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Honoring Ancestors at the Maafa Commemoration

During ESSENCE Festival weekend, honor those affected by the Atlantic slave trade at the annual Maafa Commemoration held in Congo Square.

Drummers in Congo Square. (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

This summer, the city will raise up for its ancestors at the annual Maafa Commemoration in Congo Square.

Maafa, a Kiswahili term that means “great tragedy,” refers to the Middle Passage, where millions of Africans were brought on slave ships to the United States during the 17th and 18th centuries. Now in its 17th year, the commemoration honors the many people affected by the slave trade. The event happens July 1 in Armstrong Park’s Congo Square and will take on an even greater purpose this summer, following a momentous time in the city.

Specifically, the Maafa Commemoration will acknowledge the recent removal of several monuments and the city’s upcoming tricentennial.

“This year’s ceremony is very significant in light of what’s been going on in New Orleans,” says Maafa producer Luther Gray. “The city’s 300th anniversary is next year, and so there’s a lot going on to highlight parts of history that have been hidden in terms of domestic and transatlantic slave trade,” Gray says. “We’re trying to capitalize on that momentum.”

The entrance to Armstrong Park at dusk. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Like years past, musicians will lead a march from Congo Square through Tremé to begin the celebration. Congo Square has a long tradition of hosting musical and dance affairs, dating back to the days when enslaved persons gathered on Sundays during the 18th century.

The march will stop briefly at St. Augustine Catholic Church, the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, then head into the French Quarter, with pauses at Café Maspero and the Royal Orleans Hotel, where slave auctions were once held.

Part spiritual, part cultural, the Maafa Commemoration mixes reverence with passion and flair; attendees are encouraged to dress in white to reflect peace as they raise their voices to the sky. To conclude the journey, the group will honor enslaved ancestors by name at Woldenberg Park to the sounds of singing, dancing, and live music.

But that’s not all.

“This year, we’re expanding our Maafa Commemoration,” says associate director Jo Ann Minor. “We’re doing a free concert on Friday night (June 30) where we’re bringing in a Cuban dance and drum group known as LaMora’s Oyu Oro. There will be a community dance and drum workshop as well.”

A mural outside the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

This year’s Maafa Commemoration also includes a “redemption ceremony” for the Fleur de Lis logo.

“Since its inception, it’s had different meanings for different people, but for enslaved people and their decedents, it’s got a negative connotation,” says Minor. “It was used on slaves who ran away and were recaptured – they were rebranded with that image. So, part of what we’re doing this year is to acknowledge its past, reclaim it, and move forward.”

Fittingly, the Maafa Commemoration falls during the annual ESSENCE Festival, which celebrates African American culture. The fest features musicians like John Legend, Solange, Diana Ross and Chance the Rapper, as the town taps into its rich, continuing legacy.

A complete schedule of Maafa Commemoration events is below.

Day Trip to Whitney Plantation

  • Where: Wallace, LA & The River Road African American Museum, Donaldsonville, LA
  • When: Monday, June 26

Community Dance & Drum Workshop with

LaMora’s Oyu Oro Experimental Dance Ensemble

from Cuba

  • Where: Ashe Cultural Arts Center
  • When: Thursday, June 29, 6:00-9:00 p.m.

Inaugural Maafa Side by Side Exhibition

  • Where: Ashe Cultural Arts Center
  • When: Friday, June 30, 5:00-7:00 p.m.

Maafa Concert

  • Where: Ashe Power House
  • When: Friday, June 30, 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Maafa Congo Square Celebration

  • Where: Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park
  • When: Saturday, July 1 beginning at 7 a.m.

—Courtney Garcia