“A Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage” is an event that remembers and honors the Africans who were captured and carried across the Atlantic on slave ships over nearly four hundred years, a voyage which came to be known as the Middle Passage. It takes place on the second Saturday in June at Coney Island Beach.
I happened upon the Tribute in 2000 as my wife and I were strolling the Coney Island Boardwalk on a beautiful June evening. We heard the drumming and saw people dressed in white walking backwards from the surf. Recongizing it as some kind of religious ceremony, we respectifully kept our distance, but after that I attended it just about every year through 2013. Several of those years, I took photographs.
The Tribute begins on the boardwalk with speeches and African drumming. As sunset approaches, the crowd moves to the beach where they drum, dance, contemplate and pray. Participants are encouraged to dress all in white.
It took the slave ships between three weeks and three months to cross the Atlantic, depending on the winds. Estimates vary, but the consensus low range is that 10 to 15 million Africans made that crossing and that between 10 and 30 percent of them died in transit. That’s two to five million people, perhaps many more, all of whom died horrible deaths from a brutal variety of causes. When you consider the numbers who died while being hunted or transported to the ships, the Middle Passage was a Holocaust that rivals, or even surpasses, the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi Germans and their allies in the early 20th century.
The African drum circle is an integral part of the Tribute. The drums permeate the ceremony with alternating feelings of joy and melancholy. The beat is a physical thing that deepens the sense of awe and remembrance that falls over the crowd as the sun goes down. The African rhythms emphasize the relationship and continuity from the old continent and its vibrant religions to the people gathered in Coney Island to remember the victims of the Middle Passage.
The drums also echo the rhythms of the ships and the seas, something the captives must have felt in their cramped spaces. They were packed in holds as tightly as inhumanely possible. The alloted space ranged between 6’ x 1’4” for an adult male to 4’ 6” x 1’ for a young girl. A typical ship carried up to 600 captives.
People move in and out of the crashing waves at Coney Island's annual “A Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage.” The waves provide another echo the voyage as they end their own journey across the Atlantic, providing a sense of rhythmic reverence for the spirits of those who died out beyond the horizon.
On the slave ships, the overcrowding resulted in unsanitary conditions, to put it mildly. During long stretches, the captives were forced to piss and shit where they lay, and seasickness was a common problem, adding layers of vomit to the mess. The holds had very little ventilation and I can’t imagine a word that begins to communicate how horrible the resulting stench must have been.
Participants in the Tribute place flowers and fruit on the beach. Many wade out into the surf and stare at the horizon, offering silent prayers to the African captives who suffered and died during the Middle Passage.
The fetid conditions the captives suffered during the Middle Passage caused disease to run rampant, adding dysentery – also known as Bloody Flux – and diarrhea to the mix of excretions, as well as mucus and puss and blood from smallpox, scurvy and other afflictions born from the hellish conditions.
The drums and the surf combined with the spiritual and the physical energy of the participants make it possible for many to feel a presence of those who made the Middle Passage.
Although I was rarely if ever uncomfortable as I was working, I was uncomfortable in general with both the idea and the act of photographing the Tribute. Although held in public, it is in many instances an intensely private affair. When people are knee deep in the surf and staring out to sea, they are praying fervently, and sometimes crying, amid a general atmosphere of reverence for the dead. They don't need some guy with a camera getting in their face.
I usually photographed from behind, but did sometimes get in front of people, as in this photo. It was taken when the crowd first arrived at the beach and there was already a small gaggle of photographers in the water. I figured one more would't hurt.
Alternating feelings of joy and melancholy permeate the atmosphere on the beach as people look out to sea and pray. This woman, with those same dolls, was a regular at the Tribute. I photographed her this first time in 2005, but left her alone after that, respecting the intensity of her devotion.
Jungian analyst Michael Vannoy Adams points out that the archetype of the journey consists of three stages: separation, initiation and return; but that the Middle Passage only included the trauma of first two stages, not the return, which made it especially traumatic.Many of the captives who jumped ship or found other ways to commit suicide believed that when they died, their spirits would return to their home and family in the land where they were born.
8 / 20
The Tribute to our Ancestors of the Middle Passage has a political as well as spiritual meaning. The red, black and green Pan-African flag is a regular sight at the ceremonies.
Although there is no universal definition of Pan-Africanism, its adherants typically believe that all Africans and their descendants in the Americas belong to a single "race" that shares, or should share, a broad cultural unity. They are devoted to recovering or preserving African traditions and teaching about the contributions of Africans and those in the diaspora to the modern world.
9 / 20
Over the years, I noticed that many, if not most, of the participants in the Tribute were activist-types who had come down from Harlem. Pan-Africanism was big in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, with Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois on opposite ends of the movement, much like Malcom X and Martin Luther King would be 40 or so years later. Garvey was a black separatist who favored a physical return of African-Americans to Africa. Dubois believed equality could be achieved through integration and rule of law. Dubois’ vision of Pan-Africanism carried the day, but Garvey’s idea of a return to Africa lived on within the movement, albeit mostly in a figurative sense.
10 / 20
South African writer Colin Legum described Pan-Africanism as "a movement of ideas and emotions," which could also serve as an apt description of the Tribute. Legum goes on to describe race-consciousness as the dominant theme in Pan-Africanism:
“Deep at its quivering, sensitive centre, Pan-Africanism rests on colour-consciousness. Recognition of the unique historical position of black peoples as the universal bottom-dog led to a revolt against passive submission to this situation.The emotions associated with blackness were intellectualised; and so Pan-Africanism became a vehicle for the struggle of black people to regain their pride, their strength and their independence. But although black skins were made into a shield for the battle, Pan- Africanism became a race-conscious movement, not a racialist one."
11 / 20
During the Middle Passage, it wasn’t unusual for captains to take on more slaves than their ships could accommodate, even by the brutal standards of the slave trade. The most infamous example of this came to be known as the Zong Massacre. An overloaded ship, the Zong, got stuck in the Doldrums, a term for a condition at sea where there are little or no winds. As they sat for weeks not moving, many of the captives, and nearly half of the crew died. The captain then decided to toss some of the captives to save the ships and give the owners the ability to collect insurance. Crew members tossed 132 individuals into the sea. Another 10 jumped in on their own in what the captain described as an "act of defiance."
The Zong massacre became an important story forf the Abolitionist cause. They tried to bring criminal charges against the captain, but Britain’s Solicitor General declined their entreaties, saying that the people who died were not humans, and that it was the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.
12 / 20
Historian James A. Rawley cites a doctor who reported that on a ship that carried 602 slaves, 155, or 25.7 percent, didn’t make it. He estimated that two-thirds of those deaths had been the result of "Melancholy."
In ancient history, Melancholia was identified as one of the four Humours. Fear, despondency, and sadness were its symptoms. During the era of the Middle Passage it was considered a disease that could result in death. Nostalgia, translated as "homesickness" back then, was also thought to be a major cause of deaths on the voyage. Symptoms on Nostalgia included fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death.
Melancholy and Nostalgia, in their modern senses, are powerful presences at the Tribute. Here on the beach, they are weak echoes of what those who made the Passage must thave felt. No longer deadly, at the Tribute they are healthy emotions.
13 / 20
Dying from old world diseases like Melancholia and Nostalgia sounds romantic, but the Middle Passage was anything but romantic. Many of those deaths, although chalked up to Melancholy, were people who lost the will to live and died in their own and other people's excretions, or committed suicide by jumping overboard and either drowning or being eaten by the sharks that routinely followed the ships across the Atlantic.
In addition to the uncertain future, inhuman conditions, sickness and disease, the captives were routinely subjected to violence for the slightest infraction, or for no reason at all; and women, young men and children were routinely raped by captains and crew, and savagely beaten if they resisted.
14 / 20
According to historian David Richardson, there was some form of organized rebellion on roughly 10 percent of all ships making the Middle Passage between about 1650 and 1860. The revolts typically ended badly for the captives, but Richardson argues that they drove up the costs of the slave trade and resulted in fewer people being captured and shipped to the Americas.
One well-known and ultimately successful slave ship rebellion took place on the Amistad. The enslaved people took over the ship, killing two crew members in the process, and set sail back to Africa, but were intercepted by the U.S. Navy and jailed. The Supreme Court eventually ruled in their favor and recognized them as free men.
15 / 20
During all those years I photographed the "Tribute to Our Ancestors from the Middle Passage," it wasn't unusual for people to ask me why I was taking photographs. They were always polite, but there was an edge to the question. Especially after I took this photo in 2006.
My answer was that it was a beautiful event, and more than that, it was historically important and should be documented. It was a sincere response that was always accepted.
I have a love/hate relationship with photography and have contemplated that exchange ever since. I hate it when people with cameras take pictures of people who really don't want their picture taken, or who are engaged in intensely private activites. I've come to feel that for me to do it, the photograph has to be important in some way beyond its possible place in my portfolio. There must be the possiblilty that it represents an important piece of an important story. Maybe I'm kidding myself, or have my priorities all messed up, and it's never worth bothering someone over a photo? This picture, for me, raises those questions.
16 / 20
The “Tribute to Our Ancestors of the Middle Passage” was established by the late Dr. Mary Umolu of Medgar Evans College and others, including Tony Akeem who has been a driving force ever since. It has been carried on by the by The People of the Sun Middle Passage Collective and some help from the Brooklyn Arts Council.
Consistent with the Pan-African ideology, their purpose is to ensure that those who lost their lives in the Middle Passage are acknowledged, named and honored, and to educate people so that the past will never be forgotten nor repeated.
There are always a lot of children at the Tribute. They have a great time playing on the beach, but there is always educaton going on as well.
17 / 20
This photo from 2005 has always been one of my favorites. It reminds me of church when I was a kid, but a much better church than I ever knew.
18 / 20
This image is one of the few I took on the boardwalk. It was a grey, rainy day and I was using my dedicated black and white camera. I liked the way the black-robed priest stood out against the white-clad crowd, with Coney Island's iconic Parachute Drop in the background and rain clouds filling the sky.
19 / 20
When the sun goes down and the beach is bathed in twilight, participants in the Middle Passage Tribute slowly walk backwards from the surf as the drums take on a mournful, less intense rhythm.
As a photographer and journalist, I am always a witness, never a participant, but as the white-clad people move farther away from the surf and the drumming dissipates, I too, take a moment of silence to contemplate the meaning of what happend out in that very same sea, not so very long ago.
In that spirit, II invite those of you who followed this essay from the beginning, to take a moment of silence as you contemplate this photo, imagining the sounds of the drums and crashing waves, and the vast tragedy that unfolded just out beyond the horizon.
20 / 20
I'll end this with another photo from the evening of the full moon rising. I'm not religious, but that night it seemed the moon amplified the reverent vibe and the drummers took it to an entirely higher plane. I think everyone felt the palpable presence of the spirits of those who had suffered the Middle Passage. They were out there, like loomings; reflections from just below the horizon.
It's been a great week and I'm very pleased to have been able to communicate, at least somewhat, the beauty and depth of this event, and further its purpose of remembrance and education for one of the most tragic eras in human history.
This project was published as an Instagram takeover for The New Republic. The story is told in the captions.