaks to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the same year Mississippi’s NAACP field secretary, 37-year-old Medgar Evers, is shot in his driveway that June 1963. “A Love Supreme” is composed the year of Freedom Summer and the Freedom Democratic Party headed by Fanny Lou Hamer (1964). Even though the Democratic National Convention refused to seat the delegation, Hamer and the delegates stood firm. Love is also what kept those families on the battlefield when the bodies of James E. Chaney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 21; and Michael Schwerner, 24, were uncovered.
Love is not abstract, it is personal and tangible. It is legislation like the Civil Rights Act (1964); it is also a conviction in the Oscar Grant case (2010); clemency in Geronimo ji jaga’s (1997). When you love someone, that person can count it and measure it, save it for days when all he or she has is toast and nothing to spread on it.
At such times love makes the dryness disappear. Love helps us remember plenty when scarcity surrounds us. Love is honey when we have to swallow so much daily in environments where Black people are not welcome in majority politically constructed public spaces.
This love supreme gives us agency; it is the trust we have in ourselves and in a creator who is in charge. This love makes it possible to not only function, but thrive in the most horrendously stifling circumstances.
This is what love will do for a person; this is what love will do for a people. Again, love is not abstract. Black people participate in the world that is more than what we see tangibly. We know there is more, but at the same time acknowledge what we see as also important and, out of respect for this, we acknowledge the presence of both matter and spirit.
John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” is an acknowledgement of the presence of the creator, a Mother-Father-God, and our participation in this love. The love is strong because we are here, our ancestors are here, jinn and men are here. Even Satan is here making trouble for the disbelievers like it does, but we don’t worry, because we have each other this morning and forever after … and this love is supreme.
Last Maafa Commemoration, I made a friend. I think we were friends before the Maafa Commemoration, but last October when Kwalin proposed to Delene and she said yes – well, that was pretty special. He is about the age of my older daughter and I learn a lot from him. I am happy that the young couple moved here from Atlanta to California. Our community is richer for the gift of their presence and my life is richer for knowing Kwalin, systems analyst, and Delene, physician.
This summer, I made another friend; her name is ChE. She is a multidisciplinary choreographer and I met her at Armstrong Park in New Orleans. Her dance company performed in Congo Square at a healing ritual for New Orleans on the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. ChE is younger than my younger daughter, but when we met and started talking and I learned that she lived in Oakland; we promised to touch bases when we returned. I called her and she returned the call. She is participating in the protest in Oakland at Lake Merritt the day we are at the beach. The new Oaklanders have complained about drumming at the lake. These transplants want the drumming stopped.
I give you these two examples of two new friends to illustrate love. Love is the person you open your heart to and befriend. It is that simple. Love can be counted and measured and, then again, it cannot. We don’t count the ways; we just do it. Today, I want everyone to meet two or three new people and exchange email addresses and phone numbers and call each other in one month to see how the other person is. Ask the person what he or she has been doing to stay free in a society that wants to ship Black people back to Africa, no – back to the plantation, no – I mean into servitude – prison.
Saturday, Oct. 10, was Thelonious Monk’s birthday. He is the one who wrote “Straight No Chaser.” We want our walk to be straight, our thoughts and our actions correct, our behavior upright, not for any other reason than that’s who we are as a people.
Coltrane, Tyner, Jones – and I am not sure about Garrison – all these men also played with Miles Davis. Davis was also a genius. Yes, he had problems – hope by now he has worked them out – but when he’d turn his back to the audience to pay better attention to the music, his world, he gave us an example of how sometimes we have to just step away from the crowd, turn our backs and go inside to check in with self.
This is why we are meditating, reflecting, being still today. It is a practice we need to adopt. There is too much coming at us all the time. We have to do like Miles, turn our back to it. Miles has a song called “So What!” It is on his album, “Kind of Blue.” Sometimes as Pan Africans, Black people in a world where we sometimes wonder where we belong – we have to step back, turn our backs on the madness that tries to and often succeeds in consuming us.
We have to remember “A Love Supreme.” We also have to cultivate an attitude that says, “So What!” “I turn my back; I refuse to participate in the nonsense. I am bigger than that because my God is the God of a Love Supreme and, within this love, I even have space for you who despise and hate me. I love myself and life itself and refuse to participate in any behaviors which distract me from A Love Supreme.”
Baldwin said this to his nephew James, who was angry. He told him that he couldn’t let the enemy make him lose his form. He is God’s image, that Love Supreme. Coltrane writes, “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you, God. Amen.”