Beautiful Are the Souls of My Black People
By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 06, 2017
Ara romi o
My body is in pain
Ara romi Shango
Shango, my body is in pain
Ojo romi e e
The rain is falling on me [I am experiencing hard times]
Ojo romi Shango
Shango, the rain is falling on me [I am
experiencing hard times.]
— Ella Andall, "Ara romi o"
I want to modify the title of Jeanne Noble's book (Beautiful, Also, Are the Souls of My Black Sisters) to describe the wondrous display of African couture (exquisitely designed African dresses, elaborately textured head wraps, and intricately woven male fashions) that graced Port of Spain streets on Tuesday as black people wound their way from the Treasury Building to the Queen's Park Savannah to celebrate the 179th year of their emancipation from slavery.
The wearing of African attire was an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. The music and the drumming that accompanied the participants on this sacred occasion evoked ancient sentiments buried deep within our souls. The pulsating rhythms of the drums, the heartbeat of Africa, evoked memories of our ties to the motherland that were forcibly interrupted by the slave trade.
I marched behind Ella Andall's music truck that was blaring Yoruba chants of Africa and its diaspora. A Cuban of African descent who walked with me exclaimed: "This is the music of Cuba." His observation reminded me that "Orisha sacred songs of Trinidad are a reflection of the rhythms and expression of Yoruba culture" (Richard Paul, "Songs of Praise and Invocation") and an indispensable part of our way of life.
As Andall's music assaulted the air, Yoruba followers joined in the chants as part of an ancient ritual they brought with them from West Africa. It was almost a plea (or was it a demand?) that our long, uninterrupted attachment to this land be recognized and be respected. When participants belted out "Ara romi o," they recalled the horrors of slavery. However, they regained hope and assurance in songs like "Baba wa ye rona" and "Shango mu ase," all standards in Andall's repertoire.
Through the reenactment of these rituals (the chanting, the dancing, the drumming, etc.) participants in this sacred rite reimagined their African origins which their conditions in this land demanded they replay as forms of cleansing and purification. Their reinsertion into this liminal space coincided with the Shouter Baptist mourning ground experience where devotees obtain wisdom through visions and dreams.
These ritual enactments also call upon Shango, the god of thunder, lightning and justice, to remember his people in the diaspora. Andall's "Baba wa Ye Rona" reminds us that our father will always find a way to be with us wherever we are; no matter how much we are despised and abused.
This is why Andall and Devon Matthews "D Journey" was so hauntingly prophetic. It reminded us: "Even though the road is long; no matter what come, I know I go make it. Yes, I go make it." This perennial assurance keeps black people alive in spite of their trials and humiliation.
As they chanted this assurance I remembered the pride John O'Brien took in his blackness when the first Emancipation Dinner that was celebrated in Port of Spain on August 1, 1849. He drew on the popularity of Alexandre Dumas, "the son of the still degraded Africa… [who] prided himself upon it [his blackness]." Lest anyone be mistaken about his claim, he reminded his audience that Dumas "nobly and exaltingly points to his curly hair" as a symbol of his blackness.
Hair was/is always important to Africans, particularly African women. On October 1, 1849, when the government tried to pass a bill to cut the hair of women prisoners, the whole island rose up in protest. One eighth of the black population (approximately 65,000 black people in today's numbers) stoned Government House and demanded that it cease and desist from such a diabolical act. The British Despatch reported: "On October 1st we had an emenute [uprising]; but it will be better described as an affray [a fight in a public place] between the police, our Attorney General, and the rabble, consisting of poor, helpless laborers and women, many of them with infants in their arms" ("Misdoing in Trinidad.")
Our people have always called upon our gods to intercede on our behalf as we fight the forces that seek to limit our liberty. When Matthews and Andall wailed "Ah chipping down the road; Ah feeling de power," I knew Shango had descended from his sacred realm to dwell with us on our freedom march.
As a young boy, my mother reminded me that the darkest hour is just before dawn, thereby instilling into my consciousness that things are never as bad as they seem. That is why I gloried when Andall and Matthews offered their comforting sentiment: "There is [always] sunrise after each cloud."
"Our bodies are in pain" but ours is the imperative to keep on fighting. This is the power of the Emancipation Day message. It's the assurance that there will always be sunrise after the darkest clouds have passed. This certitude keeps us fighting to expand our freedom as a people.
Professor Cudjoe's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.
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