Descendants of slaves remember and seek healing

Suffering of ancestors honored at sunrise service

September 26, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- For hundreds of years, millions of blacks were captured in Africa and forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, where they became slaves.

Early yesterday morning, more than 1,000 black descendants of those slaves made a symbolic trip from St. Paul Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn, to the shores of that same ocean to pay homage to their ancestors, as part of a religious remembrance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The travelers arrived on the beaches of the Rockaway peninsula about 4 a.m. for a sunrise service led by the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, the pastor of St. Paul, who organized the tribute, which is held every year.

As African drums played in the background, those who gathered -- most of them dressed in white to symbolize their desire to cleanse the sting of slavery -- heard Youngblood and others speak about their belief that the roots of modern-day racism and hatred can be found in the slave trade.

Yesterday's gathering focused on how to escape being victims of "Maafa," the Kiswahili word that means unspeakable horror and that is now being used to describe the slave trade, which Youngblood calls the "middle passage holocaust."

The participants seemed to share Youngblood's belief that black Americans are still affected by the slave trade that flourished centuries ago and that the best way for black Americans to recover from the wounds of the past is to mourn, which allows them to move forward.

The process, Youngblood said, helps blacks deal with much of the anger that many of them feel.

Alexander Hyatt, a 38-year-old bus driver from Brooklyn who attended the sunrise service, said blacks should always remember their ancestors' suffering. "In certain respects we need to be like the Jews and say, `Never forget' -- even more than that, `Never again.' "

Frances Henry, a church member who works as a funeral director, said that before going to the event for the first time in 1997, she was "pent up with anger."

"People are hungry to connect to their roots," said Janet Bigot, a junior high school counselor who lives in East New York. "But one cannot help but be angry because of our conditions in a society that has thrived on the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors. Angry is normal."

Youngblood called for the U.S. government to pay reparations to all black Americans for their ancestors' enslavement.

Noting that the government has paid reparations to Japanese-Americans who were kept in internment camps during World War II, Bigot, a member of Youngblood's church, said slavery reparations would "show respect, pay some mind for what happened."

The sunrise service was part of a weeklong observance of the heritage of slavery in many black churches across the nation.

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