In Maafa, Hartford’s African descendants remember ‘the great tragedy’ and the ancestors who endured it
People of African descent gathered in Hartford Saturday to connect with and celebrate those that came before and fortify themselves for the fight ahead. The Maafa altar building and procession was held to bring joy, fellowship, healing, and to honor the African ancestors of the Middle Passage as well as those who survived.
The event, a collaboration between CT-Core and Kamora’s Cultural Corner, began at the riverfront near Mortensen Plaza, where slave ships docked to unload their stolen cargo. The group, wearing white, said prayers for the ancestors who didn’t make it, those who did, and also honored themselves for their own survival.
“Maafa is a Kiswahili word meaning ‘the great occurrence’ or ‘great tragedy,‘ ” organizer Jasmine Honegan said a day before the event.
The term is in lieu of the “transatlantic slave trade” or “middle passage,” euphemisms that mischaracterize “the great tragedy” of enslavement as consensual or legitimate.
“The stealing and kidnapping of any human, enslaving and brutalizing them, should in no way have the wording as if these were mutual exchanges. That’s not how any of this occurred,” Honegan said. “We have an intentional tendency in white supremacist culture to remove responsibility from specifically white people and capitalist systems.
“The full history is that there were nations that invaded, robbed and kidnapped humans, brought them to a new world, tortured and enslaved them, and that is the basis of our capitalist system today. We have to be very clear ... that everything we are experiencing today is rooted in the brutalization of stolen West Africans.”
Maafa is also used to name rituals of remembrance and reverence of ancestors, the lives that continue to be compromised due to racism and oppression and to revere and celebrate resilience.
At the riverfront Sister Anyango led a call and response to undo some of the whitewashed American teachings, Kamora Le’Ella Herrington said.
“Listening to her make the young people say over and over ‘the African Holocaust,' saying ‘Say it from your soul, bring it up, bring it out.' Polite capitalistic America has given us all the words for our experiences, and those words are wrong.”
From there, they walked to Connecticut’s Old State House, described by the state as “the very spot where Connecticut’s democracy was born,” and where Africans were sold.
“The big long journey often ended in New London,” Herrington said. “They took us off, hosed us down, greased up our bodies so they looked beautiful, then got on a different boat and we came up to Hartford.”
The group Saturday retraced those steps. “We went up all those stairs and when we got to the top of the stairs we turned around and realized that was hard. It’s hot. That was part of the education,” she said. ““It was a hot day, we could have easily decided that it was too hot to walk, but our ancestors didn’t get time off for heat.”
As they walked, the group meditated on and said prayers for the ancestors who didn’t survive and those who did.
“The entire meditation is a walking meditation, a conversation with spirit and each other about what their dreams were, what our dreams are and what will we make of this city, this state, this nation,” Honegan said.
Honegan noted that though she was raised in Hartford, the backdrop of slavery in the city is absent and the history still new to her. That the Old State House was a former marketplace for enslaved Africans was a particular surprise.
“It’s a space that has no marker of its history. ... Nutmeggers tend to tell themselves slavery is a story of the South, when in fact it is a story of Hartford,” she said.
The procession on Saturday continued to Heaven Skate Park, then to Sterling Street Sanctuary, to build an altar for ancestors and bless the space. The site was given to Herrington’s Kamora’s Cultural Corner by former Fire Chief Terry Waller for a community space, garden and labyrinth.
Participants, under the wisdom of Margaux Hayes, brought flowers, candles, fruit, candies, poems and pictures of ancestors to the altar. Herrington brought a copy of the Green Book, known as the Bible for navigating American during Jim Crow, as well as Wakanda figures.
“We are African people, in this sick horrible world that was built to destroy us, for the past 400 years. We are now for many of us about four generations out of enslavement. As we reclaim our history, we have to acknowledge that as melanated people we are recreating and rebuilding in this bastardized land who and how we are, that’s where our Wakanda figures come in. Our altar reflects our realities; the Green Book helped us navigate this treacherous nation during the Great Migration and belongs on the alter as a testament to our ability to navigate unsafe landscapes as well as honor those who made a way out of no way.”
Honegan called the time at the Sterling Street Sanctuary a jubilee.
“Jubilee is a recognition of what has happened. It is an acknowledgement that we made our way to where we are and we have a right to celebrate ourselves for that. When I think about the narrative of America, especially when I’m sitting with my ancestors, there is a dream they had that was oh so basic and the American government built systems that ensure that freedom just never came,” Honegan said, pointing to minimum wages, overpolicing and lack of a safety net in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“All that we have is honestly only but a bit of dust of the dreams of our ancestors and once these systems are dismantled, we get to live maybe three grains of sand of the dreams of our ancestors."
Moments like the Maafa in Hartford are important, Herrington said.
“It can’t just be a fight. If all we are doing is fighting and yelling, what are we doing? People are continuing a fight they were born into; a fight for our humanity and liberation. Maafa reminds us that we are only here because someone survived, and we hold a responsibility to live up to their wildest dreams.”
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