by Wanda Sabir
What I loved this year was all the celebratory dancing from just before our ancestors crossed into the unknown territory to landing on these shores and celebrating life and the possibility of freedom, which remained physically just beyond reach for centuries.
In small steps as we regained agency over ourselves, even if our bodies then and now continue to be exploited, liberation was a bit sweeter.
Dancers leaped into the air as if to fly home to the ancestors along the West Coast of Africa, where so many were detained in conditions too horrible to imagine, yet we must imagine and remember to heal from a trauma – the MAAFA – which continues to haunt our gene pools. At the beach that morning Brother Clint, Sister Lola, Brother Kwalin and Lady Sunrise led the primal cry, a sound pulled from within, from the depths – the moan where we felt multiple aches, bruises bandaged were uncovered, the sores aired, the blood allowed to drip into the sand.
Even our sorrow is beautiful.
For the first time in the 22-year commemoration the people danced the Wolosodon as drummers evoked the energies of those gone before. It was beautiful watching both adults and children, young and old, prepare for the journey as our ancestors did. Jazz began at the dungeon site and the improvisational dance that is Black life continues to shape the landscapes we tarry on briefly before legislated elsewhere.
It is difficult to be Black in America, perhaps elsewhere too, but we have our ancestors – Black deities and angels who not only have a say but control what is unseen. This is where true power lies, so we danced for those spirits whose lives cycle or course through our veins born and yet to be born, present that morning, present always – no further away than a libation or call.
Led by Sister Ava, we danced the Wolosodon along the path leading to the Doors of No Return and Dundunba, the “Dance of the Warriors,” when we made it through the horrific sea journey to shore. Later that morning we learned how to channel our energies into fearlessness – Mu-I, a martial arts form based in Maat led by Zochi. Mu-i followed the Ritual of Forgiveness, where we released those burdens we no longer felt necessary to carry any further. With each rose petal we filled a hole and dropped the items inside and then covered the hole so that none would escape to re-infect our aura.
Fleet Week ended that day, a day honoring war. We honored peace. Those people on the beach who were not invited respected our ceremony, inquiring afterward of Brother Clint, how it went. (Last year someone called the police who told us the use of amplification on the beach was not permitted. This year we were finished before the park ranger trucks came through.)
There were many obstacles in the way this year, most of them on the road to the beach, where the waves were mighty. Both sun and moon were in the sky together Sunday morning witness to the four heart shaped Mylar balloons guests released from the circle – I just hope no bird choked on the remains of the offering.
Theo had a flat tire on the Bay Bridge while Brotha Clint ran into a horrific car accident en route from Vallejo. Sister Taliba, whom I met at the world premiere of Donald Lacy’s film, “Hidden Treasure,” earlier that week, lost all her keys and had to leave her car in Oakland and hire a locksmith to get into her home. She was lucky enough that the people from locksmithtoronto365.com are available 24 hours.
I was still at the beach at 2 p.m. when she called and I went back to look for red rose petals where she might have buried her keys during the Ritual of Forgiveness. I kept finding blue items – a blue sliver of wood, blue bottle cap with a bare foot on it, a blue wrapper for bottled water, but no rose petals anywhere.
For the second year in a row, the Black Women’s Media Project, Sacred Space and the Health and Human Resources Center chartered a bus for East Bay pilgrims and this year they numbered about 40-50. Once again there were many first timers. Big ups to Colette Winlock, Lola Haneef, Lady Sunrise, Brenda Byes and their team members.
During the talk back, ritual attendees spoke of how they measured their year from October to October. We will have to get them to join us for the June Libations for the Ancestors at Lake Merritt in Oakland too. The Second Saturday in June at 9 a.m. PST is the International Libation for the Ancestors. It is a global libation; remembertheancestors.com lists all the places where libations take place. See also Facebook.com/remembertheancestors.
Brother Neter Aa Meri erected his ancestor altar, a masterpiece as usual; however, this year I also made a community altar which grew as one brother placed a candle from Ethiopia, sisters put candy and other items for Yemanja. I had candy and bubbles for Esu Legba. I liked the idea Dhameera Ahmad’s family introduced at her memorial to blow bubbles for the ancestors.
I haven’t figured where to put the bubbles as a group activity.
We remembered the three Iyas or community mothers who made their transitions this year: Queen Mother Makinya Sibeko Kouate, Hajja Dhameera Ahmad, Iya Jacquelyn Hadiah McLeod. Another person the community mourns is Baba Dick Gregory. That morning as I drove behind the slow 5 McAllister bus, I was thinking about my dear friend Hubert Collins, who died in December 2016, who would always show up when called with his camera and then make me these lovely albums.
My first cousin Kevin Clark, 58, died that week in New Orleans. He was my Uncle Arthur’s son. New Orleans was spared Hurricane Nate’s fury, but Gulfport was not. Mobile and Biloxi, where Nate touched down, suffered major flooding. I have people in these places too.
I was also thinking about Great Aunt Olivia Samaiyah Beyah Bailey, who died in January 2017. At 98, she was not about to live in a world with Trump as its leader. She literally “dropped the mic.”
We poured libations for those impacted by the California wildfires and those in Mexico who died in the earthquakes and for the many affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose … then Maria, especially those in Puerto Rico and Dominica and the Virgin Islands. Just before Sept. 30, there were over 15 tropical storms that turned into hurricanes. By Sept. 30, 13 named storms, eight hurricanes and five major Category 3 or stronger hurricanes had formed in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. This is an historic hurricane season.
Presently Bay Area air quality is impacted by the raging fires burning in Napa, Sonoma, San Rafael, Yuba City, Ukiah and Mendocino – 100,000 acres burned, thousands displaced, and there are deaths. We had people at the commemoration from Redwood City, Sacramento, Antioch, Vallejo, Richmond, San Francisco, Oakland. There were many who were planning to come and sent poems instead like Sister Makeda who sent Sterling Brown’s “Strong Men” read by Karla Brundage.
Many people were present for the first time, like Thomas Simpson, AfroSolo founder. Don’t miss his program Oct. 19-20. Visit afrosolo.org. I was so happy to see Dr. Gail Myers, Freedom Farmers Market, a sister who is lifting up Black agrarian culture, the literal Roots Culture colonized in city states. She is hosting a program at AAMLO on Friday, Oct. 13, honoring the legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver called “Circling Back.” The free program at 6-8 p.m. will feature films about Black farmers, a panel and poetry.
We forget Black people are the original farmworkers. They called us sharecroppers then, but there was nothing shared. Exploited Black folks swindled out of land and livelihood ended up in barren cities where they grew Victory Gardens when the war made such shows of patriotism fashionable. But even before this, Black folk were growing food so they could eat; they were growing food so the kids could stay well, families could stay well, ‘cause there were no medical plans, just burial policies.
Black people’s labor didn’t just build this country; we also fed it and made it fat.
Dr. Myers brought along her friend, Alice Walker. I was so happy to see Ms. Walker. I remembered the semester she was the topic of my freshman comp class. We read the biography, hot off the presses: “Alice Walker, A Life.” We also read “The Color Purple” and went on a field trip to see the musical starring Oakland born and raised Latoya London.
We also went to see the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s “Bluest Eye” at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. It was directed by Stanley F. Williams. Both are stories about Black girls. Morrison’s story is a bit more tragic. The lesson is the same: Black girls are at risk and we have to pay attention and keep our girls safe.
A student who also loved her work and I followed Alice Walker to Whole Earth Expo from our Alameda classroom to San Francisco, where she spoke and signed books. I wanted my protégé to meet her. I remember when I saw Ms. Walker at the Howard Zinn event, where famous writers, historians and activists read from his “Voices of a People’s History of the US.”
Alice Walker, his former student, was one of the participants. After she read, I was seated with a couple of VIPs, Marina Drummer and Robert H. King, so I went to the reception with them. The event was at King Middle School, the school my daughter TaSin graduated from.
In any case, Ms. Walker was excited and asked me if I had a copy of her latest book, “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” When I told her no, she then took a copy from the basket her assistant was carrying and gave me one. I made that book my textbook for the next couple of years. I kept following her to La Peña when she was a part of an event for the Cuban 5 at a book release: “Letters of Love & Hope: The Story of the Cuban Five” paperback by author Nancy Morejon, editor, Alice Walker.
I also saw her again at a wonderful film screening about the literacy campaign launched by her friend, President Fidel Castro. This was before Kennedy attacked the island during a battle called the Bay of Pigs. I saw her at the Museum of the African Disapora (MoAD) when she was in conversation with the author of “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” by Saidiya Hartman.
I would have an entirely different view of the book after leaving Elmina City with Imahkus Njinga Okofu, One Africa. According to her, the book is a distortion of the legacy of African Americans who live in Ghana. She shared a letter outlining the inaccuracies.
I saw Ms. Walker again at Laney College in the audience at a Playback Theatre event. One of my students at that time who was a part of the professional troupe invited me to attend.
I have a photo of Ms. Walker in my bedroom – yep. Can’t make this stuff up (smile). I am a super groupie – from Temple of My Familiar onward, but she would never notice. I hope. Her partner would recognize me and smile after I introduced myself to him the first time at MoAD.
I am fine admiring her legacy from a distance. Seeing her Sunday, Oct. 8, is an opportunity to write all these things down that I have been holding (smile).
Perhaps the most special time I was able to see her was at the African American Art and Culture Complex at a program for the Californian Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) when Hamdiya Cooks was the director. Hamdiya said that Ms. Walker had her over to tea when she was released from prison. I think Hamdiya shared that story when she introduced Ms. Walker.
All her life Alice Walker has been showing up. She showed up at Dr. King’s funeral and a week later lost the baby she was carrying along with her will to live. However, she soon shook herself from the apathy and continued the work King had inspired her to start.
A few years ago, her friend Jacquelyn Hairston composed a libretto to her poem, “Why Peace is Always a Good Idea.” It was performed at AfroSolo, and Alice Walker read the poem at a concert preview at the Burial Clay Theatre. The AfroSolo event August 2011 was prelude to the Carnegie Hall performance Feb. 19, 2012 – Hairston’s conductor debut with a 300-voice choir. She returned again in 2016.
Back at the beach, the waves were high and when I finally went to offer prayers to the ancestors, I was caught unaware by a wave that soaked my shoes, not once but twice. Hassaun who’d walked with me there, said, “the ancestors want your attention.” Well they certainly got it. I am still focused on the ancestors and have begun to think about next year.
We are inching towards 2019, which marks the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to set foot on English American soil in indentured servitude. While white people also served as indentured servants, their servitude had a terminus. Black people would be held indefinitely.
There is a bill, H.R.1242, the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act, which passed the House in May 2016 but has not yet passed the Senate. Everyone should lobby the Senate to adopt and pass the bill so the resources become available to those of us doing the ancestor commemoration work. This is what it says:
(Sec. 3) This bill establishes the 400 Years of African-American History Commission to develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619.
The commission must:
- plan programs to acknowledge the impact that slavery and laws that enforced racial discrimination had on the United States;
- encourage civic, patriotic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, and economic organizations to organize and participate in anniversary activities;
- assist states, localities, and nonprofit organizations to further the commemoration; and
- coordinate for the public scholarly research on the arrival of Africans in the United States and their contributions to this country.
(Sec. 5) The commission may provide: (1) grants to communities and nonprofit organizations for the development of programs;
(2) grants to research and scholarly organizations to research, publish or distribute information relating to the arrival of Africans in the United States; and
(3) technical assistance to states, localities and nonprofit organizations to further the commemoration.
(Sec. 7) The commission must prepare a strategic plan and submit a final report to Congress that contains a summary of its activities, an accounting of its received and expended funds, and its recommendations.
(Sec. 8) The commission shall terminate on July 1, 2020.
(Sec. 9) All expenditures of the commission shall be made solely from donated funds.
Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.