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The struggle over the anti-African mural goes back 600 years

Oct 11, 2016
Chairman Omali Yeshitela; This editorial also appears in the October 2016 issue of The Burning Spear newspaper

Door of no return, Goree Island, Senegal


It’s really important that when we begin this process of talking about the 50th anniversary of that mural being removed––which is December of this year––that we do establish some kind of historical context for the discussion. 

Otherwise, people are likely to think that this is just some kind of debate simply revolving around a picture, and what should go up on the walls of City Hall. 

But it’s more than that, it’s more than the discussion about a picture. So I’d just like to discuss more about the historical context, and that’s something that’s really important right now because, although we are seeing a lot of activism that is beginning to reoccur in the cities throughout this country, we went through a period of two generations, more than two generations, more than forty years of there not being much political action or much political consciousness even expressing itself in any organized way in this country. 

Most of the people who have become engaged in some kind of political issues or political questions don’t have any understanding of the history that brought us to this place that would’ve made the mural important fifty years ago and that would make it important today in 2016. 

In 1966, when that mural was torn down, it was during a period where revolutionary struggle in this country among African people was at a high tide, and not just among African people, but oppressed peoples around the world were engaged in serious struggle against the relationships that had been imposed on us at gunpoint by the United States and by the white world, by Europe. 

Most people have some memories, either directly or indirectly. You’ve seen videos, you’ve seen pictures and movies depicting things that happened in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement, but there has not been a very good explanation for any of this. 

What gave birth to the Black Power Movement

I was a part of the Black Power Movement when I tore the mural down. Historical context is really important, especially for many of the young people who are now coming into political life, subsequent to the August 9, 2014 uprisings by African people in Ferguson, Missouri after the police murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown. 

The fact is that African people in this country––or black people as some would refer to us––are in this country because Africa came under attack 500 years ago. 

It is important for us to understand that. 

The reason we’re even having this discussion, the reason that people are running around with simple, empty chants like “Black Lives Matter” is because Africa came under assault and black people everywhere on the planet Earth have been catching hell ever since the Portuguese first came to Africa and kidnapped us, and forced us to do something against our will, and began to disperse African people all around the planet Earth. 

And when I say ‘dispersed African people’ I don’t mean that we came here in the way the Olympic basketball team got to Brazil. 

I’m talking about on the original trip. 

I’m talking about under the most extraordinary, horrible circumstances that we do not understand, and not understanding these circumstances makes it very difficult for us to understand not only our conditions today, but even the relationships that we share with each other, even the attitudes that have shaped how white people act and how we act in relationship to them and to each other. 

There are many people who like to think that what happened in Africa was a long time ago and there are many people who would prefer not to have a discussion because they consider that we are not Africans, that something happened and now we are some other entity, some other kind of people, some creature that grew up in a cotton plantation, a cotton patch in Mississippi or Alabama.

But it’s important to mention Africa because if you don’t mention Africa and its relationship to what we are experiencing today, then you really have no idea of how to solve the problem and you have no idea of where the problem came from. 

You have no idea of the relationships that should be existing between us and people like us all around the world. But Africa came under assault...Our Africa.

African human beings were kidnapped and it wasn’t just a matter of somebody coming along and grabbing us and putting a sack over your head and throwing us in the trunk of a car and taking us someplace to tie us up and say, “Turn over ten thousand dollars or I’m going to kill your loved one.” 

It was a massive hunting of African people throughout the continent of Africa. We’re talking about a white world that wasn’t even defined as a white world when it began. There wasn’t even anything called a white man when it began; wasn’t even anything called Europe when it began. 

But it’s this impoverished people who lived in this territory that we now call Europe that had been almost decimated by disease, ignorance and unrelenting warfare among each other, tribal warfare. 

This group of people found a new freedom. They were living in an unfree situation under a system that has come to be known as feudalism. For a thousand years, white people lived under horrible conditions, and most of the people around the world avoided this territory, this group of warring tribes and what have you because of the violence, because of the backwardness and what have you that existed there. 

Forced by poverty and disease, some of them left Europe. 

They’ve now covered this up as some air of “exploration” that would assume that they were influenced by some kind of intellectual itch that simply drove them to go to the various places around the world––to Africa and to what we now call the Americas. 

But it was poverty and disease that did it. 

And as a consequence of coming to these places where they kidnapped African people, they had hunting parties that were designed just to capture African people. 

How we were introduced to Europeans

They captured land particularly on the west coast of Africa where they built these huge fortresses. And they would capture Africans, and bring African men and women––sometimes walking for weeks, barely fed, in chains––to these fortresses that they had established. 

And they had created in the fortresses itself, dungeons, or things like dungeons. Imagine, they must’ve looked something like the old European feudal torture chambers that you can even see evidence of in England today at the London Bridge. 

They would separate the men and the women, and they would put hundreds of Africans in a place, perhaps a quarter of the size of this room that we’re standing in now. 

And there were no toilets, there were simply trenches that were dug in the ground, in the floor, which was an earthen floor, dirt. 

Trenches that might be two or three inches deep, and maybe two inches wide. 

There were no windows, there were just a few slits that you could find on the top sides of some of the buildings, some of the rooms. That was the only source of light and air that came. 

Africans defecated and did all their wastes right there, in that space. And the trenches hopefully would carry some of it someplace, but there was really no place for it to go. 

So Africans lived in this kind of stuff, the men in one side, the women in another side. 

There were foul inhumane institutions. Up above, on the outside, there was this place where the person who was the governor would have his boat where he lived, and he would be there when all the African captors would be brought in. 

He would pick from up there African women that he wanted brought up to him, and from the very beginning, the rape of African women has played a powerful role in our oppression and our humiliation and breaking the spirit of African people.  

It didn’t just start at this place. It started even during our captivity when we were marching for weeks coming to these places where they had these dungeons, these so-called castles that they kept us in. 

There also were spaces where there was no ventilation at all. African men who refused to go along with the program were often put in these airless dungeons where they would suffocate and die, just in there, just to die. 

This is how we were introduced to Europe and what came to be known as Europe and Europeans. 

We’d be there for any length of time until the next ship would come. 

When the ships came, they had barely fed their captors, so that we were never strong enough to resist. 

But to make sure we couldn’t resist, they had the thing that is now referred to as “the door of no return.” 

Sometime, what they call “the door of no return” was an opening that was so low that an African would have to bend down and almost on his knees or her knees coming out, so that when the African came out, she or he was defenseless and less likely to be able to fight back, even in a state of near starvation. 

Sometimes the door was like a slit in a wall where an African would literally have to turn to come out, crab-like, sideways, so again, we would be defenseless. 

Many of us did not survive even that part of it. Sometimes––for the first time perhaps––a man might see his wife, a father might see his daughter, a mother might see her son for the first time coming out. 

And we would be packed, put on boats and taken on ships that were waiting out. On the ships, of course, we were stuffed in these cramped situations where again we lived in fecal matter, and horrible kinds of conditions of lack of sanitation, and women were still falling victims to the lust of white men, so rape was an ongoing kind of process on this ship. 

That’s how we got here. When we talk about how we were kidnapped…

Series continues in the November 2016 issue of The Burning Spear. 

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