Confronting the Past: The First African Americans

I want you to meet someone.

I want you to meet Babatunde.  That’s not really his name—Babatunde is a Yoruba name meaning “Father Has Returned.”  This man, one of our ancestors–was not Yoruba.  According to the caption in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural Hisotry, he lived in the mid-18th century near Annapolis, Maryland and he had filed teeth.  It’s rare that you get to see the skull of one of these first African/Americans.  This man, whomever he was, our Ancestor, survived the Middle Passage.  He probably worked in the Chesapeake tobacco fields, and while I don’t know if he had children or died at an early age–he was there living the history we have reduced to “the slaves.”  He never saw his homeland again.  Babatunde cut wood, hauled logs off and cleared brush, made mounds with a broad hoe and weeded them, transplanted thousands of tobacco seedlings, helped lift 1,000 hogsheads, tended his own garden, pounded corn, hunted, fished, provided for his family.  Babatunde wasn’t one man or one human being–he lies here—standing for thousands of men, women and children whose faces we cannot see, cannot know.

What Babatunde ate is a bigger story than the sum total of his daily meals.  Forget the soul food connotations for the moment.  This isn’t about that–its about power. Power is the ability to define reality.  Babatunde’s food story–his food steps–from Africa to America and beyond have a lot to tell us about what an enslaved person went through, how they survived and how they suffered.  It tells us further about what we’ve gone through, how we survived and why we suffer.  In that skull are locked away wisdom about our health crisis, our hypertension, our stress, our preferences, and our dislikes.  Our DNA, our family histories tell us a lot about the past and a lot about the present.  The two are intertwined like Da Aido-Hwedo, like the very strands of life.

We have such fear going back to Babatunde’s world.  We are afraid of our anger, our pain, our horror.  Mostly we’re afraid of our ignorance.  We are afraid of what we don’t know about them.  It’s the intimidation one faces when they one is confronted with a part of themselves that is mysterious and unconquerable with knowledge.   No matter how much I try, no matter how many books I read–I’m stil not “there.”  I never will be.  Point one.   I don’t understand much, I do understand cooking–that’s my way into Babatunde’s world, and I hope it will be the gateway to my ancestors.  They have been waiting for me. I have a story to tell.  Their story.  Now.

Museum-A Reflection

I look at you/looking back at me/your hollow sockets following me around the room,  out the exhibit door/onto the Mall–the Congo of America where your grandsons were sold south to New Orleans/into the subway/into the streets/into my home.

I catch myself feeling my face/looking for the bumps and lines that will race and sex me when I’m gone/I marvel at you/You were never colored, never Black, you probably didn’t know what a “nigger” was—where you came from no such word existed and so you couldn’t be what there was no name for—maybe they called you Negro, but when the auction bill went out you were African.

On behalf of all of us, I apologize, I implore you to forgive us/We have forgotten You/We didn’t mean to but lye and  self-hatred and assimilation got in the way and the generations drifted away from you like leaves in wind-devils/we don’t know You but we love You and when we try to say why/words don’t come out–just imitations of drumbeats, the sound of Whydah birds swirling/telling the captives goodbye.

Who are we to be your heirs?/who are we to the keepers of your recipes and songs?/what will become of your skull if the children don’t know the prayers to send it back across to Guinea?/Your seas were not made of rosewater/Your suns were not made of gold nor copper and the sunsets you saw were red as blood because that was all there was left.

Until we meet the dance circle of the cosmos/I will cook for you and listen to stories about the first palm tree and the chicken that scratched out the earth/food is how I will understand you/yams and okra maize and peppers fish and plantains/I will sweat from my brown and plant your skull and harvest secrets/I will fire the pots and ask about the antelope sacrifice/I will ask what the first thing was you forgot/I will make sure the children and the children’s children remember what that was so it never happens again.  I am your Museum./And so will your descendants be.


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