2019: A Significant Anniversary for African Americans

Oluale Kossula, commonly known as Cudjo Lewis. Public domain photo.

Part 1

This Juneteenth is a poignant one for African Americans.

Next month, as it has for the last 12 years, Omnira Institute will present its unique Juneteenth celebration.

Instead of a parade or festival, it is a Ritual of Remembrance for those enslaved ancestors who died before freedom came. OI honors their memory as best they can in the languages and spiritual traditions the people had before enslavement.

In main, the ceremony will be Oro Egun, a litany of prayers in Yoruba for the elevated ancestors who were invoked as protectors of the people in what is now Nigeria.

This year, on the 160th anniversary of his capture, OI will honor Cudjo Lewis, otherwise known as Oluale Kossula, who was one of the survivors of  the last known Middle Passage journey from Africa to the United States.

Kossula was a Yoruba man.

His capture and enslavement just a few years before the Emancipation Proclamation was a cynical act by Southern slaveholders who believed their hold  on the U.S. economy would make them the winners in a civil war or allow them to flourish  in secession.

They were almost right. As tensions rose, and it seemed the two sides were on the brink of war, four men outfitted a ship to sail from Mobile, Ala., to Africa with the intent of buying and bringing back Africans to work.

It was August of 1859, more than 40 years after U.S. law forbid the importation of Africans from abroad, when the Clotilda set sail for Whydah, on the West Coast of Africa, where, after several centuries of such plunder, selling captives from so-called local wars had regrettably become a way of life.

The men and women smuggled into Alabama were sold to nearby plantations, others kept by their original captors who were eventually fined for breaking the law (The fine was never enforced).

Ostracized by the African Americans for their ignorance of domestic ways as well as their inability to speak English, the Yoruba managed as best they could to maintain the ways of their countrymen.

When the war was over in 1865, they voted among themselves to return to Africa, but couldn’t raise the money. They decided, therefore, to have their own settlement, and, in 1872, they endeavored to buy the land from their former owners that would become known as Africatown in what is now Plateau, Ala.

Like other Black towns, their autonomy gave them some protection from white people, but unlike other Black towns, this one provided protection from Americans:  they spoke the language of their forebears without having to speak English; the Africans conducted their community in much of the way of their Yoruba ancestors.

In 1928, Black anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston went to interview Kossula who had been born around 1840 in what is now the Bante region of Benin in Nigeria.

Captured as a teenager, he would become a farmer and laborer, a leader among his fellow Africans. He and his wife, fellow captive Abila, had six children who all tragically preceded him in death through sickness, accident and one even unjustly killed by a Black deputy sheriff..

For this writer, Kossula’s story was a marvel. Like Kossula himself, who wept when someone finally came to get his life story, I was awestruck to learn there had been people in the U.S. from the time of the tradition OI has tried to uphold.

On June 8, OI and its guests will call his name and the names of  other residents of  Africatown, Ala., who lived out their lives as Africans surrounded by people who reviled them for being themselves.

Please join us.

The 12th Annual Juneteenth Ritual of Remembrance is on Saturday,  June 8 at the Lake Merritt Boathouse picnic area, 562 Bellevue Ave.in Oakland, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Free. For more information, please all (510) 332-5851.


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