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Tributes to 400 years of Africans in America

CEREMONY: Chelsea Griffin sings the US national anthem

THOUSANDS OF people from around the world gathered at a commemorative ceremony in the US last week to mark the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in North America.

Point Comfort, in Hampton, Virginia, is the site where “20 and odd” enslaved African men and women were forcibly landed in the country in August 1619.

Speaking at the event, called the First African Landing Commemorative Ceremony, Ralph S. Northam, the governor of Virginia, told the audience: “When we look back at events of 1619, or 1861, or 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was signed, we often look at them as history frozen in time, or locked in a book, relics in the past frozen in time.”

He continued: “We often fail to draw the connecting lines from those past events to our present day.

“But to move forward, that is what we must do. We want to make sure all students develop a full and comprehensive understanding of the African American voices that contribute to our story.”

Northam also announced that he had signed an executive directive that will assign a commission on African American history education in his state.

The new commission will review education standards, instructional practices, content and resources currently used to teach African American history in Virginian schools.

As recorded by English colonist John Rolfe, “20 and odd” enslaved African men and women were stolen by English privateers from a Spanish slave ship and brought to Point Comfort on a ship called the White Lion.

Natives of west central Africa, these enslaved individuals are believed to have been traded for food and supplies. They were the first Africans to be brought to English North America.

Point Comfort, the site of the ship’s arrival, is the present site of Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton.

HISTORY: A number of exhibitions and commemorative projects have been created to mark the special anniversary

The commemorative ceremony included a performance by Virginia’s IC Norcom High School choir and a panel of distinguished speakers.

Donnie Tuck, mayor of Hampton, spoke at the event and said: “This weekend, we honour, salute and commemorate those ‘20 and odd’, along with those other individuals, yea, even my own ancestors.

“For because of their strength, determination, endurance, perseverance and resilience, they survived the capture and months-long transport through the middle passage, and endured the indignities, dehumanisation, brutality and atrocities of that peculiar institution.”

He continued: “Today, I can imagine that as our ancestors are looking over the battlements of glory, and beholding on this platform, two Congressional representatives, a lieutenant governor, a state senator, and a mayor who are all African Americans, their hearts must be overflowing with joy.”

Mark R Warner, a US senator for Virginia, said: “Two years ago this month, we saw the violent forces of hate and backlash on display in Charlottesville. That tragedy had a lot of folks asking ‘Is this who we are?’ The history we confront today reminds us that the answer is complicated.”

He added: “But it is not who we should be. And I believe every American – especially our leaders – has a moral responsibility to speak up and demand America deliver on its promise of liberty and justice for all.”

As a part of the 1619 commemorative year, the organisation American Evolution has convened more than 20 events, programmes, educational initiatives performances and exhibitions that showcase key events from 400 years ago in 1619 Virginia, which set the nation on a course towards the ideals of democracy, diversity and opportunity.

Virginia’s other senator Tim Kaine said: “How fortunate we are as a country that the descendants of African slaves and all who followed are still here and part of this nation. It is impossible to imagine an America without the courage spirit and accomplishment of the African diaspora.”

He continued: “America would be so much poorer without our African roots. What does it mean to say that monstrous tragedy, in the passage of time, may sow the seeds of great beauty?

MEMORIAL: A sign noting the first Africans in Virginia, located just outside the Fort Monroe National Monument

“It’s on each of us to understand our nation’s history and direct the change toward a better future. Let’s honour our African roots by finally living up to the American ideal that we are all created equal and deserve to live free.”

One of the highlights of the commemorative ceremony was the recitation of an original poem by the renowned American poet and activist, Yolande Cornelia ‘Nikki’ Giovanni Jr.

The poem, titled 1619 Jamestown (but not only) An Answer to the New York Times, was read by Jacquelyn E Stone, co-chair of the 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution’s First Africans to English North America Committee. The 2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing Ceremony also featured remarks by special guest speaker Van Jones, an author and CNN political commentator, who said: “African American people and our close allies have been the driving force for progress and democracy on these shores, over these 400 years.”

Jones added: “We have to take charge in our time as seriously as the people before us did so that some day, when we put our hands on our hearts, we will have a democratic republic, with liberty and justice for all.”

Following the commemorative ceremony, invited guests and the general public had an opportunity to participate in several events organised by Project 1619, the City of Hampton, and exhibitions from Virginia institutions and museums, including the National Park Service, American Evolution, Hampton History Museum, Maggie L Walker National Historic Site, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Casemate Museum, and more.

In the evening, the 2019 Commemoration of the First African Landing Concert at the Hampton Coliseum featured a performance by Grammy award-winning rapper and actor Common, with Sounds of Blackness.

The commemoration weekend concluded on Sunday, August 25, with the Day of Healing and Gospel Music Festival at Continental Park.

The event included gospel choir performances and a keynote speech by Reverend Dr Michael Eric Dyson, academic, author and media personality.

The US National Parks Service, including Fort Monroe National Monument, hosted on-site programmes and a nationwide bell-ringing that brought people together in solidarity as they rang bells simultaneously for four minutes.

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