From Isha-Charlie McNeely, Director of Outreach, Inclusion, and Community Engagement, Trauma Informed Oregon

Pre Covid-19, I traveled to Columbia, South America for my birthday. To my friends and me, one appealing aspect of traveling there was researching and learning about a small village known as Palenque which is about 90 minutes from the main tourist town of Cartagena. Palenque was the first free African town in the Americas.

A Brief Overview of How the Palenque Village Came to Be

Once the colonizers came to the port of Cartagena with African slaves that they kidnapped, some slaves were able to escape and find refuge between two mountains where they created a small army to defend themselves from invasions. Due to the slaves’ success in keeping colonizers from re-enslaving them, the white settlers were forced to create a treaty honoring the Africans their freedom and sovereignty. This treaty was successful under the terms that the Palenque village leaders had agreed to stop welcoming new African escapees (as they had been very successful in freeing Africans that arrived at the ports). The initial recognition of their freedom was 1604 (according to a direct descendant of the Palenque tribe, which differs from Wikipedia); however, the treaty wasn’t signed into law until 1691.

Palenque Today

We found a local to take us to the village where we were greeted by Victor, a direct descendant of the Palenque, as well as our tour guide. We learned about Palenque history, customs and how they are still able to preserve their way of life in the same way that their ancestors lived.

This was turning out to be the best trip ever. It was a surreal experience as well as empowering. We too often share the narrative that all blacks come from slavery and have gone through history as being less than human. Then I found myself in a village with black folks that were never slaves and learned how brave, strong and resilient they had been (and still are) to protect their humanity. Our history as black folks doesn’t begin with slavery; there are so many other communities, like Palenque, that fought hard to not become slaves. This is an important narrative, because here in the States, we are forced to learn just one aspect of ourselves and history.

Another Narrative of Black History

I remember leaving the village feeling many emotions, but one that stood out the most was connection. For the first time, I felt that my ancestral past was richer than just being stolen and sold. Visiting this village, I now know that we were warriors, royalty, and lived full and enriching lives. Slavery was just a period in black history and not the ONLY black history. From then on, I wondered what my life as well as other blacks in America would be like if we had learned of that narrative growing up instead of being taught from an early school age that we were just slaves and shaped (or more so taught) to feel and move in the world as inferior and less than whites. One anecdote from Victor that resonated with me was Victor’s father asking him, “Who are you?”, to which he named all of those that have come before him starting with the first Palenquean freed African, who was his grandfather many greats ago. I can only imagine the strength and assurance that gives him in knowing his place in the world because of those who paved the way for him.

That is why, though it is so important to tell the history of slavery in this country, it should not be the starting or ending of the story. Learning the culture and lineage of the 3500 inhabitants of the Palenque Village brought healing, pride and a new sense of self-worth that I hadn’t experienced before. That is why, here at TIO, we believe culture is healing and part of moving forward while still honoring the past in its entirety.

I want to leave you with this video, Danger of the Single Story by Chimamanda Adichie which is pretty popular and has been in circulation in lots of educational and training spaces. However, it is still a great reminder of the defeatist consequences of blacks being viewed solely as descendants of slaves.

“Dear Students, they didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, etc., and made them slaves.

Sincerely, Your Ancestors”