RETROSPECTIVE GRATITUDE: From the Roots of Ancient Africa to the Coastal Shores of America

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise. 
 (Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”)



Before the Pilgrims

During this Thanksgiving Holiday weekend, 2012, our worship services caused me to reflect on my independent studies in Ancient African History, many years ago. I recalled how I marveled at the complex roots of African cultural which spawned the scattering of African, Ethiopian and Afro-Asiatic cultures, like air-dancing Dandelion spores fluttering in the wind, with indisputable traces sprinkled around the globe.

Before the Mayflower, before La Nina, La Pinta and their flagship, La Santa Maria; longbefore the slave ships, Creole, La Amistad and Jesus of LuBeck, my people came from Ethiopia, Nubia and the Land of the Kush. Before the ruthless raids of swarming Asian and European hordes, along with the savage, marauding Jaga cannibals and Nguni tribes, all contributing to the great African migrations and cultural decline …yes, even into the bowels of slavery… long before Plymouth Rock, before Jamestown, Yorktown and the Americas.  We came from resourceful African Bantu, Luo and Maasai clans, as well as proud Mandingo, Ashanti and Zulu warriors; long before the horrors of the slave trade subsided, we came.  We came from immigrants, free and slave. No matter how we came, we too came- and, are called Americans.

Even before Columbus, we came. We sailed with Portuguese and Spanish explorers and our presence was etched in Olmec artifacts of ancient civilizations in Mexico and South America. After the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, came the rise of Mississippi Delta prison farms and chain gangs, which led to the indignities of Jim Crow justice, the humiliations of White Privilege, the make-believe of White Supremacists and the profaneness of a sustained, politicized and sleazy Southern Strategy. Yet, as the elegant Dr. Maya Angelou poetically suggests, we survived and “Still I Rise.”

Given the preponderance of evidence for this still-muffled legacy, in my opinion, only an idiot would continue to deny the rise of great Ancient African civilizations, and the many reasons associated with their decline.  Only a fool would close his mind to the intangibles associated with the ancestral DNA molecules found within the descendants of Africa where, paleoanthropologists say, the human race originated. Only a pure-de jackass would reject the countless contributions of African-Americans in framing the foundational underpinnings of this great nation.

Yet, given the political, social and intellectual change dynamics, linked to America’s recent presidential election results, I’m convinced that cultural idiots, biological fools and political jackasses are now a declining breed in our nation.  For this, I’m thankful.

I’m also thankful for the unspeakable truths, the and hardships and experiences, of my ancestors, as well as the ancestral experience of each and every subculture, ethnic groupings and socio-demographic aggregate now represented within the boundaries of these United States. I’m convinced that it is our differences which make us stronger, based on my observations within the many years of my personal experiences in athletics, the military and various career business pursuits.  

Ancient Kinships

I’m grateful for my ancestral ties to the richness and vastness of the great African Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhai, long before the brutal and systematic, collective rape of the African continent, her natural resources and her cultures.

Although it was many years after my mother first mentioned it, during my childhood, I’m proud for that part of the Mali Empire that I often heard her jokingly call “Tim-buck-two.”  While she usually framed it, and other historical facts, within some humorous context designed to make me look up the term on my own, it wasn’t until after the encouragement of a Jewish World History professor, my college class advisor, when my grades reflected how extremely bored I was with European History, that I began to study African History, “on the side.”  That’s when I realized that there was, indeed, a Timbuktu.

It flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries as part of the Mali Empire, near the Sahara Desert and trade routes of the Niger River, dealing in cargoes of precious gold and ivory and, yes, including the “black gold” of slavery. Its wealth contributed to the growth of learning centers, a university (The Sankore Madrasah) and an influx of Islamic scholars, including the famous Djinguereber Mosque, from the influence of Mansa Musa (Musa I, Emperor of Malian Empire) of whom I learned within my studies and research.

Timbuktu later became a part of the Songhai Empire, before succumbing to invading Moroccan armies, followed by a period as the French Soudan, a colony of France, which helped General Charles De Gaulle and the French Underground forces kick the Nazis’ behinds out of France, in WWII.  I’m gratified that what my mother made curious for me was further validated within my independent studies, as well as being stationed, earlier, in Southern France, playing soccer all over the Mediterranean Basin, while serving aboard the guided-missile-cruiser Flagship (carrying the fleet commander) of the United States Navy’s 6th Fleet.

Who Really Owns the Seas?

I’m beholden to the Navy, my various training, assignments and associated foreign travels, which often allowed me to travel back in time within the many places I visited, like, Villefranche-sur-Mer (my homeport) on the French Riviera , Marseille, Golfe-Juan and Nice, France; Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, Alicante and Rota, Spain; Ibizia and Palma de Mallorca; Tangiers and Casablanca, Morocco; Beirut, Lebanon and Cyprus; Athens and Pyrus, Greece; Dubrovnik and Split, Yugoslavia (before their ethnic wars and breakup); Istanbul (formerly, Ancient Constantinople) and Izmir, Turkey; Naples, Livorno, Sicily, Trieste and Genoa, Italy; Valletta, Malta; Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica; San Juan, Ponce and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico;  St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands, as well as “Gitmo” (U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay), Cuba, long before it became famous as a terrorist detention camp. It was there, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, within the at-sea rescue of Cuban refugees and new escapees from Fidel Castro’s brand of communism, when my sense of brotherhood shifted. 

Simply put, I’m indebted for the unique opportunities to mix-and-mingle with the up-close-and-personal wonderment of the various cultures and people I rubbed elbows with, during my military service, as well as a few of their associated faiths and religions. Interestingly, my ship’s motto, “Power for Peace,” and the many missions and war exercises we conducted helped my further appreciate the Navy’s claim that- excluding God Almighty- “We Own the Seas,”  from a military standpoint. These were the experiences that made me aware of the true potential for world-wide peace, even today.

A Whole Village

I’m equally grateful for my upbringing within the somewhat competitive oppositions and doctrinal similarities of my parent’s religion and that of my grandparents.  Our home, in Kentucky, was under the guidance of my Baptist-minister dad.  But, most summers were spent in the more puritanical atmosphere of my maternal grandparents’ farm home, under the ever-present tutelage of my Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother, in Ohio. At the time, the different atmosphere and religious fervor was a bit confusing.  But, it provided me with a different kind of spirit- one where I first learned, and later honed, the tactics of sustained rebellion against certain religious dogma and duly questionable authority.

This was long before I could understand and appreciate the value of the tenets behind slave rebellion within the “Maroon” Societies, Runaway Slave Communities and Black-Indian Tribes, which snaked down the coastal shores of America, as well as from Canada to Brazil. These were the true “freedom fighters” of the Western Hemisphere, buried deep within the reams of missing pages to America’s classroom history books.  Yet, I’ve learned to appreciate the sacred-vs-profane dichotomy among many belief systems and various cultures around the world, as well as the idea that no one can be a slave, if their “mind is free” and fixed on God.

I first learned of the unique value of bicultural and cross-racial cooperation, during the waning years of segregation, within the environs of my grandparent’s farm and the surrounding Dutch and German farming community. As a child, I never thought it was possible for people of different races to work together, for an overall common good. That is, until I saw how white and black people, mostly mixtures of German, Dutch and African-American, routinely helped each other in Zanesville, Ohio, during planting and harvest times, by rotating their own sweaty labor and sharing food on their respective farm lands. It’s also where I first experienced integrated worship services, praying in the fields, as well as the Pentecostal House of Prayer, where the presence of God we felt was beyond color and without shame.

Later in life, this helped me to better understand and appreciate the images of a Black Jesus hanging on our walls at home, as well as the countless images of a Black Madonna I came into contact with while stationed in, and traveling throughout, the Mediterranean Sea Basin for nearly four years.

I’m also grateful for the white, high school football and track teammates who many times came to the aid of black student athletes under racial assault, on and off the fields of competition, during the racially charged school desegregation years. I’m also proud of the courageous and bold stands of more progressive-minded whites, teachers and parents, like Kentucky’s no-non-sense governor, back then, Governor Bert T. Coombs, as well as his daughter, my gutsy classmate, Lois. When weighted against the prevailing babble of bigotry, organized buffoonery, coupled with the bitter hatred and lingering caustics of the Jim Crow years, their inputs provided favorable perspectives for us all. But, I’m profoundly grateful to those parents and elders in the black community who prayed for us and counseled us in a manner which infused our bloodlines with a life-long spirit of creative protest and civil rights activism.

I’m especially grateful for the parents of certain friends- my surrogate moms and dads- who, following my father’s death, instinctively knew when I was hungry and offered food to sustain me, when I was too doggone proud to ask.  How in the heck I ever survived high school athletics under our Spartan, gut-growling-lean, beans-and-potatoes protein diet is beyond my earthly understanding. Yet, I’m eternally grateful for the experience, as well as all of the hand-me-downs that clothed me. It gave me fresh insights for understanding the Nigerian (Igbo and Yoruba) Proverb, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”

Progressive Visionaries

Meanwhile, I’m thankful for the life and divergent views of progressive religious activist such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rev. Leon H. Sullivan (my mother’s pastor when she moved to Philadelphia, PA), trailing in the long shadows of Colonial era-activist black clergy, like Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, and the many ministers that followed their lead. This includes the mostly misunderstood proponents of Black Liberation Theology, like the Rev. Dr. Gardner Taylor, Rev. James Cone and Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and the corresponding positive impact in shaping who we are, within the teachings of Jesus Christ, as it specifically relates to the struggles of the poor and down trodden.  I’m equally thankful for the expansive research and illuminative writings of historians, like Dr. John Hope Franklin, Dr. Chancellor Williams and Dr. Edgar Toppin who greatly contributed to bringing forth many of the missing pages of history I often mention. This includes combined efforts of all of the visionary poets, writers and actors, of various races and beliefs, which we seem to rarely mention.

As always, I’m thankful for my energetic and supportive wife, within the many years of struggles and triumphs, as we raised our three lion-hearted but compassionate kids. I’m just as thankful for our six tenacious grandchildren, all from whom I continue to learn of and appreciate this society’s emerging technological and social change dynamics, in the wake of my retirement. I’m truly grateful for my extended family, which includes my 25-30 brothers in a Male Chorus singing group,  a community theatre troupe and a circle of many relatives and friends, all whom I refer to as “cousins,” no matter the biological relationships.

I’m especially grateful for the trials and tribulations within the unique journey of our nation’s Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, which have added to his value. He may not be exactly what our nation’s so-called Founding Fathers had in mind for president, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in 1776, or when President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, proclaimed Thanksgiving Day as the last Thursday in November. But, I’m especially proud of his caring concerns for the common folk, including having vision and the courage of his convictions. His compassionate focus on our military personnel, and their families, deployed around the globe, is simply “icing on the cake.” 

I’m confident that his leadership will bring about a more realistic use of our troops and reexamination of our given role as the “World’s Policeman.” Given the complex, purposeful past of many nations, as well as my own travel and life observations, it’s time that we recognize that not all nations want or need a democratic form of government such as ours. 

New Horizons 

Perhaps, it’s not only time to bring our troops home, but also time to rid ourselves of the complex and greedy relationships between our politicians and the defense-spending industrial lobbyists. It seems to have perverted the idea of power for peace through the shameful and selfish, blood-sucking tactics that have enriched their own coffers. We can help reverse this curse by imposing more stringent congressional term limits on our out-of-touch politicians and stop fiddling around with the fruits of a more progressive income tax policy, now withering on the vine. 

Finally, I think we should simply scuttle the whole cumbersome and extravagant process within how we currently elect our president.  We should start all over with a more accountable mode of political representation, and more enlightened research and referendums by “We the People,” to make this politically viable. Our politics are far from perfect, but I’m thankful for the new horizons which now suggest great potential for improvement. 

For all these things- the gifts, the dreams and the hopes– I’m grateful, as we grapple with the realism of our emerging demographics, inclusive of our collective pursuits for peace and happiness, within the mental and spiritual boundaries of what we lovingly call America

And, may God continue to bless us, all, as He has blessed our ancestors..

 “Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.


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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.