Hundreds of people were electrified by the high-energy African drumming, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz and exotic cuisine during last month’s Goombay! festival in Asheville. The excitement and enjoyment of the racially mixed crowd created a village atmosphere in which everyone could feel welcome, uplifted and at least temporarily purged of all cares and woes.
But underlying the surface colors, sounds and activities, what participants were truly responding to was the vibrancy of African culture, a set of values and a mindset grounded in affirmation of life and the primacy of spirit. What festival attendees were feeling, unrecognized by most, was the vitality of a people who could be forced into hard labor for 364 days of the year and yet exuberantly demonstrate their enjoyment and appreciation of life on the one day when they were allowed to do so. What we all shared at Goombay! was the expression of triumph over oppression and a celebration of what is real and meaningful in human existence.
For enslaved Africans, stripped of homeland, culture, family and religion, there was nothing left but living and breathing—the very essence of life. In spiritual terms, they were the beneficiaries of the institution of slavery, because there were no material distractions, no earthly rewards in their daily experience. They were forced to rely on their own inner spirit—the only thing that’s true and lasting for any human being. While their bodies and personalities may have been crippled and even destroyed by hardship and cruelty, their spirits were intact—and, passed on for generations, they remain alive and strong in their descendants today.
Slavery is and has always been a double-edged sword. Those who participated in slavery as plantation owners, overseers and traders in human flesh were themselves enslaved to their own standard of living, to the treacherous pleasures of the flesh and its unbridled cravings, and to the lust for power that drove and maintained this inhumane system. Even as they partied, sipped mint juleps and engaged in the business of dominating everything around them, they steadily lost their humanity, their understanding of the purpose for which they were created, and their ability to appreciate the power and simplicity of faith, hope and unselfishness. Today, for the most part, the descendants of slave owners remain chained to their possessions, their lifestyles, their businesses, and their need to maintain their illusions of control.
Deeply understanding this human paradox, enslaved Africans were able to endure and even celebrate their continued existence. They were able to witness and give thanks for the ultimate freedom of spirit that could never be taken away from them. They could express, without reservation or consideration, the blessing and joy of life that is a sacred gift.
For many African-Americans, this experience is hardly limited to a once-a-year gathering. Every Sunday, in just about any black church you go to, you will find many of the elements of Goombay!—people clapping their hands and moving their bodies to up-tempo music; full audience participation in the proceedings; an open and genuine sense of community; and a witness to our individual and collective endurance through faith.
The traditional African viewpoint—which informs African-Americans today through our genes, our DNA and our collective memory—acknowledges that the material world is wholly subject to the world of spirit, which pervades the universe. It involves the ancestors; the spirits of trees, rocks and plants; and the power of higher forces in human beings’ everyday affairs. It honors all life as sacred and emanating from one divine source. It’s a viewpoint and a philosophy that intimately connects us as human beings with our origin, our purpose and our creator.
It is highly symbolic that the Goombay! festival takes place right outside Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church (located, significantly, on Eagle Street, where every Sunday members of the congregation mount up on wings that are as much culturally as biblically inspired). Drums are present here too, along with the same exultant spirit that filled the adjacent streets and park during Goombay. Here, and in countless black churches across the country, Africa continues to show herself, invigorating a historically displaced people and reminding us of the truth of our experience in an often hostile society.
I hope that those who danced, ate, partied and participated in the Goombay! festival will not miss out on the profound spiritual communication that informs it. I dare to think that our society would greatly benefit if we were all enslaved to its material demands for fewer days of the year—and treated to the freedom of Goombay more than just once every 12 months.
[Gwen Dismukes is the author of Black 2 the Future and leads The Sustainable Seven workshops. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]