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400 years after American slavery began, I can feel the shackles

Middle Passage shackles used on slave ships | AP Photo/Matt Rourke

VIRGINIA BEACH — Virginia-sitting here, just off the boardwalk in this coastal resort city, white-frosted waves of the Atlantic Ocean lap at the shores. They crash without ceasing amid a cacophony of summer sounds.

A fighter jet roars overhead. A man wearing an Indiana Pacers jersey taps a bucket. Music blares from a speaker above the swirling ceiling fan of an outdoor patio at Hemingway’s Restaurant.

Skate boarders and bicycle trolleys pass by my perch almost in slow motion against a multiracial backdrop of skin — and bones — sunbathing, parasails that dot a blue horizon, and a rainbow of umbrellas and canopies fighting against the beating sun.

A cool wind flutters the emerald limbs of plants and palm trees. It is a refreshment to my body but not my soul, not my mind, which, even on this side of the Atlantic, drifts thousands of miles to the other side. To the journey, the Maafa, endured by Africans in the Middle Passage to American slavery.

That Virginia, Jamestown specifically, was the first soil in America that black Africans first set foot on is not lost on me. Even as I sip my iced spirits.

That the year 2019 will mark the 400th year since my ancestors arrived upon America’s shores as shackled human cargo, not immigrant passengers, also does not escape my consciousness. Nor does the truth that from 1619 to 2019 — 400 years of the journey from slavery to the New Jim Crow — the chains remain.

Not the chains we were unable to elude upon our historic beginnings as human chattel whose blood, sweat and tears mixed with the dirt in which the foundation of America rests. But chains of oppression. Chains now more mental than physical.

Systemic chains as American as baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Chains intoxicatingly numbing and symbolized by socioeconomic demographics that paint a portrait of black life in America that 155 years since the Emancipation Proclamation screams, “The Negro still is not free.”

Chains. They are invisible to the eye as I sit here off this ocean, a 21st century descendant of American slaves.

And yet, I see them. Chains of mass incarceration. Mass murder. Mass poverty and mass oppression. Mass dispossession.

Among these chains though, I must confess — even on the verge of beginning another century of black life in America — are “chains” that too many of us as African Americans do not resist well enough. Or perhaps it is that we sometimes seem to embrace them, at least sometimes to wear like fine jewelry. Perhaps we have come to accept them as inescapable — lulled into passivity by our shackles.

But we must seek freedom. From the mass slaying of black men by black men; from the discrimination by us against us due to classism or colorism; from capitalistic consumption and me-ism that saturates even the church…

That does not absolve white America. She still has our fresh blood on her hands. Still unapologetically devours us like food at a buffet.

But more often than by the hands of white cops, we succumb daily to homicide and assorted forms of tribalism by our own hands. Truth.

And given the history of 400 years of slavery, racial oppression, hatred and disenfranchisement, I have also come to accept this truth: The cavalry ain’t coming.

Except freedom has never rested in our oppressor’s hands.

I was reminded of this truth while passing through eight of America’s original 13 colonies this week, even past a corner in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, where slaves were once auctioned.

Truth shines. I see it.

Even as the sun begins to set over the ocean, the wind whispers, and the waves crash, carrying the spirit voices of my ancestors.


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