VIRGINIA KEY — The first rays of sunlight that broke across the dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday were greeted by the sound of African tribal drums on the shores of Virginia Key Beach.
Next to a small fire on the sand four percussionists played the deep-sounding
cadences their African ancestors often heard in their villages before they were brought to the Americas as slaves centuries ago.
It was a tribute that opened the 19th annual Sunrise Ancestral Remembrance of the Middle Passage ceremony, a grassroots observance organized by local African-American artists and community members to pause, give thanks and remember the millions of Africans who were captured and shipped to the U.S. and the Caribbean by European slave traders as far back as the 1600s.
Many slaves survived the grim conditions of the voyage on overcrowded, wooden ships. Others jumped off the ship to escape their captors or were thrown overboard as punishment.
“Remembrance is very profound,” said Catherine Hummingbird Ramirez, a Carib tribe shaman and tribal Indian queen who performed a Native American smoke and purification ritual to open the ceremony. The African slaves who were brought to the Americas “didn’t ask to come here,” she said. “They were dragged from their homeland.”
Like the African slave traders, millions of Native Americans of the U.S. and the Caribbean also suffered at the hands of European settlers. This group was also honored at Sunday’s ceremony.
“It is very important for future generations to know that these things happened,” said Hummingbird Ramirez, who has taken part in the ceremony during the past five or six years.
The drummers included 19-year-old Asata, who first attended the remembrance ceremony as an infant in 1994. That was the first time his mother, Miami Gardens-based artist Altine Baki, whose goes by her first name, first held the annual ceremony, which she helped establish with fellow local artist Dinizulu Gene Tinnie, on Virginia Key Beach.
The group started holding the ceremony on Haulover Beach in December 1992 after Altine heard from a friend who attended an ancestral remembrance ceremony at a college in New York.
As the two talked about the ceremony, Altine said her friend made an important point that inspired her to start the annual ceremony in Miami: “She said, ‘We’ve never done anything for those people.’ I thought it was necessary for someone to address the issue.”
Altine told South Florida Times that the history of Virginia Key Beach had nothing to do with her decision to start holding the ceremony there. In 1838, three Seminoles were killed on Virginia Key Beach during the Florida Wars. More than a century later, it became Miami’s “colored beach” during the segregation era.
“Something just said, ‘Come to Virginia Key,’” Altine said.
Shortly after dawn broke Sunday, ceremony participant Robert McKnight knelt on the moist sand and helped string together several palm fronds, building a small raft that the group would cast into the water at the end of the ceremony with offerings to honor the African and Native American ancestors.
The offerings included corn, apples, oranges, mangoes, tobacco, coconuts, eggs, and flowers — all staples the spirits would remember and recognize from their time on earth, the organizers said.
“They paved the way for us,” said McKnight, who first learned about the ceremony through his participation in the Kuumba Artist Collective with Tinnie.
Fellow participant Marlon Moore, who also learned about the ceremony through Tinnie, agreed.
“Everyone’s here for the same reason,” said Moore, who’s attended the annual ceremony since 2007.
After Hummingbird Ramirez finished her opening rituals, Tinnie described how the slaves were treated on the ships and said those who survived the three-month voyage from Africa to the Americas were worked to death on plantations in the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Hundreds of years removed from these atrocities makes it “hard to feel that they were people,” Tinnie told the group of about 50 participants who stood in a circle on the sand. “They had names. They had communities. They had lives.”
Several participants spoke during the three-hour ceremony, sharing their thoughts and ancestral remembrances. At the end of the ceremony, Tinnie, McKnight, Moore and a few others carried the makeshift raft, now filled with offerings, into the water and released it as a closing tribute to the African slaves and Native Americans who died long ago.
“Everybody mourns when somebody dies. These are the forgotten ones,” Altine said. “If we don’t honor them, who will?”
For more information about the Sunrise Ancestral Remembrance of the Middle Passage ceremony, call 786-260-1246 or 305-904-7620.
Photo: Khary Bruyning