I have finished watching Underground, the new, high drama, television series. Each episode was jammed pack with depictions of almost every antebellum issue commonly known from American history: the inhuman conditions under which Africans were enslaved; good white people (abolitionists); bad white people (owners; slave catchers; sympathizers, et al); good slaves (appeasers) versus bad slaves (recalcitrant runaways); relationships between house and field slaves; relationships between slaves and masters; the appearance of normalcy amidst the insanity of a system wherein one set of human beings buys and trades another set – like so much chattel. It is the undeniable story of the economic backbone of America; still unredeemed. Reparations anyone?
Recently, I had a discussion with a young fashion designer from Zimbabwe about the reconciliation talks which have taken place throughout South Africa. I lamented that we have yet to have those talks in the USA (putting aside civil rights legislation for a moment). She reminded me that there is still a deep, underlying tension- almost palpable- there; that the problems of apartheid are still very much unresolved in South Africa.
Yes, there has been more land-sharing, and there are ongoing attempts to reach a more equitable redistribution of resources back to the original people, but there is nothing nearing parity.
A few years ago, I visited South Africa. I met and interacted with four distinct African peoples: the San (or the so-called Hottentots, called that, a Dutch word for ‘click,’ which is a sound used in the native’s language; the Zulus, tribe of Mandela; and the Xhosa. Oh yes, and the whites who forcibly took land from the natives-the Afrikaners.
Of note, all the native peoples had names that either told of their family origin, and/or their circumstances of birth (day, time, location, environmental conditions); one’s social standing in their tribe/villages, etc. The names I liked the most were the aspirational ones; especially those which projected great expectations.
I was enthralled.
I visited Cape Town, and while there, I spent hours in the Museum of African Slavery where I found a history of African slave trading which was conducted within, and around the continent for centuries before the Atlantic Slave Trade – the one that brought most of our ancestors to the west. Slavery is an ancient practice, and debates about the varying quality of the experience are still ongoing.
I am not interested in any arguments in defense of the merits of one type of slavery over another. I have always believed that one human being cannot ethically own another – and that it is always wrong, under any/all laws; i.e., tribal traditions; Christian, Muslin, Roman, Confucianism; other world religions, etc.
I believe that the enslavement of human beings is an expression of power, dominance and control – nothing more.
While the series, Underground, has completed its run for the season, returning in 2017, to fill in the gap, there is a growing anticipation of the remake of Roots, ostensibly to educate another generation about the history of Africans in America.
But will this updated made-for-television series begin to make a difference? And, can it start us on the road to real reconciliation and/or reparations?
On reflection, I recall that Roots started in Africa, but unfolded in America with the demoralizing, brutal renaming of Kunte Kenteto Toby. It was a powerful moment and, once again made me long for my real name. You know, the one I would have had in the mother country.
What would that have been? How many syllables would it have? What story would it tell? I would have known who I was; to whom I belonged; what I was meant to be, from the moment of my birth-like Kunte. I still mourn the erasure of my name.
My dad called me Antonia. What kind of word is that? In my research, I found a Greek fortress named Antonia that was housed in the original Temple in Jerusalem. Imagine that! Also, Antonia was the name of Cleopatra’s flag ship. Impressive, but still not me. What about my historical legacy? Perhaps I was supposed to be a woman who runs with the elephants: powerful. Or, maybe crowned queen, mother of kings. Or, designated as simply a water bearer, born under a full moon, etc.
They called me Toby. Or, in the case of my early female family members, Clara Belle, Frances, Hattie, Euterpe (there is that Greek thing again). What meaning do they carry? Where is the hope and expectation in those names?
I want to rename myself: I am a woman who tells the truth; who walks upright; with an unbowed head; a member of the human race.
Can someone come up with the (west) African words for that moniker, please?
Give me free. Give me my name. Then, maybe I might begin to feel as if I’ve been paid in full.