Makeda searches for her Seminole Ancestors
From the outset it was a spiritual sojourn. When I contemplated the gravitas of the event, the inauguration of Barrack Oboma as the 44th President of the United States of America, a land that once enslaved people like him, I knew I had to be somewhere special to mark the occasion with symbolic significance. For one thing was certain: There would never again be a day like this if I lived another hundred years!
The fact that Frederick Douglass was easily as smart as Abraham Lincoln, and a far better speaker, yet he was also a slave, and even when he was no longer a slave he was in constant danger of being re-enslaved until the nation erupted in war, makes the election of Barack Hussien Obama even sweeter for African Americans. The source of this satisfaction lay in the fact that we always knew we were qualified to do anything human beings do…in spite of how hard the white folks tried to convince us otherwise.
It was obviously the biggest story I would ever come across in my writing life, and the most inspirational story a generation of American youths had seen, or were likely to see, and I wanted to try and help my progeny understand the full measure of the event that was unfolding. Yet it soon became clear to me that while my younger daughter, Makeda, rejoiced at the election of our nation’s first African American President, and that the lovely brilliant Michele is now America’s First Lady, these events did not mean the same thing to her that they meant to me. It was a generational thing.
While Makeda and her twin brother Samori have a sense of history, and thus understand on the intellectual level the significance of President Obama’s ascension to the most powerful office in the world, they never doubted that he would win because he was so obviously the best qualified candidate. People of my generation, white and black, were not persuaded by this fact, because we had seen too many highly qualified black people passed over in favor of whites with inferior credentials. This unbridled optimism expressed by my progeny is the result of them having attended school and competed with whites in the class room and the athletic fields and held their own.
Furthermore, they had also gone to schools that emphasized academic achievement and were staffed by progressive teachers who were overwhelmingly white, yet they never experienced any racism from them. In fact they were more often than not the teacher’s pets. Makeda and Samori also got on fabulously with their multi-racial school mates, and white parents who wanted their children to have diverse friends often sought them out as the preferred playmates for their children because they were just the kind of well scrubbed, well behaved, bright black kids that white parents found ideal. They both graduated from the prestigious Beacon School – the same high school that Governor Patterson proudly announced that his son had been admitted to in his inaugural address – both were two sport athletes and also graduated with honors in science and the humanities. Furthermore Samori was voted captain of the fencing and baseball teams…and he was the only black kid on either team.
While Samori opted to attend a black college, Makeda attended a big white private university where she was a Division I sprinter competing in the 100 and 200 meter races, a choreographer and principal dancer in a university dance company, plus a Science Merit Scholar and a Dean List student. Makeda got the loudest applause at graduation ceremonies when it was announced that she had been admitted to graduate school at the elite Columbia University; and the Dean of the School of Health Sciences personally told me and her mother what a wonderful student she had been.
Hence Makeda has successfully competed against whites in a number of endeavors – among the best and the brightest too – and her identity as an African American woman is a source of pride. Like the poet Langston Hughes, she gloried in her blackness. And the fact that the actor Samuel L. Jackson, was once her baby sitter; Trumpet master Wynton Marsalis, writer/McArthur Fellow Stanley Crouch, and Harvard biologist S. Alan Counter were friends of her daddy’s, all contributed to the notion that anything was possible if you were talented and worked hard enough. And the election of Barack adds an exclamation point!
However as Makeda began to explore the dance traditions of the Spanish and French speaking African Diaspora in the Americas, and compared them to African traditions in dance and drumming, she discovered a much lager input from the cultural inventories of Native Americans than she had expected. And as she performed more and more with dance companies that specialized in the dance traditions of the African Diaspora, the more her colleagues would inquire about her Native American ancestry - which was obvious to Latin Americans from her facial features. She heard this so often that she began to research her family for evidence of Amerindian ancestry.
Makeda and the Great Seminole War Chief Osceola
Members Of the Same Tribe?
When her research revealed that she has a Native American great grandmother, a grandfather with a Seminole surname, and several other Native American ancestors, it set her off on an intellectual quest to uncover her Native American roots and honor them as distinguished ancestors just as I she has honored her African ancestors. However, Makeda is a serious intellectual with an encyclopedic approach to gathering data on subjects of interest to her. Her detective work in uncovering her Native American ancestry has led Makeda to interrogate her parents and other family members about our shadowy Native American kinsmen.
Makeda’s research into the genocide against Native Americans by the European invaders has left her contemptuous of white America’s claim to ownership of this bountiful land. And the more she learns about the myriad ways in which Native Americans extended a helping hand to African slaves in the US, including intermarrying, the deeper her disdain for the indifference that Afro-Americans show to the present plight of Native Americans, as well as our Native American heritage, which she authoritatively points out is stronger in many black Americans than the African heritage we celebrate. This she can demonstrate from the perspectives of physical and cultural anthropology.
Her study of the dispossession of Native Americans led Makeda to argue in a graduate school paper, written in reply to a query about the disappearing family farm due to the onslaught of massive corporate farms associated with agri-business: “I have no sympathy for the white farmers who are being forced off their land by agri-business; now they have some small idea of what the native Americans suffered as a result of the wholesale theft of their lands, which, having no concept of private property, the willingly shared with the European settlers. As a descendent of enslaved Africans and Native Americans who were the victims of genocide, I do not recognize the rights of whites to fertile American farm lands anymore than black South Africans recognize the claims of white farmers to their land, which they stole under the oppressive racist laws of apartheid and now wish to keep.”
Since St. Augustine Florida is the first European settlement in North America, there is a rich historical record of how the European invaders dealt with the Native Americans – whom they called “Indians.” There are primary documents from the Spanish era in the city’s historical archives, and there is the massive Castillo de San Marcos which dominates the downtown skyline. Ever since I was a boy I heard the apocryphal dramatic escape of Chief Osceola from a prison cell where he was imprisoned by white Americans. The wily and fearless chief is said to have starved himself until he became thin enough to escape through a sky light in the massive stone wall. I was moved by the story when my grandfather first told it to me, and my daughter is just as fascinated with the tale today.
When we visited the Castillo it was a moving experience; Makeda read every word posted about Native Americans, especially the Seminoles with whom she shares ancestry. This was her spiritual journey, a foray back into the blood stained history that shaped the character of our nation. Thus when she entered the prison cell of Osceola it was a metaphysical experience, and she offered a silent libation to his heroic resistance against the enslavers of Africans and slaughterers of Native Americans.
Makeda in the prison of Osceola
Standing silently under the portal where Grand Dad said Osceola escaped
The evidence of these massive crimes against humanity is everywhere here in St. Augustine, where the dispossession and genocide against the Native Americans began. Just a few blocks from the Castilio stands the old slave market, where her African Ancestors were sold like live stock, and the evidence of genocide against the native peoples of this land is ubiquitous in street markers and exhibits. She even taught me a thing or two about the relationships between Africans and Native Americans right here in St. Augustine, and I’m a former history professor. For instance, due to her sharp powers of observation Makeda spotted the marker announcing that the African American community that I grew up in – which was originally known as “Little Africa” but was renamed “Lincolnville” after the Civil War in honor of the “Great Emancipator” – was originally a Native American community.
This sign Speaks volumes
The Evidence of Things Unseen!
I had never known this bit of St. Augustine’s story, and to tell the truth, I had never thought about it; nor had I ever heard anybody else in the African American community talk about. This is just the sort of silence and ignorance that so annoys Makeda: and justly so. However it was the exhibits at the Castilio and the primary documents from the era of Spanish rule in the historical archives of St. Augustine that interested Makeda the most. Armed with and inspired by an unusual combination of intellectual interests and skills – dancer, scientist, athlete, writer – her main problem intellectually has been to find an area of study that can accommodate her diverse interests. She seems to have found it in the field of Medical Anthropology, in which she is presently preparing to pursue a PhD program. Her main interests is in the traditional healing practices of non-European peoples – the rest of the world – and what they can teach the conventionally trained western scientist about the healing arts.
A voracious reader of scientific treatises, Makeda can rattle off a dizzying array of scientific studies extolling the wisdom of traditional cultures in the uses of medicinal plants and spiritual rituals in maintaining the physical and emotional health of the populace. And she convincingly argues that the decimation of the Native American population has as much to do with the spiritual death that occurred when their cultural rituals were suppressed and denied them – their music, dance and religious practices – as the physical slaughters that attended their relations with whites. In the exhibits on display in the Castilio, Makeda found solid evidence for her hypothesis, especially the exhibit on the tribes from the western plains who were brought to the Castillo as prisoners of war.
A memorial to the plains tribesmen
Some of the prisoners who were once free men in the “Wild West”
Faces of the Damned
The texts that accompany the images above tell how the United States government systematically removed these “Braves” from their homelands because they led the resistance against the dispossession of their people by the European invaders. The Native Americans never really had a chance because they were still in the Paleolithic period, where hunting and gathering cultures were the norm; alas they were facing the onslaught of a culture that was already in the modern industrial age.
Furthermore, the US government had perfected the techniques of modern warfare – which they practically invented during the American Civil War that had only recently concluded. Yet there was no way for these warriors of the Great Plains to know that the wagon trains bearing the murderous “palefaces” would not stop coming because they were only the advance guard of an expanding predatory civilization. Hence in spite of their bravery, the Native Americans never had a chance. That’s why we have records of the phenomenon of “ghost dancing” that was widely observed among the tribes of the Great Plains. It was their attempt to communicate with the spirits of their slaughtered kinsmen. In the exhibit at the Castillo there are drawings done by prisoners that are the counter-part of ghost dancing expressed as graphic art. Both rituals represent a deep feeling of loss created by a people who had lost everything of value to them in the last days of the genocide.
The caption explaining the meaning of the drawings
Aftermath of the Genocide
The things that intrigued Makeda most was those texts that told of the intricate and far flung trade networks established by Native Americans, which showed them to be intelligent people who were capable of building a self-sustaining culture, and thus exposes the rationale for the European policy of dispossession and genocide against them as nothing more than transparent racist apologia, what Fredrick Douglass eloquently labeled a thin veil of hypocrisy designed to camouflage “practices that would disgrace a nation of savages!” Hence to Makeda’s mind it was the European invaders that were the real savages. They were the one’s who destroyed the lives, homes and culture of a people who had received them as brothers and helped them survive in the wilderness of North America. And everything she learned from her research in the ancient city supplied compelling evidence for her thesis.
Rummaging through the archives
In search the truth about her ancestors
Since she was scheduled to perform with a Haitian dance troupe at the inaugural ball hosted by “Haitians for Oboma” in Washington, it was virtually impossible to get her out of the Castillio, as she tried to soak up all the knowledge she could in the short period of time, and since she is in great condition and full of energy – intellectual and physical, she nearly wore me out. Given Makeda’s scholarly interests, she will pay many more visits too the Ancient city, where so much of her family history is rooted.
Text, Photos and videos by: Playthell Benjamin
St. Augustine Florida
*Note: 2, 417 words