by Nia Wilson
March 13, 2015 – One week ago, four members of SpiritHouse Inc., left Durham NC, to join our Southern Movement Alliance (SMA) comrades, in Selma AL, for the 50th Anniversary of the Edmund Pettus Bridge crossing. This historic weekend was a commemoration of the first of three marches, from Selma to Montgomery, to secure voting rights for Blacks in Alabama. The violent, state sanctioned, retaliation on March 7, 1965, by the Alabama State Troopers, led to that march forever being known as “Bloody Sunday.”
On our arrival, we paid tribute to those who marched and survived unimaginable beatings on that day and we joined our fellow SMA anchor organization, The Ordinary People’s Society (T.O.P.S.) to lead their annual Backwards March across the same historic bridge. T.O.P.S. whose goal is “to create, build, promote and maintain a better humanity by remaining open to the needs of people in our society,” has been leading the Backwards March, in Selma, since 2007 because, as founder Rev. Kenneth Glasgow says, “we have to go back and get some things right before we can move forward.”
As we drove from our hotel through Montgomery we talked about the similarities between the Backwards March and the West African Sankofa proverb. The Sankofa which literally means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot,” is symbolized by a mythological bird that is flying forward while looking back in the opposite direction. In its mouth (or sometimes carried on its back) is an egg that represents the future.
Black people separated and displaced across the diaspora have been returning to fetch lost pieces of ourselves for generations. After the abolition of slavery, it was not uncommon for formerly enslaved and runaway Blacks to return to the places where they had been held captive in hopes of finding the loved ones they had lost, or reconnecting to the land that had absorbed so much of their blood and sweat. Today, many of us continue this journey by participating in events like the Selma 50th, joining ancestry.com or sending swabs of our DNA off, searching for pieces that will make us whole.
And so, from Durham to Alabama, between Erykah Badu, J. Cole and the O’Jays, we talked about the omitted stories left behind in Selma and across this country. How many incarcerated family members, LGBTQ brothers and sisters and women experiencing domestic and sexual violence, remained silent for the sake of the movement? How have these gaps in our individual and collective histories impacted our community? And what lessons are waiting for our retrieval?
In his speech, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama spoke about how far we have come since 1965. He said that he “rejected the notion that nothing has changed” [in this country], and that “to deny our progress, would be to rob us of our own agency.” He acknowledged that there is still more work to be done, and referenced what has been happening in Ferguson as evidence of this. However, what he, and other presidents before him, failed to do, is to address those whom he/they intentionally abandoned for the sake of the most palatable progress.
Today, America’s 40 year Drug War, which began just after the Civil Rights Era, has placed over 7 million (mostly poor, mostly Black) people under correctional control, stripping them of the very rights to jobs, education and housing, that were won by their elders. Today, according to a Malcolm X Grassroots Movement report entitled “Operation Ghetto Storm,” every 28 hrs a Black person (mostly men between the ages of 15 and 35) is killed by police officers, security guards or vigilantes claiming self- defense.” Today, Trans women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate of almost one per week.
And today, young people, poor people, LGBTQ and formerly incarcerated people, who have been pushed to the furthest edges and made invisible, are refusing to remain silent. These brilliant souls have learned from the lessons hidden in the retrieval and are not only telling their own stories, but they are uncovering and telling the stories of their past kin left behind. They are claiming justice for all as a human right with the understanding that it will not be accomplished until we include everyone in the process. Bravo to T.O.P.S and the people of Selma for embracing ancestral wisdom and reminding us to fetch and learn from our past.