Understanding from whence we came has taken on new meaning today. The advancements in DNA technology has led to a growing interest by many to know and understand, in greater detail, their family history. People across the U.S. are putting much effort and energy into finding out their own origins story.
The origins story of those in Africatown has become a vital part of America’s story, witnessed by the response to the 2018 publication of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo.’” The book has garnered a host of awards and accolades: New York Times bestseller, Time Magazine’s Best Nonfiction Book of 2018, Amazon’s Best History Book of 2018, Economist Magazine’s Book of the Year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Best Southern Books of 2018 and many others.
“Barracoon” is based on the interview of one of Africatown’s founders, Cudjo (Kazoola) Lewis, by famed writer Zora Neale Hurston in the early 1930s during an extended visit with him. Then in his late 80s, Cudjo recounted his capture, time spent in a barracoon (a type of barracks) waiting to be sold, and how he and a little over 100 other Africans (from the current-day area of Benin, West Africa) endured the harrowing Middle Passage and arrival in America — 50 years after it had been made illegal to bring slaves into the U.S.
Written in Cudjo’s vernacular, or the exact way he spoke, the book’s story is powerful. “Those who love us never leave us alone in our grief,” writes novelist Alice Walker in the book’s foreword. “At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine. ‘Barracoon’ … is a perfect example of this. I’m not sure there was ever a harder read than this.”
“Barracoon” is a story of intense pain and struggle, but also of courage and hope. The voice may be singular, but it tells the story of a people, a dispossessed group, stolen from their home, who found the strength to endure and carve out a small piece of Africa — of home — here in America.
It is that collective story that Jocelyn Davis, a descendant of one of those survivors and overcomers, wants to share with the community at large through the upcoming “Spirit of Our Ancestors” festival to be held Feb. 9 from noon to 4 p.m. at the Mobile County Training School gymnasium in Africatown.
Davis said that as a young person growing up, Africatown’s origins story was not one she was particularly proud of.
“Imagine if your history, your family’s origins story revolved around a bet or a dare,” she noted. Growing up, to her there was nothing special or profound to take pride in about being a descendant of one of the Clotilda survivors. However, as she grew and matured, her view began to change.
“With all that they went through … they survived — they survived! Not only that, though, they bought their own land, built their own community and left us with so much to be proud of. It’s a legacy worth embracing and definitely worth telling.”
The “Spirit of Our Ancestors” festival will be a collective telling of the history of the founders of Africatown through their descendants. Men such as Charlie Lewis, from whom Davis descended and who was the brother of Cudjo. Men like Peter Lee, Orsa Keeby, Pollee Allen and Cudjo Lewis.
“What they did together was incredible,” Davis observed, and she wants to share their story and legacy with the community at large.
There will be a lot for the community to experience.
Two ceremonies will be performed, a “Bringing in the Elders” and a “Libations” ceremony. The latter will entail the ancient African custom of honoring one’s ancestors by calling out their names and pouring water onto the ground. Davis said each family represented will do so for their particular founding ancestor and tell a short story about them as well.
The former ceremony will be led by Deborah Ferguson, adjunct professor at the University of South Alabama honoring the elders of Africatown.
An African fashion show will be put on by Theola Bright, and African drumming will be performed by Wayne Curtis. The festival’s special guest speaker will be the award-winning scholar Dr. Natalie Robertson.
Dr. Robertson, an associate professor of history at Hampton University, and has taught and held research appointments at such distinguished institutions as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the U.S. National Slavery Museum. She is author of “The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Making of AfricaTown, U.S.A.: Spirit of Our Ancestors.” Dr. Robertson’s extensive knowledge and research experience should make her talk an engaging and informative one, Davis observed, noting she is very excited about Robertson’s visit to Africatown.
There will also be a quilt display by Lorna Woods, and individual families will have displays highlighting their family history. Food during the festival will be catered by Griffin and Co. catering.
Davis and other Africatown descendants want to see their “Spirit of Our Ancestors” event become a yearly one.
She noted she is excited about the success of the book “Barracoon,” but she and others in Africatown want to give life and a voice to all those who survived and left her and other descendants with a such a rich story and legacy to tell. It is an effort and experience she hopes many in the greater Mobile community will want to share in as well.