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PEOPLE OF THE SUN-MIDDLE PASSAGE COLLECTIVE

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History

In the year 1989, several people belonging to the Medgar Evers College/CUNY family in Brooklyn, New York decided to begin what has now become an annual tradition with what will be the 14th Annual Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage.  1989 was the year of the outstanding International Black Storyteller’s Conference that was conceived and organized by Dr. Mary Umolu, Professor, and hosted at Medgar Evers College/CUNY.  Hundreds of participants and storytellers from all over the Black world enjoyed several days of workshops, cultural presentations, storytelling sessions, panel discussions, and lectures.  One of the highlights of the Conference was the trip to the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island to pay tribute to the ancestors.

When developing the proposal for the Conference, Dr. Umolu included a salute to the ancestors as a vital part of the Conference program.  She would later have a meeting with a colleague, Dr. Andree Nicola McLaughlin, Professor at Medgar Evers College/ CUNY, and learn of an i nterview that I had with author Toni Cade Bambara in which Ms. Bambara made the statement used in the opening of this paper.  As a result of her meeting with Dr. McLaughlin, Dr. Umolu decided that 1989 would be the year for a signal tribute to our ancestors of the Middle Passage.  She developed theidea of taking a pilgrimage to the Ocean as one of the most significant activities of the Black Storyteller’s Conference, and asked the late Dr. Phyllis Jackson and me to coordinate it.  After the decision was made to go to the Ocean for the first tribute, I held a planning discussion with Dr. McLaughlin and Dr. Acklyn Lynch, Professor of Black Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. We planned a program that would include several cultural presentations, prayers, and the placing of flowers in the water.  As the coordinators for the event, Dr. Jackson and I worked out all the details, including getting the required permits to use the Coney Island boardwalk and beach for the ceremony, and advertising it through a variety of venues.

People The first Tribute was held on November 18, 1989, a cold, cold winter day that helped us to remember the conditions under which many of the enslaved African men and women came to America.  We were freezing, and yet we had on our wool and down coats, our boots, our hats, our gloves and our scarves.  One could only imagine the plight of our ancestors who were forced to these shores while wearing only bits of tattered cloth to cover their bodies from freezing foreign weather. The mistress of ceremonies for that day continued to remind those gathered at the Ocean of their ancestors’ condition, since we often only think of the horrors of the slave ships and plantations while forgetting the strange, sometimes freezing weather conditions under which African people traveled, arrived, or died.

Drummer African drums beat on the boardwalk of Bay 13 in Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York and cultural artists of every type gave cultural offerings in tribute to those African bodies buried in the Atlantic Ocean.  An altar was built on the boardwalk, and flowers and fruit were released into the Ocean after a procession was led by drummers who walked from the boardwalk down to the Ocean.  The cultural contributors included griots from West Africa, Papa Susso and Abdou Rahman Mongaara; Wassin Roots Reggae Band; Sister Fabian Miranda; Roots Daughter Maxine Foster; Serious Bizness; the Medgar Evers College Dancers (under the leadership of Professor Iola Thompson), and many others.  Ministers of various religions and spiritual persuasions offered ecumenical prayers. (Many of these artists and spiritual leaders have continued to offer their gifts of the word, song, dance or music at each of the Tributes that have come after 1989.)

Following the first tribute, The People of the Sun Middle Passage Collective was created with the primary purpose of organizing an annual June tribute, one that would always have cultural performances, African drumming, prayers, and flowers placed in the Ocean as a part of a water ceremony.  It was collectively decided that the Tribute should be moved from the winter to the summer so that we would be able to maximize participation in it.  It was also felt that it would be good to have the Tribute during the month that Juneteenth is celebrated.  (Juneteenth is an African-American holiday that is primarily celebrated in the South of the United States as the date – June 19th – that the last group of enslaved people received the news that the system of slavery had been declared officially abolished by the government of the United States.)

The Collective also established the goal of raising funds to have a permanent monument erected on the grounds of Medgar Evers College/CUNY in memorial to the millions of people who perished during the Middle Passage.   We also vowed to hold our Tribute on the boardwalk and beach of Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, and to encourage others to hold similar tributes on the same day in other parts of the country and world, especially those places that have shores on the Atlantic Ocean. Both the Office of the President and the Student Government Association of the College have given financial contributions so that the Tribute would be established as one of the traditions at the College.  These two bodies have also agreed to assist with raising funds for the building of the permanent monument.


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