VIRGINIA KEY — As the astronomical phenomenon of the “super full moon” faded in the dark warmth of the early summer sky, drums greeted the dawning sun in the east, rising over the waters of Biscayne Bay. Standing firm against a strong wind blowing from the south, a few yards from a sea turtle nest, a circle of people gathered in remembrance of the untold millions of others who did not survive the ocean crossing between Africa and the Americas during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Rather than a random or coincidental meeting on a Miami beach, the gathering was the continuation of what has become a special South Florida tradition: the annual Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony.
This year’s edition was held on historic Virginia Key.
“It’s in honor of the millions of people that lost their lives because of the slave trade,” said Robert McKnight, a local artist who has been actively involved with the event for many years. “It’s a chance to pay tribute, a way to pay homage to the ancestors that passed during that trip.”
1993, AND AGE-OLD
Altine, another local artist and a woman of great energy who started the Remembrance Ceremony on the first day of Kwanzaa in 1993, said the event has grown greatly since its first year at Haulover Park Beach in Northeast Miami-Dade County.
“Now we have Key West, and people all over the country” are hosting their own remembrance ceremonies. For example, San Francisco, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia, Pensacola, and Yorktown, Virginia all remember the countless humans whose remains abide in the murky depths of the ocean that brought the marauding caravels to the coasts of Africa for centuries. There is even an underground memorial — a circle of statues — in the clear blue waters of the Caribbean nation of Grenada.
“If we don’t remember them, who will?” asked Altine, who has had the remembrance on Virginia Key since 1994 with the support of organizations like the Kuumba Artists’ Collective and the Virginia Key Park Trust.
Ironically, a few months after Altine organized the first remembrance ceremony in Miami, UNESCO officially launched the International Slave Route Project at a conference in Benin.
The early morning ceremony is in honor of the “many people [that] died that were never properly buried,” said Dinizulu Gene Tinnie. “It is a time to pause and reflect on this whole passage of history that did take place.”
Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, an ancestral queen of the Carib nation, offered a spiritual cleansing for everyone in the circle with a lotion made out of plants, moving in a counter-clockwise direction. She then offered a blessing for the ancestors in “each of the four directions.”
“The ancestors are here,” said Hummingbird. “They’re listening.”
Hummingbird then lit white Garifuna sage — “a powerful medicine” — and reversed her direction, moving clockwise around the circle allowing the incense smoke to blow upon all. As she did so, she led those gathered in a greeting to Pachamaná, Mother Earth, and together they called on the Great Spirit to “bless the ancestors that were coming on those boats.”
The participation of Hummingbird was an important symbol, in that “She’s the connection between the ancestors that were here before everyone else came,” said McKnight. Many present spoke of the relationship between Seminoles and the Africans they helped escape to freedom along the almost unknown southern route of the Undeground Railroad, which ran just a few miles from where everyone was gathered.
“They’ve always been a part” of the remembrance, added Altine, who started the tradition with a
Miccosukee tribal leader. “They’re keepers of the land.”
Tinnie and others passed around ears of corn to everyone in the circle. “Corn is a sacred plant, it does not grow wild,” said Tinnie. These would be given as offerings in memory of the deceased.
With corn in their hands, the participants sang along with performance
artist Omilani who offered “a song for the people of the (African) Diaspora” in the Afro-Puerto Rican rhythm of bomba. With lyrics in English and Spanish, Omilani sang of “a whole lotta freedom in my heart and soul … tengoliberacion en mi corazon” (I have freedom in my heart). Pelicans glided overhead on the warm tradewinds as the song recalled the victims of the Middle Passage: “I left a trail of blood all across the ocean.”
More songs were sung, each having lyrics that evoked the spirit of remembrance.
Finally, the familiar strains of Wade in the Water began, and with that came the signal to bring forth the offerings that would be carefully placed upon a palm frond raft made that morning on the beach with the blade of a machete by Tinnie, McKnight and Marlon Moore. The offerings included apples, oranges, malanga, whole pineapples, okra, plantains, slices of watermelon, rice, ñame and the corn distributed to everyone.
“We encourage offerings to remember what these ancestors would have enjoyed,” said Tinnie.
Longtime participants of the Middle Passage Remembrance spoke all morning of special occurrences that happen every time they come together to pay respects to the ancestors.
“Every year there’s a sign,” said McKnight. He and Hummingbird spoke of a rain cloud a few years earlier that passed overhead shaped like the hull of a long-ago ship but “shed no tears.”
“The spiritual leaders tell you that’s confirmation,” Altine affirmed.
As the offerings were carried out into the sea by volunteers, others on the shore saw dolphins
nearby breaching the surface of the water to get a closer look.
For many present, the occasion to remember the nameless Africans buried beneath the waves also served to kindle spiritual feelings and remembrances of loved ones recently passed. Kiesha, a professional from New England who recently moved to Miami, said she felt “overwhelmed” during the ceremony.
“This was a chance to feel something deep inside of me and get in touch with my ancestors,” said Kiesha, who took time to remember her mother, who passed 13 years earlier on the very same day.
McKnight said that with the passing of some of his relatives during the past 12 months, this year’s remembrance ceremony had added meaning. “It brings it closer to home,” he said. “The remembrance is a new beginning to call on my ancestors to help me get through another year.”
For organizers, the event is a celebration of humanity. “It welcomes everybody,” said Tinnie. McKnight called it “a way of paying homage to all of the ancestors.”
The remembrance also is considered an affirmation of resilience. “You can’t kill our spirit,” said Hummingbird.
There was one more sign observed by participants. Throughout the ceremony, a small squadron of frigate birds floated over the circle of people on the warm winds blowing to the north. Normally seen only by ships, when the ceremony ended, they flew away.