In the spring of 1860, wealthy businessman Timothy Meaher made a bet that he could illegally kidnap and ship Africans from Africa to Mobile, Alabama, without being detected by federal officials. Fifty-two years earlier, the U.S. Congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which ended the United States’ legal involvement in the international slave trade.
While transporting Africans to the United States for slavery was now prohibited, U.S. slave traders turned to the existing slave breeding industry, which grew after the ban on importing Africans.
But the story of the bet Meaher made, as well as the ship, “Clotilda,” he financed, and the descendants of the Africans brought to Mobile, Alabama, are the focus of a recently released Netflix documentary, “Descendant.”
Kamau Sidiki, master diver and contributor to the Slave Wrecks Project, notes in the opening scenes of the documentary, “There were over 12,000 ships making over 40,000 voyages over 250 years of slave trade. To date, there are only five [slave] ships in maritime history in the database. Why is that?” It should be noted that Sidiki was crucial to finding and verifying the authenticity of the Brazilian slave ship, Sâo José Paquete de Africa.
Author Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” looms large in the documentary, as the focus of her novel was one of the captives aboard the “Clotilda,” Cudjo Lewis, born Oluale Kossola in what is now the West African country of Benin. Lewis was the last living survivor of the “Clotilda” at the time Hurston wrote his account in 1931 (the book was only recently published in 2018).
It is through the words of Lewis, and the oral history of the enslaved ancestors passed down through the generations that they have kept alive the story of the lost slave ship. Oddly, it is through this oral history that the bet, the crime, and the attempt to cover it up are also conveyed and should lead viewers to wonder how much of your family’s oral history is just exaggerated family lore, or hidden history only revealed when the grandkids go to visit Grandma and Grandpa and ask them, “What happened back then?”
Videotapes from 25 years ago of the griots of Africatown, a community of the descendants three miles north of downtown Mobile, Alabama, recount not only the lore that is fact, but the terror campaign waged against them to silence them throughout generations about the crime of which their very existence is evidence. Griots are traveling poets, musicians and storytellers who maintain a tradition of oral history in parts of West Africa.
‘One of the Africans’
The Black families of the now long-gone Africatown are the offspring of the last Africans brought to the United States. They identify themselves as “one of the Africans” with pride. They do this while recounting their connection to the formerly missing ship, the “Clotilda,” with righteous indignation at the forces that tried to silence the story and with hope that the physical connection to their ancestry would be found. It was impossible not to see the pride in these people.
The descendants of the “Clotilda” are connected to that ship and the continent it brought them from, just as they are connected to the land their ancestors are buried on, the land that they were admonished by those ancestors to never give up in this cruel new world to which they were brought.
The imprint of the family that carried out the crime marks Alabama today. Street signs and parks are named after the slave-owning Maeher family. The ancestral land of the first African stolen from their homeland, who had to buy land from their former slave owner to establish Africatown, is today surrounded on all sides by Maeher family-owned heavy industry that pollutes the air, water, and soil. The pollution has caused significant health problems for residents of Africatown.
The Larger System
In a way, “Descendant” is also a chronicle of how capitalism undergirded and evolved the slave trade. Just as capitalism kept Africans enslaved at the bottom for centuries during slavery to help develop the United States as a global economic powerhouse, it kept freedmen at the bottom for 100 more years under racist Jim Crow laws. And, today, the Black working class and poor are at the bottom.
There is no delineation between the past and the present in “Descendant,” and that is an accurate reflection of the relation of slavery and its atrocities to the present condition of the descendants of the “Clotilda,” and the rest of the descendants of Africans brought to this country to be enslaved. And the descendants reflect that throughline of history not only in keeping the history of the “Clotilda” alive, but also through their continued embrace of African culture. African dance is part of celebrations, spiritual rituals honor their ancestors, and their everyday wardrobe includes African dress and jewelry. They are African, and they are proud to be.
But “Descendant” also holds an important lesson to be aware of: When the powerful, who have suppressed the truth for centuries and have profited off of their continued oppression of others, can no longer avoid facing the truth once exposed, do not expect them to take any responsibility for their actions or offer fair compensation for the damage they have done. They will only offer empty platitudes and meaningless window dressing to the affected. Whatever tangible efforts materialize from any agreement between the aggrieved and their oppressors will always ultimately—in this capitalist system that they built their wealth of oppression upon—benefit those who have always held the power.
Jacqueline Luqman is a radical activist based in Washington, D.C.; as well as co-founder ofLuqman Nation, an independent Black media outlet that can be found on YouTube (here andhere) and onFacebook; co-host of Radio Sputnik’s“By Any Means Necessary;”and a Toward Freedom board member.
Activism and Art are a potent combination for addressing problems that are both enduring and unendurable. The play, Eclipsed, transports the audience into the intimate dwelling of women struggling to survive while living as sexual slaves in a rebel forces encampment at the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003. The story follows a 15-year-old African girl as she escapes from the encampment to become a child soldier in the rebel forces.
Written by Zimbabwean-American playwright Danai Gurira, Eclipsed made history by being the first Broadway show with an all-female cast, and the first all African-American cast, and an all-female creative team. Eclipsed was on Broadway in 2016, with Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o in the lead role.
The playwright wants to create awareness about injustices encountered by girls and women around the world by the stories in her plays. “Narrative is in my toolbox, and what I find powerful about narrative is that it actually allows people to be connected, to be disarmed, to see other people across the world that they might perceive of as statistics, [rather than] as actual fellow people that they care about and that they want to see freed to live self-determined lives,” she said in an interview.
Gurira’s work transcends the rationalizations created by terms such as “rape as a weapon of war” that are used to characterize the human experience of sexual violation and violence. Her work portrays the humanity of the captive women, and the difficult choices they must make during a time of war, and how the trauma of those experiences, particularly rape, changes them.
Why is Eclipsed relevant now? In September of 2020, President George Weah of Liberia declared rape a national emergency following a three day protest in the capital city of Monrovia. There were 5,000 anti-rape protesters, and there were violent clashes with authorities. Police tear-gassed thousands of anti-rape protesters. It is difficult to collect meaningful statistics as to the rate of rape in Liberia. A World Health Organization report estimated 75% of women in Liberia at the end of the civil war had experienced rape. That statistic was challenged by American writers because, they wrote, it seems like an improbably high rate. However, the current situation in Liberia, where Covid-19 restrictions have increased the number of Sex and Gender-based attacks by fifty percent, is compared to the same high rate of attacks during the Liberian civil war (1999-2003)
which is the setting of Eclipsed.
The impetus for writing the play came from a 2003 photo appearing in the Western press of Liberian women fighters. Gurira was struck by their attractive appearance, the fierce and intense look in their eyes, and by their guns and their stylish fighting gear. In 2003, the Wall Street Journal interviewed a 20-year-old fighter calle1d Black Diamond, and described her appearance in an almost romantic way: “A pistol and a cellular phone hung from her trendy, wide leather belt. Her jeans were embroidered with roses. Her fellow guerrillas were equally fashionable, wearing tight-fitting jeans, leopard-print blouses and an assortment of jewelry. The number of women in her unit, she said, is a military secret.”
Gurira traveled to Liberia in 2007, setting off on a journey that would reveal that the intensity of the young women fighters in the photo was not empowerment, or a fierce loyalty to the rebel forces and brotherly rebel male fighters. Instead, the style and swagger of the young women covered over the deep trauma of having lived through unspeakable horrors during the civil war including being gang-raped, watching family members murdered, their homes looted and mothers and sisters raped by soldiers. Gurira interviewed thirty women including former women soldiers and women in the Peace Movement who are credited with forcing an end to the Civil War. The characters in the play reflect the histories of those women, as well as Gurira’s research, including the award winning. documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the Human Rights Watch report “Roles and Responsibilities of Child Soldiers”.
Gurira weaves together a story that brings the audience into the women’s lives, using experiences that we can identify within our own lives. The women fuss about their hair, clothing and what will there be for dinner, even as they hide the fifteen-year-old girl from their abuser, the Commanding Officer. The fifteen-year-old, who is called “The Girl,” arrives at the camp as a bright, energetic child, able to read, and having plans to go to school to become a doctor or constitutional lawyer.
The commander, called the “CO” by the women, attacks The Girl when she goes outside to go to the bathroom, then designates her as the “number four” wife. After The Girl is raped by the CO, she returns to the shed where the Wives live together. She is listless and unresponsive to questions from the women about what happened, except to say the CO “did it” to her. Soon after, the CO arrives at the women’s shed, and with dread and anxiety they must line up for him, as he chooses which woman he will take away next.
The women in the play go by their ranking as “Wives,” a system set by the CO, and they do not use each other’s names, but address each other with their number in the ranking. Wife Number One, the eldest wife, was captured when she was twelve, and has been held captive for ten years. Number Two was ousted from the women’s shed and has become a rebel fighter. Number Three is six months pregnant with the CO’s child.
After the CO’s officers loot a village, he gives clothing and other items to Wife Number One, and she finds a book about Bill Clinton. The Girl reads parts of it to some of the other Wives, and their struggle to make sense of Clinton’s troubles provides some comic relief to an otherwise intense and harrowing play.
Wife Number Three calls Monica Lewinsky,“Wife Number Two,” and the woman express wonder at the U.S. Congress trying to remove Clinton as president for having two wives. They remark on the closeness they feel as Liberians to the United States, since it was the United States that set up the founding of their country.
Wife Number Two returns to visit the women’s shed, carrying a large gun and dressed in jeans and a slinky top. She has brought food for the Wives, offering a bag of rice because they have none. Wife Number One has moral authority, and will not accept the food, because Number Two is involved in war atrocities. Number Three, pregnant and bemoaning the shortage of food, wants to accept the rice. The apparent freedom that Number Two has as a soldier appeals to The Girl.
Number Two entices The Girl to become a soldier so that she can get a gun and protect herself from being raped. The Girl follows Number Two and becomes a child soldier. She finds she is required to participate in looting, killing and (much to her dismay) rounding up girls from the ransacked villages to bring to soldiers to be raped.
A woman from the Liberian Woman’s Peace movement secretively visits the Wives to tell them that the war will be ending soon. The unendurable trauma of their war experience has unraveled the Wives’ identities, and they struggle to remember what their names were before the war. Rita, the Peace Woman, coaxes Number One to remember. Finally, she whispers her name, and Rita writes “Helena” in the dirt of the shed floor. The educated and upper-class Peace Woman, Rita, has her own story. Her daughter has disappeared, and she searches the rebel camps in hopes of finding her. Gurira lays bare Rita’s struggle with her classism when Rita airs the complaints of the Peace Women to Helena, saying that the CO is “trying to treat us like we’re village girls they rob from the bush,” without awareness that Helena herself was a 12-year-old girl running from an attack on her family’s home in a village, and captured when she was hiding in the bush.
The play ends when Charles Taylor leaves Liberia, signaling the winding down of the long civil war. The Girl has to choose whether to give up her gun in order to go with the Peace Women group; or to keep her gun and go back to the camp of rebel fighters. Helena (Number One) struggles with her decision to leave at first because her identity is her rank in the camp. Number Two cannot believe that she will be safe if she gives up her gun, and she returns to the rebel fighters’ camp. Number Three has her baby, and she chooses to stay with the C.O., believing that he will take care of her and her baby girl. She named the girl Clintine, after Bill Clinton. The naming of this Liberian child, begotten by rape at a rebel commanders’ camp during wartime, may symbolize Liberia’s call for support from their parent country.
Liberia was founded by the American Colonization Society in the early 1800’s as the first free country in Africa, as part of the “Back to Africa” movement designed by U.S. government to avoid abolishing slavery. For many years, U.S. involvement in Liberia was significant, especially in the exploitation of resources (rubber, diamonds and gold) by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company starting in the 1920’s. The U.S. supported the violent and repressive government of Samuel Doe (1980-1990) but has been gradually but continuously disengaging since the end of the Cold War. In 1990, at the beginning of the brutal, 14 year Liberian Civil War, the U.S. citizens were evacuated and U.S. involvement, for practical purposes, ended.
The commanders in the Civil War illegally, according to the Geneva Convention, used over 15,000 children under the age of 18 as soldiers in fighting in Liberia between 2000 and 2002. Many people question U.S. disengagement with Liberia, a country considered to be the “stepchild” of the United States. One U.S. expert says that Liberia sees itself as the 51st state. However, while there are significant straightforward needs in Liberia now, such as DNA machines used to determine the perpetrator of a rape and technicians who know how to operate them, there are questions as to why the U.S. has continued to be unresponsive to Liberia’s crisis.
Despite declaring rape to be a national emergency last September, President Weah has not followed through with establishing a special prosecutor for rape, or setting up a national sex offender registry, or establishing Criminal Court E for hearing rape cases across the 15 counties in Liberia. In March of 2021, President Weah unveiled a DNA testing machine to be used to aid prosecution of rape cases. However, media reports indicate that there are no trained technicians who know how to operate the machine in Liberia.
In Our Bodies, Their Battlefields, Christine Lamb writes that rape is the cheapest weapon known to man.” And also one of the oldest, as some scholars analyze the Book of Deuteronomy’s “Law of the Beautiful Captive Woman” to support a view that women may be treated as “spoils of war”. There were many wartime atrocities, but in particular, the weaponizing of raping women and children leaves a lasting imprint on the cultural integrity of a society. The society in Liberia after the war has been called a “culture of impunity” where there is no penalty for attacking women and children.
Danai Gurira founded a website, newsletter and blog called Love Our Girls which raises awareness about girls in African who are abused and forgotten. She writes there:
“As a writer, scripting narratives is my act of resistance, my way of bringing that unheard African female voice front and center and allowing it to manifest its astounding value. I have always had a passion for women and girls, a hope to see them function on the same playing field as men and have the same opportunities and appropriate protections. I want to be more than an actress and storyteller but an advocate for women, not only in underdeveloped countries but all over the world.”
The play’s central theme is that the light inside of each of these women, a light that can be seen clearly in The Girl when she first arrives at the camp, is eclipsed by the trauma of rape and captivity. For the women who become fighters, this is compounded by the horror of the acts of war they witness and participate in.
Eclipsed is about how the light within these women was blocked by the reign of terror of the warlords, their soldiers, and soldiers of the government.
It is an open question as the curtain comes down: what will become of these girls and women when the war has ended? And it is an open question as well: what will it take, locally and globally, to repair the shattered norms that allow rape of children and women to be happening at alarming rates, and to muster the political will to prosecute and convict those who commit those crimes? Gurira uplifts the stories of women and girls in war and invites audiences to see the lives of women and girls who are subjected to repetitive rape, deprivation of food and freedom, by not showing them as “flailing victims” but instead “… these are dynamic women and girls, in the most treacherous of circumstances, and I want the audience to feel at home with them.” The play provokes the empathy that is necessary for social justice.
Lesley Becker is a playwright and director living in Vermont and a Reparative Board member at the Burlington Community Justice Center. Her plays are available to read on New Play Exchange; she is a member of the Dramatist Guild.
Mobilizations took to the streets of Colombia on April 28 in a national strike to protest social injustice and aggressive tax reforms proposed by the Iván Duque government. Student movements, trade unions, young peoples’ organizations, feminist groups, and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ movements marched, blocked roads and held cultural activities in urban centers and rural territories throughout the country, exercising their right to peaceful protest. But the state wasted no time in responding with violent repression, especially in major cities such as Calí, Bogotá, Palmira and Popayán.
Although the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, isolated incidents of looting and violence have been used as an excuse for using excessive force against protesters. Media discourses around “good protesters” and “bad protesters” legitimize this response. Widespread reports of infiltrators are being used to provoke violence and looting, as has been the case in previous strikes in the country. Armed forces reportedly have stood by and allowed looting to take place, only to later respond to such incidents with violent repression.
Rather than heeding the demands of the citizens against the tax reform and social injustice, the state has responded with militarization, turning peaceful demonstrations into scenes of war. Helicopters circle above protest points and communities, while tanks thunder through narrow city streets.
Several cities are occupied by four armed state actors:
Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD, or Mobile Anti-Riot Squads of the National Police),
military forces and
Grupo Operativo Especial de Seguridad del Cuerpo Nacional de Policía (GOES, or Special Security Task Force of the National Police Force).
Instead of seeking to pacify the situation and protect citizens, these forces have increasingly threatened security, peace and human rights.
Flagrant Human Rights Abuses
Countless videos recorded by protesters and onlookers circulate daily on social media, showing cases of police brutality, indiscriminate shootings, and the use of tear gas inside barrios that contain children and elderly people. Over the past few days, the violence has taken on a new face in Calí, with the presence of plainclothes police officers and reports of unmarked cars carrying out drive-by shootings against protesters.
Bogotá-based non-governmental organization Indepaz reports the following occurred between April 28 and May 8:
47 murders (the majority of whom have been young adults and 4 of whom were minors),
12 cases of sexual violence,
28 eye injuries,
1,876 acts of violence,
963 arbitrary detentions and
548 forced disappearances.
Reports are circulating of people being arrested and denied information of their destination, violating their rights to due process and exposing them to the risk of arbitrary detention, cruel and inhumane treatment, and forced disappearance.
Armed police have threatened lawyers and human-rights defenders when inquiring about missing people at police stations. The international community woke up to the seriousness of the situation when, on May 3, members of a humanitarian mission including UN and state representatives were attacked by armed police while waiting to enter a police station in search of missing people. On April 7, as a humanitarian mission was taking place north of Calí with the presence of Senator Alexander Lopez, a drive-by shooting took place, injuring one person and killing three.
The Racialization of State Repression
The violence and repression has a disproportionate impact on Black communities, only mirroring Colombia’s ongoing internal armed conflict. For example, 35 of the 47 murders Indepaz reported took place in Calí, home to South America’s second-largest Afro-descendant population. No surprise that structural and systemic racism are deeply ingrained in Calí. Many of the most aggressive cases of state violence have been carried out in neighborhoods with majority or significant Afro-descendant populations, treating communities as enemies of war. Historically, these barrios have suffered socio-economic exclusion, further entrenched by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural racism and state violence. Many barrio residents already were victims of forced displacement, having fled the armed conflict in the majority Afro-descendant regions of the northern Cauca Department, in which Calí is located, and the Pacific coast.
While official statistics do not reveal the proportion of Black victims in this current wave of police brutality due to a lack of disaggregated data, photos of victims clearly show the disproportionate impact on young Afro-descendant men.
Racial profiling not only underpins state violence, but is central in the denial of state responsibility and impunity. Already, discussions around existing gang violence and urban conflicts are being used to question whether many of these young men participated in the protests or were delinquents killed in the context of the everyday violence in their communities. This discourse no doubt seeks to reduce the numbers of protest-related deaths, simultaneously justifying the deaths of young Black men. The first death registered in Calí took place in the majority Black barrio, Marroquin II, where a 22-year-old man was killed. But the military later denied his death was related to the protests.
Militarization, Imperialism and the Protests
The current situation in Colombia cannot be understood in isolation from the wider armed conflict and the ever-deepening neoliberal agenda supported and sustained by the United States and multinationals that feed off Colombia’s natural resources. U.S. imperialist interests in the region have been clear since the late 19th century, with the attempted invasion of Colombia’s neighbor, Panama, in 1885 and the start of the Panama Canal project in 1904. In 1948, the Organization of American States was created during a meeting in Colombia.
Colombia has been the strategic point for Washington’s political, economic and military operations in recent decades. Thanks to U.S. technical and logistical support, Colombia is now one of the greatest military powers in the region. With the 1999 signing of Plan Colombia and the 2002 Patriot Plan, U.S. military presence and influence has only deepened.
Further, U.S. military support has always depended on state policies that benefited U.S. imperial interests. For example, in 2009 the United States signed an agreement with the Uribe Government to be able to operate from seven Colombian military bases. Although this agreement was blocked by the Constitutional Court, the Santos government later arrived at alternative bilateral agreements. These enabled access and use of the bases in practice, and further facilitated the fruitless and dangerous strategy of spraying the herbicide, glyphosate, on illicit crops. All of this sustains the ideology of the “internal enemy” and the terrorist threat that underpinned the original emergence and expansion of paramilitarism in the 1980s.
It is precisely this paramilitarism model the Colombian state is using in the context of the current protests, particularly in Calí, where state agents, often without proper identification, collaborate with civilians to shoot and kill protesters from high-end cars. The Indigenous Guard, accompanying the protests in Calí, have suffered several attacks of this kind, most recently on May 9, when eight people were wounded.
This violent state repression is yet another consequence of imperialist intervention and the extractivist neoliberal project that uses militarism to eliminate a historically racialized population it considers residual as well as a threat to the capitalist, white-supremacist order.
Esther Ojulari is a human-rights and racial-justice activist and sociologist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of London, writing on transitional justice and reparations for the Afro-descendant people in Colombia. She worked for eight years as a consultant in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Afro-descendant rights. Esther is currently Regional Coordinator in Buenaventura, Calí and Northern Cauca for the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES). She is a member of several Afro-descendant and African-led international networks and coalitions.
Harrinson Cuero Campaz is a Afro-Colombian rights activist. He is a Ph.D. candidate writing on sustainability in urban and regional planning for biologically and culturally diverse territories. He is a social activist and member of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN, or Black Communities Process). Harrinson currently works as regional representative of Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) and as a coordinator for the formulation of the Special Territorial Plan of the District of Buenaventura 2021-40.
Chadians protested May 14 at the Embassy of France in Washington, D.C., in response to a French-backed coup to install the son of Idriss Déby, which they assert is in violation of the country’s constitution. French neocolonialism was on Chadians’ minds. Jacqueline Luqman of Luqman Nation, an independent media outlet, covered the protest for Black Power Media, another independent media outlet.