“Free as a bird!” The imagery and association of flying and freedom are prevalent in African American culture. Two things routinely promised among Christian Africans when they got to heaven; wings and shoes. The folktale, “The People Could Fly” and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon are strongly grounded in the theme of flying away, escaping, returning home.
As the European slave ships headed towards the coast of Africa, sailors prepared for the human cargo. Two structures became routine and were completed before arriving: the barricado behind which the crew could shoot down any captives who were able to mount an insurrection, armed or otherwise; and the woven rope netting that surrounded the deck to prevent Africans from jumping overboard. Those who jumped did so to end the horror and/or swim home. On a human level everyone – investors, ship owners, crew, captives – knew there would be resistance to enslavement and removal from home.
One person associated with the project referred to her having been raised in a staunch southern Baptist culture where suicide assured loss of the soul’s salvation. Yet, she stated that whenever she read of Africans committing suicide, jumping overboard, starving themselves during the Middle Passage she experienced a sense of their triumph. This was her personal ambivalence to the act of suicide. As you read enslaved Africans’ accounts of the Middle Passage their response to these suicides was they were an escape, an act of resistance, and a firm belief that the person returned home.
During a eulogy for a friend’s mother who had jumped from an apartment to her death, the speaker made an analogy to those who had jumped from the slaver. Are these acts of resistance, a final act of control over one’s life, an act of desperation or a means to pass into another world or place? Each one will be judged, inadequately perhaps, by us based on individual circumstances. The underwriters considered these Middle Passage suicides as unnatural deaths and covered them, as opposed to natural death of the captives caused by illness, disease, mutilation, depression and whipping which was borne by the ship owners.How unnatural is a deliberate act that removes you from the Middle Passage?
We do know that only a few made it home if they successfully made it ashore, often to be caught by African traders and sold again. In Tom Feelings’ work The Middle Passage he relates that during a conversation with a Ghanaian in the 20th century he was asked, “What happened to all of you when you were taken away from here?” Very few ever returned home. It’s time to repair the broken circle.