Introductory Remarks from March 21st Ceremony at Brittlebank Ceremony to Honor the Middle Passage and struggles of African descendants

For those who were not able to able to attend, please see the following introductory comments presented by Drs. Simon Lewis and Anthonia Kalu at the opening of the Commemorative Ceremony held at Brittlebank Park in Charleston, SC on March 20, 2013, to honor the victims of the Middle Passage and the struggles of African descendants throughout the world.

Introduction at Brittlebank Ceremony,

ALA Charleston –March 21, 2013

Thank you, Helen and Ann for those moving introductions to today’s ceremony honoring the dead of the Middle Passage and the under-acknowledged contributions of generations of Africans and African-descended peoples in the Americas. On behalf of the ALA, the Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services at the College of Charleston, and the Jubilee Project, thank you all for joining us on this historic occasion, and,  “Welcome all of you!” on this beautiful and peaceful evening in this beautiful place. This visit to Charleston’s Brittlebank Park resonates with a similar visit the ALA made when our annual conference took place in Dakar, Senegal in March 1989. On that occasion we made a pilgrimage to Goree, the most westerly point of the continent infamous for being the site of the “Door of No Return” from which untold thousands were crowded onto European slave-trading vessels and transported to the New World. That profoundly moving pilgrimage prompted one of our members, the poet Niyi Osundare to write the poem, “Goree” that will be the first of our readings this evening.  Our presence in this space twenty-four years later draws attention to the fact that for all its current beauty, this too is a place of memory, and a site of trauma.

Historians estimate that 40% of all Africans kidnapped and landed as slaves in continental North America, landed in this very city of Charleston, and just a mile or so upriver from here at Ashley Ferry River was one of the many sites around the city where men, women and children were sold directly from the boat. Although historic sites in this area and around the nation have expanded and enhanced their presentation of previously invisible histories of the African-American experience, there is still a considerable “acknowledgment gap” in the general public understanding that fails to give due consideration to African contributions to the physical and economic landscape of the new worlds they helped to build.  This acknowledgment gap, which as we shall hear later was so poetically and powerfully described more than a century ago by W.E.B. Du Bois, shows itself ironically in absences: of public memorials, of statuary, of street- and place-names honoring Africans or African Americans; in the absence even, as Toni Morrison has remarked, of such a humble thing as a bench by the road. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation of 150 years ago and the desegregation of public education here in SC that the Jubilee Project is commemorating, the consequences of two centuries of slavery followed by another hundred years of officially-sanctioned segregation are still with us. We believe that humanities scholars have a vital role in laying this history to rest. We believe that humanities scholars should lay this history to rest, not because it should be forgotten, but in order to relate to it in a fuller knowledge both of its historical facts and its contemporary implications. It goes without saying that such a commemoration is extremely uncomfortable and fraught with potential for misunderstanding and pain. That is one of the reasons why the Jubilee Project and this conference are seizing on the anniversaries of emancipation and desegregation as a catalyst for a critical commemorative process: these anniversaries enable us to confront squarely the history of slavery, resistance and abolition as part of the literature of liberation and the law in the story of America and the world. The commemoration of the expansion of freedom is the keynote of that narrative, and of the foundational place of Africans and African-descended people in that narrative.

Peter Wood uses the image of the hour-glass to describe Charleston’s role in the African Diaspora.  In thinking of Charleston as the birthplace of African America, one may think of the narrow harbor entrance in terms of another, more graphic, more somatic image — as the birth canal of African America.  In tonight’s commemorative ceremony, we remember not only the acute pain of that birth but we also salute African America’s contributions to local, regional, national, and international history, and the courage of all our ancestors who, in the words of Kwame Dawes’s poem, “straightened their backs” and “shouldered their burden” in the long, uneven, and often dangerous struggle for freedom.

Anthonia Kalu and Simon Lewis

African Literature Association- Charleston

March 2013

Upcoming Event, March 21, 2013, 5:30-7pm: “I Have Known Rivers”: Ceremony to honor the Men, Women, and Children forced into the Middle Passage and the Struggles of Africans and African Descendants throughout the World

The College of Charleston and the Jubilee Project are proud to welcome the 39th annual conference of the African Literature Association to Charleston, SC from March 20-24, 2013. This conference will include a public ceremony event on March 21, 2013, from 5:30-7 pm to simultaneously commemorate a number of significant anniversaries in the history of Africans and African descendants throughout the world. This ceremony will include poetry readings and musical performances, and is free and open to the public. It will be held at the north end of Brittlebank Park in Charleston, SC. Highlights include poetry readings and musical performances.

2013 and March 21st anniversary events to commemorate include:

On January 1st, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring enslaved people in Confederate-held territory to be “forever free,” came into effect. In January 1963, during the height of the twentieth century  U.S. Civil Rights movement, Charleston native Harvey Gantt became the first African American to be admitted to Clemson University. In August and September 1963, respectively, the University of South Carolina and Charleston County public schools admitted their first African American students since the end of Reconstruction. August 1963 saw two almost simultaneous events that show the length of African Americans’ struggle for full emancipation and the connection of that struggle with African liberation struggles: the march on Washington of August 28th which gave us Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech was preceded the day earlier by the death of W.E.B. Du Bois in Ghana. By that date, 32 of Africa’s nations were formally independent with more than 20 still under European colonial or settler control.

The date of this ceremony, March 21st, has similar local and global resonance. On March 21st, 1865, the first Emancipation Parade in Charleston occurred. The parade featured over 4,000 people, including in the words of the Charleston Courier “a company of school boys” proclaiming: ‘We know no masters but ourselves,’” as well as a carriage with a mock slave auction followed by a carriage decked out as a hearse carrying the coffin of slavery. The hearse bore the inscriptions: “Slavery is Dead,” “Who Owns Him? No One,” and “Sumter Dug his Grave on the 13th of April, 1861.” Thousands of miles away and nearly a hundred years later, on March 21st, 1963, police in Sharpeville, South Africa opened fire on a crowd protesting apartheid-era pass laws, killing 69 and wounding hundreds. The massacre was a watershed event in South African history heralding the darkest decades of the apartheid era but also inspiring the resistance that would eventually lead to apartheid’s formal demise.

What these dates indicate is that, while it is appropriate to commemorate  the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 50th anniversaries of key moments in the Civil Rights movement and the African liberation struggle, Emancipation is not an event but an ongoing process that must  be vigilantly defended and consolidated. In that spirit we will gather at the river on whose banks kidnapped Africans were once disembarked as chattel slaves, to commemorate the  Africans and African-descended people who have risen out of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, colonialism and apartheid, and, despite the manifold forms of racism, have survived, thrived. and enriched the world around them.

Simon Lewis

For more information, please contact Simon Lewis at