A Trip Back to the Middle Passage and Arriving at America’s Independence Day!
No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck. – Frederick Douglass
Once again, I am celebrating America’s independence by working to enhance democracy in Nigeria. This past week, I traveled to Calabar, Cross River State, Nigeria for work. Calabar is said to be the number one tourist destination in Nigeria (for Nigerians). The city host carnival celebration each December that is very popular among Nigerians and other West Africans. But buried deep in the city of Calabar, along the river is a small museum dedicated to the history of slave trade. During the 18th century, Calabar became a busy Portuguese port for exporting humans from the African continent to other parts of the world. The museum was a sobering reminder of the tragic and inhuman practice that dominated the world for centuries. Human beings were captured and sold into slavery, forced to sail across vast oceans, where many of them died and eventually forced to work on plantations in the “New World.” Slavery is a dark stain on the history of United States and the world. The American forefathers struggled to adequately deal with the issue of slavery when forming the new government. 76 years later, their inability to settle the slave issue led the country into a brutal four year Civil War.
An exhibit from the Slave Museum depicting the selling of a slave at a market in the “New World.”
We (Americans) are a very proud and patriotic people. We celebrate the 4th of July with barbecues, fireworks and patriotic concerts. It’s a yearly reminded that the early “British”-Americans desired to be free of what they deemed a repressive and tyrannical ruler, King George III. But we also are a complicate people, having spent the last 229 years wrestling with the true meaning of freedom. I once had a roommate in college that wanted to hang the confederate battle flag in our dorm room. We had a long and constructive conversation about the flag and in the end he decided not to hang it. His reasoning was a combination of his faith and respect for me as an individual. I respect him for his decision because of the honest and frank conversations we had about race, the South and the confederate battle flag. To my roommate, the flag was a sign of heritage, his ancestors left home to fight the newest tyrannical ruler, Abraham Lincoln and his repressive government. To me, it was a reminded of a time when my ancestors were forced into bondage and unable to take advantage of Thomas Jefferson’s words of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The flag’s reemergence in the 1960 represented a time when my parents were forced to attend separate schools, enter through businesses and homes through the backdoor and drink from separate water fountains. The flag represented a heritage of divisiveness, separation and disunity, none of the things that I associate with the United States.
At the Slave History Museum in Calabar.
In my earlier blog “Confederates in the Closet”, I discovered that a direct ancestor fought in the Civil War. Boaz Whitefield Bush and his family lived in Marengo County, Alabama. Maybe to Boaz, what he was doing in 1861 was noble and just. His parents were slave holders and the present U.S. government was a threat to their way of life. Picking up arms and forcing a separation between the southern states and the northern states was the only way to preserve their state’s right to direct its own affairs. Boaz served in the 11th Alabama Infantry Regiment fighting in battles in Virginia. The 11th Alabama consisted of 1,192 men during the war. 270 of those men were killed in action or mortally wounded and 200 men died of disease. An additional 170 men were discharged from the regiment, including my third great grandfather. He returned to Alabama in 1863 after being wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville. As Boaz was fighting to protect “states’ rights”, he was also fighting to preserve a system where men and women were treated like property and had no rights as human beings. Boaz had also fathered a child with one of his slaves, which I am sure he never brought up to the other men in the confederate camps. It is easy to romanticize the efforts of southern men that left home and fought for what they believed in but to do this also negates the true reason they were fighting. They were fighting to preserve the status quo, whether they had slaves or not.
The 1850 census for Marengo County, Alabama. Lewis B. Bush is listed with his 25 slaves between the ages of 2 and 75. Lewis Bush was my fourth great grandfather. And one of those slaves he owned was my third great grandmother.
Racial relations are once again a hot topic in the United States. The death of nine innocent black Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina has put the confederate flag back into the public discussion. The goal should not be to remove the flag from our consciousness because it is an important relic from our history. However, it should never be on par with the American flag. In December 2013, as foreigners and expatriates were being evacuated from South Sudan, it was the American government that within 48 hours was evacuating its citizens, not the Confederate States of America. A random point to make but one that has solidified my trust and resolve in the American experience and what we have achieve as the United States of America. The U.S. has a complicated history.
From a trip to Gettysburg in 2005. I participated in a lecture walk with a National Park Ranger who led us along Pickett’s Charge. The flag led the charge as we walked across the open landscape of the Pennsylvania countryside.
The confederate battle flag doesn’t have to fly on government property for us to remember the sacrifices that took place on sacred battle grounds across the American landscape. The history that we portray to future generations should tell the story of how we arrived at our current destination, not how we dream of a yesteryear that has come and gone.
Happy Independence Day, United States of America! Let’s strive to move forward in the 21st Century and not get bog down in battles of the past.