Sometime ago, I came across a blog that read and I quote: There’s a community organization in Pittsburgh, Pa. called the Kingsley Association. When I was about 24 years old, they had an exhibit of actual slave chains that brought me to tears. They had the chains that were placed around the necks, wrists and ankles of slaves. I was able to touch and hold them in my hands. It was heartbreaking to see, but even more so, when I felt the weight of those chains and imagining men, women and children who endured them for DAYS against bare skin. At that moment I thought, “and we think we’re experiencing injustices, hell, we’re not going through nothing compared that!”
During the last fifty years, it seems that the very terms by which those of us living in the African Diaspora demand to be called changes every decade or so. As a result many of us simply don’t know what is politically correct today. To be called a “Black Man” or “Black Woman” seems not to be acceptable, although almost all of the early census reports use “Black” as a racial designation; “Mulatto” seems not to be acceptable either, as for the words “Negro” or God forbid “Nigger”, they have all but disappeared from our working vocabularies. “Slave” is an emotionally charged term – and whereas at one time wealth was often determined by the number of “slaves” one owned, “slave owner” is also a negatively viewed term because of the super-charged speeches of the last few decades.
Indeed, how do we reasonably discuss a situation in which a huge segment of our population refuses to let a spade be called a spade – slavery happened, so we cannot sweep it like dust under the rug of “Modern Times”. We cannot change the course of history. To discuss slavery in the setting of a people’s history therefore, is not to advocate its return, no, not by any stretch of the imagination, it is simply to recall what happened.
A little over 40 years ago, I was branded a “radical”. At the time, I published a poem entitled “Black Man” in a small volume of poems to commemorate the attainment of Statehood in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Critics said it was too radical, that I had become a product of the “Black Power Movement” then sweeping the United States of America, and rapidly taking hold in the Caribbean.
A few years ago, when I published my recent volume of poems “Rhythms of the Ghetto” I again selected the poem as part of the publication, as I was of the opinion that things had not changed much, if at all, regarding Black Consciousness.
The first verse of the poem reads thus:
go wash your soul, your mind,
Go scrub your body clean.
Try transform your looks,
Let your culture rot,
But you are still the same — “Black Man”.
Forty years on, this verse continues to haunt me. Here we are, four decades on, calling ourselves all manner of names: Afro-Caribbean; Afro-West Indian, African-Caribbean, African-American, Black American, the lot. We delight in saying we are “light skinned” “brown skinned”, “honey coloured”, not “Black”, not “Negro”, not “African”. To us these are derogatory terms. In calypso, we sing, “Brown skin girl, go home and mind baby…”
So, we bleach our skins for a lighter shade of black, we straighten and perm our hair, they are too nappy, weave it “blonde”, “brunette” whatever, just not black. We get a nose job to look more “European”, our African nose is too big, too broad, like mine. Our African lips are too thick, we want them reduced, we think we are “ugly”, we have low self esteem.
We do all manner of things to change our appearances, on the surface, but, inside, we cannot be changed. We have been made in the image of our maker, and thank God, we will forever remain a “Black Man or Black Woman”.
Today, as we mark the launch of the “UNESCO National Scientific Slave Route Project”, it is very important that we ask ourselves the vexing question: Are we as a people ready to embrace our past, or are we trying against the odds to erase all the vestiges of our history? Are we trying to forget from whence we came? Or perhaps more pointedly, do we, especially our young people really know the Roots from whence we came?
I submit that we take this opportunity to look back and reacquaint ourselves with our painful but illustrious and significant past in order to chart a new peaceful and wholesome course for our future.
In the Akan language of Ghana there is a term “Sankofa,” that translates in English to “go back and take”. The Akan people use an Adinkra symbol to represent this same idea “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”. One version of this symbol is similar to the eastern symbol of a heart, and another version is that of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. It symbolizes one taking from the past what is good and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is expressed as a mythical bird that flies forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth.
For this reason, I have chosen “Sankofa” as my refrain this evening, as I hope to take you on a short selected journey through our history that must continue to chart the course for our future. Sankofa teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.
So why Sankofa? —– Because, we must know that ….
In the early fifteen hundreds, African men, women and children were shipped as slaves from West African Ports in countries like Nigeria and Benin to the Caribbean, as slavery became the major origin of income for Europeans there.
Today, if you go to the town of Badagry, it is a tourist center, known for its historic location, scenery and cultural significance that holds a haunting reminder of the horrors that took place during the trafficking of human slavery. There are still areas of the town that have museums, buildings and old relics, such as the slave chains, the old missionary cemetery, the slave markets and the slave ports built for the transport of slaves in the sixteenth century.
Why Sankofa you ask? ——- Because we may have forgotten ….
That our ancestors once lived as free men and women in Africa, Masters of some of the greatest civilization, before they were hunted like animals, kidnapped against their will, forcibly placed in detention enclosures (a slave barracoon) shackled with chains, branded and jammed into tight, unsanitary spaces in the crowded hull of ramshackle boats, for months at a time, on dangerous seas across the infamous Middle Passage bound for these islands in the Caribbean, as products to be sold at auction.
So why Sankofa? ——- Because we must remember that:
The transatlantic slave trade resulted in a vast and as yet still unknown loss of life for African captives during their transport to the New World. Millions did not survive the journey, more died soon upon their arrival. Those who survived faced an oppressive life in a country where they couldn’t even keep their own names.
The amount of life lost in the actual procurement of slaves remains a mystery but may equal or exceed the amount actually enslaved, and that the savage nature of the trade led to the destruction of individuals and cultures.
Why Sankofa? ——– Because we must know that the flow of foreign merchandise into our region and our present lust for same, has an eerie resemblance to a practice that provided fuel for the slave trade
In letters written by the Manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba Afonso, of the Kingdom of Kongo to the King Joao III of Portugal, he writes that Portuguese merchandise flowing in is what is fueling the trade in Africans. He requests the King of Portugal to stop sending merchandise but should only send missionaries.
In one of his letter he writes:
“Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. The corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for Mass. It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves.”
Many of our subjects eagerly lust after Portuguese merchandise that your subjects have brought into our domains. To satisfy this inordinate appetite, they seize many of our black free subjects they sell them, after having taken these prisoners (to the coast) secretly or at night. As soon as the captives are in the hands of white men they are branded with a red-hot iron.”
Today, we are rapidly becoming slaves of another kind, —— “consumer slaves” to cheap inferior merchandise and trinkets dumped on our shores by countries who are prepared to enslave us economically.
Why Sankofa? —– Because we must not forget that ….
Our ancestors upon arrival on these shores were placed in seasoning camps throughout the Caribbean, where 33% of them died in the first year. They were tortured for the purpose of “breaking” them (like the practice of breaking horses) and conditioning them to their new lot in life. After which they were sold, like any heifer, bull or a steer, at auction at places like the one we now proudly revere as our Independence Square.
What irony! Our “Independence Square”, a place where we once sold our ancestors as slaves and personal property, to work in cotton picking fields, or plantations of cane and tobacco, working for less than nothing. As a “reformed” Abraham Lincoln would go on to say “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”.
Why Sanfoka? ——— Because our forefathers must tell their own story
Slavery can only be described by those who have experienced it. Not by liberal historians who saw slavery as perhaps the Negro’s “necessary transition to civilization,” when we were already a highly civilized people. Or Economists who have tried to assess slavery by estimating how much money was spent on slaves for food and medical care. But can this describe the reality of slavery, as it was to a human being who lived inside it? Are the conditions of slavery as important as the existence of slavery itself?
John Little, a former slave, wrote:
They say slaves are happy, because they laugh, and are merry. I myself and three or four others, have received two hundred lashes in the day, and had our feet in fetters; yet, at night, we would sing and dance, and make others laugh at the rattling of our chains. Happy men we must have been! We did it to keep down trouble, and to keep our hearts from being completely broken; that is as true as the gospel! Just look at it, must not we have been very happy?
Why Sankofa? —— Because we must know the truth about the Black Family……
There are those who would tell you that slavery destroyed the black family. And so the black condition was blamed on family frailty, rather than on poverty, injustice and prejudice. Blacks without families, helpless, lacking kinship and identity, they argued would have no will to resist. But interviews with ex-slaves, done in the 1930s showed a different story, which George Rawwick summarizes in “From Sundown to Sunup”:
The slave community acted like a generalized extended kinship system in which all adults looked after all children and there was little division between “my children for whom I’m responsible” and “your children for whom you’re responsible.” …. A kind of family relationship in which older children have great responsibility for caring for younger siblings is obviously more functionally integrative and useful for slaves than the pattern of sibling rivalry and often dislike that frequently comes out of contemporary middle-class nuclear families composed of highly individuated persons. … Indeed, the activity of the slaves in creating patterns of family life that were functionally integrative did more than merely prevent the destruction of personality. … It was part and parcel, as we shall see, of the social process out of which came black pride, black identity, black culture, the black community, and black rebellion.
Old letters and records dug out by historian Herbert Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom) show the stubborn resistance of the slave family to pressures of disintegration. A woman wrote to her son from whom she had been separated for twenty years. “I long to see you in my old age…. Now my dear son I pray you to come and see your dear old Mother…. I love you Cato you love your Mother – You are my only son”
And a man wrote to his wife, sold away from him with their children: “send me some of the children’s hair in a separate paper with their names on the paper…. I had rather anything to had happened to me most than ever to have been parted from you and the children…. Laura I do love you the same ….”
Going through records of slave marriages, Gutman found how high the incidence of marriage among slave men and women was, and how stable these marriages were. He found a birth register that showed stable kin networks, steadfast marriages, unusual fidelity, and resistance to forced marriages. Slaves hung on determinedly to their selves, to their love of family, their wholeness. This family solidarity carried into the twentieth century.
Why Sankofa? ——- Because the World must be reminded that …
The plantation economies of the New World were built on slave labour. 70% of the enslaved people brought to the new world were used to produce sugar, the most labour-intensive crop. The rest were employed harvesting cotton, coffee, and tobacco, and in some cases in mining. The West Indian colonies of the European powers were some of their most important possessions, so they went to extremes to protect and retain them.
By far the most financially profitable West Indian colonies in 1800 belonged to the United Kingdom. After entering the sugar colony business late, British naval supremacy and control over key islands such as Jamaica, Trinidad, the Leeward Islands and Barbados and the territory of British Guiana gave it an important edge over all competitors.
Eric Williams in his writings tried to show the contribution of Africans on the basis of profits from the slave trade and slavery, and the employment of those profits to finance England’s industrialization process. He argues that the enslavement of Africans was an essential element to the Industrial Revolution, and that British wealth is a result of slavery. Let me repeat that, “British wealth is a result of slavery.”
Karl Marx in his influential economic history of capitalism “Das Kapital” claimed that “… the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.” He argued that the slave trade was part of what he termed the “primitive accumulation” of European capital, the “non-capitalist” accumulation of wealth that preceded and created the financial conditions for Britain’s industrialization.
Why Sankofa? ——- Because it is important for us to know where violence in the Black community originated.
There is a direct correlation between the brutal and inhumane treatment meted out to slaves and the violence exhibited by Black Men today. On large plantations overseers were responsible for disciplining slaves and meeting out punishments that could range from fairly mild reproofs to brutal discipline including whippings and brandings, carried out on men, women and children in full view of each other.
Even pregnant women were not exempt from beatings; the overseer would force her to lie face down with her belly in a hole in the ground (to protect his property, the unborn child) while he beat the hell out of her. Some slaves were forced to wear shackles or had irons (a kind of cage fastened to the face). Another punishment was hanging a slave by the thumbs for hours. Of course the worst punishment was to be sold away from one’s family, usually to a harsher owner.
Before I close, I want to go back to one of the oldest stories of slavery. A story found in the Bible. I want us to ponder seriously these verses found in Genesis and see their significance and relevance to us as a people, whose history is also linked to slavery.
The story of Joseph is quite familiar to most. Joseph was sold by his brothers to merchants going to Egypt. He was sold and lived as a slave in Egypt. After some time, he was able to save Egypt from a terrible famine and, likewise save his family from hunger and invited them to live with him in Egypt. That is why Joseph talks to his brothers in these terms:
“God sent me before you to assure the survival of your race on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” Gen. 45–7.
“The evil you planned to do me has by God’s design been turned to good, to bring about the present result: the survival of a numerous people.” Gen. 50–20.
Could these words found in the very first book of the Bible be a fulfilling prophecy for our African ancestor’s sale into slavery, and our present survival as a Caribbean Civilization? We need to think seriously about it.
So Finally, Why Sankofa? ——– Because according to Dr. Ralph Gonsalves, Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
“Who we have become is partly a result of our collective history and partly because of our individual disposition or conduct. Derrick Walcott, the literary giant from St. Lucia and the Caribbean, has correctly reminded us that our history contributes fundamentally to the knowledge of our individual selves and our society. That knowledge, he insists, is potentially a creative force but, if misused, leads to recrimination and despair or remorse and nostalgia. The purpose of history is not merely to have us look back. If that alone is done, we would become mired in the past whilst other nations are dashing onward, forward to a productive future. It is true, as our own celebrated poet Daniel Williams, affirms that “the present is the past” but he equally and accurately proclaims that of all time “only the future is ours to desecrate”. Our principal task is not to desecrate the future; and a knowledge of our history is vital in this enterprise. But the avoidance of damaging the future begins in the present. Each individual who is listening or not listening to me today has a vital role to play in this regard. Each individual can make a difference, particularly if he or she acts in solidarity with others. And in this collective solidarity the society becomes energized and mobilised to work for necessary and desirable change.”
So I end where I started:
“Ignorance hides in silence, and the ONLY way it can be obliterated, is by transparency that exposes the issue at hand and dialogues/actions that bring resolution”
Now, let us once and for all times break the silence of Slavery, expose it for what it was and, proudly proclaim to the World like Jacob did before us: “The evil you planned to do me has by God’s design been turned to good, to bring about the present result: the survival of a numerous people.”
For I do believe, that if we, and our young people especially can find and connect to “The Roots From whence we came”, it would inspire a sense of pride and a desire to be the type of people we used to be… like, wanting to do your parents proud.
Your Excellency, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
I Thank You.