An unorganized truth is trumped by an organized lie.
The fourth of July weekend in New Orleans is always hot, and always Essence Festival, or at least it has been Essence’s weekend to own for the last two decades as Essence celebrated its 20th anniversary this weekend. Somewhere in the midst of all the Black pulchritude, hip hop, R&B and soul funk musicians as well as actors, motivational speakers and artisans and consultants who descend on the city for this weekend, another commemoration has been gathering its own following alongside Essence hoopla – it’s the MAAFA [pronounced ma AH fah] event, which the Ashé Cultural Center has been hosting for the last 14 years.
This was my first year attending the event and the hour to rise after hosting a July 4th BBQ here at my house the night before came much earlier than I had wanted. The commemoration begins in Congo Square at 7:00 in the morning, having been moved from the 6:30AM start time it has been for the last years. Hundreds of years ago, Congo Square was where the African slaves met for a brief period every week to sing, dance and break bread together. It was their moment of gathering, their respite from 24/7 toil, but the square was made sacred long before the slaves arrived. Congo Square was decreed holy by Native Americans who held their orations and celebrations at this site.
A friend of mine said the New Orleans MAAFA Commemoration is such a beautiful experience that it shouldn’t be missed, so Tin and I got up and dressed all in white. Tin wore the djellaba we had gotten him in Morocco, and we made our way to Louis Armstrong Park early Saturday morning.
Everyone was asked to wear white for the healing qualities the color brings to the occasion of remembering the African Holocaust or the MAAFA – a Kiswahili word that means “great tragedy” referring to the period also known as the Middle Passage or Transatlantic Slave Trade. The MAAFA Commemoration offers an opportunity for the whole community to pause and reflect on this great transgression against humanity and to personally, as a community, agree to distance ourselves institutionally in word and deed from that transgression, its legacy and the evolved practice of racisms in our civil, social, spiritual and personal lives [from Ashé’s website].
It was indeed a beautiful event from the libations offered to the music and dance, which segued into a procession to the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at St. Augustine’s Church where we paused while Michaela Harrison’s beautiful voice sang. The procession carried on through the French Quarter pausing at Cafe Maspero (the area that held the Slave Exchanges) and onward to the mighty Mississippi River banks where under a great white tent we sang Lift Every Voice & Sing, the Black National Anthem. We then gathered our white flower petals and brought them to toss into the river in recognition of our ancestors. We called their names, Mom, Dad, grandma and grandpa, abuela y abuelo, tio Saul, tio Vitale, tio Herman, Uncle Dale, cousin Carey, all of my beautiful lights who recently transitioned (Dina, Ken), and all the unnamed ancestors of Tin.
In the midst of all the sparkle and glitter that the Essence Festival and the 4th of July bring to New Orleans, the MAAFA Commemoration serves up a deeper bond between the city and its people. A visitor riding in a horse and buggy through the French Quarter will be treated to the history of how the Spanish, French, and Americans left their mark on this place, but those stories will overlook the single largest contributor to our culture down here – Africans – who were ripped from their homeland, brought here against their will and forced to struggle and endure transgression upon transgression for centuries. Yet, still they rise to work tirelessly for peace, for community, for healing. It’s this African spirit of the diaspora that you hear in our music on Frenchman Street. It’s this you see in the architecture that was built by the hands of Africans, not Europeans. It’s this you taste in our cuisine. It is this you witness in how we move through our lives here in a city more African than European.
Carol Bebelle, Creative Director of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, organizers of the Maafa observance, wants New Orleanians to remember that while many African-Americans are headlining at the Dome, many still face injustice head-on every day. Bebelle repeated a quote she had heard earlier which is, “an unorganized truth is trumped by an organized lie.” The MAAFA is a path towards organizing the ugly truth of slavery and the offering of an opportunity to work towards healing a community structured around its legacy.