A 'Priscilla's Homecoming' Journal
A week with 'Priscilla's Posse'
By Jeanine Talley
Antawn and Thomalind Polite
I spent a week in early summer 2005 with Priscilla's descendant, Thomalind Martin Polite, her husband, Antawn, and an entourage of about twenty other Americans (and one woman from Britain) touring and experiencing the spirit and welcome of the "lion mountain" country of Sierra Leone. The small nation rests on the curve of Africa's west coast, encompassing the continent's farthest western point and its largest natural harbor. Its capital, Freetown, with a population of 1.2 million, rests just outside that harbor.
Freetown was founded in the late 1700s by a group of newly freed slaves who fought on the side of the British in the American Revolutionary War. These black soldiers came mostly from South Carolina and Virginia plantations. At first the British evacuated them to Canada but later decided to return the Africans to their homeland. A large, ancient cotton tree in Freetown is said to have started life when these settlers first arrived and remains a source of pride and nationalism to this day. Sierra Leone continued to exist as a British colony for another 169 years until it gained independence in 1961.
Who is Pricilla?
As the last notes of the uniquely composed narrative song written and performed by the Freetong Players, a local a cappella group, drifted through the large meeting room, the speechless crowd scarcely knew how to respond to such an emotional musical experience. Only a few moments ago, I watched Polite's face shake with emotion as the song's words embraced her almost as if the spirit of Priscilla was sitting in that very room. For the audience, it was an incredible, euphoric moment. Priscilla was a child of strength, resilience and determination; and after years of living in a foreign land, her descendant had brought her spirit home.
But Polite experienced an extra surprise. As JMU professor Joe Opala later said, "It wasn't until that night at the embassy [when] the Freetong Players performed, singing [Priscilla's] story, [that Polite] really believed that they were welcoming her home [too]." So the event honored not only the ancestor who was kidnapped from her land so many years ago but also the living descendant who, too, was returning home.
A traditional dance
Our seven days spent as "Priscilla's Posse" included a full schedule of meetings with Sierra Leone's president, vice president and other high ranking governmental officials; presentations at the American Embassy and National Museum; theatrical performances at Fourah Bay College; boat trips to a traditional Susu village and slave castle; and a reception at the American ambassador's residence.
It is not possible to describe all of the details or accurately capture the awe we felt during our visit. We witnessed hundreds of Susu village dancers and musicians compete for Polite's attention and recognition in a Yeliba performance; we sang "Amazing Grace" to the beat of African drums during an early morning service honoring women (Polite included) in the Star by the Sea Catholic Church; and we laughed with Sierra Leone's president when he joked that it may take parliament a while to "pass the paperwork," after offering Thomalind and Antawn Polite dual citizenship to his country.
Nothing compares to the chartered bus ride through the country as children screamed "Priscilla! Priscilla!" and slapped the vehicle's sides if they were close enough or to the experience of standing on the last piece of land where thousands of captured Africans last touched their beloved home. We finally understood the strength that the 10-year–old Priscilla must have had to withstand every imaginable obstacle and return home after 249 years.
Meeting Sierra Leone's president
The Polites sat close together on a stiff, overstuffed couch; Antawn's large frame seemed uncomfortable in his suit jacket and tie while Thomalind, looking even more petite when next to her husband, sat quietly in a black suit dress accented by a giant pearl necklace and bracelet. She absentmindedly occupied her restless hands by patting down her already perfectly set hair. It was obvious that she, too, was nervous. Or perhaps it was some kind of anxious expectancy, an emotion similar to that Priscilla must have felt when she finally reached her new home in the 'Land Across the Big Water' –– an experience completely new in every sense of the word.
But on this day the Polites were not starting an entire new life in a land unknown to them, they were waiting to meet the president of Sierra Leone. President Kabbah must have sensed their nervousness because as soon as he spoke he put everyone at ease with his laughter, wit and charm. The Polites were presented gifts of traditional clothing, jewelry and handicrafts and thanks from the amazing country that welcomed them. They immediately eased back into their seats and the atmosphere returned to what it had been all week –– that of comfort and family.
Abandoned slave castle
To a small crowd of American and African journalists, the U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone, and a few Sierra Leoneans from the neighboring islands, Opala described the slave castle as it would have looked in its prime operational years –– gravel walkways; 40–foot high fortress walls; iron cannons wth the crest of the king of England; offices, workshops, and storeroom providing space for the guns, cotton cloth and rum offered in exchange for slaves; and strong rooms to keep the gold and ivory bought from the Africans.
This place was indeed a "bizarre, inhumane juxtaposition of a rich man's estate, prison and fortress" said Opala. Although a small space physically, it housed a huge Georgian–style two–story home, complete with a fireplace that was never used because of the region's tropical heat and an upper level veranda where the commander of the castle could entertain guests. Directly behind the house were the slave yards. The prison's enclosed spaces were divided –– men were in the wider, larger yard, and women and children were in the smaller, cramped one.
The African sun beat down, and the high prison walls and the towering "factory house" cut off the river's breeze. The suffocating heat made the space feel smaller than it already was. "Overcrowded" could not justifiably describe these yards where crowds of people suffered.
Walking around the small fortress, one felt a depressing weight at the thought of such a misuse of land and resources. Awe for the obvious human ingenuity in creating such a magnificent physical space gave way to massive disappointment and rage for its purpose.
Polite was overwhelmed; her face reflected pain, sorrow and horror as the tortures the captive Africans would endure were described. She said that standing on Bunce Island was "the most incredible moment" of the entire trip. Despite the sadness and the history, or maybe because of them, she felt nearer to her great, great, great, great, great–grandmother than at any other time during the homecoming. "Just knowing that Priscilla was there 249 years ago, and there I was standing on the same ground made the cycle complete."
Traveling with Priscilla's Posse, indeed being in Africa itself, was one of the most privileged experiences I've ever had. It was more than a historical trip back to slavery times, and it was more than time spent honoring a determined survivor of the era. Priscilla's Homecoming was the kind of welcome home many black Americans can only dream about. It embraced not only Thomalind Polite but also everyone else setting foot on the country's white beaches and invited them to stay awhile so that they might hear the story of the many children whom Sierra Leone, "Mama Salone," lost and those who have returned.
About the Author
Jeanine "Nina" Talley, daughter of JMU professor Cheryl Talley, worked with the JMU Honors Program and Furious Flower Poetry Center. She now lives in San Francisco, where she is a research and administrative assistant at the National Senior Citizens Law Center, Oakland Branch, located in downtown Oakland, Ca.