From a violent human roundup in West Africa, to a hazardous journey across the Atlantic, to an auction block in New Orleans, the fate of hundreds of thousands of slaves over more than two centuries became the shared legacy of more than 40 million present-day Americans.
That legacy and its connection to the present will be memorialized on Saturday, July 5, during the 14th annual Honoring our Ancestors Maafa commemoration starting at 7 a.m. in Congo Square.
“People ask me, ‘Why (does this ceremony begin) so early in the morning?’ ” said Carol Bebelle, of Ashe Cultural Arts Center, which presents the event.
“Because there was a time when 7 a.m. was either lunch time 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.”
Maafa (pronounced mah-AH-fa) comes from the Kiswahili tongue, meaning “great tragedy.”
A full schedule of events marking the solemn occasion begins with prayers from several religions, plus libations, traditional drumming, dancing and chanting and the release of seven doves, symbolic of peace.
Maafa begins at Congo Square, where enslaved former Africans were allowed to celebrate their ancient traditions on Sundays during the antebellum era.
Opening ceremonies will be followed by a procession led by the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indians through Treme and the French Quarter.
It will stop at several sites of importance, including the Tomb of the Unknown Slave in St. Augustine Church and a former slave market at the corner of Conti and Chartres streets.
Participants will then board a ferry across the Mississippi River, symbolizing the trans-Atlantic passage of the ancestors of many of those aboard for the half-mile ride.
While crossing the river, participants on the last leg of the procession will sing spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and cast white carnations into the water, memorializing those who began their lives in the Western Hemisphere in bondage.
Also memorialized will be victims of Jim Crow-era violence, recent hurricanes and present-day street violence, according to event organizers.
The morning’s events will end around noon at the Algiers ferry landing with more prayers, blessings and songs, as well as symbolic gift offerings to the ancestors.
“This is a healing ceremony; an ancestral ceremony,” said Luther Gray, coordinator of the event and Ashe’s Community and Cultural Programs consultant. “It offers an opportunity for the whole community to pause and reflect on this great transgression against humanity and agree to distance ourselves from that transgression, its legacy and the evolved practice of racism in our civic, social, spiritual and personal lives.”
Gray, a renowned percussionist specializing in African-style drums, will perform in Congo Square with his group, Bamboula 2000.
The song they’ll be playing is “Our Ancestry” from their latest CD.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see two or three hundred people all dressed in white that early in the morning,” Gray said. “It really creates an atmosphere of peace and healing, and I think it is very healing for our city, which was a center for the slave trade.
“Most of those who participate in this ceremony come away with the blissful feeling that they’ve spent two or three hours honoring their own ancestors.”
Gray also noted that the ceremony will be attended by about 25 members of the Fellowship for Young African Leaders, an initiative by President Obama that brings 500 young African social activists to the campuses of American colleges and universities for interactions and idea-sharing that can hopefully benefit their own countries.
The Maafa commemoration was initiated locally by Ashe Cultural Center co-founders Bebelle and Douglas Redd in 2000, two years after the center opened on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
The center, which offers more than 800 cultural, educational and wellness programs annually, stands on what was once a major commercial hub for African-Americans during the segregation era.
“Maafa brings us to a moment of recognizing our history and understanding that the present and the future are in our hands,” Bebelle said. “It’s not in the hands of the folks who are gone. They did their job and because of them the rest of us stand here today.
“They lived through what was a most horrific time,” Bebelle said. “I am committed, as are many others, to not having this ever happen again, and to bring us to a level where the effects of those times no longer exist.”