Over centuries, increasing sensitivity to the history of all peoples has been developing. A major example of this is that humanitarians now urge implicit respect for different cultures and beliefs. None of these efforts is more important than protecting and preserving sacred ancestral burial sites and the remains they contain. Recently, the discovery of an African burial ground in Lower Manhattan was a particularly important cultural event. The burial ground was unearthed during the construction of a federal courthouse, and required twelve years to properly acknowledge the grave site and the key piece of African American history it represents. As a result, a paradigm has emerged providing a model for other such preservation efforts of which the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project is one. We regard the African burial ground discovery as one lesson in how to address the historical and cultural implications, and certainly the politically sensitive ramifications, of claiming and acknowledging ancestral African legacies.

Significantly, the African burial ground discovery is itself a beneficiary of federal legislation originally intended to protect sacred areas related to Native American cultures. Now, various ethnic groups within the United States may discover that they have the authority to determine where and how to honor or commemorate their dead as preservation efforts evolve. Once the history has been effectively determined and the site defined, it is now by law the decision of the “descendant community,” not the government or any other group, to decide what course of action is appropriate. This understanding empowers this project as well.

The Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project will use such an approach in each nation and city in which a marker is installed. Consistently, we state that that each community will decide what the actual installation ceremony and marker will be. After all, we are now involving in most cases the descendants of the Africans who actually arrived at these individual ports. Who would be more appropriate to make that decision?

For many anthropologists and historians in particular, this has been a revolutionary concept. Taking history and research out of the purely academic and scientific realm and bringing it to everyday people has not been the norm except for a few scholars. Formerly a mildly tolerated and quaint notion, the concept of a descendant community is now a legal requirement. For instance, the incorporation of oral history as a recognized and accepted data source is still viewed askance by some scholars, and others are grappling with how to do it effectively. The general public and anyone who has served on a jury accepts that a narrative, any narrative, may have different and sometimes conflicting versions of the same event. We assert that triangulating many versions of a story may serve a better historical purpose than declaring there is only one truth.

The blog has already been challenged for its point of view on some topics. Certainly we do not presume to set ourselves as historians on the same footing as Howard Zinn. But in Zinn’s monumental work, A People’s History of the United States, historical data from a variety of perspectives, including oral history, was frequently employed. Often, we will do the same. Whoever writes the history and chooses what to tell defines its content. If one does that long enough and consistently enough, what is taught and what people believe may not be either the full story or an accurate one. For example, the state of Texas has adopted an educational policy that will no longer teach the history of slavery in the US, but will refer to this as the “triangular trade.” African slaves in other historical texts are referred to as “servants,” and people in Latin countries do not even realize that they are of African descent. We must challenge long-accepted versions and definitions of history, scrutinizing the language as well.

America is not the United States, it is the Western Hemisphere. Historical links among people in the Caribbean, Central America and US mainland were always strong and often interchangeable. The separation and boundaries projected by present day perceptions did not exist during the European conquest of this region. It was a very fluid experience.

An accurate and full history makes us a stronger people.