A basic altar for ancestors includes acknowledgment of the elements: light in the form of candles (fire), water for refreshment, incense or burning tobacco (air), and the ground the altar rests on (earth).
Each year for Juneteenth, the altar is the same and each year the altar is different, according to our expanding knowledge and the request of spirit.
Our altar is set upon an inverted metal tub. The enslaved ancestors believed an inverted tub, pot, or caldron smothered the sound of their night prayer meetings, which often had to be conducted in secret. Sometimes they lit candles on top of them. Sometimes they leaned on the tub to pray. Among the Mende in Sierra Leone, Africa, the inverted three-legged pot signaled the end of the ceremony. In New World African ceremony, such as the Lucumi, it is an inverted bucket that signals the end of a drum ceremony. We thought the inverted tub was appropriate for our altar base.
In our procession, a replica of a ship of the type that could have transported slaves represents the journey of the Middle Passage. The small skeleton hanging from a sail, of course, represents the numbers who died on the journey. It is painted gold to symbolize the illicit riches gained through the labor of our ancestors that formed the basis of the wealth of the U.S., which made it a place of economic refuge to people all over the world -- then and now.
Captured in Africa, our ancestors feared that they were going to be eaten by the slavers. It was with some relief that they heard the rumors that they were being taken somewhere to work. They could not have imagined how bad it would be and that unlike in their homeland, they would never benefit from their labor in fields that sometimes depended on the exclusive skills they had because they were African. The altar, therefore, includes samples of rice, cotton, tobacco, sugar and even indigo, the crops that made the New World rich.
Other foodstuffs include the basic makings of a common African American cultural meal: collard greens, black-eye peas, cornbread, watermelon.
Pictures of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement of the 19th century will be placed around the base of the altar including Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Charlotte Forten Grimke. Each of these freedom fighters had historic responses to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, which our young actors from Laney College will share at the ceremony on Saturday.
Fresh flowers are standard presentations for the deceased at graveyards and funerals, but this year we will place on the altar roses made of gingham, which I learned was an appropriate gift from a man to his wife in the Reconstruction Era.
Gingham was one of the common, inexpensive fabrics used to clothe the enslaved and it was also one of the fabrics used to barter for captured Africans. In the rig-shout portion of the program we wear gingham aprons and handkerchiefs as homage to those ancestors sacrifice.
Feel free to wear gingham on Saturday as elevate our ancestors' value in our minds and hearts.