The day after millions of folks celebrated the independence of the United States of America, I joined a sea of folks dressed in all white, the color associated with the deepest mourning, to recognize one of the most tragic parts of American history.
In its 14th year, the Maafa commemoration is an ancestral ceremony put on by the Ashe Cultural Center to honor those who were subjected to the unfathomable atrocities of enslavement and the plight of the generations who emerged from this despair, those who were anything but free when America claimed its freedom from the British crown back in 1776.
Maafa, a Kiswahili word, means “great tragedy” and is used to refer to the African Holocaust where millions of Africans were taken from their native lands, shipped like cargo to the Americas where they were forced into chattel slavery.
Through drumming, chanting, dancing and coming together, Maafa offers healing for a community still in recovery from generations of the violence of slavery.
I have wanted to participate ever since I heard about this event seven years ago, but didn’t for any number of excuses: It’s too early in the morning. It will be too hot. It happens during Essence.
After reading event co-founder Carol Bebelle’s quote about the commemoration in the New Orleans Advocate, I knew there was no justification for not being there:
“People ask me, ‘Why (does this ceremony begin) so early in the morning?’ Because there was a time when 7 a.m. was either lunchtime or the first coffee break for former slaves who got up at the break of dawn and began their work. This is to remind us of that.”
So this year, I joined newborn babies, elders, Maafa regulars, preteens and even some who were nursing a groove hangover from a late night spent at Prince’s performance at the Essence Musical Festival, for the commemoration.
We gathered at 7 a.m. in the scorching July heat on the sacred ground that is Congo Square. This historic site, in Armstrong Park, is the space New Orleans slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to openly honor their culture and everything about themselves America sought to erase.
By 9 a.m., the sun bore down in all of its intensity; however, I encountered no complaints. No matter how thirsty someone was or how much sweat dripped, no one complained.
The opening ceremonies were mesmerizing, prayer-like. Beautiful voices lifted up Yoruba spirituals. Dancers spoke ancient languages with their bodies. Every thud-thud, tap-tap by the drummers gave reverence to the ancestors. Libations were poured, an offering in memory of those who have died. White doves were released.
A procession of 100 or so people then flowed through the Tremé and the French Quarter.
We stopped for a short ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine Church; a shrine dedicated to all slaves who died in the U.S., and specifically those buried in unmarked, unknown graves in the Tremé. St. Augustine Church is the oldest black Catholic Church in the country. Slaves were allowed to worship here.
From there, we walked through the French Quarter headed to the river.
As we approached the Royal Orleans Hotel at the corner of St. Louis and Royal streets, Luther Gray, a longtime organizer of the commemoration and leader of the percussion group Bamboula 2000 pulled out a megaphone and spoke about the slave auctions that regularly took place in this area. He gave the crowd one of many history lessons of the day.
This message is one I’m sure tourists, who had already began to move about and were watching, had not expected to hear.
A woman passed out small fliers that explained what was going on to those who gathered along the route making clear this was not a parade or a second line. That, however, did not stop onlookers from pulling out cameras, giving the thumbs-up sign and inappropriately dancing to Negro spirituals like “Wade in the Water.”
During a party weekend as big as Essence, and especially in the French Quarter (where its reputation for being a 24-hour party zone eclipses any of its other history), it seemed difficult for onlookers to process that New Orleans would have something so serious, so solemn occurring.
At the river, we gathered under a tent, a welcomed respite from the sun and humidity to again reflect on why we were together. We cast handfuls of white carnations into the mighty, mighty Mississippi River memorializing those who entered the Western Hemisphere in bondage and lost loved ones.
“To honor my ancestors is to honor life itself. One day to show respect with others with the same intentions, is very powerful and healing,” said 38-year-old Kenneth Warner, a Maafa first-timer.
My hope is that next year more people will participate in Maafa, locals and visitors alike, and that the Essence Music Festival — with its call to come to New Orleans to “party with a purpose” — would include in that purpose taking a moment to reflect on American history.
jewel bush, a New Orleans native, is a writer whose work has appeared in The (Houma) Courier, The Washington Post, The Times-Picayune, New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, and El Tiempo, a bilingual Spanish newspaper. In 2010, she founded MelaNated Writers Collective, a multi-genre group for writers of color in New Orleans dedicated to cultivating the literary, artistic and professional growth of emerging writers. Her three favorite books are Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Catcher in the Rye, and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.