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"In the spirit of SANKOFA...Reach Back and Fetch your history & your culture so that you will take purposeful steps into the future."

~ Chadra Pittman Walke, Founder & Executive Director

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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering 9-11, Remembering our Ancestors

Today marks the 11th anniversary of the World Trade Center attack where thousands of people lost their lives, families changed forever and the world would mourn this tragedy for years to come.

For me, September 11th and the World Trade Center holds a strange yet special memory as this was the place I worked for almost 4 years doing a job I loved, lecturing and giving tours of the historic African Burial Ground (ABG)Project in New York City. It was while I was working at the World Trade that I had a prophetic dream which I believe saved my life years later. On September 11, 2001, our office ,which was housed at 6 World Trade Center, crumbled along with the towers on that horrific day.

My joyful memories...I remember how elated I was when I interviewed and was offered the job as Public Educator at the Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground Project. I would lecture to children as young as third grade and to the elderly, in schools, libraries, churches and at universities. I would also become the Public Relations Media Coordinator to the project sending out press releases, creating Press Kits and packages and sending images like the one above to magazines to be featured in publications.

I felt a sense of accomplishment working at the ABG because I followed my passion and found a job in my field, despite the fact that everyone said I would never be able to find a job in Anthropology. I was so proud to be working on such a historic project as this National Monument and National Historic Landmark site. I was honored to tell the stories of these early Africans who lived and were enslaved in New York in the 1700's and took great pleasure in dispelling the myths that said that enslavement did not occur in the North. I loved sharing the archaeological findings from the grave sites; the artifacts which proved that Africans brought their culture with them as was seen in the waits beads, shrouding of the dead and filed teeth found in the grave site and on the skeletal remains. These 419 burials were the proof, were the physical evidence that NY was heavily involved in this immoral trade of human bodies as New York had the second largest population of enslaved Africans next to Charleston, South Carolina. I was proud to be working alongside and learning from these amazing and brilliant scholars like Dr. Michael L. Blakey, Dr. Warren Perry, Dr.Edna Medford, Dr. Cheryl La Roche, Jean Howsen, Dr. Sherrill Wilson to name a few. I was privileged to meet and work with community people; grassroots leaders who had a deep respect and reverence for these ancestors and adopted them as family. I was honored to sit at the feet of the elders and listen to their stories. It was here, at the ABG, where I would make lasting lifelong friendships for which I am eternally grateful. On one day, the place that held so many beautiful memories for me became, for so many, a place of horror, tragedy and death. I kept thinking about all the people I knew who worked in the towers, the security and federal police, my friends at Fed Ex, and people I knew in the Smoothie and Bagel shop I used to visit daily. I kept thinking about them and wondered if they ever made it out alive?

So today we are reminded of that tragedy and of the lives lost. The tradition of honoring Ancestors goes way back decades, probably to a time before time. Many have been committed to this sacred work of honoring our ancestors and find it cathartic to revisit the places, the grave sites, the sacred ground or sacred places to remember their loved ones.

Whether is it a day of remembrance to honor the lives lost on September 11th, a Remembrance Ceremony in South Carolina on Sullivan's Island or a ceremony in St. Croix to honor the African who perished in the Middle Passage, whether it is a ceremony to honor the lives of Native American Indians who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee or whether we are honoring the people of the Jewish faith who were brutally exterminated during the Holocaust, those who perished in the Tsunami of 2004 along the land masses of the Indian Ocean, revering the deceased, honoring our ancestors is something we all recognize as sacred and important and necessary for our communal healing.

A need to heal is a big part of what motivated me to start the tradition of Remembrance in Virginia. For those who perished during the Transatlantic Enslavement Trade, there was no sacred ground for the descendants to visit. That sacred ground is not ground, but water and has been referred to as "the watery grave of the Atlantic Ocean". (Adkins) The first burials of millions of African men, women and children who never made it off the enslavement ships alive was the Atlantic Ocean.

May we all begin to heal and for all those who have transitioned, let us do this in Remembrance of them.

Photo credit: Chester Higgins

Work Cited:

Adkins,L.E. (2009). Burial in the African Diaspora-Burial, African Practices in the Americas. A. Pinn(Ed.),
African American Religious Cultures.(667). ABC CLIO.

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