"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." — Hebrews 12:1-2a
Recently, I was honored to be a part of the Bread for the World Pan African Young Adult Network (PAYAN) pilgrimage to Fort Monroe, Virginia, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved African peoples in 1619.
The pilgrimage was also linked to the theme of Bread’s Black August campaign, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” We participated in the 2019 Commemorative Ceremony and Program at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia, and visited with two historic African American churches, Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church and St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church.
PAYAN convener Derick Dailey stated our expectation of the pilgrimage: “As forces attempt to replicate centuries old modes of racial and gendered oppression, I pray that those attending might lend their ears to hear what the ancestors are saying to us as we deepen our advocacy to end hunger.”
His words led me to remember my first introduction to our 1619 ancestors. As a child I discovered the book, “Before the Mayflower,” in the holy place of our family study. I also grew up with this awareness with my African and African-descended family. But I did not yet understand why this ancestral lesson of 1619 was not taught in my predominantly white school where the injuries of racism and sexism were normative while seeking structural correction with integration.
The commemorative events brought the voice of lament and hope of the ancestors for the more than 2,000 people in attendance. African and African-descended leaders as well as government, civic and religious leaders spoke, rendered prayers and performed music. Rep. Karen Bass, a Congressional Black Caucus leader, reflected on her recent participation in the congressional visit to the slave castles in Ghana with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Bass spoke of the meager rationed food provided to our African ancestors and the deliberate starving of them that contributed to a weakened physical state during the enslavement period. She mentioned the land grabbing from African peoples for cash crops that replaced crops of nutritional food owned and grown by African peoples who were forced to labor on such lands in Africa and the United States. She and others also spoke of the strength and resilience of our African ancestors and their descendants. They cautioned us to engage these historic challenges and to honor the ancestors and ourselves through advocacy like they did.
The ancestors also spoke to us through the conversations, prayers, and rituals of remembering the ancestors at the churches, Tucker Cemetery and the Emancipation Oak Tree at Hampton University. All of these encounters affirmed who we are and whose we are because of the ancestors — and led to our renewed call to advocate to end hunger and poverty.
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox church engagement at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.