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MAAFA 2015 – New Orleans

I am steeped in writing my book and so have not been posting as much as usual. It surely is not from a lack of things to post about given the racial tension that has reached a fever pitch in the United States and around the world (see: Dominican Republic). Since the Mother’s Day rally some friends and I staged in Congo Square for #blacklivesmatter there have been numerous other gatherings to speak out about these every day injustices.

Burning the Confederate Flag at Lee Circle

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White People Against White Supremacy teach in at Lafayette Square

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Voting Rights Vigil – Magnolia Bridge

Yes, there has been a lot of action and less words being written here. Months have flown by with almost a daily assault to our sense of humanity. So it was with a heavy heart but an uplifted spirit that Tin and I participated in the Maafa again this year.  This year, we also were able to share words from our rabbi, Ethan Linden, from Shir Chadash. The Maafa commemoration is typically held on Saturday the weekend of Essence Festival here in New Orleans, which is on the July 4th weekend. Because it is on Saturday, there has not been Jewish representation in the multi-denominational offerings, so I was able to read a message from Rabbi Linden to add a Jewish point of view and solidarity to the event.

From Rabbi Ethan Linden of Shir Chadash

I am sorry I could not be with you today.  The Sabbath detains me, and though the idea of a break from our labors is one of the more revolutionary ideas in the entire Biblical canon, there are certainly times when my observance of that command means I cannot be where I would very much like to be.

You gather today to remember, and indeed memory is at the very core of the narrative of the people of Israel as they wander through the wilderness, in the slowly breaking dawn between the dark night of slavery in Egypt and the bright light of their freedom as a people apart.  “Remember!” God says to them, at certain moments, remember what happened to you, remember where you came from, remember those who will not cross the Jordan with you, remember those who fell along the way.  To remember is a religious act, an act of piety we owe to God, but also an act of fidelity to those who must now exist only in our memory.  And in remembering them, their lives and losses, their stories of triumph and their narratives of pain, by remembering even, and perhaps especially, those we do not know in the particulars, we recall them to life, and we redeem them from the grave.

Each year, on the holiday Passover, Jews gather for this act of memory around a seder table.  The story we tell begins in tears, and ends in joy.  It begins in the deepest pit, from which we called out to God in our distress, and it ends on the mountaintop whose peak provides a glimpse of the promised land.  But only a glimpse, because, in truth, the Promised Land still lies beyond our grasp.  We tell our story on Passover night not because we are meant to feel comfortable in our redemption, but because the story itself is meant as a reminder that to be redeemed we have so much further yet to go.

The losses you have come here to contemplate are almost too great bear.  The names are mostly lost to us, and even an approximation of the numbers is beyond calculation.  Beyond the lives lost, there are the rituals and traditions, the songs and stories that were uprooted and cast overboard on the Middle Passage, and this destruction constitutes a great and terrible act of cultural genocide.  All of these, we gather to remember.

And yet, from memory, even painful memory, comes the first threads of redemption. From the story of exile comes the promise of home.  After all, the Psalms remind us, those who reap in tears will sow in joy.  And though the making of tears into joy is long and heavy work, memory is one of the means by which a people creates that strange alchemy capable of transforming the pain of history into the promise of the future.

Afterwards, Tin and I said the shema, the central prayer of our tradition. The prayer is a reminder of who we are, and of before Whom we stand in this vast universe.  The words call upon the People of Israel, a people bound together by the spirit of God, to hear the call of the God who led us from slavery, and who will, we hope, lead all of us one day into the Promised Land.

Shema Israel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad

Hear O’Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is One.

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photo by Mo Grizzly

Then we made our journey, past the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, to the site of the Slave Auction, to the many statues that commemorate men who enforced slavery and oppressive and divisive governance, to the river where New Orleans was home to the  port that received the largest number of enslaved Africans to enter this land.

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Photo by Obari Iyawo Cartman

We are asked to come dressed in white because the Maafa is a commemoration, a ritual of healing, a way to remember where we have been, and how far we need to go. At times it has felt like we were standing still in this quagmire, but daily I am inspired by people around me who continue to keep their hearts open in the midst of so much.

by Rachel Dangermond

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