We give praise to those who came before us, fighting for the right to be free. Who were they? They are our ancestors, who suffered unendurable pain. Pain, from the snake-like whip that mutilated their flesh as it bit into their body and soul. Branded with hate, leaving a scar of ominous fear that breaks down the spirit of men who no longer have free will. They were people with their own customs of the spirit. Warrior ancestors, believers in the power of the earth and spiritualism. They were people of strength, bonded by family unity, nature, and their ancient beliefs—until the Europeans invaded them and broke their customs and chained them with unjust, inhumane punishment and torture. Beaten down to nothing by the hearts of barbarous men.
The fear that our ancestors lived with in their everyday existence wasn’t of hunger, or a beating, nor of unspeakable torture, but of the ever-threatening evil of separation from family and not being able to ever see them again. The sound of a man bidding his wife and his children good-bye, torn from the family union. How do you console the unending grieving mother’s pain, seeing her child sold and taken away, or heal the burning anger of a father who feels powerless to protect his family? In their lifetime would death be their only salvation? Who would save them from this torment of enslavement? Would slavehood be his family’s destiny as well as his own?
Just imagine in the depths of your heart seeing the bidder’s face; envision the voices of these soulless people auctioning off human beings as if they were livestock. Without a soul, just three-fifths of a man, with no rights, no image of a human being. Just an object to be sold and owned. Imagine if you were standing there, watching your life disappear. As the slave owner’s voice is ringing in your ears and the ache in your spirit as the auctioneer looks satisfyingly at you and wails “SOLD!,” and the highest bidder says to you, “You’re mine now, boy.”
Our ancestors were enslaved for profit. They were captured and forced into slave ships to be sold like animals and brought to this new world, an entity that they did not understand. But lessons were beaten into their bodies and souls. They died not knowing the reasons why. But death would unlock their chains of slavery, death would give them their freedom—freedom from the law of the land and freedom from hatred and the evil-minded.
The slave’s dignity was peeled away as he stood on the bidder’s box, half-faced and in fear. He must bow down to the master’s whip and forget about his homeland, which is now a distant place. Soon to become a memory that his eyes cannot see, his hands cannot touch; but his heart can feel the drumbeat of his motherland, Africa. Africa sounds no more and it becomes a reality to just be where he is—in the belly of the slave ship, overcrowded and unsanitary, a ship of death. With his body and soul in chains, never again will he walk upon his homeland, among his people, or be free. He knows that his beginning, his roots, will not be the same because his seeds will be planted in a different place and cultivated on uneven ground.
I would only hope that the slaves would be proud of what we’ve become today. We are carrying on their vision of freedom and fighting the battle that they didn’t get a chance to fight. If they had only known that someday there would be heroes to fight for freedom, and the sacrifices they were forced to make would not be in vain.
They would be proud because we are still fighting to bring about change until the chain of equality is complete and can’t be broken. We honor those who came before us, who sacrificed their lives so we can stand here today and be free. We honor those who fought for our freedom and now our independence.
We celebrate the triumph of Malcolm X, political and spiritual leader; Thurgood Marshall, civil rights jurist; Booker T. Washington, educator, advocate, spokesman; Ida B. Wells, crusader for justice; Shirley Chisholm, first African American woman elected to Congress; James Weldon Johnson, who wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” our Black national anthem; Benjamin Quarles, who wrote about Black people who fought for victory in the Revolutionary War; and Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, who fought against slavery and for women’s rights. And let us not forget Crispus Attucks, the first man to have slept in the “Cradle of Liberty” after his blood was the first shed for the independence of America. There have been many great patriots, but none greater than Crispus Attucks.
They paid the price for our freedom, let us not forget what they had to endure for our freedom and rights. They fought a good fight. Let us fight a better one because they paved the way to higher ground; let us cultivate change with the tools of understanding and compassion and harvest the crops of freedom, independence, and equality.
Mrs. Cleveland is an artist, writer, and playwright who is inspired by her admiration for the experience and endurance of African Americans through the centuries. She was born in Louisiana but has resided in Urbana for many years.
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