Today I visited a slave castle. Sounds like something in a movie, right? Some re-creation in an Upper West Side museum of what we might “think” it was like. But no, this was a real castle where Portuguese and Dutch soldiers lived and collected slaves before they were shipped off to America and the Caribbean during the Intercontinental Slave Trade.
Its hard to put into words how I felt as the tour guide explained the stories that took place in each room. The easiest word I can use to describe it is “heavy”. I felt like the weight of thousands of ancestors were resting on my shoulders as I listened. He showed us a long dark room where the slaves were held, shackled together, and if they wanted to use the bathroom they had to get to the bucket across the room. But remember, they are shackled together, which means they ALL had to go across the room. But many were too weak to move. Or were sleeping. Or bleeding. Or dying or…you get the idea. So for a room packed with 100 people, I would imagine few were able to actually make it all the way to the bucket several times a day.
He showed us the dungeon where the women were held and showed us the ball and chain the women were attached to if they refused to be raped by the soldiers. There was a small virtually unventilated room where the “trouble makers” were sent – not for a 5 year bid with parole in 2 years. They were sent there to die. Slowly. They just left them in there with no food or water until they died. The soldiers did not remove the dead bodies as they expired, for fear of being overtaken by the remaining men in the room. So they waited until they all were dead and then cleaned the room out. The stench alone probably made the slaves want to commit suicide.
The one part of the tour that struck me the most was the room where worship was held. There was a scripture from the New Testament still written above a window that looked out into the ocean below us. The guide told us that directly beneath the worship room was the dungeon we had just visited, where the women were held. As the sound of the tour guide’s accent faded into my own daydream, I imagined how these Dutch soldiers prayed for material indulgences and blessings from God while beneath their feet emanated the moans of women dying from disease, in pain from menstrual cramping and giving birth to still born babies. How do you think a God can bless you when you are essentially murdering dozens of people a day? How?
I’ve read the watered down accounts in American history books about the slave trade. I’ve seen Roots. I’ve seen life-size exhibits of the men and women who endured the conditions in the Middle Passage. This is not breaking news to me. However, seeing the actual place where these people were held, tortured and died was….a lot. The more stories he told the heavier I felt, like I had gained 70 pounds and was going to walk through my flip flops right into the stone floors of the castle.
You would think that someone who has to recount this type of massacre on a daily basis would be bitter and angry, but our tour guide ended on quite a positive note. He told us that they do not do the tour to remind people of the injustices that took place or for us to dwell on it. They do it so that we may move forward as a people and do everything we can to insure that this type of tragedy never, ever happens again.
I took that not literally, but as a figurative challenge. Those of us who were blessed enough to be born of descendants who actually survived (apparently 30% of those who were captured) need to do our part individually and collectively to ensure that our people are finally freed. We may be free physically, but there is so much emotional and spiritual bondage that continues to reside in our spirits, it will take centuries to fully reverse. And its not an easy task or else it would be done by now. But if a woman can sleep in feces, bleed on herself monthly, be raped by strangers, give birth to the children of her rapist, then be brought to America and told her child is more human than she is because of their complexion, the LEAST I can do is do my part in 2011 to free a least one young woman from whatever residual emotional baggage I can by giving back.
I encourage anyone reading this that has the opportunity to work with our young people to do the same. Because like the tour guide said, its not about what happened yesterday. It’s about what we can prevent tomorrow.