In just over a month, African Americans and other members of the African diaspora will gather on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean for the historic “Jamestown to Jamestown” pilgrimage sponsored by the NAACP. This is one of the major, unique events connected to the Government of Ghana’s “Year of Return” campaign, which invites descendants of enslaved Africans to re-engage with our motherland.
On the American side, people will gather at Jamestown, Virginia, where in August 1619, more than twenty Angolans who had been stolen from a Portuguese slave ship by English pirates were traded to British colonizers for food. They became the first enslaved Africans in the colony that later expanded into the United States.
From Virginia, these 21st-century pilgrims will travel to Ghana and assemble at the Jamestown community in Accra, which is internationally known for hosting the annual Chale Wote festival. This Jamestown is significant to the slave trade because it houses the James Fort and is less than 5 km from Christiansborg Castle; millions of enslaved Africans were held in these buildings.
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The year 2019 is a huge milestone in our collective experience in the Western hemisphere, albeit a very USA-centric one; the slave trade began a hundred years earlier in South America and slavery lasted longer there, too. The number 400 is important because of the biblical prophecy that the Hebrews of Exodus would gain their freedom after 400 years of bondage to the Egyptians.
Although the ancient Egyptians were as African as our ancestors, the Exodus story resonated deeply with those who were exposed to Christian beliefs while being forced to build up America, right down to our legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman being nicknamed the “Moses of her people.”
In 1998, author and scholar Marimba Ani called this massive depopulation, forced labor, dehumanization, and partial loss of identity the “Maafa,” a Kiswahili word that means great suffering or great tragedy. The Maafa is not limited to the period of enslavement but encompasses the ongoing negative impact of racism and white supremacist beliefs and policies on our culture, quality of life, and safety from segregation to being slandered on the airwaves, to mass incarceration and more than I can say in this limited space.
For those of us who have overcome Western propaganda such as Tarzan movies and poverty porn that begs us to feed hungry African children for a dollar a day (with no mention of debt policy or exchange rates), the Maafa represents a severe injury to African people worldwide. We have stopped believing that our ancestors’ enslavement was a blessing that took us away from the hardship situations in Africa.
We realize that enslavement, colonization, and color-based oppression in all its forms has wounded Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. They left Africa in a weakened state which made it easier for outsiders and corruptible insiders to colonize, rob, and brainwash many of those Africans whose families escaped the transatlantic slave trade. They left those of us who were stranded in America with a form of amnesia: little to no direct memory of the specific ethnic groups our ancestors came from or the languages, histories, spiritual beliefs, or other elements of culture and identity they knew before they were forced to imitate the Western Europeans who conquered the Western hemisphere.
Meanwhile, white-ruled societies all over the world have used media, education, and religion to pour centuries of anti-black poison into our eyes and ears that caused many to hate ourselves and turn on each other.
Many of us are proud of our ancestors and ourselves for surviving this great calamity, for adapting so that we their descendants could have a shot at life, for resisting with big and small actions, and for retaining some of our ancestors’ cultures in our everyday habits. But the injury, the wound, still needs to be addressed.
So decades before the Year of Return, groups of African-Americans began to hold ritualized Maafa commemorations in different parts of the country, to honor our ancestors and to heal ourselves. It has spread over time to more and more cities and across borders to other countries and continents. Most of them ask attendees to wear white; many are held near rivers or other bodies of water. Both white attire and bodies of water are associated with purity, cleansing, and spirit, especially ancestors, across many spiritual traditions.
The Maafa commemoration I’m most familiar with is in New Orleans, Louisiana, which has been sponsored by Ashe Cultural Arts Center for the past 19 years. On the first Saturday in July (during the height of the Essence Music Festival), community members assemble at 7 a.m. in Congo Square, which is one of the only places in the United States where our enslaved and free ancestors were allowed to openly dance and drum (only on Sundays) without punishment.
An interfaith program is held where leaders of Christianity, Islam, Ifa, Buddhism, Judaism, and other belief systems are invited to pray for our community and our world. Then the attendees, drummers and dancers march through the famous French Quarter, stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave and several sites where Africans were auctioned to plantation owners who grew rich off our ancestors’ unpaid and forced labor. The procession ends at the Mississippi River, where prayers and offerings are made.
New Orleans was one of the major ports of entry for Africans over hundreds of years; the French, Spanish, and Americans took turns using the river to foster this sale of humans.
I’ve also attended a Maafa commemoration in Washington, DC. The year I went, the day began with a community event honoring living activists and advocates at the historic Union Temple Baptist Church followed by a procession to the Anacostia River. There, healers addressed community members as a collective as well as on an individual basis. Other events like lectures and film screenings round out the weekend, which is sponsored by the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute, Inc.
The DC Maafa commemoration is part of the Global Day of Remembrance in early June, when similar Maafa commemorations are in more than a dozen US cities including Charleston, South Carolina (another major port during the slave trade); Hampton, Virginia; Boston; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; and Detroit. The Day of Remembrance is also observed internationally in places like Cameroon, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Panama, Barbados, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad.
Other commemorations are held in Montgomery, Alabama in July; Petersburg, Virginia in August; Wichita, Kansas and Brooklyn, New York in September; and in Houston and Galveston, Texas and in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area in October.
I’m probably leaving some out, such as the Emancipation Day commemoration of British abolition in Ghana and similar events that don’t use the term Maafa, but you get the point. Like many of the traditional festivals held across Africa that have a close connection to honoring the ancestors and culture heroes of a given ethnic group, Maafa is not a one-and-done observance.
I see Jamestown to Jamestown — and 2019 — as part of this important and growing tradition, so if you can’t make it to either city, look for a commemoration in a city closer to you, or organize one yourself. If you can’t make it to a commemoration during the 2019 “Year of Return” at all, take heart. There’s always next year. Our ancestors deserve to be remembered year in and year out, in spite of all that has been done to make us forget.