How the enslaved African was stripped of his humanity
I want to take a moment to remember with our readers how and when the African was forcefully brought to the Americas; it happened during the 1400s. This time in our existence on earth is only a placeholder for some of the worst experiences African people have had with physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and structural violence. It is the direct result of the Africans’ forced shipment to the Americas to provide free labor and creative, innovative ideas and skills for building the United pStates of America as a “world power.”
Having gone through a most excruciatingly brutal and painful catharsis of suffering during the approximately 22 generations’ experience of “chattel slavery” leaves us without a land base, with scars, open wounds and a deep resounding FEAR. We are NOT!!! —I repeat; we are NOT!!! — afraid of today’s descendants of the slaveholders, but we are collectively carrying around a concrete block of unresolved, unpacked fear that is clinging to our core and also is now expressing itself as misdirected or internalized rage and anxiety.
The specifics of our suffering over the past 500 years are exquisitely dramatized in Alex Haley’s Roots. Many other writers have recorded the specifics of the Africans’ enslavement — for example, Jubilee by Alice Walker — but Mr. Haley’s Roots outlines specifics in written form as well as through cinematography.
Multiple strategies that were used to break the spirit of the African are well documented in Roots. The raw skin-cracking whippings, the rapes, the public lynchings of African men and women for enjoyment by the enslavers were meant to capture the physical body and close the African mind. These are vividly shown by Haley throughout the movie experience without editing.
Mr. Haley depicts in great detail the different ways that our people were brutally robbed, captured and removed from their homelands, families, communities and cultures. He provides us with an insider’s point of view, and he paints a picture of the unimaginable containers used for the hauling of human beings over thousands of miles, while treating them worse than cattle.
While still on the shores of Africa, after the capturing and warehousing of African men and women for several months before the ships sailed, a searing ritual was performed. Its purpose was to begin scraping from the mind of the African a sense of humanity and the possibility of a return to a normal existence.
The ritual was performed after the person’s hands are tied behind them with ropes and then hooked to one another with iron chains in a group of nine to 18 other people. The people were also blindfolded and forced to walk around and around a “tree of no return” nine times in one direction and 18 times in the other direction at a fast pace. This was executed again and again outside of the holding dungeons that were built on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean solely for the purpose of warehousing human cargo.
When I stood on the sand outside these same dungeons in Benin Republic, Senegal and Ghana while listening to the voice of a guide, I felt the shadows of these ancestors standing beside me asking me to look ahead and unwind this mystery for the power in surviving the long, horrific experience. When I saw on television that the president and his family also visited this dungeon in Senegal, I wondered what he was thinking and feeling as his heart ached for the people who spoke to him through the walls of the place.
Will his mind be changed as mine was when I returned? Will he see or feel differently as a result of this real experience with the enslavement of the African?
The Roots drama captures the brutal practices of stripping from people the memory of, as well as the attachment to, their purpose, vision, and connectedness to others like themselves. It is the scene of Kunta Kente being stripped of the name that attached him to his people-hood, family of origin and heritage that gives us a peek inside of the deep value in naming. Completing the formula of the enslavement was considered achieved by forcing the African to take on the name of the enforcer of enslavement.
There was not only in place a systematic raping and ripping the African from the breast of Mother Africa, but also a forceful stripping from the African’s tongue his own words, ideas and concepts, which guaranteed never having the possibility of a way to create a future beyond the moment. All of these are strategies used to enslave a people, leaving their spirit without a sense of connectedness, cohesion or faith in themselves as a vital part of creation.
Next week: Understanding how the African soul endured
Elder Atum Azzahir is executive director of the Cultural Wellness Center and elder consultant in African ways of knowing. She welcomes reader responses to [email protected].