Sad and celebratory. Searing and uplifting. How can these words possibly go together? Last Sat., they could be experienced as one at the Annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage, held each year on the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn to honor the tens of millions of Africans who, after being kidnapped from their homelands, died during the voyage across the Atlantic – the Middle Passage – their bodies plunged into the ocean.
Why Coney Island? Because although that name is now synonymous with amusement park rides and games, Coney Island was once the site where slave ships pulled into harbor to sell their human cargo on the auction block.
Some of these human beings, most of them children, became the property of the City of New York (previously New Amsterdam) itself. As examination of their bones in the African Burial Ground show, they were literally worked to death building this city. Many others were “sold down the river” – shipped to the South where they suffered some of the worst cruelty known to man as their unpaid labor was exploited to create the wealth that built this nation. These were crimes against humanity for which the United States still owes reparations.
This year’s tribute began with a libation ceremony performed by Mdut SeshrAnkh and Mut Nfrt Ka Raet. Following it was a drum invocation led by Guyanese Master Drummer Menes de Griot and Shanto New Generation, the Congo Square Drummers, joined by many others in the Ancestral Orchestra. During this invocation, carried out in all four directions, Grandmaster Kham chanted sacred recognition of the ancestors.
Drum tributes were made to Professor Charles Jones, Gil Noble, Louis Reyes Rivera, Whitney Houston, Hal Jackson and other recent ancestors, with a special remembrance of Dr. Mary Umolu, founding member of the People of the Sun Middle Passage Collective, which sponsors this tribute each year in conjunction with Akeem Productions and the Medgar Evers College Student Government Association.
The invited speaker of the day was Medgar Evers College President Dr. William Pollard, who spoke movingly of having learned the results of his own DNA test that traced his ancestors on both sides back to Central Africa. “Knowing that, this annual ceremony will never have the same meaning for me,” he declared. “Instead of thinking of faceless Africans, I will think of Pollards and other family ancestors who were transported, some of whose bones now lie in the Atlantic Ocean.”
He stated that this new awareness strengthens even further his sense of obligation to educate Black youth as a means of keeping them from “the modern-day slavery of ignorance, incarceration, and poverty.”
Councilmember and Congressional candidate Charles Barron was also on hand to greet the crowd and pay his respects to the ancestors because, as he said, “We all stand on their shoulders.”
With WBAI’s beloved Habte Selassie and the renowned Jamaican spoken word artist Osagyefo hosting, the tribute unfolded with soul stirring drumming, dancing and presentations by speakers, poets and singers. Among the performers were Medgar Evers College Preparatory School’s Spirit of Joy Chorale and Dancers, inspirational speaker Abdul Perez, spoken word artist Messiah, and singer DuPree. Members of the Temple of Anu elicited audience participation in performing their songs about life, strength and prosperity, while young women from the Sunu Thoissane International Learning Center energized everyone with their dances that were a mixture of Coucou, from the Sussu people of Guinea, West Africa and Manjani, a social dance of the Malinke people of Guinea and Mali.
As always, the celebrated poet, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Ngoma wowed the crowd with his unique brand of hard-hitting yet often humorous truth telling. He was joined by Osunyoyin Alake, whose poetry also resonated deeply with the audience.
The Congo Square Drummers’ playing heightened the spiritual feeling that pervaded the atmosphere, inspiring many participants to dance in honor of the ancestors, several being taken by the divine spirit as they did so. Shanto New Generation’s irresistible rhythms also brought people to their feet, this time in a joyful dance in celebration of the ancestors.
As sundown approached, Menes de Griot, Grandmaster Kham and the Ancestral Orchestra led participants down to the water’s edge where they paid respects to Olodumare, the Egunguns and the Orishas. Participants then placed flowers for the ancestors into the Atlantic Ocean, the largest African burial ground in the world. As they did, some individuals were so overcome with grief for what befell their ancestors that they had to be held up in the arms of their fellow mourners.
When participants finished paying their respects and were ready to leave, they did not turn their backs on the ocean but continued to face the water as they danced backwards until they reached the boardwalk. As Menes explained, this was a symbolic saying to the ancestors, “We have not forgotten your struggle and will never turn our backs on the struggle. We will forgive, but we will never forget what happened.”
The organizers extend a special thanks to Caribbean Life, WBAI Radio, and PRIDE-Coney Island for their support.