I believe that our life experiences are cyclical and I believe unresolved problems often return to us cleverly disguised as something else. I’m particularly fond of the Sankofa bird. It is one of the sixty-three Adinkra symbols of the Akan people of West Africa. Sankofa is a bird with its feet firmly planted forward while its head is turned around looking to get an egg off its back. This is reminiscent of the African proverb,
“It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
Which tells us that often the wisdom you need to move forward awaits you in the past.
I recently visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), in D.C. The Museum is a pilgrimage that every American, and particularly every African American, should consider a spiritual obligation. The NMAAHC journey is a labyrinth of our unique, largely hidden, diaspora experiences. Each level transports visitors into the wellspring of our collective, tribulations, travails, and triumphs. From the depths of our violation on the lower levels, to the heights of our victories depicted on the upper levels. It is all there!
The African American museum, like the Holocaust and other cultural museums, attracts a diverse group of guests, yet I’m certain the knowledge impacts most profoundly the representative ethnic group. For me, the reflection upon the known and unknown injustices and the many surprising triumphs of my people in the Diaspora was deeply humbling, cathartic and renewing
As I ambled about the close quarters on the lower levels of the Museum, experiencing the story of Slavery and Freedom, between 1400 and 1877, I was proud of our heritage firmly rooted in strength and fortitude. The exhibit painstakingly curates the transatlantic slave trade in drawings, narrated slides, recovered implements of tortured enslavement and vivid depictions of Africans stacked in the bowels of European ships. Experiencing, even vicariously, chilled most visitors into a shared stony silence. I sensed a reverence and empathy for the sufferers of the middle passage that caused many, myself included, to weep over the sheer horror and inhumanity suffered by the captured Africans. I suspect some Whites, confronted by the savagery of their forbearers wept in shame. Although the walk through the museum was collective, the journeys were personal.
I was mesmerized by the accounts of those young, strong Africans, who unable to comprehend the barbarism, unwilling to survive on uncertain terms, chose for reasons beyond my knowing, to hurl themselves into the shark-laden waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Did they hope that in death they would be returned to the warmth of the Motherland to regain the severed ties of kinship? Where does one descend, or some would argue, ascend to in spirit to feel that certain death supersedes anything one expects to find in a lifetime?
In the dimly lit spaces of the museum, I grieved for the hopelessness dooming countless noble African bloodlines. As I pondered the panic and pain of the drowning experience I imagined the rushing flood of ocean water filling tightened windpipes and compressed lungs. I wondered whether once submerged in shark-infested waters some of the captives had a millisecond of doubt whether the leap to final freedom was wise.
Later that evening, as I lay in bed reflecting upon the magnitude of my experience at the African American Museum a troubling question arose.
Is there a parallel, between the desperate suicides of despondent, captured young slaves
and the perplexing self-destructive behavior we witness from hopeless African American youth?
Many youths living in impoverished communities face unrelenting social injustice targeting them as surely as the lash of a slave master’s whip or the noose tied hatefully around their necks by a lynch mob. Is their response certain death from drugs, senseless mind-numbing violence and wholesale disregard for human life?
Is this an unresolved problem returning to us cleverly disguised as something else?
In these perilous times, the cultural structures that have for hundreds of years undergirded our people; the extended family, the iron strands of community, the Black Church, all seem to be quaking and crumbling under the stress of multi-faceted racism. What concrete actions can we undertake to keep our children, from falling into the abyss of hopelessness? How do we keep our precious youth, the seeds for our tomorrows and a continuation of our noble bloodlines from jumping overboard?
– Susan D. Peters
Susan D. Peters, aka, Ahnydah (ah-NIE-dah) Rahm, brings a wealth of experience gained as an expatriate living in West Africa. Her memoir Sweet Liberia, Lessons from the Coal Pot, received the Black Excellence Award for Non-Fiction from the African American Alliance of Chicago and the Mate E. Palmer award for Non-Fiction from the Illinois Press Women’s Association. Broken Dolls, Susan’s second book, represents her foray into the mystery market and is the first of a series featuring Detective Joi Sommers as its heroine. Her most recent publication is Stolen Rainbow, a short story focused on the post combat recovery of a beautiful marine captain after a devastating combat injury. Her work is featured in three anthologies, Baring It All, the Ins and Outs of Publishing, Signed, Sealed, Delivered … I’m Yours, a contemporary romance anthology, and The Anthology of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. Buy her books online and at www.SusanDPeters.com.