Tribute to our ancestors of the Middle Passage

Menes de Griot (right) with his Shanto Troupe at annual tribute to the ancestors.
Photo by Donna Lamb
Photo by Donna Lamb

A torrential downpour. The loss of the sound system. Nothing could daunt the hardy souls gathered on the Coney Island boardwalk for the 22nd Annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage.

This gathering is held every June in Coney Island, Brooklyn, the site where some of the earliest slave ships once docked. There on the boardwalk participants 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.

The tribute began with a libation ceremony carried out by Mdut SeshrAnkh and Mut Nfrt Ka Raet. Following was a drum invocation, led by Guyanese Master Drummer Menes de Griot and his Shanto Troupe, joined by the Congo Square Drummers and many other ancestral drummers.

This year’s drum tributes were made to Dr. Manning Marable, William Daly, Nate Dogg 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.

Later on, Medgar Evers College President Dr. William Pollard called out the names of some of the ancestors that have meant the most in his life because, as he said, “I cannot call the names of the 13 millions plus estimated ancestors who lost their lives in the Middle Passage, but I can call out some of the names of descendents of those who survived and provided us with the opportunity to be where we are now.” Among the names he called out were his mother, Betty Pollard, and his mentor, John Hope Franklin.

Pollard concluded his remarks by thanking in particular Tony Akeem, the annual tribute’s main organizer, and the many others who assist him.

As always, the tribute featured stirring performances by singers, drummers, dancers and spoken word artists, including Grandmaster Kham, Ngomo, Osagyefo, DuPree, the Crown Heights Youth Collective and the Congo Square Drummers and Dancers.

While the day’s soggy weather dampened people’s clothing, it did nothing to dampen their spirits. If anything, it did just the opposite, heightening feeling for what the ancestors who survived the Middle Passage were subjected to, unprotected from cold, damp and extreme heat.

Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the day occurred just as singer, poet and percussionist Jessica finished her deeply meaningful spoken word piece entitled “Can You Love Me?” which, she stated, asks, “Can you love me enough to come together?” No sooner did she finish her last words than the sky opened up and a torrent of water poured down.

This cleansing rain coming from the heavens seemed to make for an even stronger connection between the people assembled there and those in the world beyond. As the tribute continued, several people were taken by the spirit. One was Jacklene who said of her experience, “It was a blessing from the most high. We are blessed by the ancestors, and it is so beautiful that we have to share it with each other, but you can only share it in the spiritual right way.”

As sundown approached, Michael Manswell of Something Positive, Shanto and the other ancestral drummers led participants down to the water’s edge where Menes de Griot paid respects to Olodumare, the Egunguns and the Orishas. This moving tribute concluded with each participant placing flowers for the ancestors into the Atlantic Ocean.

When people finished paying their respects to the ancestors and were ready to leave, they did not turn their backs on the ocean but continued facing the water as they danced backwards until they reached the boardwalk. As Menes explained, this is 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.”

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