by Wanda Sabir
400 years, 1619-2019: Commemoration of the First American Landing at Old Point Comfort, Fort Monroe National Monument, Hampton, Virginia
Thursday, Aug. 22, through Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019, was a national recognition of the real date for the founding of America. July 4, 1776, might be the date the colonies in the New World parted from their big sister Britain; however, it is Aug. 25, 1619, when the White Lion docked at Point Comfort with 20 African bondsmen and women who were then traded for food and other supplies that the philosophical tone was set or cast in a mold stiffly in opposition to the democratic values that came much later in the Constitution.
What became known as America was not an empty or barren landscape. These men of European descent looking for opportunity they could exploit did not recognize the humanity of anyone outside themselves. Though the history of the African people who ended up far away from home did not begin in 1619 with their capture, this event marks the start of a calendar.
Nothing today can undo the injustices African Diaspora people have faced and continued to face. What this commemoration does is speak out loud the unpleasant truth that needs addressing so the surviving generations can benefit.
It is to this same place, the fort at Point Comfort that three African men, who decided they did not want to be sold further south away from friends and family, took refuge where Major Gen. Benjamin F. Butler granted asylum – using the clause “contraband of war” to legally justify not sending them back to their masters. Harriet Tubman also spent time here at the hospital nursing the sick soldiers and others who sought refuge back to health.
I flew in late Wednesday, after an all-day flight from San Francisco, into Newport News airport. The next day, Thursday, was a wonderful community conversation with the 400 Years of African American History Commission and what its charge is. I met many men from San Francisco, one an author.
I also met a wonderful woman, Alzelia Woodard, Hampton resident, who not only gave me a lift, she took me around to visit the African American heritage sites like the Emancipation Tree at Hampton University, where I marveled at the 400-year-old testament to liberty and education. Not only was the Emancipation Proclamation read here, this is also the site prior to freedom where Ms. Mary Peake, a free-born African American woman and an educator, taught free and enslaved Africans to read out of her home and later under the tree. Such an act was against Virginia law.
That Friday evening was a panel discussion at the chapel on the Hampton campus hosted by ASALH. It stormed that evening as we sat in awe listening to the scholars assembled address the issues surrounding the 1619-2019 phenomenon. To its credit, Dr. Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) is the only institution to frame the discussion: 400 Years of Perseverance.
I enjoyed my time at Hampton University Friday, Aug. 23, a lot. The evening panel, “400 Years of Perseverance,” hosted by ASALH and its Hampton Roads, Virginia, branch, was a unique opportunity to put the events of the First Landing in perspective. It was the first time the word MAAFA was mentioned and, during the Q&A, more than one person questioned its applicability.
A free event held in the university chapel began with a drumming invocation and libations. Ms. Sylvia Y. Cyrus, executive director of ASALH, hosted. Professor Robert Watson poured libations. Ms. Brenda Doretha Tucker, whom many of us had seen earlier that day at the Tucker Cemetery, where she sang a lovely Negro Spiritual Medley and “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Prof. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, chair of the 400th Commemoration Committee of ASALH, gave opening remarks followed by a lovely welcome by Dr. Linda Malone-Colon, dean of Hampton University School of Liberal Arts and Education. Ms. Susan Taylor, editor in chief emerita and founder of National Cares Mentoring Movement, gave a talk toward the end; however, it was her husband, Mr. Khepera K. Burns, author and producer, who shared a wonderful poem that really set the stage for what was to come.
The panelists were phenomenal from Dr. Derrick P. Alridge, who highlighted a storytelling project with African American educators; Prof. Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, who shared work from her forthcoming book, “The African American Woman: 400 Years of Perseverance”; and Dr. Colita Nichols Fairfax, author of the foreword to a “Guidebook to Virginia’s African American Historic Markers”; Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, historian and author of “Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad” (2017) and “An African American History of the Civil War in Hampton Roads” (2010); and Prof. Robert Watson, Hampton faculty, who served as moderator.
I hope their talks are published on ASALH’s website at some point; the material was both dense and enlightening. Though the Memorial Chapel was full, most of the audience was over 40. Youth needed to be in these seats, because the wisdom shared was a liberation narrative and, given the length of the program, there was time afterward to meet and engage with the presenters who were all pleasant. Visit www.asalh.org to read more coverage of this event.
It was with this acknowledgement – the truth of what this nation has done to people of African descent and how its wealth is centered in the free labor and stolen lives dating back to August 1619 here – that the events leading up to the National Day of Healing, Sunday, Aug. 25, proceeded.
Saturday began at the historic African Buckroe Beach. It takes up many city blocks like our Ocean Beach in San Francisco. One has to know the cross street to find the gathering. It was warm and breezy that Saturday morning, perfect for the African naming ceremony and community libations for African Ancestors.
When I arrived, everything was in full swing. There was drumming and dancing and meditation as we remembered the first Africans stolen from home and transported against their will to this land to labor and create wealth for a nation that still denies its debt. “American Evolution: Virginia to America 1619-2019” at Buckroe was an experiential acknowledgement of the suffering then and now. All that is left is to continue with legislative polices to make the debt repayment real for descendants of these Africans.
Here is a link to the Saturday, Aug. 24, morning and early afternoon program at Ft. Monroe National Monument, which featured speeches from Congresswoman Karen Bass, Los Angeles; Van Jones, attorney and CNN commentator; Virginia Gov. Ralph S. Northam and others: https://www.c-span.org/video/?463305-1/400th-anniversary-ceremny-africans-virginia.
Congresswoman Bass, representing California’s 37th district, spoke of her participation in a recent delegation to Elmina Dungeon in Ghana, where Congressman John Lewis got the spirit and did a little dance for the ancestors. She described the different areas of the fort, where women would be separated from the others and left on a staircase where she would be led to a room and raped then returned to the dungeon with other captive women and girls. Bass, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, then said that where we stood that day at Fort Monroe was also hallowed ground. Enslaved Africans escaped and received sanctuary at this very location during the Civil War.
It was a gift to be present at the National Day of healing on Sunday, Aug. 25, what the state of Virginia, the first colony in what would become the Union and then the United States, calls its “American Evolution Challenge,” similar to what Bryan Stevenson suggests in his Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its Legacy Museum, from Slavery to Mass Incarceration. The link between what is past is present lies in the truth, a truth these days of mourning and retribution suggest. This is something current Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam acknowledged each time he spoke this historic weekend.
It was an opportunity for Northam to clear a personal closet littered with a recently surfaced blackface image alongside a person in a KKK hood on his college yearbook page. Which one is he, is the question asked. The governor did not remember the photo and said neither. However, he did recall darkening his face to impersonate Michael Jackson. Participating in behaviors that denigrate African people is something young Southern white people do. It is a part of the air they breathe. Why question the air quality if your lungs are full? To resist is an act of consciousness only a few enlightened ones ascribe to. Most, like Northam just get caught up. For the story, read “Virginia Republicans thought calling Ralph Northam ‘Gov. Blackface’ would help them. That’s changed“ in the Washington Post.
This nation’s violent and racist past is something elected officials whose own ancestry link to “The First American Landing” also acknowledged. From Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the 66th governor of Virginia, to the current Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, to of course the Tucker family, descendants of the first child born and christened in captivity, William Tucker, child of Isabella and Anthony Tucker, enslaved Africans from Angola traded for provisions at Point Comfort, now Ft. Monroe National Monument, a former military base in Hampton, Virginia.
I arrived at Newport News airport, 15 minutes from where I was staying. I hadn’t known NASA was in Hampton as well. Hampton’s a military town, the largest perhaps in the nation. Kind of makes sense: first landing, first colony, now first state to recognize its role in the enslavement and exploitation of African labor and do something tangible about it, whether this is housing development or educational and economic equity.
Scholar Michael Eric Dyson, Ph.D., who gave the keynote addresses that Sunday, said he had to commend Gov. Northam for being a standup white man whose politics mean tangible change for all citizens, especially African descendants in his state. Northam, who is seeking a second and final term, acknowledged the debt Virginia owes to its African citizens and as mentioned is enacting legislation to rectify this.
African history does not start with slavery; however, American history does. This is why national public acknowledgement and legislation like that enacted by Virginia Gov. Northam to change the way children learn American history is so important. The American Evolution Challenge is for this nation to not just acknowledge the great sin or stain; the challenge is to invest resources into this work of repair or reparations. The events I parachuted in for were a part of a larger initiative which began earlier this year and continue past the National Day of Healing, Sunday, Aug. 25.
The current governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia said that Sunday that he’d visited with Indigenous people to return land rights. “The story of Virginia rests on subjugation of others: Africans and Native Americans. … In order to heal we have to acknowledge the crimes of the past.”
Editor’s note: These are excerpts from a much longer and deeper account of the 400-year commemoration posted on Wanda’s website, at http://wandaspicks.com/400th-anniversary-ceremony-of-first-africans-in-virginia-the-birthplace-of-america/. We highly recommend it.
As a part of its 400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice Series, a coordinated response to the creation of a federal commission to study the impact of Black lives on the making of America and the impact this system had and has had on African people then and now, UC Berkeley adopted an initiative to look at scholarship that engages community in critical discussion around this “taboo” topic. The series began in August and continues through spring 2020. Events include film screenings, author talks, poetry readings and lots of conversations that invite a collective interrogation of the 21st century freedom dance African people continue to perform despite all the legislation that says slavery is past. The events are all free: https://400years.berkeley.edu/events/oct-10-savannah-shange-and-blackgirlhood-imaginary.
MAAFA San Francisco Bay Area’s 24th Season
This 24th Anniversary of the MAAFA Commemoration it would be great for Mayor London Breed to join us. After all, the work of commemorating African Ancestors of the Middle Passage is physically centered at Ocean Beach, Fulton at the Great Highway. This year, the date is Sunday, Oct. 13, predawn.
We have an opportunity to have an exhibit this year in the lobby at the African American Art and Culture Complex; however, we need sponsors to help with printing costs. A canvas print starts at $40. Let me know if you can help. We would also like to print a calendar and perhaps stationary as gifts for donations and more commemorative buttons.
Next year will be our 25th anniversary and we would like to host a symposium. Perhaps ASALH might consider hosting its annual conference in San Francisco. This year the 104th Annual Meeting and Conference is Oct. 2-6, 2019, in North Charleston, South Carolina. Congressman James E. Clyburn, 6th District, South Carolina, is the honorary conference chair and Council Award of Special Recognition awardee. Visit www.asalh.org.
We also want to have a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, in November to visit the Equal Justice Institute’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration. June is the Poor People’s March on Washington. It would be great to go for the Year of Return.
The American South is the site of great harm for descendants of the Maafa. Everywhere one walks is a site of bloodshed. Bryan Stevenson, founder of EJI, is the subject of a new HBO documentary that is having a screening at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Jamie Fox portrays the Civil Rights attorney and is supposed to attend the MVFF. MAAFA San Francisco Bay Area will host two screenings (October-November), one in San Francisco and the other in Oakland. Dates and times will be announced.
On the fly
Mill Valley Film Festival Oct. 3-13, 2019. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive: “Marlon Riggs Retrospective: No Regrets Celebration” https://bampfa.org/program/no-regrets-celebration-marlon-riggs African-American Shakespeare Company present William Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Carl Jordan, starring L. Peter Callender, Oct. 12-27, at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre. 609 Sutter St., Second Floor, San Francisco. Visit African-AmericanShakes.org. Ninth Annual African Global Trade Conference in Sacramento, Oct. 15-17, 2019, https://www.panafricanglobaltradeconference.com/.
“White Noise” by Suzan-Lori Parks, Sept. 26-Nov. 10, and “Great Wave,” by Frances Turnly, Sept. 12-Oct. 27, at Berkeley Rep, 510-647-2949, berkeleyrep.org; Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble and Hasmik Harutyunyan in “Gorani: Love Songs to Lost Homelands” in three locations: Rohnert Park, Oct. 17, 6:30 pm., Green Music Center; Oakland, Friday, Oct. 18, 8 p.m., at St. Vartan Armenian Church; San Jose, Oct. 19, Hammer Theatre Center. Visit www.kitka.org.
Oakland Symphony 2019-2020 season opens Friday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m., with “Hot as Hell/ Cool Jazz” with Arrigo Boito: Prologue from Mefistofele and a new composition and performance by jazz masters Taylor Eigsti, piano, and Josiah Woodson, trumpet. Visit oaklandsymphony.org or call 510-444-8002. Marin Theatre Company presents “Sovereignty” by Mary Kathryn Nagle, Sept. 26-Oct. 20. Visit marintheatre.org or call 415-388-5208. 23rd Arab Film Festival, Oct. 11-20 at the Roxie.
Artist shines light on women’s unpaid work, through Nov. 2
“Counting the Hours: Art, Data, and the Untold Stories of Women’s Work,” a new art exhibition by Sawyer Rose and The Carrying Stones Project, opens at Code & Canvas, San Francisco, Sept. 19 and continues through Nov. 2, 2019. Gallery hours are Tuesday and Thursday 1-6 p.m., Saturday 12-3 p.m. and by appointment. Free admission. Listen to an interview with Sawyer and one of the featured women on Wanda’s Picks Radio, Sept. 8. She is the second guest, the first is Raissa Simpson, Push Dance Company, who joins us to talk about Pushfest. Visit https://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks/2019/09/06/wandas-picks-radio-show.
The opening reception is Thursday, Sept. 19, 6-9 p.m. A “Counting the Hours” public participatory event, “Crafting Balance,” will be held during ArtSpan Open Studios Weekend 3, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 26 and 27, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Visitors to the exhibition can weave their own work data into a community-created data visualization tapestry. The closing reception is Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, 6-9 p.m., at Code & Canvas, 151 Potrero Ave., San Francisco 94103. Admission is free to all events.
Black Panthers retrospective at Life is Living Festival, Saturday, Oct. 12, 12-4 p.m.
Going to Life is Living this year? Curious to learn more about the Black Panthers? Come in to the West Oakland Library for a Black Panthers Retrospective! Presented by the People’s Kitchen Collective, the Black Panther Party and the West Oakland Library, 1801 Adeline St., Oakland, 510-238-7352.
Also join the Free Breakfast and Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panthers Free Breakfast Program, 10 a.m.-12 p.m., in the Little Bobby Hutton (Defremery) Park parking lot. The Life is Living Festival goes on until 7 p.m.
The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison Aug. 21-Nov. 17
A new exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) showcases a unique collaboration between the contemporary artist Nigel Poor and the inmates of San Quentin State Prison. The San Quentin Project: Nigel Poor and the Men of San Quentin State Prison uses photography to capture rarely seen glimpses of daily life behind the walls of the prison, a minimum-maximum facility in the Bay Area that currently houses more than 4,000 men. The exhibition features visual documents made during Poor’s collaboration with the inmate population, presented alongside rare photographs from the prison’s own archives.
After premiering at the Milwaukee Art Museum earlier this year, The San Quentin Project receives its sole West Coast presentation at BAMPFA, inviting Bay Area audiences to reflect on the role of the carceral system in their own community. The museum will host multiple public programs that highlight the role of San Quentin in the Bay Area’s own history, including a colloquium on Saturday, Oct. 19, at 1:30 p.m. that brings together leading UC Berkeley faculty from the fields of law, social welfare and literature, along with Poor herself. Based in San Francisco, Poor returns to BAMPFA on Monday, Oct. 28, at 6:30 p.m. to co-deliver a lecture with Michael Nelson, a former San Quentin State Prison resident whose essay about photography is included in the exhibition. Visit https://bampfa.org/program/san-quentin-project-nigel-poor-and-men-san-quentin-state-prison.
Urban Cycling 101 for Adults & Teens
On Saturday, Oct. 19, 1-3 p.m., at the West Oakland Library, 1801 Adeline St., Oakland, join Bike East Bay for this free classroom workshop. Learn rules of the road, crash avoidance maneuvers, and tips for having more fun on every bike ride in the East Bay. Details and registration at BikeEasyBay.org/education.
‘Standing Liberty’ is a Black woman
David Moti, acting principal deputy director of the United States Mint, writes on the 225th anniversary of the Mint and the release of yet another coin depicting the likeness of an African American woman (2017), that this was not the first time such a coin was issued. In fact, the model for the figure of a woman on the Standing Liberty Double Eagle Gold Coin (1907-1933) designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens – called “one of the most beautiful coins ever struck” – is Hettie Anderson, African American.
“Liberty is a statuesque woman striding powerfully forward. Her classical robe and the design’s style evoke antiquity and the nation’s origins as a republic. Liberty is a central American value. The Declaration of Independence proclaims it as an ‘unalienable right,’ and the Constitution explains that it was ordained and established to secure the ‘Blessings of Liberty’ to ensuing generations.”
When the US Mint was created in 1792, the legislation stated a need to include the word “liberty” and an emblematic depiction as well on the coin. I am not going to go into the Eurocentic symbolism or the “flowing hair” metaphor, since the goal here is just to recognize yet another incidence of cognitive dissonance or national hypocrisy.
Ms. Anderson’s racial identity was hidden by the artist and his family for almost a hundred years. The William Tecumseh Sherman Monument by Saint-Gaudens in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, New York, also uses Anderson’s figure. This time she appears as Nike, the goddess of victory.
When I saw the more recent Lady Liberty with clearly African features, including textured locs or braids, I purchased the 225th anniversary silver coin, but I didn’t read the accompanying book until now. I thought this Liberty, who, instead of the Phrygian cap, wears a crown of stars, inspired by Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom that sits atop the U.S. Capitol Building, was the first African woman on such a coin, when her predecessor was Ms. Anderson (born 1873) who moved from South Carolina to New York City, where she worked as a model, atypical at that time. Visit Black Excellence.com.
Justin Kunz, artist for the 225th anniversary coin, says: “The crown of stars represents the traditional hopeful ideas of liberty, while offering a hint as to the possibilities our future holds in this technological age. It seemed to me a symbol that is still relevant to us as we look forward to the next phase of human civilization.”
I also found it ironic that another African woman’s visage welcomes visitors into the Manhattan harbor. Édouard de Laboulaye’s commission, “Statue of Liberty” was created to celebrate the end of slavery, not to welcome immigrants into this country.
Gina Brockell writes in a Washington Post article May 23, this year: “The Statue of Liberty was created to celebrate freed slaves, not immigrants.” Its new museum recounts that Ellis Island, the inspection station through which millions of immigrants passes, didn’t open until six years after the statue was unveiled in 1886. The encryption with Emma Lazarus’s poem, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” was added later in 1903.
Édouard de Laboulaye, French historian and abolitionist and friends met at his home in Versailles in June 1865 and thought of this monument as a gift to America on the end of slavery. Unfortunately, by the time the artist, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, completed the work, all semblance of democratic parity had dissipated. The African American press saw the work as a joke given the end of Reconstruction and the resuscitation of Black codes called Jim Crow.
Ritual Theatre Performance
ODC Theater presents Àse Dance Theatre Collective in the West Coast premiere of “Have K(NO!)w Fear: A Bluessical” with Adia Tamar Whitaker on artistic direction and choreography. Performances are Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 17-19, 8 p.m., at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco. Tickets are: $15-$30. To purchase tickets, call 415-863-9834 or visit odc.dance/Bluessical. To listen to an interview with Whitaker, visit Wanda’s Picks Radio Show, at http://tobtr.com/s/11530597.
‘Always in Season’
The film “Always in Season” (89 mins), will be screened Oct. 23, 7 p.m., at the Big Roxie with director Jacqueline Olive in person. https://www.multitudefilms.com/always-in-season. Synopsis: Claudia Lacy wants answers. When her 17-year-old son, Lennon, was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, the authorities quickly ruled his death a suicide. In light of suspicious details surrounding his death, and certain that her son would not take his own life, Claudia is convinced Lennon was lynched.
10th Annual San Francisco Dance Film Festival
The 10th Annual San Francisco Dance Film Festival runs Saturday, Nov. 2, through Sunday, Nov. 10, at multiple venues. Visit www.sfdancefilmfest.org/tickets/. SFDFF features more than 120 dance-based films from 25 countries and the Bay Area. The film festival will include selected post-screening discussions, industry panel presentations, VR experiences and live performances, and the presentation of the festival’s first Embodiment Award for artistic excellence and influence to special guest international Jookin’ superstar Lil’ Buck.
Local focus African American films include “Mapenzi” (Afia Thompson) in the Raising Voices shorts program, https://www.sfdancefilmfest.org/film/mapenzi-a-dancers-love-affair-with-dance-body-and-the-arts/; “About Face,” https://www.sfdancefilmfest.org/film/about-face/; “If Cities Could Dance: Oakland,” https://www.sfdancefilmfest.org/film/if-cities-could-dance-oakland/; “If Cities Could Dance: Richmond.” https://www.sfdancefilmfest.org/film/if-cities-could-dance-richmond-california/.
There are numerous other African American and African films in this year’s festival, including “Lil’ Buck” (Nov. 9, Brava Theatre Center), https://www.sfdancefilmfest.org/film/lil-buck-real-swan/; “The Circle“; “Color of Reality“; “Ina (Light)”; “Kaddume“; “MAI: Am I A Man“; “Searching for Wonder“; “Sound and Sole“; “T.I.A. (THIS is Africa)”; “What Came Before.”
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 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.