“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
NOLA.com | 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.”