"Mother Father God, we ask your everlasting peace upon the souls of the women, whose agonizing sickness pierced the sunlight, whose screams of terror filled the night as their womanhood was violated by beasts wearing the form of men. For the women, who lost their lives to despair when their infants were torn from their breasts; who gathered their skirts into nooses to find the final freedom; who squeezed the life from their own babies to save them from the horrors that lay ahead...
"Mother Father God, we ask your everlasting peace upon the souls of the children, who cried endless tears for want of the embrace of their mothers and fathers; whose budding womanhood and manhood was ravaged by their captors under cloak of night; who withered away unable to fight the diseases of their oppressors; who fell into waste-filled tubs and were drowned...
On September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama on a Sunday morning, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists and four little girls' Denise McNair age 11, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carol Robertson all age 14 were killed. Only one man, a Ku Klux Klan member, was tried and convicted for his role in the bombing (14 years after the fact) although as many as five others were believed to have been involved. The case now has been reopened - perhaps because of pressure generated by Spike Lee's feature length documentary about the attack titled Four Little Girls.
A recent headline in The Washington Post stated, "Controversy Erupts Over Civil Rights Memorial / Nude Statues Depicting Victims of 1963 Birmingham Church-Bombing Are Criticized as Racist." The six column story on August 17th included a photograph of the sculpture titled, "That Which Might Have Been, Birmingham, 1963" with John Henry Waddell, a white man who is the sculptor, standing in the middle of the four figures who stand in a circle facing outward. Waddell chose to depict the four young victims as adult, nude women and used 19 models - almost all of them white women.
One bronze casting of Waddells sculpture is permanently installed at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Phoenix and the other is in Waddell's Arizona studio awaiting approval of a site in Birmingham - an effort that has created strong controversy in Birmingham and also within the Unitarian Universalist Church. The Washington Post reported that the church's anti-racism committee stated, "The statue is weighted with both historic and contemporary symbols of oppression. Among these is the historic availability of black women as sexual objects to white men, the definition of the future of these girls as one of being merely sexual objects, and the visual similarity of the statue to depictions of the slave auction blocks." However, Jack Thorp, president of the Unitarian Church in Birmingham, was quoted as stating, "None of us dreamed there would be any problem getting the sculptures here. It's amazing how naive we were. I think it was a lack of sophistication out there. People couldn't get over the fact that they were nude."
The night before reading the story in The Washington Post, I had returned from my third trip to Ghana in West Africa. We again had visited Accra which is a city of 1.8 million people, Kumasi the center of the Asante empire of the 18th and 19th centuries and Akosombo the site of the hydroelectric dam on the Volta river that creates one of the largest lakes on the planet. And as before, we had journeyed westward up the coast from Accra to the slave dungeons of Elmina and Cape Coast. Of the 60 slave dungeons on the west coast of Africa, 40 were built by the Europeans in Ghana alone. Elmina was established by the Portuguese in 1482 as their first fort on the West Coast of Africa and the Dutch forcefully took it over in 1637. Cape Coast was established as the Swedish fort 'Carolusburg' in 1653 and was later controlled by the Dutch and British.
At Elmina, the largest slave dungeon on the West African coast, we walked across the drawbridge over the moat and into the central courtyard that contains a structure that once was a Roman Catholic Church.
Over the centuries, tens of thousands of captive African people were taken through the central courtyard past the door of the church and into the dungeons. When the Dutch captured Elmina from the Portuguese they turned the Catholic church into a storehouse, put their Protestant church in a room above the dungeons filled with African people and inscribed on its wall these lines from Psalm 132: "Zion is the Lord's resting place. This Is His eternal habitation."
In the central courtyard the girls and young women were separated from their fathers, brothers and husbands and placed in the female dungeon. Each evening they were forced into the small courtyard of the female dungeon and the Governor General of Elmina, standing on his balcony above, selected the African girl or young woman that he would rape that night. She was forced to climb the stairway from the courtyard up through the trapdoor into his quarters. I will never forget one day standing stunned in that courtyard as a white man and woman walked from the Governor Generals quarters onto the balcony laughing.
In the book Yurugu : An African-Centered Critique Of European Cultural Thought And Behavior Dr. Marimba Ani of Hunter College states, "In the African view of the human, the emotional-spiritual and the rational-material are inextricably bound together, and if anything, it is a human being's spirituality that defines her as human, providing the context within which she is able to create art as well as technology. Such a view leads to a very different emphasis in artistic expression. The emotional identification with, and participation in the art form by the person and the community are primary values that help to determine its shape. In this way the form itself becomes less of an 'object.' In European culture the tendency and emphasis are much the opposite. While artists my still attempt to evoke certain isolated emotional responses from their audiences, these responses theoretically have very little 'cultural' or 'moral' significance, and the entire experience from the creation of the objet d'art to its presentation is much more 'individualized.'"
In Haile Gerimas deeply thought provoking Sankofa, filmed at Elmina and Cape Coast, there is a powerful narration voiced by Oscar Brown, Jr. that at the beginning and end of the film calls out, "Spirit of the dead, rise up and tell your story ..." Eurocentric cultural imperialism defines itself as the "universal" human aesthetic expression and falsely defines all other aesthetics - Afrocentric particularly - as being narrow or parochial. This is what makes the Eurocentric aesthetic an unfit base for rising up and telling our story. Waddell's execution of his artistic vision and Thorp's belief that our objection to the sculpture is the result of "a lack of sophistication" both unconsciously grow out of a sick white supremacist philosophy that is at the center of Eurocentricity in our time. If we, as a African people in America, do not understand that in 1997 we are engaged in an ongoing struggle with a Eurocentric culture structured to be outwardly cloaked in the appearance of acceptable moral behavior for the purpose of disarming its intended cultural and political victims, then in the words of the litany of The Ancestral Mass "...my God have mercy on our souls."