Click to Listen to “First Time I Saw Big Water” produced and composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, performed by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon for the PBS-WGBH film score for series Africans in America, Executive Producer Orlando Bagwell
Shackled and forced from the interior, the bush, often marching for weeks and months African captives destined for the transatlantic slave trade endured hardships beyond our imagination. Many had never seen the ocean before this trek. They were weary, sore, and hungry. During the days or weeks penned at the slave fort they were branded, exposed to sun, rain, disease, insects, abuse and bad food. Rumors spread that the strange-looking pale men were cannibals; while others told them that they would be taken far away to work in strange lands. Whatever the fate it would be horrible if what was experienced so far was any indicator of their future.
Imagine if you can:
Having survived all this misery, one day you are taken to the shore where you must climb into boats and ride on the water. Hesitant, you are shoved because you do not know what awaits you and there is no possible way that you can turn around or move back. You are moving off the only ground you have ever known and into the water.
When you walk through that space in time visualize people thrashing, screaming, falling, and swimming. You immediately react asking: “Can I swim? Can I jump? Can I do this? Where am I going? What will happen to me?
There was no choice for them. Boats and armed men surrounded the area; people were pulled and pushed into the water, and rowed to the large ships further out.
I have a fear of jumping into water, any water. Perhaps it is a memory of that first step into enslavement carried in my genes. This post was inspired by Bettye Saar’s interview on her artistic work and life. She is probably best known for “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) and since that pivotal collage has explored themes related to African migration and transformation in the Diaspora. During that interview she described her visit to a slave port in Nigeria and referenced the House of Slaves on Goree Island in Senegal. Both have a ledge from where we are told each captive had to make a long jump into the water below.
Imagine if you can:
People are jumping into the ocean. At the very moment that you permanently leave home, land, family, all that is known, you are moving unwillingly, being driven into all that is unknown.
That requires what? Hope, faith, strength. I do not know how they made it to the tomorrow except with each other and a determined will to survive. Their Middle Passage had begun. They would physically rebel (more than ten percent); they would die (approximately 20 percent); they would arrive in hostile lands, build wealth for others, and transform the world. Remember them.