It’s Like Having No Navel

In Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon, one character, Milkman’s aunt Pilate, is described as having no navel, no evidence of connection with a progenitor, no root. That was always an unimaginable, impossible image. It grates against all that we know to be human and natural. She went from place to place with a box pierced into her ear containing a clue of the past and  also carried a sack of bones – her father’s bones – her treasures. At the end of the story, once she had found people who could re-affirm her family ancestry through a children’s song and the community’s oral history, she is able to bury her father properly. In spite of her skills as a juju woman, her beautiful voice, her peculiar but caring ways, and her love of her family, those things only reflect the present.  She is not whole until she is taken to her grandfather’s home community where there is knowledge of her past, her family’s story.

For most people who are part of the African Atlantic slave trade Diaspora we are Pilate, without a navel, lacking the knowledge or ability to trace our ancestry, to fully tell our history. If a person or group is unable to establish an ancestry, they experience a “genealogical void” and often have identity problems. We are told by one writer, Eviatar Zerubavel, that lacking a sense of ancestry is similar to being “cast upon [a] sea of kinless oblivion.” The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project begins to address that void and to heal a portion of our lost selves resulting from the “brick wall” of enslavement. Slavery in the Americas was an institution designed to deliberately wipe out all evidence of our humanity – culture, history, and identity.  Many of us still live behind that wall.

Heredity plays two primary functions: one is biological, the specific function of genes for example, that controls physical traits and health-related issues; and the other is socio-cultural. This project, although not dismissing biological heredity, is focused primarily on the social aspects. Metaphorically we carry the bones and blood of our ancestors throughout our lives, yet we have failed to honor and bury them. The late poet and educator Toni Cade Bambara stated:

I know that we must reclaim those bones in the Atlantic Ocean… All those people who said “na” and jumped ship… We don’t have a marker, an expression, a song that we all use to acknowledge them… We have all that power that we don’t tap into — the ancestral presence in those waters…

By placing markers and holding remembrance ceremonies at Middle Passage ports in the Americas and Europe we acknowledge physically, psychologically, and spiritually our connection to a past, to ancestors. We are restoring our ancestral background. This not only determines how others view us but more important, how we define ourselves, who we affirm ourselves to be. Actor Don Cheadle in relating how it is to learn about his African ancestry said, “You start feeling more grounded when you can reach back and go … ‘This is who I am all the way back.’ ”

Whether through DNA testing, the study of genealogy, family research, recording and taping family stories, photographs or a combination of all of them, connecting to our forebears is critical. This is of prime importance: we are not human freaks; we did come from somewhere and someone; slavery is not our total defining experience, but our ability to struggle against and survive in spite of it is a very important part of who we are. Zerubavel states: “Rather than simply passively documenting who our ancestors were,” there are “narratives we construct to actually make them our ancestors.” The way we construct our story tells as much about the present as it does about the past. Honor and remember them.

Source Document:  Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community by Eviatar Zerubavel (2011), Oxford University Press

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