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May 16, 2019 HUMAN RIGHTS

2019, Year of Return: The Forgotten Story, Enduring Legacy, and Meaning of Slavery in America

by Artika R. Tyner
La statue de la Libération de l΄Esclavage
Gorée Island, Senegal

La statue de la Libération de l΄Esclavage Gorée Island, Senegal

Key West is known for sunshine and being a vacation paradise. It is the most southern tip of the United States, 90 miles from Cuba. You can embark on an adventure through a trolley ride, visit President Harry Truman’s “Little Whitehouse,” walk the legendary trails of Ernest Hemingway, and eat countless slices of key lime pie. The warm weather, delicious food, and cultural diversity will have you book the next trip upon arrival. Our American Bar Association GPSolo Spring Meeting provided me with the opportunity to fully indulge in the Florida sunshine experience. When my tour guide mentioned the African Cemetery, I embarked upon a path of exploration and self-discovery.

A missing chapter of the Key West tourist experience is a memorial site that is nestled on the shores of Higgs Beach. It provides a glimpse into the horrific human degradation and deprivation of human dignity experienced during the Transatlantic slave trade.

During the period between the late 1600s and early 1800s, millions of Africans were enslaved and placed on slave ships headed to the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean. This treacherous voyage from Africa to America could take from three weeks to three months. Many died at sea before reaching the distant land. Slaves were chained together and left to wade in pools of their own blood, urine, and feces. One eighteenth century ship observer wrote, “The floor of the rooms was so covered with blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of dysentery that it resembled a slaughter house.” Notably, you could smell a slave ship before it was even physically visible.

Door of No Return Gorée Island, Senegal

Door of No Return Gorée Island, Senegal

By 1820, transporting slaves across the ocean had been declared illegal. This did not end slavery in the United States but only restricted new Africans from being transported to the United States and Europe. In 1860, three American-owned ships headed to Cuba were captured in Key West, Florida, due to their contents—

illegal cargo referred to as “slaves.” The three ships were the Bogota, Wildfire, and William. Almost 1,500 Africans were onboard when the ships were captured by the U.S. Navy. Two hundred ninety-five people died during the 85 days they were in Key West. The survivors were sent to Liberia for the possibility of resettlement. Many did not survive and died at sea before reaching Liberia.

The history of the African Cemetery was discovered in 1997 by historian Gail Swanson. The memorial site is located on the shores of Higgs Beach. The center of the memorial is a compass surrounded by a map of the world, which illustrates the route of the slave trade from the distant shores of Benin and the Congo to the United States. The backdrop is the clear blue still waters of the Atlantic Ocean. You are greeted by a gentle breeze with the sun beaming in your eyes.

The sayings alongside the memorial help to connect the past, present, and future. The sayings are beautifully engraved into each post. Some of them are featured below:

Nkonsonkonson reminds us that “we are linked by blood in life and death.” The symbol is a chain that connects the slave experience with a rich legacy of perseverance, tenacity, community, and faith.

Gye Nyame sets forth the omnipotent nature of God: “I fear nothing in the Universe, except God.” This reflects the African connection with a deep and unwavering faith in holding on to God’s unchanging hand.

Mate Masie challenges each of us to gain wisdom, knowledge, and prudence through the exploration of history.

Osram means “the moon does not hasten on its way around the world.” This is a symbol of steadiness, peace, and patience.

Nyame Birini Wo Soro is a symbol of hope and faith. “God, I know there is something in the heavens.” This saying also reflects the Brazilian proverb: “Don’t tell God that you have a great problem. Tell your problem that you have a great God.”

Wawa Aba compels us to look to the Wawa tree as inspiration for its hardiness, toughness, and endurance. This unwavering tenacity is reflected in the fact this passage typically was nearly six weeks in the most inhumane, unsanitary, grueling conditions.

Epa is reflected by handcuffs as a reminder that “you are the property of the one who handcuffs you were.” This is a symbol of justice and equality for all. It also acknowledges human dignity as the foundation of natural law.

Sankofa reflects the philosophy of “go back and fetch it.” It also means “we must return to the source.”

Sankofa marks both the beginning and the end of the memorial. As I passed the circle, I was challenged to retrieve and remember what was lost. Not cargo, not money, not slaves, but African men, women, and children. Someone’s mother, brother, aunt, or husband boarded these fleets at a point of no return. Two hundred ninety-five individuals with a name, story, culture, and heritage were laid to rest at this site. However, their stories live on as we challenge modern-day slavery in the form of mass incarceration, human trafficking, discrimination, bigotry, and hatred.

Leadership for Social Justice

As I walked to the end of the circle, I made a silent pledge to remember this lost chapter of American history by teaching my students about the African Cemetery and the legacy of slavery and challenging my students to leave the world a better place than how they found it. This is Sankofa. This is a call to Leadership for Social Justice. I could hear the words of Ossie Davis as I departed. When he delivered the eulogy of Malcolm X, he left a message for the ages: 

Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man—but a seed—which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is—a Prince—our own black shining Prince!

My personal mission is to ensure that we do not forget this legacy through fostering learning experiences that focus on the strength and power of the African Diaspora. My scholarly research, books, and lectures seek to bridge the knowledge gap about Africa. Most Americans are unable to determine whether Africa is a country or continent. Further, many are unaware that Nigeria is projected to outpace the United States by becoming the third most populous country in the world shortly before 2050, according to a United Nations (UN) report. Moreover, the fastest population growth trends are occurring on the continent coupled with an accelerated rate of entrepreneurs and innovative business solutions. A Marcus Garvey quote posted at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana captures the true essence of Africa: “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s Redemption cometh. It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be here. When that day comes all Africa will stand together.” Despite the legacy of slavery, Africa is blooming with potential and success each and every day.

House of Slaves in Gorée Island, Senegal

House of Slaves in Gorée Island, Senegal

Each semester, I embark on a learning journey by creating educational opportunities for students with the goal of bridging the knowledge gap and dispelling myths about Africa. This begins with the knowledge of what slavery truly is. Through a culmination of years of research and collaboration with scholars like Professor Simone Gbolo (University of Minnesota), I developed study abroad coursework in Ghana. While visiting Cape Coast Castle, one of my students stated: “slavery was 400 years ago in an attempt to create distance from the enduring legacy of slavery.” This statement reflects the cognitive dissonance and historical amnesia of far too many Americans. Correctly stated, slavery in the United States dates back to 1619 (400 years ago). 

For many African Americans like me, slavery is only a few generations away. The institution of slavery impacted a great-grandparent who experienced firsthand the horrors of slavery and their freedom evolved into a life of sharecropping and abject poverty in cities in the South and in the North (during the Great Migration). This became a moment of critical reflection (i.e., truth in the pursuit of reconciliation) for our students as we seek to explore the present-day effects of slavery. One such example is the economic inequality identified by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which projects it would take almost 228 years to bridge the household wealth gaps between blacks and whites. 

The emergence of mass incarceration and Prison Industrial Complex has been characterized as “slavery by another name” due to the nature of the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause. This Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “As the end of slavery left a void in the Southern labor market, the criminal justice system became one of the primary means of continuing the legalized involuntary servitude of African Americans.” This is still true in 2019, over 150 years since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander’s research reveals there are more black men behind bars or impacted by the criminal justice system than who were enslaved during the 1800s. 

These experiences of injustice are not just limited to African Americans but stretch across the African Diaspora. African nations have been robbed of both human capital and physical capital. The economies of many countries like the United States, Britain, and France have flourished due to the denigration and exploitation of the labor of enslaved Africans. With the opening of the new Senegal Museum of Black Civilizations, one is left to ponder when the artifacts stolen from Africa will return to their rightful abode. “The scale of artifacts in question is staggering. Up to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. France alone holds 90,000 sub-Saharan African objects in its museums” (The New York Times, “Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home”). These are just a few examples from an exhaustive list of the enduring legacy of slavery.

Year of Return

2019 marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in the United States in 1619. This is a time to pause, reflect, and act. Momentum is building nationally and globally. In 2013, the UN declared 2015–2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent to “promote respect, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent.” Furthermore, H.R.1242—400 Years of African-American History Commission Act—was passed on May 1, 2017, and established the Commission to develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. Moreover, Ghana President Akufo-Addo declared a clarion call to take action by declaring this year as “The Year of Return.”

The time is now for a Sankofa moment. Sankofa reflects the philosophy of “go back and fetch it.” It also means “we must return to the source.” Through a candid discussion about the legacy of slavery, we first must pay homage to the enslaved Africans who shaped the course of world history and advanced global development through their hard work, fierce determination, and unwavering faith. Their blood, sweat, and tears nourished the fertile soil of our global economies. As we experience a Sankofa moment, we will also discover our shared humanity and common destiny. This will challenge each of us to keep our hands on the plow by eradicating the injustices manifested in our laws and policies. Hold on, hold steadfast to the cause of justice and freedom for all!

The author dedicates this article to the princes and princesses buried on the shores of Key West. Lest, we forget.

Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, sought-after speaker, and advocate for justice. At the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Tyner serves as the associate vice president of Diversity and Inclusion and founding director of the Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice.