Memorial service honors African slaves Participants pay tribute to African ancestors forced into servitude

August 30, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

His eyes shut, his feet pounding pavement, Baba Kwame Ishangi contorted his body and sang about the dead yesterday at the Inner Harbor.

About 70 people on Pier 5 listened and echoed Ishangi's words in the African tongue of Yoruba. They pounded drums and jingled bells to remember their ancestors, who passed -- shackled -- through town. They were slaves.

"This is about healing," said Adeyemi Bandele, 47, of Davidsonville, who organized the two-day "Remembrance: A Tribute to Our Ancestors," which ended yesterday. "We need to be reminded of their sacrifice."

The participants in yesterday's ceremony honored slaves, especially those who perished during the Middle Passage, the torturous journey on slave boats from Africa. They have no graves.

Bandele, who coordinated similar events in Atlanta for six years, moved here last year. When he saw the harbor, Bandele said, he realized this city had a "spiritual" connection with the past -- to Africa, the oceans and the auction blocks.

"Slaves were sold here," he said.

The United States has few statues or other memorials to slavery. While organizers of yesterday's event hope to build one, they said dancing, singing and praying served them better.

"A statue, that doesn't move, it's not living," said Ishangi, a professional dancer who helped organize the event. "It's fine for schoolchildren. This was an outpouring of people coming together."

The memorial service highlighted the two days of events, which included a discussion on the legacy of slavery for African-Americans.

Yesterday's ceremony began about 9 a.m. with a prayer.

Ceremonial shrine

Later, Ishangi, of Brooklyn and Ghana in West Africa, described a tall, temporary shrine he built at Market Place yesterday. It displays images of ancient West Africa and the New World, including paintings depicting Harriet Tubman and old posters for Black River baking molasses.

On top stands a statue of two people sitting on a stool, supported on the backs of children. Called the Nomo, it represents the importance of family.

"Without the children, the traditions couldn't hold up," Ishangi said.

Shortly after his speech, Ishangi led participants toward the harbor, slowly, as in a funeral march. Leslie Howard, clad in white Muslim prayer garments, beat a small talking drum used by some Africans to communicate.

"This is long overdue," said Howard, 48. "We need to remember the sacrifices made and the strength that gives us."

Marion Parker Nelson, 58, lives in Baltimore but crossed the Atlantic about 40 years ago -- from Liberia, to attend a U.S. school.

"It's only fair for us to give respect to those who died on the Middle Passage," she said.

Teaching traditions

At the water, Ishangi began singing, someone pressing a megaphone to his lips. He danced and poured water over his head -- to cleanse his soul.

He then put a basket of tobacco, gin, leaves and bread into the water -- an offering for the dead.

The ceremony over, the group returned to Market Place in near silence. Back at the shrine, they prayed again.

Ryan Bradford, 13, said he understood the significance of the ceremony, aimed, in part, at children so they can continue the traditions.

"I'm glad I got a chance to live," Ryan said. "Our ancestors did a lot to get us here."

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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