Ancestors’ tribute comes of age

For 21 years now, every June the Annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage has brought people together in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the site where slave ships once docked. There on the boardwalk participants honor the tens of millions of Africans who, after being kidnapped from their homeland, died during the voyage across the Atlantic – the Middle Passage – their bodies plunged into the ocean.

One of the many signs that this people’s tribute to the ancestors has truly come of age was the participation, for the first time in the event’s history, of the president of Medgar Evers College, Dr. William Pollard.

Gesturing towards the Atlantic Ocean, the largest African burial ground in the world, Dr. Pollard spoke of the courage of the ancestors, the countless men and women who either lost their lives by being thrown overboard or who gave their lives by jumping overboard, refusing enslavement.

“But with all the horror, there is something so resplendent about the human soul that we can emerge as you and I have emerged today,” he told the crowd. “Somehow, there is a Being greater than any of us that helps us to reflect and remember.”

Pollard concluded by saying he looks forward to returning next year, and he thanked, in particular, Tony Akeem, the event’s main organizer, and the many others who assisted him.

The formal tribute began with a libation ceremony carried out by Mdut SeshrAnkh and Mut Nfrt Ka Raet, followed by a drum invocation led by Guyanese Master Drummer Menes de Griot (AKA Baba Mpho) and his Shanto Troupe, joined by the Congo Square Drummers and many other ancestral drummers.

This year’s drum tributes were made to Percy Sutton, Dorothy Height, Rex Nettleford, Frank Mickens, Lena Horne, Dr. Mary Umolu, Medgar Evers, Betty Shabazz and all other recent ancestors.

With Habte Selassie, Michael Hooper and Dequi Kioni-Sadiki taking turns hosting, the rest of the afternoon consisted of soul stirring drumming, dancing and presentations by speakers, poets and singers. Among the Caribbean artists were the Trinidadian singer Jah Jah the Mighty Tranquil and St. Lucian poet Hermina.

Also on hand were the renowned poet, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Ngoma, Charles Dougherty and Circle of Friends, Abdul Perez, Osunyoyin Alake and Queen Mother Olatunji, along with Michael Manswell and Something Positive. As always, KowTeff wowed the crowd with its African drumming and dancing, while Angela Fatou led a ring shout, the first ever in Coney Island.

Throughout the afternoon there was a strong message of unity among all African peoples, as when Baba Sami, an elder of 35 years with the Congo Square Drummers and a community mentor, said, “We have come a long way as a people and yet we have far to go, but as long as we continue to love each other, the enemies of love will not succeed. Wherever we now are on this planet we are all African people. We may have different applications of our religion, but God is one; the ancestors are one; and we are one.”

As sundown approached, Menes De Griot and Grandmaster Kham performed a closing ceremony on the boardwalk. Then, Something Positive, Richard Green, Shanto and the other ancestral drummers led participants down to the water’s edge where Menes paid respects to Olodumare, the Egunguns and the Orishas. This moving tribute concluded with each participant placing flowers for the ancestors into the Atlantic Ocean.

The organizers extend a special thanks to Caribbean Life, PRIDE-Coney Island and Black Brooklyn Renaissance for their support.