It’s Black History Month. While I can argue that honoring African American history should be celebrated year-round, I’d be taking on greeting card makers, postage stamp designers, and education publishers who’ve created materials for this month.
Given I have a month, I’m planning to share excerpts from my book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Journey Across America.
While working as a literary consultant in Newark, NJ, I met Miles J. Dean, a teacher and horseman. When he began telling me about his 6 month, 12- state, cross-country horse ride to celebrate the contributions of African Americans in the development of the United States, I was mesmerized. Who in modern day undertakes such a challenge? I found his story inspiring and learned history I never knew and that my students weren’t being taught. (Photo: Vanessa Wright)
On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America combines Dean’s memoir- his dreams of becoming a cowboy, his years as a high school and college athlete, and his cross-country journey, with the historical figures, many unsung, he visited as he traveled.
It’s non-fiction and a perfect book for book group reading or to share with middle school and high school students or to read aloud to younger children. I wrote an Educators’ Guide that includes cross-disciplinary activities in writing, art, drama, geography, math and a character education platform, “The Horseman’s Creed.”
Each week I’ll share an excerpt from a different chapter. The book begins with Miles crossing the Mississippi River and then returns to the start of the journey in New York City at the African Burial Ground. The excerpts will go chronologically, following the trip from New York to California.
Excerpt One from: Ch. 2 The Journey Begins
In the wee hours of the morning, the sun not yet warming the day, Miles walked to his barn and greeted Sankofa with the familiar whinny he had perfected during their years together. The 12- year-old stallion whinnied back as if to say he knew the big day had come…
…Miles loaded Sankofa into the trailer for the 40 -minute drive from his New Jersey ranch through the Holland Tunnel to lower Manhattan. When they arrived, Miles mounted Sankofa to ride horseback to the African Burial Ground, nearly two miles away.
Uncovered during an excavation in 1991, the 200-year-old graveyard lies beneath an area of about five city blocks north of City Hall. The construction of a new federal office building had been halted to allow archeologists and other scientists to dig out the skeletal remains of more than 400 men, women, teenagers and children. Further exploration revealed artifacts of the skeletons’ cultures: buttons, beads, coins, rings, tobacco pipes, and nails.
It all proved that slavery in New York dated back to 1626, when the Dutch East India Company entrapped Africans from their homes – jungles, savannahs, deserts, and villages- destroying tribes and families. Packed into ship holds below sea level, they endured illness and starvation, and then faced harsh winters and unending labor. Slaves cleared land, built forts, mills, houses, constructed roads, and dug ditches. They slept in attics and on farms, cultivating gardens, preparing food and serving both as domestics and as waiters in taverns. Many assisted crafts men; employing the skills they learned in Africa…
…Miles had invited Kamau Kallifoni, a Yoruba priest to offer libation to the ancestors. The religion of the Yoruba people, predominantly from Nigeria and Benin, represents 1,000- year-old traditions of reverence for nature and forefathers.
The group formed a circle around the priest who wore a black and brown patterned dashiki. Goliath in size and demeanor, he commanded attention and respect as he dripped a few drops of water on the ground and chanted blessings praising the ancestors both in English and an African dialect. He chanted, “What I have in my hand is water, the most substantial element in life. We take this water and hold it up, and the god we call by thousands of names, we ask that god that we serve to look down upon us.”
Shortly after, a light rain fell, moistening faces and the street. Miles felt the ancestors were sending him a message, as if answering the libation with one of their own. “These ancestors’ struggles got me where I am today- embarking on a cross-country journey as a free man,” he later said.