One night during my first summer in New York, my wife and I heard African drums in the distance as we strolled down the boardwalk in Coney Island. As we neared the rhythmic sounds, we noticed quite a few people, dressed all in white, walking backwards across the beach toward the boardwalk. I wanted to check it out, but my wife, who has some experience with African secret societies, didn’t want to go any further. She recognized it as some kind of religious ceremony and didn’t want to intrude.
The following year, as luck would have it, I was again at Coney Island Beach in the evening on the second Saturday in June. Again, I heard the drums and saw people dressed in white. It was earlier. The crowd was large. People were dancing in and around a drum circle near the water. Others were splashing in the surf. Flowers and fruit were strewn along the beach. Several people stood calf-deep in the water, holding flowers, staring solemnly out to sea.
I spoke with a few people and learned that what I had stumbled upon was the annual “A Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage,” an event that honors and remembers the Africans who were enslaved and carried across the Atlantic on slave ships over nearly four hundred years, a voyage which came to be known as the Middle Passage.
I would go on to attend the event almost every year for the next 12 years. Some years I would photograph it, others just watch from a distance, preferring to respect the privacy and personal space of people engaging in religious and spiritual activities.
The African drum circle provides a relentless beat to the proceedings. The rhythms call to to mind, and body, a feeling of remembrance, of continuity, of the old continent and its vibrant religions and secret societies, and of Africans in captivity suffering and dying beyond the sea’s horizon.
I recognized some of the drummers from the drum circles in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The drum circle is a vibrant part of New York City life, free and open to the public, as either participant or spectator.
The crashing waves echo the Middle Passage narrative as they end their own journey across the Atlantic and wash upon the beaches of the Americas. I watch the people standing in the water, dressed in white or colorful African batiks, holding flowers and staring solemnly out to sea. I hear rhythms of the drums and waves. I watch the moon rise over the ocean. It seems that the spirits of those who suffered and died are loomings just beyond the horizon, reflections of ancient souls. Their presence seems palpable in the rhythmic crashing of the drums and waves upon the beach.
As a photographer, I’ve never been comfortable invading people’s privacy, even when they are in a public place and have no legal, and arguably no moral, right to privacy. I know it is legal to get within a few feet of someone praying fervently on a public beach and taking his or her photograph; and I know that many if those who act out in public love having their picture taken; but unless I am absolutely sure they are okay with it, I feel it’s very bad manners to invade their space with a camera. At the Tribute to Our Ancestors, I don’t think I was ever absolutely sure anyone was okay with it.
In order to overcome my sense of morals and etiquette and photograph people engaged in these very personal acts, and who may not want to be photographed, I have to feel it is worth it on some higher level than merely me getting a good photograph. I have to feel that what they are doing has some kind of historical importance that really should be documented so as to not be forgotten. If it’s just going exist as a file on my computer, or a print in my scrapbook, or as a spectacle in a social media feed to garner a few likes, I just don’t feel it’s worth it.
I am not alone in those sentiments. It wasn’t unusual for people to ask me – politely, but with a skeptical tone – why I was photographing the Tribute. That was my answer: that it was a beautiful event the should be documented so as to not be forgotten, and I was sincere. Everyone who asked seemed to accept that answer. Of course I often asked permission to take individual’s photographs and respected anyone who said they would rather I didn’t, but most of the images I captured were of crowds or people facing away from me, so getting permission was impractical.
In some pictures you see the Pan-African Flag, with its red, black and green horizontal bars. Pan-Africanism espouses the preservation, or recovery, of African traditions and emphasizes the contributions that Africans have made to world civilization. South African writer Colin Legum described Pan-Africanism as “a movement of ideas and emotions.” That seems an apt description of the “Tribute to Our Ancestors.”
Over the years, I noticed that many, if not most, of the participants in the Tribute were activist-types who had come down from Harlem. Pan-Africanism was big in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, with Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois on opposite ends of the movement, much like Malcom X and Martin Luther King would be 40 or so years later. Garvey was a black separatist who favored a physical return of African-Americans to Africa. Dubois believed equality could be achieved through integration and rule of law. Dubois’ vision of Pan-Africanism carried the day, but Garvey’s idea of a return to Africa lived on within the movement, albeit mostly in a figurative sense.
South African writer Colin Legum wrote that race-consciousness was the dominant theme of Pan-Africanism:
“Deep at its quivering, sensitive centre, Pan-Africanism rests on colour-consciousness. Recognition of the unique historical position of black peoples as the universal bottom- dog led to a revolt against passive submission to this situation.The emotions associated with blackness were intellectualized; and so Pan-Africanism became a vehicle for the struggle of black people to regain their pride, their strength and their independence. But although black skins were made into a shield for the battle, Pan- Africanism became a race-conscious movement, not a racialist one.
Race-consciousness is the assertion by a people with recognizable ethnical similarities of their own uniqueness; a belief in their own special qualities, distinctions and rights. It is a positive statement in defence of one’s race; but it does not seek to elevate that race above other races. When race-consciousness elevates itself above other races, discriminates and attacks other races, it becomes racialism,” wrote Legum.
The Middle Passage took between three weeks and three months, depending on the winds. Estimates vary, but the consensus low range is that 10 to 15 million Africans made that crossing and that between 10 and 30 percent of them died in transit. Ten percent of 15 million is 1.5 million. Thirty percent is 5 million. That’s two to five million people, all of whom died horrible deaths from a brutal variety of causes. When you consider the numbers who died being captured or transported to the ships, especially in the c context of population growth, the Middle Passage was a holocaust that rivals, or even surpasses, the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi Germans and their allies in the early 20th century.
One witness testified that in 1783 a ship carried 600 slaves, 70 of whom, or 11.6 percent, died. Historian James A. Rawley cites a doctor who reported that on a ship that carried 602 slaves, 155, or 25.7 percent, didn’t make it.
Two philosophies dominated the loading of a slave ship. “Loose Packing” gave the captives more space in the hopes that more of them would survive the crossing. “Tight Packing” operated on the assumption that, despite higher casualties, more captives would live and yield a greater profit, according to Rawley and other sources.
There were long stretches during the passage when the victims were forced to piss and shit where they lay, and seasickness was a common problem, adding layers of vomit to the mess. The holds had very little ventilation and I can’t imagine a word that begins to communicate how horrible the resulting stench had to be. Those fetid conditions caused disease to run rampant, adding dysentery – also known as Bloody Flux – and diarrhea to the mix. Then there came smallpox, scurvy and other afflictions born from unsanitary conditions. Women, young men, boys and girls were routinely raped by captains and crews, or savagely beaten if they resisted.
For profit’s sake, it wasn’t unusual for captains to take on more slaves than their ships could accommodate, even by the brutal standards of the slave trade. The most infamous example of this came to be known as the Zong Massacre. An overloaded ship, the Zong, got stuck in the Doldrums, a term for a condition at sea where there are little or no winds. As they sat for weeks not moving, many of the captives, and nearly half of the crew died. The captain then decided to jettison some of the captives to save the ships and give the owners the ability to collect the insurance that had been placed on the captives. Crew members tossed 132 individuals into the sea. Another 10 followed them in what the captain described as an act of defiance.
The Zong incident became a big part of the Abolitionist cause, and they tried to bring criminal charges against the captain. Britain’s Solicitor General declined their entreaties, saying that the people who died were not humans, and that it was the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.
Jungian analyst Michael Vannoy Adams points out that the archetype of the journey is made of up three stages: separation, initiation and return, but that the Middle Passage only included the trauma of first two stages, not the return, which makes it even more traumatic. Many of the captives who committed suicide reportedly believed that their spirits would return home to their family and friends, back in the country where they were born. That strikes me as just another way of romanticizing an unfathomable horror, but there’s probably a small amount of truth to it.
Many, if not most, of the deaths during the Middle Passage were attributed to Melancholia or Nostalgia by the medical profession. In ancient history, Melancholia was identified as one of the four Humours. Fear, despondency, and sadness were its symptoms. During the era of the Middle Passage it was considered a disease that could result in death. Nostalgia, translated as “homesickness” back then, was also thought to be a major cause of deaths on the voyage. Symptoms were thought to include fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death. Many of those deaths, although chalked up to Melancholy, were people who committed suicide by jumping overboard and either drowning or getting eaten by the sharks that routinely followed the ships across the sea.
Melancholy – in its more modern meaning as a sad or wistful mood – is palpable at the Tribute. As the participants stand in the surf and gaze at the horizon, a feeling of immense sadness and wistfulness permeates the beach. Of course dying from old world diseases such as Melancholia or Nostalgia sounds very noble and romantic. But the reality of how the captives died during the Middle Passage was as brutal as just about anything in human history.
The pain and trauma those people suffered is difficult to contemplate. But that’s exactly what people at the Tribute do.
They contemplate those horrors of the Middle Passage as they honor the victims, and try to ensure that their suffering will not be forgotten. These photos are my attempt to honor those who keep the memory alive, and educate others about such an important, world changing time in human history.