More Than Royalty

The entirety of the African-American experience is the embodiment of resistance and resilience. Our position in this country has always been unwelcomed, illegal. We are the perpetual “other.” This marginalization and brutality are the source of a great many forms of resistance. But it was that famous Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey who noted that we of the African Diaspora who were strewn about by the slave trade, are the descendants of “kings and queens” of Africa. Garvey and others believed that liberation required that we saw ourselves as more than what the West told us we were. This idea is now found everywhere, from rap to Sunday service.

It is a beautiful — if false — memory. The facts bear out that the great, overwhelming majority of us were not the descendants of “great kings, queens, and pyramid builders.” Rather, we are the descendants of something far more: millions of men and women who survived the most brutal transport of human beings in the whole of history. A cursory reading of the record of slave transport and our subsequent enslavement tells a story of unimaginable brutality, sadism, torture and cruelty.

Here, the truth does set us free. Far more than fiction, the facts of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade should be an inexhaustible source of encouragement and power.

Our people were farmers and shepherds. They were kidnapped and marched on foot — sometimes for months — from inland Africa to fortresses along the coast. There, they waited in one of the many slave-holding fortresses lining the western coast of Africa. People were hungry, thirsty, confused, exhausted, lost. They wailed and scratched the walls as they passed through the “Door of No Return.”

Then they embarked on a journey that pushed the limits of human depravity. The abolitionist the Rev. Robert Walsh gave a vivid account of the conditions aboard the slave ships. He recounted that the stench was one that would cause a man or woman to collapse. He spoke about a ship that had been at sea for 17 days, storing more than 500 Africans when it left the west coast of Africa, minus the 56 that it had thrown overboard. He talked about opening the hull — the grate that covered our people. And he talked about how small the area was, and how the stolen souls lay side by side. Some people were chained two and three together. The height from one floor to the next wasn’t wide enough for people to reposition themselves.

We didn’t descend from kings and queens, but from something far greater.

Our ancestors laid for months in their own stool and vomit. Walsh said there was a part of the ship where our people were stuffed in between each other’s legs, and some had to sit because they hadn’t found the space to lie down.

They say that ships passing the high seas could smell the death and hear the screams. The Portuguese called them tumbeiros, or floating tombs. Sometimes they would pull one man and two other men would be dead, chained to him. Many people were in various stages of suffocation. Some were foaming at the mouth. The only opportunities for air or light were when people were brought on deck and ordered to dance or sing.

We didn't descend from kings and queens, but from something far greater.

Some 300 voyages spawned documented revolts. Some crews were overpowered, and some ships returned to Africa. Still, of course, thousands and thousands survived months in the dark bows of ships to be sold in Saint Domingue [now Haiti], and Brazil and the United States. In a foreign land, people were measured, prodded and bartered. They begged for help. They wondered what they had done to wind up in Mississippi, Georgia, Florida. They cried as fathers and mothers were ripped from their families, as mothers and children were raped.

We weren’t kings and queens, but something far greater.

Our forefathers and foremothers worked every day under beating Alabama suns. They cried when they saw Black bodies — men, women and children — swinging from Southern trees. They knew too well the stench of burning flesh. And they plowed plots of land. And cooked. And built the White House. And nursed other people’s children. And blacksmithed. And picked cotton. And invented everyday things we use today.

After the Civil War, our people sharecropped. And endured Black Codes and cowards in white robes who stole property and terrorized families and tried hard to keep us enslaved.

Our forefathers and our foremothers ran North. They settled in St. Louis and Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and New York. And they thought about us. They said, “I don’t have much to give but my life, and I will give it to you.” They withstood the daily insults. They withstood the “boy” and the “girl.” They withstood sitting in the back. They withstood the fear and the fury of police because they knew that they didn’t come from kings and queens, but they came from survivors.

This is the story of us in this land and many others in the Caribbean and South America. Resilience is the essence of our journey. At every turn, every generation, the truth of our survival delivers us a story far greater than fiction. Today, as we continue to build a movement for liberation, we must harness the optimism held in the stories of our ancestors. As Marcus Garvey tells us: “We have a beautiful history, but the one we will create in the future will astonish the world.”

— Phillip Agnew is a social justice activist and a co-founder of the Dream Defenders.

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