ALMOST a year ago I learned my maternal line was a 100% match for the Mende people of Sierra Leone, West Africa. I was on the grounds of North Carolina’s largest historical plantation, when Gina Paige, head of African Ancestry revealed my results in the shadow of the four remaining slave cabins on the property. For me it was a watershed moment. I was in a sacred place, reclaiming part of the African in my African-American. If I am honest, I was also reclaiming part of the American as well. As an African American until you know something of those initial moments of your ancestor’s arrival and what life looked like for them, it is hard to have the same feeling towards your American-ness that someone of another background has looking at Ellis or Angel Island, the borderlands of the Southwest or the Gulf Coast.
In my mind’s eye I could now imagine this young woman disembarking from a canoe to Bance/Bunce Island in the 1760’s, then coming by canoe to a ship that would take her over two months journey to permanent and irrevocable exile. She landed in Charleston, South Carolina, the Holy City of Southern colonial commerce and trade; the site of Sullivan’s Island, where one quarter of all enslaved Africans brought to North America landed. That’s about the same as the number of European immigrants who came through Ellis Island. To this day it is known as the Ellis Island of Black America. If the Civil War had not been fought there, the site of Fort Moultrie, named after the Revolutionary War hero, we may not know the spot where she, my direct paternal ancestor, and so many other fathers and mothers of Black America first set foot and began the long journey toward today.
From the moment I got my results, African Americans who had already had their results, but not revealed them to me, began to divulge new forms of kinship. Dontavius Williams of Historic Brattonsville, my friend and colleague said, “Hey, my family is from Sierra Leone too!” Nikki Miller-Ka, spoke to my other roots saying, “We are also Akan from Ghana!” From that moment on, a new kind of family emerged based on a sense that we were more than just Black, more than just “African.” I met more and more African Americans who were Mende, Temne, Limba, and other ethnic groups from Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone—a small country the size of South Carolina, who through the forced exportation of rice growers and craftsmen swelled the Southern Lowcountry in the mid-18th century—Sierra Leone—the home of the ancestors of Lou Gossett Jr., Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Janet Jackson and family, Spike Lee, Michael K. Williams, Regina Taylor, India Arie, Questlove, Isaiah Washington, Anna Marie Horsford, and many others. Oprah Winfrey’s roots go back to the Kpelle people in next door Liberia, also an unfortunate center for this current health disaster.
Whenever I meet people from Sierra Leone they have NEVER addressed me as anything but a kinsman. At the reception for Many Rivers to Cross, I met a woman from England of Sierra Leonian background, who introduced me to her husband, also from Sierra Leone, as, first and foremost, a “Sierra Leonian.” There is such a pride in the fact that so many connections have been made between Sierra Leone and the United States, Brazil, Jamaica and other parts of the New World, that it is second nature for the people of Sierra Leone to boast that their blood flowed in Cinque/Singbeh Pieh, one of the leaders of the Amistad revolt, in Martin Luther King, Jr., and in Marcus Garvey, the father of modern Pan-Africanism, the idea that we are one family—all of us parts of the African family, scattered but searching for soul solidarity. No encounter with a Sierra Leonian has not led to someone saying, “When you go, here is my information…” this feeling of being part of a family that was always a part of me and that I never knew I had is exhilarating and makes the world seem smaller and more loving.
So let’s skip to today. Ebola. One of the world’s most mysterious and deadly viruses, reared its ugly head in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Unlike previous Ebola outbreaks that have occurred in relatively isolated areas, this outbreak was in the crowded cities and densely populated villages of Africa’s Rice Coast. My people are dying. My people are dying. That’s all I can think as I see the news every night. Over 700 dead. In Sierra Leone that’s over 200 people who have died there alone, with over 500 infected. As I write this, homes are being checked door to door for people who are possibly infected.
If you think this has nothing to do with our mission here at Afroculinaria, you’d be wrong. The cause of this outbreak is likely bushmeat infected with the virus. Bushmeat means wild game—usually small mammals like cutting-grass cane rats, monkeys, and bats. Undercooked bat, may—nothing is official yet—be the cause of the current horrific outbreak. I don’t know how this helps other than just knowing how real and how scary things like this can be, but at least I know about the tradition and how the parts and pieces fit. This epidemic is an opportunity for education and greater emphasis on public health awareness.
A lot of people think of Africa has plagued, benighted, scary, violent, and even sinister. These conclusions are rooted in the evils of the recent past when corruption among indigenous powers and invaders from the East and West raped the Mother Continent for all she had. Some of you may know Kanye West’s song about Diamonds from Sierra Leone or Blood Diamond or the Lord of War…all of which reference the Civil War and blood diamond conflicts and strife that plagued the nation not so very long ago. Africa was not the starving continent we see on late night TV until colonialism came—colonialism robbed Africa of so much—but first and foremost—it handicapped her ability to raise food for herself and sustain self-sufficient economies. It is no accident that the rubber, minerals, oil, and the like that fueled the 20th century Industrial Revolution owed much to African slave labor under colonial administrative practices.
I admit that I have already winced at the reports about West Africa coming out of the news. Please hold media accountable during human crises like these where they spotlight fears of “witchcraft,” and focus on eating monkeys and apes and string together exotic and stereotypical views of the “Dark Continent.” To be sure elements of the surreal and sad saturate Africa, but they are not its totality. When you are talking about these people folks, you are talking about my family. I am a proud descendant of the Mende people and others—so when you talk about my family, HAVE SOME RESPECT.
I want you to think about that when you see reports on the current outbreak. These proud people are being hit once again, by one of Nature’s more evil whimsies. The situation is compounded by the fact that after the severe damage done by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the imposition of centuries of white supremacy came the blow of figuring out nationhood and re-organizing power. Sierra Leone and Liberia have a special added layer of complication in that liberated enslaved people or Creoles/Krios have had a strange and sometimes destructive relationship with indigenous communities. Through all these curses of the past, we work towards our humanity, our common goal to make the dreams of Martin and Marcus, the New World sons of Sierra Leone, come alive.
I am in pain right now, because I love Sierra Leone already, even though I have not yet set eyes on her. She is my mother, she is the place that was the rootstock of both my African origins and my American journey. I sit here, with nothing more than I can do than to raise awareness and let you know that she, along with Liberia and Guinea, and any other places affected matter. They count, not just because of their role in history or the powerful legacies that they have left here, but because these are places where so many good people are struggling to just exist. As we begin to get calls for aid, assistance, prayers, and the like, I urge you to support these nations in any way you can. My mother’s blood calls out from the ground. I am here Mother; I am answering You. You gave us life, so we will do what we must to preserve Yours.
May the hands of the medical responders be blessed, and may the hands, hearts and minds of the doctors be blessed as they struggle to get this scourge under control. May The True Judge see fit to hault this evil in its tracks and give all of these nations and their people a brighter future and tenfold blessings for their pain. Tonight I fix my mind on the Motherland and tonight I say, Ashe/Amen.