A somber yet hopeful crowd gathered June 9 around the grave of Lee Harvey Dobbins at Westwood Cemetery for this year’s Maafa memorial service.
Maafa is a Kiswahili term for “great disaster” or “terrible occurrence” and references the millions of Africans who died in captivity during their trip to America, some choosing to jump into the sea over a life of enslavement.
Maafa also remembers African-Americans murdered before and after the abolition of slavery, including the Red Summer of 1919 and Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
After Adenike Sharpley of Juneteenth Oberlin led a rendition of “Left Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the Rev. Roger Dickerson emphasized the nine Tuskegee Airmen whose memorial debuted at Martin Luther King Jr. Park during the weekend’s Juneteenth festivities.
“Men have given their lives yet they have not been respected when they came home,” he said. “They’ve given their lives and are still treated as second-class citizens. But today we are trying desperately to turn this around and make everybody a first-class citizen.”
“Let it be done,” he said. “Because God who created you also created me and everyone else around us. He created one people and he called them all by name — not by race, or color, but by name.”
Khalid Taylor, Daniel Spearman, and Gloria Lewis performed “Amazing Grace,” speaking of the dark and often forgotten history of the song’s creator, John Newton, who was a captain of slave ships before eventually supporting abolitionism.
“What’s ironic is that the same lyrics and words white people use in hymns were also used by black people and have a different meaning,” said Taylor. “They put their soul, which is the blues, into this music. The blues and soul we found then is still being commodified, taken, and consumed by this country to this day. Our work is valued but not our bodies or lives.”
A rifle salute from the 5th United States Colored Troops concluded the ceremony.
Sharpley briefly referenced the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which has been interpreted as endorsing the punishment of African-American slaves hired by the British to fight in the War of 1812.
She said after the ceremony that education is the key to shining more light on aspects of history many are eager to forget.
“If all people’s history is included in our history books, these things would be common knowledge,” she said. “Most history books are skewed toward those who’ve had privilege throughout history or those who are the majority. The bottom part of a society usually has their history left out.”
“Space needs to be made for anyone to put on historical events like this, especially those who’ve struggled in America,” she said. “We’re not the privileged. Therefore, it’s very hard for some to talk about what they did to a whole group of people. Some did it in the name of God. Who wants to look that ugly? The best thing for a lot of people is to just forget or ignore it. Just like the Holocaust in Germany, the Holocaust here must be talked about so it doesn’t happen again.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.