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We have all heard similar truisms hundreds of times. If you don’t know where you came from, you will never get to where you want to go. Where we need to go.

We didn’t “just grew”. We have a long and involved history. Many parts of our story are generally unknown. Some parts are unknowable. It’s on us to learn as much as we can about who we really are.

Who were our immediate ancestors? What did they have to do in order to live, struggle, and pass on to us the gift of life?

Too often as individuals slogging through 21st-century America, we question our existence, doubt our individual worth, don’t realize how important each of us can be–the role we can play in changing the course of world events, changing the direction in which this nation is headed.

Here is a specific story, a small (albeit important) example of history making. Get to know Henrietta Wood.


I’m not deep into classical music but I know good sounds when I hear them. Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is from a large family of seven musical wunderkinds. I have previously featured her younger brother Sheku. This time we are being regaled by the talents of his sister who is the eldest of the siblings.

From over the pond, our England bred daughter, has direct connections to the Motherland via her mother, Dr. Kadiatu Kanneh, who was born in Sierra Leone. Her father, Stuart Mason, whose family is from the Caribbean island of Antigua, provides the new world heritage in her work.

Isata dives deep into a variety of musics on her new release Summertime. The album includes an emphasis on Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a composer of color who achieved fame circa the beginning of the 20th century. Her riveting rendition of “Deep River” is among four of Coleridge-Taylor creations included on the release. Isata also sensitively presents music from popular American composer George Gershwin. She is masterful on four of his diverse compositions. Her muscular dexterity on “I’ve Got Rhythm” is spellbinding.

She is clear and committed in her dedication to music and simultaneously displays a serious development of her consciousness. She willingly and beautifully represents her African heritage even as her chosen field is classical music.

Isata Kanneh-Mason has that wow factor. When she plays, her demeanor and physicality at the keyboard makes it obvious that she is giving one hundred percent.



photo by Alex Lear


What does it mean to be a man?


In the human reproductive process, the role of the man is to transmit his seed to the woman, wherein the seed fertilizes the egg, and eventually the egg transforms into a fetus, which grows in the woman’s womb and over a period of time becomes an infant, that in turn is ejected, and in some cases, physically removed from the female, and becomes an individual.

The functions of males and females in the reproductive cycle is essential to all mammals. In that sense, there is no major argument about what it means for a male to be a man.

However, sociologically the definition of manhood is a major question. In the U.S., defining manhood is riven by a racial divide and a gender divide, as well as massively influenced by economic, or class, considerations.

National political independence was formalized in 1776, but women did not receive the right to vote until 1920. Moreover, despite the tumult of the Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865), massive rights for Black people beyond titular citizenship was not formalized until the 1964 Civil Rights Act (July 2) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act (August 6). Racial restrictions were effectively the law of the land for the majority of this country’s existence–a country that has been dominated, and largely ruled, by White men.

From a legal perspective, gender issues have been sublimated to racial and economic concerns, hence, even though men are not the majority of citizens, men are the majority of authority figures in this society and control the bulk of the economy.



To put it bluntly, although throughout our history there may have been questions or concerns among specific groupings, nevertheless, there is generally no legal controversy about what it means to be a man if the male is White. Why is that?

When we speak of manhood in general terms, rather than solely as a biological reality, inevitably the meaning is a specific social construct: White manhood. In America, even when we mean those who are other than White, even when people like me refer to ourselves, we can not escape the environmental mainstream reality: White manhood ipso facto defines (and restricts) our conception and practice of manhood.

Two competing and often conflicting issues confront us. 1. What does it mean to be a man–and that’s an issue we generally do not deal with in any depth beyond the biological. 2. What does it mean to be a Black man, which is loaded with all kinds of sociological baggage?

Inherent in the mythology of White manhood is the concept of conqueror and/or ultimate authority figure.

Inherent in the mythology of Black manhood is the concept of lesser than the ultimate authority figure, i.e. lesser than “the man”.

Neither mythology is universally true. However, both are widely accepted. 

From the alleged “founding fathers”, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and a host, although lesser celebrated, grouping of other White men, on to the contemporary President of the United States and the heads of major corporations, the image of the White man is of an authority figure, who is often either a military man, a major political official, or a “captain of industry”, i.e. an economic figure. Hence, to be a man means to be in charge of society, whether that society be an individual family unit, a business concern, the nation as a whole, or any other formation in-between.

An American man dominates, physically or economically, or ideally in both categories. This obviously creates a major problem for Black males when it comes to defining us as men. How can we dominate physically or economically and at the same time function within the bounds of a society that demeans/confines us? At best in this society we are allowed to function as entertainers and/or athletes, the only two areas wherein society at large is comfortable recognizing Black males as dominant?

Consider why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated while Malcolm X, i.e. El Hajj Malik Shabazz, is vilified. King non-violently wielded the teachings of the bible, Malcolm militantly was popularly photographed with a rifle in his hands.

Consider why Muhammad Ali was questioned and widely rejected when he was a dominant force in the boxing ring and only after his boxing prime could he be safely and globally celebrated as an “all American” entertainment figure or a social statesman who lovingly embraced all people.

Go deeper, why from Bojangles, on down to a plethora of Black sidekicks in the movies, on to Bill Crosby (the ultimate sidekick/lovable father figure), and so many others, why are these men celebrated and at the same time portrayed as non-threatening to society at large?

Whenever a Black man acts like a White man and dominates as a physical force, that man is often demeaned, if not outright condemned. This is specifically the case when the Black man (a la O.J. Simpson or Bill Cosby) is revealed to be a sexual predator, which is precisely what White men too often were, especially the celebrated Thomas Jefferson!



Thomas Jefferson is generally acclaimed as a major author of the Declaration of Independence while at the same time being a slave master who had sexual relations with at least one of the young women whom he lorded over. 

The Jefferson example leads us directly into the American contradiction: how can a Black man successfully be a man if being a man means being a conqueror, i.e. a dominant political and/or economic force in society, and also means being a sexual being who preys on women?

What is the basis for the near universal (in western mythology) acclaim and admiration for Casanova or for Casanova-like behavior vis-a-vis women?

This social conundrum gets both more complex and more confusing when we interrogate gender relations and the status of women in modern America.

Taking this analysis beyond easy to grasp social arithmetic into the realm of complex gender calculus, we begin to see that once we move pass procreation into the territory of pleasure, then we find (and for some of us, we discover) that pleasure is not limited by or confined to binary gender relations.

It is one easy move to deal with the definition of manhood when we only consider males and the conditions affecting males as defining what it means to be a man, but when we consider relations between genders, i.e. when we consider what women say and what male relations to women means, then defining who is a man is no longer an easy, pleasurable move.

Moreover, what can be pleasure for one is torture, or at best an accepted/required duty, for the passive sexual partner, whose status is not necessarily binary nor age limited.

On a 1787 voyage to France, Sarah Hemings was taken to Paris, where she joined Thomas Jefferson. Hemings was Jefferson’s teenage concubine–while it is certain she was his sexual object, whether she was his lover, i.e., whether they were involved in a mutual romantic relationship, is doubtful. Ms. Hemings did not have any legal agency nor any ability to deny or consent to the relationship with Jefferson.

The Thomas Jefferson case is just one particular in a much, much larger social reality of men legally and extra-legally, sexually dominating women.



Yes, there is much more to manhood than sex. In the context of the American norm, to be a man also means assuming responsibility for the economic and social well-being of the nuclear family. In that regard, for a plurality of Black households, particularly for those households at the borders of middle-class status, and especially for those who are working class and lower, the raw fact of life in those households, paradoxically, is that the woman functions as the man, especially the single Black woman who has a child or children to rear, to educate, and to support. Or to use a seemingly oxymoronic, albeit not inaccurate, catch-phrase: in a plurality, if not the majority, of Black homes, the woman is “the man”!

To be more precise, in the reality of most Black people, “the man” is often a woman. This is why patriarchy is so challenged by Black women. Their social status as the de facto “man of the household” implicitly challenges the notion that the man is in charge when the reality is that the woman is the sole provider for the household. This is especially true when the man is absent, and undoubtedly so when the man is incarcerated.

Moreover, for many males, of whatever color, within the context of the nuclear family, being a patriarch is the only definition of manhood that they understand, and too often, to the detriment of gender relations, dominating patriarchy is the only definition of manhood that they embrace.

However, because Black women so often must assume all but the procreative aspects of the generally accepted social definitions of manhood, in terms of day-to-day existence, the very definition of manhood is actually un-gendered, or at least de-coupled from patriarchy, which is why, except for procreation, in many, many cases, and under a wide variety of settings, the woman is factually “the man”. Seen?

Who says that women can’t be the man in social terms? Certainly that is not the case in many Black households. If a woman can function as a man, does that mean that males in general are socially castrated, and, as a result, are rendered social eunuchs?

Many men will say that they like strong women, but do they really? Within the context of social relations, does any man want to be in a relationship with a woman who functions as a man does? Or put in less combative terms, can any man embrace patriarchy and, at the same time, embrace a woman who functions as a man?

When we are looking at and socially evaluating the image of a man, what is it we are really contemplating? In a biological sense, “maleness” has a limited and very specific definition. However, in the larger social sense, “manhood” is a definition that reality proves is not limited only to males.

What does it mean to be a man, and, beyond biology, can a woman be a man? What we really need is a new, another, definition of manhood. 



There are so many questions to be explored. Can a homosexual be a man, e.g. was James Baldwin a man? While it is popular to say that only a man can teach a boy to become a man, is that actually true or is it simply a patriarchal truism? So many millions of Black men were reared by Black women in female-headed households.

However, there are biological specifics that can not be ignored. Yes, when compared to women, men may be the sole providers of semen, nevertheless, men can not breast-feed a baby. Biology can not be ignored, but at the same time, biology does not solely, or fully–not to mention exclusively–define both individual and social concepts of manhood.

What prevents any adult, be they male or female, from fulfilling the general social definitions of what it means to be a man? Indeed, realistically, how do we define what it means to be “the” man of the household? Biology does not negate social equality. We work with gender-restrictive definitions of manhood and womanhood at our peril, especially when we confront pleasure and/or social responsibility as a major aspect of our definitions.

Rigidity is a hallmark of the patriarchal definition of manhood, however, social reality is actually much less restrictive. Our behavior as social creatures exists on a spectrum. While the work of artists does not challenge or change the human spectrum, artists do extend far beyond a single restricted spot on the spectrum of social activity.



Great art is far more than simply a reflection of our human condition. In the American social context, great art is actually also a projection of social beliefs, realities, romances and possibilities.

We are more than our thoughts. This is especially so because our thoughts have been shaped, if not totally defined, by our environment in combination with the ways in which we were reared.

To move beyond how we were born and reared requires extraordinary insight and action. Particularly for Black people existing within a racially and gender defined environment, art has offered one of the most effective alternatives broadly available.

While it is true that famous entertainers and athletes are considered dominant individuals, the greater truth is that the influential power of an artist’s career can greatly exceed the limited time period allocated to  the impact of entertainers, and especially exceeds the small window of athletic dominance. Well beyond the limits of a particular lifetime, artists are often celebrated decades and even centuries after their physical demise.

The artist is an individual who acts on deep insights and whose work reflects their thoughts. Artists do what they do in a manner that is graceful, i.e. is shaped or influenced by a beautiful way of being. By actually producing important objects and/or events, artists not only express themselves, artists also deeply influence their audience. Indeed, artists explicitly define the essence of being a human being. At the most primal level, making art makes us human.

The very process of making art is an important social barometer that identifies and signifies the zeitgeist of Black life. 

In the racially restrictive American society, over the years, Black artists have been representative of exceeding the normative conditions of Black people. Especially by their existence and work, artists go beyond mainstream conceptions of the status and the social reality of who Black people are individually and collectively. Artists always exist outside of mainstream concerns, and in a limited sense, also exist outside of mainstream controls.

Like Nina Simone, I believe that the work and worth of Black artists is specifically to reflect their times. At their best, Black artists also challenge the thinking prevalent during their times, especially the ontological question of what does it mean to be Black, male, and artist.

In a paradoxical way, a challenge to social conceptions not only gives the lie to the mainstream conception, that challenge also demonstrates both what is lacking and/or diminutive/demeaning about how the mainstream views Blackness. More importantly, the challenge also points to the potentials, possibilities and very real power of Blackness to not only survive but indeed to thrive in an environment of anti-Blackness. 



Being a man means much more than what one sees when one sees a male. Inside the home and in society as a whole, what does a man do? What does an active, self-determining man do? In a visually obsessive society, what does a man look like? Are manhood and maleness synonymous?

Especially presented from the perspective and work of Black artists, there are many questions to ponder as we think on the meaning and reality of being a man. Moreover, this obsession with “manhood”, with being a man, is an Achilles heel of our humanity. What we really should focus on is what does it mean to be an adult, especially given the fact that as we age, the majority of adults are female.

Particularly in the Black community, women far outlive men. This is not an ennobling statistic, not one we should take pride in, rather, the lasting longevity of women and the limited longevity of men is a social reality that reflects the restrictive mainstream social conditions confronting Black males.

Being a Black man is no simple occupation. Manhood requires both thought and action. As the African liberation leader Amilcar Cabral advised, we should “Mask no difficulties. Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.”

Being a man is difficult, requires telling the truth, and is no easy path to trod to grasp the victory of what it means to fully be a man.

Cabral’s self description is simple but not simplistic. Saying it–is easy, being it–is arduous. Cabral proclaimed: “I am a simple African man, doing my duty in my own country in the context of our time.”

Cabral thereby articulates the basic definition of being “a simple African man”–one does whatever is one’s duty, in one’s own country, and in the context of one’s own time.

Be ye male or female, when we become adults, our essence is to accept and fulfill our responsibilities. Whatever the ever changing realities, we must confront and surmount, doing so is the task: the ultimate definition of achieving successful manhood and womanhood.

To be is to do. Within whatever constraints and within the possibilities of whatever time and space, being a man or woman is doing the work of living with and relating to others. 








Here is one of the most acclaimed television recordings of jazz ever made. This 1957 program featured some of the best musicians of that era. Billie Holiday is in the spotlight as the vocalist in what a number of critics argue is her must see encounter with Lester Young. Among the ensemble is New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker, who was living in New York at the time.

In later years I got to know Danny Barker. Tom Dent and I would often sit in Danny’s front room as he regaled us with stories, sounds and memorabilia. We would bask in Danny’s insights about the early days of jazz. Danny came from a family of New Orleans musicians and on top of that had a fabulous gift of gab–nobody could match Danny telling tall tales and reliving important moments of the music. Even though he was what is now known as old school, once you got to know him, he might knock you out with a picture he kept in his wallet of a session he was on with Charlie Parker.

Although Mr. Barker made his mark as a guitarist up in New York, he spent his early years in the Crescent City, to which he returned to live out the last eighteen years of his life. Danny would school us, let us know what was really what. He would smile wryly, remembering that session with Lady Day–a session we never tired of him reliving and sharing with us.

“The Sound Of Jazz” was a special event. Before or since, there has never been a television program that so wonderfully captured the jazz of it’s era, especially the iconic interaction of Billie Holiday and a notable coterie of jazz greats (including tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins). Here is the entire session.



Many entertainers who aim for international super-star status are advised to tone down, if not fully eliminate their political statements. After all, fans want to experience their sound, not their politics. As much as I enjoyed Ms. Luna’s music, I was both surprised and delighted to hear her putting her political position up front.

Luedji Luna is from Salvador, Brazil. Brazil has the largest number of citizens of African descent outside of Africa itself, and Salvador, as the capital of Bahia, is a strong-hold of Africanity–in music, in food, in population and, obviously, in terms of consciousness. Salvadorians are aware.

Luedji speaks for herself. Her music speaks to all of us. 


He is what freedom looks like. He became the most photographed personality of his era. Not only was he a man, someone who physically fought for his freedom, but also he became “the” major abolitionist, orator, publisher, and writer who was internationally recognized. Eventually, he also became a significant government official and advisor. Throughout the 19th century, no other individual has accomplishments equal to what Douglass did.

His three autobiographies are critically significant. And literally give lie to the notion that enslaved Blacks were incapable of learning to read and write: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (published in 1845); My Bondage and My Freedom, (1855);  The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised in 1892).

Professor John Stauffer offers a fascinating lecture on Douglass. This factual account is truly amazing.

What To The Slave Is The Fourth of July?” is Douglass’ most known speech. Here is a recitation of excerpts of that speech by Douglass descendants.

In the American context, Frederick Douglass is an avatar of the abolitionist movement, and is one of our most revered African American ancestors. For people of African descent, at its best as an abolitionist holiday, Independence Day is a celebration of escaping and eventually helping to destroy slavery.


March 1965, I had made 18 but never registered for the draft. Viet Nam was raging. After weeks of my mother fervently imploring me to register, afraid that “they were going to come and get me”–I didn’t have to ask and she didn’t have to say who “they” were. I finally went down to the draft board and after admitting I had not complied with the law, was told to come back the next day and “we’re going to deal with you”. 

I immediately went down to the Custom House, where all the military recruiters were. I said I wanted to sign up but I didn’t want to go to Viet Nam. Of course the officer was amused. Responding to his laughter, I said I was sure there were some jobs the Army had that they didn’t use in Nam and I wanted one of those jobs.

“Oh, you have to pass a test to get one of those jobs.”

“Well, give me the test,” I fearlessly replied.

That’s how I ended up at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, were I was trained in electronic maintenance for the Nike Hercules nuclear missile, which they only had in three places: Texas, Germany, and South Korea.

Less than eight months later, before sunrise, I and numerous other GI’s (by the way, GI stands for “government issue”) stood on the deck of the last troop ship that went from San Francisco to Pusan, at the southern tip of South Korea, after that, the carriers were deployed to Viet Nam. I ventured forth on a day-long, train trip up the peninsula to about fifty miles below the DMZ, the demilitarized border zone separating “the communist north from the democratic south” of Korea.

Eventually during my three-year deployment I was trained in “radiological, biological and chemical warfare” plus the use of the standard M1-rifle, the .45 caliber hand gun, and the fifty caliber machine gun. By the time I mustered out of the Army, I had attained the rank of E-5 sergeant and was well-versed on the path to being a specialized killing machine.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968, I was discharged in early June of 1968. Despite my rise through the ranks–I even had my own room in the barracks and didn’t have to do bothersome morning and afternoon roll calls, nor odious manual labor duties–nevertheless, the Black Power movement was calling and I was more than ready to get out of the Army, besides, although I had been well-trained in warfare (from hand-to-hand combat to guided missile nuclear warfare), I was, nevertheless, principally opposed to the Viet Nam war.

A fascinating film of that era is the anti-war documentary “Sir! No Sir!” available on Netflix.

By the time I made 21, yours truly was “ready for the revolution”–or so I thought.

By the new millennium in 2000 I had literally traveled around the world, including: Japan and China in the Far East–Shanghai is a fascinating mashup of East meets West; the mountaintop Citadel in Haiti, down to the upside-down Hilton in Port of Spain, Trinidad; as well as bunches of places in between throughout the Caribbean–Barbados was my favorite, partially because of the ninety-plus degree of literacy on the island; the war conflicted, Central American country of Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista regime; and England, France and Germany (which despite its Nazi past and reputation, I found myself enjoying and learning from far more than I anticipated).

I had friends, comrades and fellow travelers worldwide. Moreover, the literature I consumed was global in outlook while being specific in location. I truly believed in and was comfortable with the maxim attributed to African-descendent, formerly-enslaved Publius Terentius Afer, aka Terence, a Roman-era playwright: “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me”.

Prior to the Civil War, one of the most mythic routes for escaping slavery was flight to Canada. Supposedly the northern neighbor offered safe harbor. But it was a mighty long way to get there. Cross rivers and plains with slave-catchers in hot pursuit with hell-hounds hot on your trail.

There were people–abolitionists–who would help us out but there was no certainty in being a runaway. Indeed, the dis-United States even had a fugitive slave law and people who made it a business to capture escapees. There are many, many tales and truths about the trials and tribulations one encountered in the struggle to live free, especially the whispered hardships and exhilarations about crossing over the border into the alleged promise land–if you could get there.

But the truth is relatively few of the millions of us held in bondage ever made it to the far north. Howsoever, there was a closer sanctuary that is seldom acknowledged for fear that real freedom would catch on. The first place was Florida and joining up with the Black Seminoles who, in alliance with indigenous peoples, fought the U.S. Army to a standstill and eventual treaty designated accommodation cross the Mississippi River in Oklahoma, where the U.S. government was giving away land to homesteaders, and as well in Kansas were there was a growing movement for a Black state led by a fearless man named Benjamin “Pap” Singleton. Of course most history books are silent about that migration and the subsequent legal, as well as extra-judicial battles that took place.

What few books, newspapers, and even popular accounts of Black freedom struggles ever focus on is what happened south of southern slavery down Mexico way. There was a national law that once one set foot into Mexico proper, one was legally free. All you had to do was cross the Rio Grande River, which was closer by thousands of miles, and you and yours could live as free citizens. Of course, it meant learning Spanish rather then being forced to use English, and there was no guarantee that life would be easy but legally, and more importantly practically and within reach of those who had little if anything except their will to be free.

The battles between the existing authorities of that time period are documented in an exciting new book: SouthTo Freedom–Runaway Slaves To Mexico And The Road To The Civil War by Alice L. Baumgartner. South To Freedom is about the machinations that went on among and betwixt the then ruling legal powers; what Black folk thought about and acted upon is not the focus. Our history is yet to be fully told and extolled. But our fierce history is there to be excavated and illuminated. Soon come.

The work is getting done. We were viewed as property, and as the Dred Scott decision made clear, we had no human rights. Just the fact of us running away, effectively moved us from the category of property into the realm of human beings seeking freedom.

The common saying that the truth will set you free, needs to be amended to note that the struggle to be considered human beings rather than property, and all the battles that go with that struggle, that is what our history is essentially about–and that story, only we can intimately and truthfully tell.



Nnenna been singing for what seems like a lifetime. Was smitten, totally in love with her sound when she released Tales Of Wonder, a 2002 interpretation of Stevie Wonder music. Between her self-titled debut in 1992 and Homefree in 2010, she released a plethora of beautiful recordings. Then there was a long hiatus before the appearance of Time Traveler in 2021, an aptly named new release.

If we live, the future catches up with us. After a long and fruitful spousal union, after bearing and raising progeny, after a touring and recording career, after all those years that wily rascal called death creeps up on us and makes off with loved ones. Neena calmly holds forth on the travails of dealing with the demise and disappearances of departed loved ones. 

Nnenna is a home-grown, down home philosopher whose wisdom is distilled from over sixty years of living, and especially the forty years of marriage to an encouraging and hard-working husband. Phil Freelon was the lead architect for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.

He designed buildings and institutions of glass, concrete, steel, stone, and wood; she worked with song and sound. What a wonder-filled couple they were. Thanks to a catalogue of inspiring music, their union continues to vibrate in the universe.





“We may not yet be what we will become.

And we still struggling for survival today.

But, thank god, we ain’t what we was.”


Wise words, mama used to say. We know one of the most basic laws of nature–really, of everything–over time, everything changes. The changes may be small and almost imperceptible. Or the changes may be massive and unmissable. Regardless, there will be changes.

Jarvis DeBerry can feel the changes, both small and large. And he responses to, or at least recognizes, the importance of social and environmental changes. Over the years, and especially in his important collection, I Feel To Believe, DeBerry does not flinch as he addresses the joys and pains of being here in New Orleans, of being human.

Jarvis is Black, male, and recently upgraded–from junior reporter to respected columnist and team leader. When Katrina hit, he was a major part of the journalist group who won a Pulitzer. Life has been no bed of roses for him. Or really, inextricably entangled betwixt the thorns and weeds of a semi-tropic garden, a mix of the positives and negatives is exactly what his life has been as he has not only won broad acclaim but also faced significant challenges (including an organ transplant and all the vexations that come with that).

It ain’t been easy. But exemplifying the never-say-die spirit of his ancestors, Jarvis has fought the good fight, stayed on the battlefield, and even when he was mighty weary, he soldiered on to face another day.

His book is up for the 2022 One Book One New Orleans selection. Vote for him. He deserves the award.

(Below is a sample column from his book.)

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Remembering and releasing the pain of slavery

By Jarvis DeBerry | The Times-Picayune
July 9, 2014  

While sitting on the sunlit cobblestones of Congo Square on Saturday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder what gatherings at that sacred space must have looked like, must have sounded like, must have felt like, for long-ago captives who looked like me. Were those who had been held in the bellies of slave ships thankful that they had survived the torturous journey across the Atlantic Ocean, or were they envious of those who died and were fed to the sharks?

Were they bewildered and confused by the different African languages competing for attention at this square, or were they able to derive some small comfort that those languages sounded more like home than the European languages their oppressors were forcing into their mouths?

What messages would the enslaved have sent to their loved ones in their villages back home? If they could have spoken to future generations, what would they have said?

So much is unknown: languages, villages, religion, culture, occupations, social status. The people gathered at Congo Square Saturday morning were there out of respect for what we do know: Millions died in the Middle Passage, and even those who survived may have wished they hadn’t.

The Swahili word used to describe the Middle Passage and the enslavement of Africans is “Maafa,” meaning “great tragedy.” We know that captives were worked unmercifully, even till death. We know that they were flogged and branded and raped and forcibly bred.

But in addition to all the horrible things we do know, there’s the sorrow that comes from all the things we don’t: origins, genealogy, names.

The historian Henry Louis Gates has described it as “that great abyss in our shared history: the void of slavery wherein the overwhelming percentage of our ancestors cease to exist as human beings, much less citizens, and indeed have no names that the legal system was bound to honor or acknowledge. They were just property, plain and simple.”

But we remember them. Even if we don’t know the names we should call. Even if we don’t know the languages from which their names were derived, we remember them. It is necessary that we do.

Hence the 7 a.m. gathering at Congo Square on Saturday morning for the 14th annual Maafa commemoration. The remembrance was organized by the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in Central City.

Those in attendance varied in age. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Yoruba and others. There were people from different ethnicities and cultures and continents. That might seem like a recipe for disharmony and discord and tension. And yet, there was unity. Ifaseyi Sable Bamigbala Apetebi, a Yoruba priestess, used the following words in her invocation: “May the spirit of divine communication deliver all of our messages, whether spoken, whether thought, or laying at rest in our hearts. In this realm of the physical. And in the realm of the metaphysical. In this lifetime. And in any lifetime that we are blessed to have in the hereafter. For this generation. And for all the generations to come, may we have the blessings. Ashe.”

On Tuesday morning, I asked Freddi Evans, author of “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” to tell me how Saturday morning’s Maafa commemoration program compared with gatherings at Congo Square during the slavery era. She pointed out multiple similarities. Enslaved Africans who were allowed to go to Congo Square on Sundays would have been confronted by multiple African languages that they would not have necessarily understood. They would have interacted with others who didn’t necessarily share their religious practices. And yet, they would have heard music — drums especially — that reminded them of home and allowed them to dance as one.

They would have come to Congo Square not only to buy and sell at that marketplace, Evans said, but they also would have come seeking some solace for their pain: the pain of displacement, the pain of the lash, the pain of having their families torn apart.

The Rev. Maurice Nutt, the director of Xavier University’s Institute of Black Catholic Studies, in his litany addressed the pain that was not only experienced by those who were enslaved, but also the pain that is still being experienced by their descendants. So as he verbally catalogued that pain, he prompted the people to say, “Heal us!”

Healing is as necessary as remembering. Carol Bebelle, the executive director of the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, said Saturday that the ancestors who endured the Maafa, who suffered under the torment of slavery, didn’t struggle to survive just so we would be suffering still. It dishonors them, she said, to not work to free ourselves of the pain. “The past we inherit,” Bebelle said. “The future we create.”