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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Mathis


No one can figure out your worth but you.

Pearl Bailey

They saw themselves as others had seen them. They have been formed by the images made of them by those who had had the deepest necessity to despise them.

James Baldwin

A child cannot be taught by someone who despises him.

James Baldwin

As I considered my Sabbatical, without question, I knew It was very important for me to go to West Africa, thus, I found myself in Senegal with the specific intent of experiencing the slave castle on Goree Island, one of the spaces that was the final departure place for my ancestors to the "new world." If I was to look at Blackness at the intersection of the Black Church/Faith Communities as agents for nurturing and developing authentic community for Black people, locally and globally, it was incumbent upon me to visit important places of departure for our people to what is now the Diaspora, especially to take in the spirit of our ancestors that reside in and through the slave castles of West Africa. I believe my visit to the slave castles would give me a perspective of my ancestors as well as their sense of community and its import to what I have come to know as community, a community in which my lived-experience fuels my Blackness. Therefore, prior to my Sabbatical I commissioned to test my DNA so as to give some context to what I would experience and learn while in what perhaps was the habitat and/or at least the departing space of my ancestors. The DNA results revealed I am more than likely a descendant of the Western Bantu people, a people largely concentrated in Central Africa and eventually migrated to West Africa, either because natural patterns of migration or as a direct result of the slave trade. As a result, I was extremely anxious and excited about my time in West Africa, including my visit to the salve castles in Senegal and Ghana to both sense and feel the spirit of my ancestors and their journey through the “Door of No Return.”

The “Door of No Return” symbolized the final step to the emotional and physical bonding designed by the white collective to ensure that we would not only be tamed as a people for their service but also to no longer see ourselves as who we are, but instead to wear labels as who they determine we will be. It was with this sense of emotions that I, a descendant of slaves, my ancestors who endured the brutality of American slavery, the horrific and inhumane experience of the mIddle passage, the demoralizing and emotional as well as physical abuse of habitation in the slave castles, and not to mention the rigorous march from Central Africa to the slave castles through known and unknown dangers, I was forced to confront and process not only who I was but also who they, the white collective, were and/or are. Without question, my visit was quite emotional and yet spiritually challenging as well as compelling to the amazing, rich, and powerful history of our people that bespeaks our strength, especially internal strength, and our character for resilience which in many ways caused us to pivot in order to prosper, not because of a desire for the white collective to repent, but instead rooted in the confidence of who we are, individually and collectively, defining ourselves in which we live, move, and have our being, our Blackness, despite it all. It suggests to me that there must have been a sense of internal power that fueled not only survival but the power and determination to thrive, again not just individually, but also collectively. In America, for instance the standard operating procedure among slave owners was to ensure that their slaves did not speak the same language, forbade them to learn how to read and write, and even prevented them from gathering without their permission or presence and yet they were able to survive by nurturing and developing community among themselves, creating spaces that provided for their general welfare and their advancement with the means of the community on behalf of the community. Thus, those of us who grew up in the south and to some extent in the urban north so remember the extension of home was to next door, the neighborhood, school, church/faith communities with community flowing from each one to another. Data from the slave castles and research of historians would indicate that is what community look like before slavery, during slavery, and especially the years of Black communities' formation throughout the Diaspora. However, I wish I could say the same about community in modern day Africa and the African Diaspora from what I could observe on my journey through West Africa and the Diaspora, it appears that the natural and authentic sense of community has been diluted and I would suggest that dilution is a direct result of the white collective’s, including the liberalest, influence and labeling which has created division and a desire to be anything else but Black, not to mention to be connected with that which is Black. The white collective have forced us to define ourselves through the lenses of their measures, thus smothering our own Blackness, creating a sense of self-hatred and/or inadequacy, within and among us, which I suspect is a substantial component of Black-on-Black crime, violence, and corruption. The truth is that one’s value and worth cannot be connected to what people think of you or what box they wish to put you in, instead it is what how you value yourself. I think in many ways many of us struggle with our self-worth because we live in a society, a Western-European sphere, in which we are defined by who people say you are and/or how we are perceived because of our Blackness, encouraging us to be less Black and more American, less Black and more French, less Black, and more English and on and on and on until we are consumed with being more American, French, English than the Americans, French, and English are.

As a result of my experience in West Africa, especially Senegal, I became more confident in the belief that we need to create spaces that are intentional and exclusive for us to be our authentic selves in order to cultivate courageous conversations in which we are honest with one another in order to detoxify ourselves from what we have been told about us and who others want us to be. We must create spaces to tease out, discover our own value and in so doing, the experience of our ancestors in places like Goree Island will stand as a true testament not just to the horrors of slavery but more so of what a strong and mighty people we are despite our challenges. We must accept the challenge to live in the energy and power of our Blackness as seen through our history and our supernatural resilience causing us to pivot in our circumstances, whatever they may be, in order to define our own selves, drive our own narrative so as to reimagine outcomes that causes us to thrive. Without a doubt, the labels wrought upon us through our history, including the era of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, has had an impact, it was very obvious from my time in Senegal, however, so was our potential and greatness as seen clearly through the lens of our history. The creation of communal spaces that promotes, nurtures, and sustains our Blackness, are spaces which are Black owned and operated, were we can speak courageous truths to ourselves concerning our lived experiences as more than victims, but also victors, gleaning from them our power of resilience, strength and ingenuity as a collective communal people will go a long way in our emotional and collective detachment from labels other than what we choose and define. Ultimately, it is how we see ourselves and how we measure our own outcomes that determines how others will see and define us. Thus, we no longer have to plead for a space at other's tables to show us the way (being led by those who really despise us and our Blackness), we are well equipped to create our own and drive them to our tables.

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