Frequently we are encouraged to focus on one thing or the other. In terms of action or response we often are advised to keep it simple but that is not always appropriate.
Because the abolitionist movement, particularly in the early 19th century, effectively concentrated on the Middle Passage as a means to graphically dramatize the terrors of the transatlantic slave trade some historians are now dismissive. They contend that the Middle Passage was emphasized too much, is too well known. As a campaign technique it was expedient to dissect it from the whole issue of enslavement since many who initially favored abolition of the slave trade did not support emancipation. But for those who are descendants of people who endured the Middle Passage it is not an isolated phase. It was literally the middle, not the beginning or the end.
No matter what African captives suffered between home and the coast they were on the Continent, in some way still connected to home. Once on the open seas, in the hold or on deck; chained or not; with family members or not; among recognizable ethnic groups or not; this was the point at which the complete unknown became more real than at any other time in their journey. What could be worse? How could anyone live into tomorrow? Yet most did.
The closest analogy is death. When someone asks what is it like after you die; the usual answer is no one knows because no one has returned to tell us. For those millions of people taken from Africa it was similar. Very few people ever returned to relate their stories.
This project is designed to relate the details of the trade and acknowledge the loss of those “in the middle,” who died during the terrible passing from home into hell. Since officially beginning in July there have been repeated admonishments against dwelling in the past. The port markers and related ceremonies are focused on the Middle Passage, a portion of our shared history, because there is unfinished business that demands tending. The Project should never be interpreted as placing more weight or emphasis upon one phase of slavery than another. Comparison is neither required nor warranted. We are simply marking our communal burial area and commemorating ancestors, some for the first time in five hundred years.
We must often remind ourselves that in recorded human history no people have walked away from ancestors as we have. Two to six million people, described by playwright August Wilson as gems of the ocean, lie buried with no attending death ritual. They are who we were, are and will be. Time (past, present and future) is a continuum. To examine and describe a past is no more like dwelling there than hoping for a better future is dreaming. How do you create a life’s vision if you are blind to who and what made you?
This is not an either or proposition. You cannot determine what was worse:
· kidnapped from home and family;
· manacled and forced to walk hundreds of miles to the coast;
· confined with suffering strangers in a pen or dungeon for days, weeks, months;
· forced to live for weeks or months in a space no larger than 3’x3’x4’;
· eating slop and bug-infested food;
· having your flesh worn to the bone by shackles;
· becoming ill with no one to care for you;
· sitting or lying for hours, days, weeks in urine, feces, vomit and bloody flux;
· being raped repeatedly;
· being whipped and force fed;
· becoming embroiled in people’s anger and physical outbursts with no ability to
· discovering that the person to whom you are chained has died during the night;
· learning that you are considered chattel and no longer human;
· knowing that you cannot protect yourself or your loved ones; and
· becoming aware that you will live and die away from all you have ever known.
This Middle Passage was one part of a whole. We are well aware.