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Hampton ceremony honors enslaved Africans who died at sea

Chadra Pittman leads
Courtesy of Chadra Pittman
Chadra Pittman leads a procession to the water as part of the annual Remembrance ceremony.

Organizers hope the 13th annual event at Fort Monroe brings reflection, connection and healing to attendees.

The Day of Remembrance is an internationally observed ceremony, organized locally by the Sankofa Projects' founder and executive director Chadra Pittman in partnership with the Hampton History Museum, Fort Monroe Authority and National Park Service.

This year's ceremony is Saturday, June 8 at 11 a.m. at Fort Monroe's Outlook Beach.

This interview was edited for time and clarity.

Nick McNamara: Hey Chadra, thanks for speaking with me today.

Talk about the significance of hosting the ceremony at this site, and what people can expect if they turn up.

Chadra Pittman: Remembrance is a ceremony that was initiated back in the late 1980s by activist and author Toni Cade Bambara. And she basically was at a storytelling conference and said that we don't acknowledge those ancestors who died in the Middle Passage; that we don't recognize them, those spirits in the water.

And when I moved to Virginia, I realized that while we celebrate and acknowledge the arrival of the African, we acknowledged the Contraband decision which is what freed many Africans and led to the Emancipation Proclamation – all of that happened to Fort Monroe – what we don't acknowledge is the Middle Passage. Remembrance is a ceremony that we do which acknowledges the millions of Africans who walk on board those enslavement ships, but never walked off. So at Remembrance on the second Saturday in June, we gather at the water to pay honor to these ancestors who never got a proper burial. They were thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, they were pushed, they jumped in some cases resisting a life of enslavement.

So when people come to Fort Monroe on Saturday they will hear drums, they will hear untold history of the Middle Passage, they will experience what we hope to be a sort of a healing for this pain of this horrid past.

Nick McNamara: Sankofa is a word in the Akan language of Ghana. Can you tell me what it means, and how does that help inform your work with the Remembrance ceremony and beyond?

Chadra Pittman: So Sankofa is an Adinkra symbol. It is actually a proverb that comes out of West Africa, Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. It means ‘return and fetch it.’ I first learned that word when I was working at the African Burial Ground in New York. One of the burial remains that we uncovered had metal tacks that were in the shape of a heart, which is one of the symbols of Sankofa. The Sankofa symbol that we use for Remembrance is of the bird. It has its feet pointing forward and head facing its tail. And the symbolism of that is that in order to know where you're going, you have to know where you've come from. So the work that I do with the Sankofa Projects and with the ceremony of Remembrance is to encourage people to reach back and touch their history, touch those memories of their past. Because the only way that we can be truly informed and make informed decisions about our future is to know where we've come from; the beauty and the pain of the past is acknowledged at Remembrance.

Nick McNamara: What do you hope people carry with them when they leave the Day of Remembrance event?

Chadra Pittman: I hope that when people come that they will walk away with a new appreciation for the contributions which Africans have made across the globe. I hope people will realize that what we're dealing with today, issues around critical race theory, issues around DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – all of these programs that have been cut, that we realized that there's a connection with regards to this erasure of history. And that people, all people, will want to take up this information; will want to honor these ancestors and realize that we are all connected as a shared humanity.

That is my hope that our pain collectively, another person's pain is also our pain. Audre Lorde, I will say since this is pride month, Audre Lorde once said that no one is free – she was talking about women – but she said women are not free if other women are not free, to paraphrase her quote. And I think that's the way that I want people to think about Remembrance. That we are a collective body of individuals living on this planet and that we have a lot to heal, from the Native American genocide to the transatlantic enslavement trade. And so I hope they feel refreshed and excited about learning more about this untold history.

Nick McNamara: Chadra, thanks for joining me.

Chadra Pittman: Thank you.

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