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A Drum & A Dream The Suppression of African Spirituality during Slavery in the US

A Drum & A Dream The Suppression of African Spirituality during Slavery in the US

Author: Dorothy Randall Gray, MSc, Interfaith Minister

She gave this speech at World Congress for the Preservation of Religious Diversity, Delhi, 2001

I come to you this evening as Dorothy Randall Gray, but in fact, I don't know my real family name, the name of my lineage. That name was stolen from me 400 years ago when my people were stolen out of Africa. They were sold into slavery in America, "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

My name was taken from me when my ancestors were forbidden to utter its sound or pass it on to their children. When Christopher Columbus invaded the shores of America in 1492, he brought with him diseases that would kill over 70% of the Native American people within three years. Whole tribes disappeared from the face of the earth. Columbus also brought sugar cane.

Within a few years the monstrous demand for this crop would call for the blood, bones and sweat of millions of slaves to keep it fed. In order to supply cheap labor to tend these fields, slave traders came to our African villages, stole us from our homes, put is in shackles. They threw men, women and children into the bowels of foul smelling ships and packed us together like the fingers of a fist. We would lay there naked in that darkened hold for weeks at a time on the treacherous journey from Africa to America know as the Middle Passage. Many of us perished during that crossing. Those who died along the way were simply dumped overboard like garbage. It is estimated that over 75 million Africans lost their lives during the Middle Passage. We call it the Africa Holocaust.

In the name of their Christian god, the slave owners reasoned that Africans needed to be brought to America so they could be civilized. African slaves were considered savges in need of conversion. We were considered property, not people, and as such we could be bought and sold as easily as you could purchase a horse or a sow.

We were often branded like cattle and chosen for our breeding capabilities. We were placed on auction blocks and sold to the highest bidder. Whole families, sons and daughters were sold off to different plantations, never to see each other again. The practice of slavery continued for 360 years and brought over 50 million slaves to the United States. But the decimation of our lives and families were not enough for the slave owners. They wanted nothing less than the complete destruction of our ancestors. Thus, we were forbidden to speak our own language.

Africans who came from the same tribes or regions were separated from each other. They were placed among other Africans who spoke entirely different tongues. And so, in order to communicate at all, we were forced to use English, the language of our oppressor. Our sacred ceremonies were called "pagan rituals" and we were forbidden to practice them. We were not allowed to do our dances or sing the songs of out country. They took away our music and gave us their hymns. We were forbidden to play drums so they gave us bibles and the promise of a wonderful life in the next world. We were forbidden to honor our families.

At any time of the day or night the slave master could come into our cabins, take away our mothers, daughters and sisters, and repeatedly force them into sexual acts. Men who fought to defend their families were considered troublemakers. They were beaten, sold away from their families, then shipped to another southern state, or to Jamaica or Barbados.

The ones who perpetrated this travesty are also the ancestors of those Americans who self-righteously tout "family values." We were forbidden to use our own names. Instead we had to take on the last names of the people who owned us. I say I am a Black woman but there is no country called Black. If I want to return to my roots, what soil do I bend down and kiss? What customs and traditions can I pass on to my children? What national anthem do I sing and what foods can I claim as my own? Who am I without a flag, without a motherland or a mother tongue?

My culture, my religion, my ancestors, traditions, customs, stolen, suppressed, violated, vilified, denied, destroyed - that is what I call terrorism. I know that the spirit of my ancestors still whispers inside me, and I know that they are with me. I stand here as the daughter of the strongest of the strong, a descendent of those who survived the middle passage, who made it through the storms of oppression and degradation, and still managed to shine.

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