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Commemorating 400 years of Black oppression, resistance and resilience

Ebony Adedayo

By Ebony Adedayo, ReCAST Minneapolis Program Manager

Aug. 20, 2019 marks the 400th Year Commemoration of Africans being brought to Jamestown, Va. and enslaved by the British. To honor this event, the city of Minneapolis’ Division of Race and Equity is bringing together city staff and community partners to collectively remember who Africans were prior to the history of enslavement, recover the truth about our oppression and resistance, and reimagine a future that is not predicated on the harm of Black bodies or other people of color.  

To commemorate this, it is important to first understand that the enslavement of Africans predates 1619, as the Portuguese, Spanish, and the Dutch had driven the slave trade since the late 1400s. The oldest slave castle in the world – Elmina off of the coast of Ghana – was built in 1482 by the Portuguese and started being used for slavery shortly after 1492.  Enslaved Africans were sent to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas for over 300 years. 

Coming to a better understanding of what slavery was and how it operated is important in commemorating this year. This year is also about coming to a deeper understanding of who we are so that we can move forward. 

The need to look back not only applies to people of African ascent but for people of European descent and other peoples of color because this country’s institutions and structures were grounded in anti-Blackness, or the perpetual capitalizing off of people of African descent. 

Why remember? 

At the city, we started the work of the 400 years by remembering who Africans were prior to the period of enslavement. Before the Europeans, there were ancient civilizations with rich systems of commerce, agriculture, governance, and spiritual practices that were designed and maintained by Africans. 

The oldest civilization was Kemet, or ancient Egypt. It is commonly understood that Kemet is not only the oldest African civilization but the oldest civilization in the world, as the oldest human remains have been found in Africa. Kemet had a dynamic system of philosophy and development, and what we know today as Ethiopia, Mali, Ghana, and Nigeria were important concerning trade, education, and the arts. 

In fact, Timbuktu in Mali was such an intellectual powerhouse that Europeans came to study here.  

So Africans had history before Europe. 

It is that history, that know-how, as well as the natural resources that prompted trade between Africa and Europe. Opening the door to non-human trade with Europe, however, gave way to human trade and slavery. Some African chiefs were complicit in slavery; many more resisted and fought against the Europeans at every turn. 

Declaring 2019 the Year of Return, Ghanian president Nana Akufo-Addo has encouraged people of African descent to come to the continent to remember this history. No amount of reading about slavery prepares one for the experience of visiting the Assin Manso Slave River where enslaved Africans took their last bath before being traded, or standing in the Slave Castles were our ancestors were routinely tortured. 

It is an important ritual for people of African descent to understand what happened to us along the way.  

Telling the truth 

The Emancipation Proclamation officially abolished slavery in the United States in 1863. Because of emancipation, some believe that slavery has little relevance in today’s society. However, the oppression of people of African ascent continued through the convict leasing system, Jim Crow, redlining, lynching, mass incarceration, massive unemployment, and officer-involved shootings.  

The state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis is not exempt from this history, as this region kept slaves and has driven these disparities. Whereas Minneapolis and St. Paul top national charts for being one of the best states for White people to live, it is one of the worst places for Black people to live. 

Still, the level of community-based activism has been vigilant, forcing those who otherwise would not to center racial equity and justice in their policy-making and practices.

Reimagining our future 

For the Division of Race and Equity, it is clear that we cannot move forward as a city and as a community by continuing to displace, disinvest, and cause harm to Black people. 

Neither can we move forward by allowing American Indians, Asian Pacific Islanders, LatinXs, or anyone else to be harmed because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religious practices, their gender, or their class status. 

For too long, racism and other forms of oppression – sexism, homophobia, xenophobia – has been the means that those in power have used to exploit others. 

This strategy of dominance drives fear and hate, and puts us all at risk. We all have a vested interest in figuring out how to live the next 10, 50, 100, and 400 years without subjugating each other.

And we have a collective responsibility to repair the harm that has already occurred by strategic economic investments, educational opportunities, and connections to resources that deepen health and wellness in our communities, particularly for Black people.

  

A final word 

As we remember, recover, and reimagine, the Division of Race and Equity has implemented a multi-pronged strategy that enables us to dig deeper into each of these areas:

• Sacred Conversations is an initiative that gives staff an opportunity to unpack what the 400 Year Commemoration means for them and their work.

• Our summer lecture series and online toolkit gives space for staff and residents to deepen their awareness of the history of oppression, resistance, and resilience. 

• We have also invited community organizations to host events throughout the months of August and September. We wanted to hold these two months as critical moments of engagement, and the Week of Resilience Aug. 19  – 23 as particularly sacred, because of the Jamestown, Va. date of Aug. 20. We are having a community-wide event on Thursday, Aug. 22 that will give city staff and community residents an opportunity to reflect and celebrate on our history together. 

Visit our website at www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/coordinator/Equity/recastminneapolis/WCMSP-218799 for more information.

We believe that this work will not only change how we talk about the history of enslavement through increased awareness and education, but it will be a catalyst in changing the narrative about Blackness in America, strengthening our collective ability to push for policy change that makes people’s lives better. 

Still Here: 400 Years of Resistance and Black Joy

Join the city of Minneapolis’ Division of Race and Equity on Aug. 22 to honor the 400 Year Commemoration of Oppression, Resistance and Liberation of African Americans at Sabathani Community Center, 5-8 p.m. 

We will reflect on the legacy of African Americans in this country, including how we have resisted and come through, and celebrate our persistent resilience and joy as we move forward. The event includes a lineup of speakers, performers, and you! It is open to the public, kid-friendly, and free. 

Register at https://app.smartsheet.com/b/form/e90cbca9e1314cb0bede14bd65d331bb

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