afro-america at the crossroads: ritual ethnogenesis

exclusive feature
Shayla Monroe
{Memphis, TN:USA}
(2012). The Last Generation Of Black People. New York: The Liberator Magazine.

October of 2011 marked the 20th anniversary of the uncovery of the New York African Burial Ground. I'd been invited to the libation ritual commemorating the anniversary by my professor, the late Mark Mack, who served as the lead osteologist for the New York African Burial Ground Project. Even though I studied the history, archaeology, and bioarchaeology of the New York African Burial Ground Project in Professor Mack's class at Howard, I did not know exactly what to expect from the libation ritual. I wasn't even sure what to wear. Just before dawn, I left DC with four busloads of Howard freshman as we drove to Manhattan. After the ritual, we took turns exploring both the monument and the accompanying museum exhibits curated by the National Park Service and a team of volunteers.

This trip offered an opportunity to complete a course assignment in which I was charged with observing a ritual. My professor, Arvilla Payne-Jackson, asked me at the start of the assignment what I perceived to be my biggest personal challenge as an anthropologist. I said it was my tendency to lose myself in the emotions of events in which I was supposed to conduct myself as a social scientist. Because of my tendency to get caught up, I went into this experience hoping to practice the art of sterile, neutral observation. Psyche. Not only did I get caught up in the drama of the ritual, the aftermath of trying to interpret what I recorded was in itself an emotional journey.

The New York African Burial Ground Monument is designed in part to symbolize the Middle Passage and the libation would take place in the monument's center. The participants enter the monument through a gap that represents the doors of the castles of West Africa, which are called collectively "The Door of No Return." Beyond the door, a narrow fissure sits in between two high, steeply sloped walls. In the dark, deep, narrow space we become cargo trapped in the belly of a ship.

Leaving the ship, we descend a stairway into a circular space about ten feet below street level. The circle is surrounded by a path bordered on the outside by the monument's processional wall. The path spirals up towards the street level above the ritual space. The processional wall is lined with large symbols, Adinkra and Haitian mostly, along with two of Native American origin. We are surrounded by symbols labeled "Adaptability," "Resilience," and "Maman Brigitte, Female Guardian of the Graveyard." The first symbol, and arguably the most significant to the ritual, represents Papa Legba, who goes by many names in addition to his original Yoruba name of Eshu. This spirit is regarded in many West African and Afro-descended traditions as the Guardian of the Cross Roads.


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Once inside that circle, I could see that some of the participants brought handmade signs. Many signs depicted the African continent with expressions of respect and reverence for the African Burial Ground. The site was at once surrounded by such signs, as people wrote messages not just to the federal and city government demanding respect for the site, but also messages intended for the ancestors themselves. These signs, Dr. Carr explained, were reburied with the remains of the ancestors when the bodies were taken back from Howard University to be permanently reinterred.

The ceremony begins at 10:00 a.m. when a drummer--a young man of about twenty--kneels at the edge of the circle with a djembe between his knees, Dr. Gregory Carr of Howard University steps into the role of celebrant. He wears blue and white Ghanaian smock called a fugu with dark slacks and dark shoes. The only physical object that Dr. Carr needs to perform the ritual is a plain, 16 ounce bottle of drinking water as one would purchase in a drug store, which is surprising. I was expecting to see something ornate or "ceremonial." Dr. Carr motions with his hands for the gathering crowd to move closer to the center. First, he said, we must ask permission to proceed with the ritual.

Dr. Carr introduces all those gathered to a man named Brother Ken who stands among the participants. Brother Ken was a day worker at the construction site where the African Burial Ground was uncovered. The graves had yet to surface when Brother Ken had a dream that he was working in a graveyard. When the workers began to uncover the graves, this person, Brother Ken, who is Afro-Latino, stood in front of the bulldozers. He said that no one would move any more Earth, not if he had to stand there forever. Then a group of Afro-Latino drummers (of various backgrounds, I suspect) came to the site and started a 24-hour drum circle. The initial drum circle started a series of rituals that have been performed in that space for twenty years now.

"This is not a cemetery," Dr. Carr said, "We stand at the crossroads. We are the guardians not of memory but of living spirits." Thus he begins a prayer that both calls the event to order and invites the ancestors of the participants to join into the ceremony. Physically, his statement draws into context the symbols on the walls around the circle. Temporally, his statement frames the psycho-chronological positioning of the ritual and its participants. To stand at this type of crossroads means to be fully aware that the present moment contains pathways to both the future and the past. To stand at this type of crossroads means that all moments in time and space--including both the ancestors and the unborn who inhabit those moments--intersect within you. This ceremony is as much, if not more so, about the future than it is about that past or the present.

Dr. Carr explains the manner of libation that we will use and why. Libation is performed all over the world by a diversity of cultures. In the African Diaspora, libation is performed in many different ways and in many different languages. He said that this morning's ceremony could have been performed in an ancestral African language, using customs specific to particular cultures on the African continent. This ceremony, however, is deliberately designed to be "broad and universal" instead of particular.

The libation would be poured in the spirit of sankofa. The word/symbol sankofa (in both the Akan language and the Adinkra symbol systems) represents the concept of going back to retrieve what is lost. This symbol was featured centrally on one of the coffins uncovered from the site and the Akan version of the sankofa symbol is featured prominently on the monument itself. I have had the pleasure of taking a class with Dr. Carr, where he often translated sankofa as: If you drop the ball, go back and pick it up. Therefore, pouring libation in the spirit of sankofa means going into the past, retrieving what was lost, and bringing it forward into the present moment.

We cannot connect to the past without permission. Once our intention is clear, we must call out to the ancestors to confirm their attendance. We make the call Twi (a dialect of Akan), which offers a call-and-response dialogue that suits our purpose. The practitioner shouts ago, which means "are you here/are you listening?" The participants shout in response ame, meaning "I am here/I am listening." This call and response is done three times. In addition to opening up the ceremony to the ancestors' participation, another aim here is to prepare the living participants to focus emotionally and spiritually on what is about to happen. Once the participants are focused, they shout three times along with the practitioner: Ago! Ago! Ago! The participants then listen, not with their physical ears, but with their hearts, minds, and souls as the ancestors respond: ame! Once the ancestors respond, it is clear that all the participants in the ceremony, seen and unseen, are now present and ready to proceed.

Now Dr. Carr is ready to pour the water "from which our bodies are composed." The first libation is poured for the Creator Spirit. The participants are all encouraged to call the Creator Spirit by whatever name they are most comfortable or familiar with. With his eyes closed, Dr. Carr provides several possible images of the Creative Force for the participants to concentrate on: "An all-encompassing cosmological darkness", "an energy like the Ancient Egyptians described going in ceaseless directions", "the idea that animates life coming out of its own self-consciousness." The participants are invited to connect with whatever they believe, be it "science, sacred science, God, Allah, Nyame or Oludumare, or Amun."

As the water is poured to the Creator, the practitioner calls "axè" and the participants respond "axè." Axè, he explains, is a Yoruba word that means "let it be" or "let it happen." It is not unlike the African-American vernacular expression "word," which is often used by the listeners as an affirmative recognition of the speaker's sentiment. Dr. Carr calls out an inquisitive word? The participants respond, word. He comes back with a terminal, low-pitched word.

The crowd is now in sync as the next libation is poured for the first humans. Dr. Carr refers to the Great Rift Valley of Africa, commonly considered the birthplace of humankind. He mentions "Mitochondrial Eve" and also Dinka Nesh, which is the name given to "Lucy" by the Afar people who helped discover her. Both here and throughout the ceremony, he controls the emotional atmosphere with his voice which is thick, startling, and passionate. His voice takes on the quality and a timbre commonly equated with African-American preachers, conveying his emotion and thus evoking emotion from the participants. Every time he rises in a crescendo, other voices rise from the crowd, giving encouragement. The more he gives himself fully and intensely to the ritual, the louder the participants respond to reward him for his surrender. Dr. Carr pours to the "mother of us all" and calls axè. The crowd responds: axè.

We slid through the early human past to the moment when peoples begin naming themselves. Dr. Carr, pouring a libation for the first peoples, lists their accomplishments: the first languages, the first means of procuring and preparing food, the first constructed shelters, the first communities. He pours to the first concept of family, which is the unit by which human beings can pass down their traditions. With his eyes tightly closed, he slips into a slightly trance-like state, aware of the participants surrounding him, but also focused on some inner or unseen realm. He pours the water for "the children of Dinka Nesh who walked out of Africa and populated the entire world." He calls out axè and the participants respond: axè. We turn the minds' eye to the early humans who walked thousands and thousands of miles to populate the continent of Africa. "We pour to those Africans who would not know the names that we call them now," Dr. Carr says, "but who have been categorized as the great Bantu people who turned southward." The names of the great river valleys--the Nile, the Niger, the Congo, and the Zambezi among others--conjure rich mental images of landscapes far away. He sweeps through numerous regions, calling the names of places and peoples, complex societies, and language families. He uses the directions of migration patterns from the Great Rift Valley to conjure images that carry the participants over the varied geographical and cultural landscapes of the continent. This libation reminds the participants, in a little less than two minutes, of Africa's enormous cultural and societal diversity. "We pour to those Africans that we know now as the Yoruba and the Igbo and the Hausa and the Fulani. We pour to those that we know as the Ga and the Fanti and the Ashanti and those north of them in the Senegambia, those we know as the Mbochi and indeed, the Wolof, axè?" The participants answer, axè. As Dr. Carr speaks, more people have gathered on the upper rim of the circle on the street level above the processional wall. They are looking over into the lower circle. One of them has a djembe strapped over his shoulder in a harness. He starts drumming along with the first drummer, still kneeling on the edge of the lower circle.

With drumming both above and below, the rhythm is intensified. The Africa created by those early travelers is now in our ears as well as our minds. Dr. Carr pours for the children of these travelers, those who "after creating these great societies and inscribing through their language [the] meaning of being human in the world, were set upon and marched over land by the thousands." Here, Dr. Carr's body language is what catches my eye. Although he is energetic throughout the entire ceremony, it is here with his eyes clenched shut that he shakes his head and rocks back ever so slightly. He is himself is caught up in this journey through which he guides the participants. The mass disasters--the events of the Maafa--that he describes affect him real time. He names several slave castles on the West coast of Africa: Elmina, Cape Coast, and Goree. His hands are animated as he talks, and once again, I can see the influence of African-American preaching traditions. He punctuates his phrases with an especially familiar hand gesture: a circular motion of the wrist followed by the extension of the arm, a palm-facing outward push. I am back in the story now as the captured individuals began the process of exchanging language. They also scooped up African soil and "put it in their mouths to symbolize keeping the memory of Africa alive." He pours to "the ancestors who exchanged ideas and cultures and in that moment created what we now know as Africans, axè?" The participants respond, axè.

We pour again, watching in our minds' eye as the survivors of the Middle Passage arrive on the shores of the Americas. Now we soar over the landscapes of the Western hemisphere, from Trinidad through Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and Haiti. Dr. Carr describes how the survivors learned European languages and often the first words in these new languages were, "Madre de Dios! Mon Dieu! My God!" His voice breaks as he channels the despair before he turns the bottle over and says axè. The crowd utters a hushed, unison axè. He pours for the ancestors whose remains lay beneath our feet in the crypt beneath the memorial. This libation is also for all the ancestors buried in all the similar "crossroads" across the country. This pour is for each ancestor in the crypt, 419 of which were re-buried in wood and Kenta cloth from West Africa, "representing thousands and then millions of others who toiled... many women…men…children worked to death." We also pour for the ones who created rituals in the very space where the libation is taking place. Dr. Carr pours the water: Axè? Axè.

The creation of rituals is often a form of resistance, so we pour to resistance, physical and spiritual. We pour for the Maroon societies and to the mixture of African-rooted religions throughout the Diaspora. Dr. Carr gives special attention to Haiti and Voudoun because many of the symbols surrounding the participants are of Haitian origin. He calls the nation by its creole name, Ayiti--the high place--and describes the process by which ancestral African religions were combined with Christianity, an active, deliberate process that created Voudoun. As he calls out the names of Haitian heroes, like Toussaint L'Overture and others, a participant standing on the upper-outer circle shouts several words that I could not make out. He pours to "the Maroon spirit of Candomble, and Santeria, and Macumba" and to communities that were able to keep African traditions alive in some form, most commonly by mixing their ancestral religions with a "re-emerging Christianity." Axè? Axè.

We zoom in closer to the ground beneath our feet. Dr. Carr pours for the ancestors who resisted slavery in the United States. He calls out the ones who fought in the Civil War "200,000 strong." He is pouring for the conductors of the Underground Railroad and for those who enacted cultural independence at the very least when they could not yet access political independence. He mentions Harriet Tubman, "who lies buried north of here, at a crossroads," he says, repeating the notion of a burial place as a metaphysical intersection. He pours to the creators of places like "Seneca Village, which was destroyed in the middle of the nineteenth century in order to make Central Park." He pours to the ancestors who were determined somehow, some way, to stand on their own terms: axè? Axè.

We get closer now to the hallowed place where we stand. Dr. Carr pours to those who arrived in New York City via the Great Migration, "from the Caribbean, from Latin America, from Georgia, Virginia, and Alabama." Again, he calls forth images of the Diaspora converging. Convergence, people moving from a myriad of origin points towards one destination, is a premise that Dr. Carr is reinforcing in the minds of the participants. Now he connects the ancestors to the present, by naming the migrants as the ones "who created the children who created the children who became the Africans who came to this space twenty years ago and said 'there will be no more digging...nothing of steel and stone and glass will be erected until our ancestors are lifted up in veneration.' Axè?" Axè.

Repetitive phrases like "who created the children who created the children," is one method by which Dr. Carr keeps the participants in the state of focus necessary for the ritual, more active and engaged than a trance. They are not hypnotized, but instead, poised between the practitioner in front of them and the imagery he conjures in their minds' eye. Each person stands at her own crossroads between the public ritual and private revelation. The air is incredibly tense, but there is a breathless sweetness to the tension. Hints of catharsis and ecstasy roll in the background like distant thunder.

We are now thoroughly instilled with a sense of continuity between the ancestors to ourselves. Dr. Carr connects the events of the African Burial Ground project to one particular segment of the participants present: Howard University students and staff. He also speaks of the people who stood in front of the bulldozers, prayed, chanted, and performed rituals. "And when the question was asked by the Federal government, ‘What hands will touch these bones?' they replied ‘the black hands of Howard University'." On our final journey, we follow the path of the caskets from Washington D.C., through Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Wilmington until they finally cross the Hudson River. These cities were once slave ports, he says, and suddenly I see a split-screen image of the journey of the caskets alongside the journeys of Africans in America. The New York descendants waited on the return of the bodies so that they could be reinterred. Adults, children, and elders placed their dreams alongside the bone of the ancestors as they were honored. Axè? Axè.

In truth, researchers from Howard had to fight for the opportunity to lead the New York African Burial Ground project. They replaced a team of contract archaeologists who showed very little respect for the role that dreams play in this process. Upon learning that they were being replaced, one of the archaeologists (who was being fired for a job poorly done) warned that Howard researchers would be unable to complete the task because they would become "too emotional." The research team lead by Michael Blakey did indeed complete the task (both because and in spite of their "emotional" attachment), centering the research at the crossroads of science and soul.

From the dreams of Brother Ken, to the dreams placed as an offering in the rebuilt tomb of the ancestors, so much of this monument's story takes place in the soul. A crossroads is a testament to the connection between soul and place and to affirm this connection, we pour now to the living ones who still guard this crossroads daily. Dr. Carr mentions the rangers of the National Park Service and the security guards who keep the monument safe. He pours for "all of those who do not just walk pass this shrine, but pause to reflect." This libation is for the blood and the ancestry not just of the descendants of those who are buried, but the blood and the ancestry of whomever makes it possible for participants to gather for rituals like this one. As Dr. Carr speaks, emotional momentum builds in the crowd. Several people, mostly men, are yelling "Axè!" at will. Dr. Carr, poised to pour the water, encourages the participants to raise the name of their more immediate ancestors. We are calling both blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors into the presence of the more distant ones who have been called forth to witness the ritual. As Dr. Carr pours the water, the crowd of participants erupts. They lift their voices to call the given names of relatives that have passed on to join the ancestors. The way that Dr. Carr pours the water changes with this libation. Before, he poured the water in one short stream for each libation. Now, he wiggles the bottle and pours about a dozen tiny drops of water instead of one steady pour. I hear him, over the shouts of the participants say the names of Jacob Caruthers, Nina Simone, and Carl Robeson.

The final libation is to the loa that inhabit the cosmos around us. In Voudoun and, its parent, Yoruba, the loa are powerful spirits that intercede between living humans and the supreme God. Most of the symbols surrounding the circle represent some aspect of the cosmos; the monument attempts to map the spiritual landscape of the relationship between humans, ancestors, loa, and the Supreme Being. "We understand," Dr. Carr says with his voice rising into that liturgical pitch "that as we stand at the crossroads, those who have gone simply re-enter eternity and those who are just coming have just come back from eternity." This pour is for all the children being born as he speaks. The participants in this ritual will shape the world that these children inherit, a world we will shape based on memory, culture, what we have learned, our creative intelligence and our best spiritual desires. These children, the beautiful ones not yet born, will come back to this space centuries from now, Dr. Carr tells us. "If we have done what we are to do, they will lift our names in libation because we will have joined the ancestors and the great creative spirit." Axè. Axè. Axè!!!!!! The last Axè is drawn out in a yell as Dr. Carr pours out the remainder of the water with finality. With a deep nod, Dr. Carr steps back to the edge of the circle.

"Nonge Balu Bu-twa-si. Nonge negasi mu yeeeh." All eyes turn to the musicians standing on the upper rim of the circle. One man sings out, the same lyric twice through. On the third time around, he calls out the first part and the other musicians sing back to him in response. This song lasts about two minutes before one of the female singers starts to sing a new song. She sings alone for almost a minute, before the other singers join in to respond.

The ritual participants do not sing; we do not know the words. Like the entire ceremony, the performance of these songs is in itself a teaching. I cannot say for sure how the participants feel inside, listening to the songs and not knowing the words, but I can say that they are rapt. Their heads do not turn away, they do not fidget.

The participants are nearly all African-American or Diasporic Africans, but who can know why they have chosen to be at that crossroads of space and time on that day? Some, like me, are focused on recording. Some, like me, are teary-eyed. A few of the students whisper to one another. Several people here and there stare pensively off into space, brows furrowed. Some people are bouncing and dancing to the rhythms, As the performers start to sing and play faster, more participants start to sway and bounce. The majority of the participants stand still. The performers start to walk around the upper rim drawing attention to their procession. Now several audience members are observing the crowd around them, if not seeking cues then at least interested in the overall crowd reaction. The individuals are perhaps confirming that what they just experienced was larger than self.

When the performers –still singing--start to move down the processional wall to the inner circle, one of the National Park Service interpreters calls for a round of applause, officially ending the ceremony. Dr. Carr raises his voice to introduce some of the people who have helped to make the African Burial Ground ceremony possible. Now that the musicians are down on the inner circle, I can get a better look at their instruments: a cowbell, one bongo, one djembe, one snare drum, and four long African horns (they may have been vuvuzelas). The female singer is shaking one maraca. After singing in a circle facing one another for about a minute, the performers start moving again, this time making a smaller circle. The circle is important; the circle is kept whole as it is in the Carolina ring shout. The performers stop moving and turn inward to each other as the rhythms speed up and intensify. Some of the performers look seriously focused. A few of them wear exhausted smiles as they strike their instruments and sing.

All the while, most of the ritual attendees stand engrossed. They listen intensely to words they cannot understand, yet they easily meld with the familiar patterns of call and response in the music. More people start to clap, step, and sway. One woman steps forward into the circle and dances next to the female singer. Smiling, she claps and steps and imitates the arm movements of the performer (a repetitive pushing out the arms in front of the body and drawing them back in). After a brief whisper, the singer hands off a shaker to the new comer, who takes it with a shy smile.

A series of staccato, punctuated rhythms signify the end of the song. The participants break into applause, threaded with ululations and celebration calls. Thirty-one minutes after the ritual began, the crowd dispersed and I stopped recording.


Recognition of what is lost does not necessarily inspire an act of recovery. Acknowledging a connection to the ancestors does not equal the desire to reincarnate their lifeways or cosmology or worldview. Why do African-Americans gather at this crossroads year after year? Yes, it is to commemorate the re-interment of the ancestors buried here, but that purpose is only the beginning of many purposes. Why do we listen to songs in lyrics sung in languages we don't speak? Is there a name for the need that is being fulfilled here that makes it worth the effort it takes to come together? Many (not all) African-Americans I know live with a collective sense of loss that is difficult to articulate. I was raised hearing this constant lamentation for what was taken from us. This sense of loss cuts across socioeconomic and regional boundaries. It is the loss--no the theft--of the precious continuity that for our ancestors was a lifeline to the ancients, who were themselves a lifeline to the Supreme Being. The ongoing attempt to recover what was lost, sankofa, has been a centuries-long attempt to rebuild a sorely battered sense of continuity. Strong arguments blame the bulk of the ills and challenges that the black family has faced over the past century on cultural fragmentation (August Wilson's Century Cycle comes to mind). Leaders in a variety of arenas create means and ways and avenues for African-Americans to respond to that fragmentation, to recover lost customs and to treat wounds unhealed. According to T. Rasul Murray, many activists and community elders are still hurt and angry that the construction did indeed go on even after the discovery of the Burial Ground. Mr. Murray was one of the original elders who protested the ongoing construction after the African Burial Ground was uncovered. I asked Mr. Murray if he was satisfied with the way the monument turned out. He said that it was a compromise that he was willing to live with, but some of the other elders were so upset that to this day, they refused to set foot near the monument. While the National Park Service does provide materials that interpret the site, that interpretation is in accordance with government policy. (I say this as a two time Park Service field technician, trained to interpret archaeological findings according to the theoretical guidelines of the Park Service). The interpretive rangers at the site, however, are hands down the most enthusiastic I have ever seen. They also work very closely with people like Mr. Murray, who volunteers his time to give guided tours of the monument. The absence of the some of the elders was a reminder that the monument itself was more of a concession under pressure than a voluntarily respectful gesture on behalf of the federal government. As moving and thoughtful as the monument is, it was erected to keep black people from straight flipping out.

The ceremony bears a strong resemblance to what Anthony F.C. Wallace describes as "Revitalization Movements" in his 1956 essay of the same name. Wallace describes Revitalization Movements as "deliberate, conscious, organized efforts by members of a society to create a more satisfying culture," (Wallace, 1956). I saw all of those elements within the libation ceremony except the widespread organization, but one need not look far to find organized networks committed to the intellectual continuity of the African Diaspora like the ASALH, the ASCAC, and others. Dr. Carr carefully weaves for the participants their own story from the dawn of humankind all the way into the future yet unborn. Specifically, he speaks about shaping the spirit of the future with virtues that include cultural memory. In Wallace's estimation, Revitalization imagery is usually conceived in a "prophet's vision." Carr makes no such claim, but the ritual did deeply involve vision as participants were enabled to "see" the trajectory of African life up to and throughout the Atlantic dispersion (and then some). Other aspects of revitalization that Wallace describes, like emphasis on particular customs and uniform processes, do not seem to apply here. In fact, it is clear that in this wave of ethnogenesis, creativity--even to the point of improvisation--is much more vital than any uniform process.

The fact that Carr introduced a variety of languages and cultural concepts during the ceremony--explaining each part carefully to the participants--illustrates the active, creative process of creolization taking place amongst this community of African-Americans. What linguists call creolization in reference to language has been the dominant concept in the archaeology of African-American life for several decades now. Simply put, it means that captured Africans drew upon their roots and combined them with other influences to create new forms, meanings and life ways (loosely paraphrased from Leland Ferguson's definition). In fact, parallels exist between the creolization taking place now and that which took place during the lifetimes of the Africans buried at the crossroads. The archaeological and historical reports for the New York African Burial Ground (available on the National Park Service website for the monument) describe how early African Americans formed themselves into an ethnic super-group (from many backgrounds) through rituals like the one that I witnessed. We'll take your memories, combine them with her memories, his memories, and mine and we will keep as much of Africa with us as we can while we become something new in this place. Research comparing some of the ethnic markers in the graves (both physical, like teeth filing and decorative, like beads or symbols) to the birthplaces of the individuals (found through dental sample analysis) showed that their funerary items came from a variety of cultures, sometimes unconnected to the place of his or her birth. Being born Malinke didn't mean you had to stay Malinke; people chose ethnic identities in a fluid, deliberate way. The choice to adopt a new or combined ethnic identity was often ritualized: some rituals were public and enmeshed, others were private and personal. Early African-Americans were not some default ethnic group formed solely in response to outside oppression. White folks didn't just make us like the Joker made Batman (or vice-versa if you prefer). Nowadays, way back then, and at all points in between, we have had a hand in making ourselves and choosing our own identity.

The spiritual practices of Diasporic Africans have more often than not played a central role in that self-making. Dr. Carr's voice, one of the most powerful elements of the ceremony, brought a sense a spiritual familiarity to what was to some an unfamiliar event. Even as someone who has forgone organized religion for more personal practices, that voice snatched me back to my upbringing in the Church. It is a voice that so many of us know intimately, and during the ritual it served to keep us entranced and focused. At the higher points of his register there is a textured, slightly granular quality that I once heard a classmate describe at the "anointing" on his voice. Carr does not employ this vocal quality arbitrarily. In the black church tradition, it the way the speaker pierces to the soul of the listener, as Martha Simmons would say: to hit that soul area. It is a timbre that electrifies. According to scholar Henry Mitchell, this tonality not only holds great dramatic power, it is descended from African traditions of public discourse, thereby functioning as a "nostalgic ethnic marker" and an affirmation of identity.

Rituals adapt to the needs of the people and the practitioners who design the rituals do so with care, intelligence, and reflection. Rituals can involve a high level of creativity that I had not previously anticipated. The openness, flexibility, and adaptability of this ritual are profound. It is the improvisation of people who are trying to recover something precious that was lost. It is the reflection of people who are not trying to turn back the hands of time and become something else, but a people trying to incorporate who they are now with who they might have been at their cultures not been interrupted with by the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Some of the cultures that Diasporic Africans descend from have all but vanished. The integration of several traditions into one is a symbolic re-tracing of the very cultural agency that caused captive Africans in Manhattan to combine rituals and beliefs in the first place. The Middle Passage, from Wolof pigins to New World syncretisms, was not just a process of forgetting, but a process of synthesizing what was remembered and burying it deep into the soil of the soul.

Ethnogenesis is an ever present process playing out in front of our eyes. Look around in this globalized world and you can always see groups of people being made and unmade, making and unmaking themselves. Only time can tell the difference between a passing cultural fad and a tradition that will "stick", and the fact that black folks have been deliberating about who we are and how we do since long before we were "set upon" means that we will keep deliberating and revitalizing and recreating until we enjoy what Wallace calls that "more satisfying culture." The fact that Akan speaking peoples even came up with the word sankofa, a means of cultural recovery, is evidence that they recognized the need to navigate inevitable cultural change with wisdom, clarity and heart. Not very many people outside of the Howard community showed up for the ceremony, but the ones who did come demonstrated a visible commitment to sankofa. I would not say that African-Americans are apathetic to issues of ancestry by any means. Different circles and groups and individuals likely deal with that sense of loss in different ways. Although the reasons that more people did not come would be difficult but well-worth it to explore, nothing should cast a shadow on how beautifully and powerfully this crossroads ritual manifested. Perhaps rituals are not for everyone.


The pervasive sense of loss I described earlier must be re-examined with a little perspective. What I had personally been grieving for was the loss of pre-colonial African cultures as I used to perceive them: noble, ancient and static. I've learned that I cannot grieve for a lost culture like it was frozen in time. The truth is that cultures are born to change because people are born to create new forms. As a means of survival, culture must adapt itself to the environment of its people, or its people will die. I must stop grieving now that we have the means to fly back and pick up our egg. It is not a culture, or group of cultures, that we are retrieving, but our duty and our right to continue the creative processes that the Maafa disrupted.

Dr. Carr continually refers to cemeteries as crossroads to emphasize that the participants are standing at a metaphysical intersection between time and space. In modern American culture, the temporal sensibilities involved in this type of conceptualization are the stuff of sci-fi fantasy movies. Though it may be slightly complicated for us, this was our ancestors' natural, everyday reality. The monument's northernmost symbol represents Maman Brigitte, and the southernmost symbol represents her husband, Baron Samedi. We stand in between the married loas charged with protecting the burials, yet Elegba is the undisputed guardian of the crossroads. He is represented by the monument's eastern-most symbol, pointing to direction of the ancestral homeland. Papa Legba's crossroads are a place of decision making. The New York African Burial Ground is a monument that serves to remind us that we are all standing at this crossroads, where Papa Legba has posed the question of who we are and who we want to be.

Dr. Gregory Carr, Chair of Afro-American Studies, Howard University, personal communication, Fall 2011.

Prof. Mark Mack, Bioarchaeological Researcher for the African Burial Ground, personal communication, Spring 2010.

T. Rasul Murray, Guide and Elder, New York African Burial Ground, personal communication, Fall 2011.

Wallace, A.F.C. Revitalization Movements. Magic, Witchcraft and Religion. P. Moro and J. Myers ed. 360-365. 2010 [1956] New York: McGraw Hill.

Mitchell, Henry H. "African-American Preaching: The Future of a rich tradition."

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