A blog about the special cultural, but little known, aspects of New Orleans.
Sunday, July 5, 2015
Maafa ceremony recalls enslaved ancestors
By Mary Rickard New Orleans Advocate
The millions of Africans and their descendents who suffered and perished in slavery will be remembered on the morning of Saturday, July 4, with singing, dancing, drumming and prayer during the 15th annual Maafa Commemoration. According to a statement from Ashe Cultural Arts Center, sponsors of the event, Maafa is a Kiswahili word meaning “horrific tragedy.”
The two-hour ceremony begins at 7 a.m. at Congo Square and will be followed by a procession winding though the historic Treme neighborhood, the French Quarter and ending at the Mississippi River, where slave ships landed. White carnations will be tossed into the river at Woldenberg Park where the procession will conclude. Participants are asked to wear white attire for the ceremonies.
Carol Bebelle, Ashe Cultural Arts Center executive director, said, “The local Maafa Commemoration offers an opportunity for the whole community to pause and reflect on this great transgression against humanity. It allows us to personally, and as a community, agree to distance ourselves institutionally, in word and deed, from that transgression, its legacy and the evolved practice of racism in our civic, social, spiritual and personal lives.”
The healing ceremony in Congo Square will include inter-faith words of healing, a tribute to the indigenous people of Louisiana and the release of white doves of peace. Senegal’s Morikeba Kouyate will play traditional music on the kora, a West African harp.
Ancestors will be honored by name, including victims of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the levee breaches, bombings in Boston, the Mother’s Day shooting in New Orleans and other incidents of senseless violence.
According to Luther Gray, coordinator of Ashe’s community and cultural programs, Congo Square is important because it was the only place in the Antebellum South where enslaved African-Americans and people of color could practice their rituals and communicate in their own language.
“We’re 200 years removed, but the spiritual energy is still there,” Gray said. “It’s not just something in the past.”
According to Gray, American Indians in the area were the ones who made Congo Square sacred ground, with their rituals during the corn harvests, before the arrival of the French.
At the ceremony, Queen Chief Warhorse, chief of the Tchufuncta Nation, Chahta Tribe, will speak, while the Treme Fi-Yi-Yi Mardi Gras Indians perform, he said.
At 9 a.m., drummers, musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and African dancers will lead the gathering of participants in a procession, first stopping at the Tomb of the Unknown Slave beside St. Augustine Catholic Church. Guides will be stationed at several significant locations, including the former site of the convent of Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic order of free women of color founded by Henriette DeLille; former slave auction sites at Cafe Maspero and Royal Orleans; and the Louisiana Supreme Courthouse where Homer Adolph Plessy appealed a racial segregation law in the case, Plessy v. Fergusson.
Historically, slaves, American Indians and free people of color congregated at Congo Square on Sundays to sell goods and reaffirm their heritage. New Orleans was the only place in the South where drums had not been forbidden. To this day, members of the Congo Square Preservation Society meet weekly to continue the legacy of drumming.
The Code Noir created laws for slavery in French colonies, including rules for punishment but also gave slaves the right to marry, keep families together and have Sundays free from work. These laws affecting enslaved persons were unique to Louisiana.
“New Orleans is a Sunday city, based on the fact that it was a free day,” Gray said.
Celebrations commemorating African ancestors who endured the Middle Passage take place annually in many cities, including San Francisco; Houston; Montgomery, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; Detroit; New York; and Rio de Janeiro.
Shuttles will be available to return people to Congo Square after the ceremony concludes.