Omnira Institute Revives African American Grave-Sweeping Day


A participant places an offering of food on one of  the graves at Evergreen Cemetery at the AADOTA in 2017. Photo by Tracy Brown.

Omnira Institute is hosting its 3rd Annual African American Day of the Ancestors on Sunday Nov. 4, 2018, at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland.
In part a response to the renowned Dia de Los Muertos celebrated by Latinos, the AADOTA is also meant as a revival of a cultural observance among African Americans a few generations ago known as “Grave-Sweeping Day.”
Where Jim Crow prevailed, Black people had their own, separate graveyards. Often under the auspices of church leadership, Black folks took a day to attend the graves, cutting grass and sweeping away detritus. An all-day affair, they took a picnic lunch.
“Grave-Sweeping Day,” actually comes from long-standing practices all over the African continent of caring for the memory of African ancestors from which Haiti’s Gede celebration and the Catholic All Saints’ Day of New Orleans are derived.
And although Dia de Los Muertos has European Christian influence, much of the practice utilizes customs and languages of indigenous people originating in places all over the Western Hemisphere.
Omnira Institute organizers chose Evergreen Cemetery as the site of the event because the Jonestown suicide victims’ whose bodies were not claimed are buried there in a mass grave.
“By sweeping those graves, we are refusing to erase the memory of the faith and aspirations of the members of Peoples’ Temple who built Jonestown,” said OI Executive Director Wanda Ravernell. “Uprooting themselves from their homes in the San Francisco-Bay Area, the members had gone to Guyana to make a better life for themelves.”
This is the 40th anniversary of the horrible day that gave rise to the ghoulish expression “drank the Kool-Aid.” Most of the residents of  Jonestown were Black, had lived in San Francisco and were under the age of 25.
“It was another tragedy in our history where there was a loss of potential in our community,” Ravernell said.
The ceremony will include a litany of songs for the ancestors in Yoruba accompanied by Bata drums, offerings of food and ritual sweeping of the grave markers while the names of the victims are called out loud. The public, especially people of African descent, is welcome.
The African American Day of the Ancestors will be on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2018, from 2-4 p.m. at Evergreen Cemetery, 6450 Camden St. (around 64th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard) Oakland, CA. For more information, call (510) 332-5851.


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