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Past Lives

On the way to Orlando for Thanksgiving, my daughter and I stopped in St. Augustine for a little sight-seeing through history. I needed a fresh look at the city for my Warrior Slave series. Specifically, I wanted to see Ft. Mose.

I grew up in Orlando and one of the fundamentals that we learned about Florida was the history of St. Augustine. What Floridian child does not know of Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth? I even remember taking a field trip to St. Augustine and visiting the colonial quarter. We stepped into a past that revealed the richness of Florida history. Wow! To be standing in the oldest (continuously inhabited) city in America! 

Of course, our lessons did not include the Timucuan Indians who inhabited the land prior to the arrival of the Europeans, And we certainly did not learn of Ft. Mose. It wasn't until I visited the African Burial Grounds in New York City that I learned of America's first free black settlement in Florida. And that settlement happened because the Spaniards granted refuge to black slaves fleeing the British colonies of Georgia and the Carolinas. Of course, the British couldn't let Ft. Mose or Spanish Florida last for long so they systematically attacked the fort and the surrounding areas until the British eventually brokered a deal for Florida.

Learning of Ft. Mose just reminded me of how much of black history has been buried in America's past. Generations of America's children have been told the whitest stories about this country's founding. When the idea of Neema came to me years ago, I wanted to help bring stories of the black experience out of history's graveyards. One of our greatest tragedies as a nation is the loss of narratives that point to the rich diversity of America. Native Americans and Africans may not have chosen to be part of Europe's Age of Exploration but they were. And so here we are.

The Timucuans became extinct by the 1700's so I chose to make Dagon Timucuan. The fact that entire peoples no longer exist because of imperialism and colonialism is mind-boggling. I hope that in exploring Neema's 1700 beginnings, I will be able to pay tribute to a few of those native tribes.

More than anything, though, I want to pay homage to my ancestors. As I stood in the Ft. Mose museum, I was awed. Africans shed the bonds of slavery and built their own towns throughout the South. And those towns didn't just spring up after the Civil War. Africans were forging paths and creating legacies even before the War of independence. Makes me wonder what might have happened if Britain had not gained Florida and spread slavery throughout all its territories.

Ft. Mose eventually fell and became overshadowed by the incredible story of St. Augustine, but there is power in knowing that Africans were so much greater than slavery. From the beginning, African peoples fought for their freedom; they searched for their place in American society despite the difficulties they faced. These are the stories that I am able to explore and tell through Neema. What more could the writer in me ask for?

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