By Renee Kemp
As we crowded into the dungeons, we shivered in the cold, damp tombs where millions of slaves were crammed, sometimes for months, waiting to be taken on a journey of no return. We stood on the floor of the dungeons, now eight inches higher than when they were built due to the tons of compacted excrement and exfoliated skin cells from the bodies of slaves. In the women's chambers, we saw staircases leading to the Dutch and English sailors' quarters, where young African girls were taken. And afterward, as we crossed the yard that led to the male dungeons, we glimpsed the shores that were the last sight of home for Africans who might have been our foreparents.
On entering the male dungeons, a middle-aged woman suddenly collapsed, overcome by emotion. Others, holding torches, sat quietly beside her on the dungeon floor. Several of us inclined our heads as if listening for voices. Everyone cried.
The time spent in the dungeons gave new meaning to a ceremony many of us had witnessed the night before. Tribal leaders from chiefdoms across Ghana had gathered at midnight in a clearing just outside the capital city of Accra to perform a ritual "washing of stools and skins" --the Ghanaian ceremony of apology.
The priests and priestesses wore red and black robes--the colors of mourning. They began by asking forgiveness on behalf of their ancestors, those chiefs who reigned centuries ago and accepted guns and promises in exchange for men, women and children from their villages. The tribal leaders explained to us that the practice of slavery dated back thousands of years on the African continent, where it had been a condition of servitude and not, by tradition, one of cruelty. Now, with proof of the barbaric nature of American slavery, the chiefs wanted to be forgiven.
There was chanting, ceremonial dancing and the rhythmic beating of drums. Then the Ghanaian chiefs marched in procession through the streets of Accra, spreading herbs and libations on themselves and on those who joined the procession. Soon the chiefs shed their robes of mourning to reveal white robes underneath. The white robes represented a new beginning.
As far as we knew, this was the first time the ceremony of atonement had been performed as an apology to African-American and Caribbean people. For all of us who had touched the walls of the slave dungeons and sat holding torches on the impacted floor, it was clear why this ceremony had been necessary. We have always found it difficult to accept that the slave trade could not have flourished without the participation of Africans. But now the issue of African complicity had been addressed in the only way still possible: by the descendants of those who had sent their brothers and sisters in chains to the New World, and by the children of Africa who had returned to heal their ancestors' wounds.
Those ancestors would be troubled to learn that their suffering is today being used to justify the predatory behavior of so many young African-Americans. They would be horrified to discover that their offspring are in the process of doing what centuries of slavery could not accomplish: the destruction of precious Black men and women in America and the ruin of our own communities.
For those of us who witnessed the ritual apology in Ghana, there can be no more excuses. Africa's children can no longer afford to do harm to one another--that is the message given in the apology of the Ghanaian chiefs. And though their atonement was 400 years in coming, it was as joyous as a wedding, as solemn as a funeral and as poignant as a long-awaited family reunion.
© 1995 Essence Communications Inc. Used with permission of the author.
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