Captain Michael Joshua Smith, July 1, 1868
“Potential means nothing without the realization of one’s own
abilities. But remember son, a man is judged by his deeds and actions.
Make certain that the good far outweighs the bad before your time on
this earth is over.” This was the last piece of advice given to me by
my mother before I left home. How many people have been thought to have
great potential but never lived up to that measure? I have pondered this
ever since she uttered those words. It has come to me now, after seeing
so much good and bad in this world, that the advice was meant to have me
look at myself with a critical eye. It was intended to force me to
recognize my abilities and to harness them to do good in order to
realize my full potential in life. I can only hope that I have done so.
The journey, which I now embark upon, will, I hope, mark the pinnacle of
The night is crisp and the ocean air fresh with a light breeze coming
off the ocean waves. Only the whirring of the machinery and the paddle
wheels of our steamship attempt to disrupt the calm of this beautiful
evening. Their mechanical rapidity seems to fade into the background as
the moonlight plays off the waves and a myriad of stars illuminate the
night’s sky. The temperature is refreshing and a light coat is barely
needed. We are on an important journey, one that I consider the
culmination of my life. The civil war in the United States has ended
and, as her coastline fades past the horizon, I know in my heart that
the forces of good have prevailed but at a great cost. Some say that our
nation will never heal and other say that it never could have healed
without this war. Either way, it has taken its toll on both sides.
As our ship steadily pushes through the waters and the occasional cloud
passes by, I can hear the songs of our passengers who have settled in
for the long journey below. They are songs of freedom and songs of
longing which rise up into the night’s sky and envelop our vessel.
What an incredible people they are to have lost so much, set into the
bonds of slavery and yet remain dignified and hopeful for the future.
Our journey to the African continent should take half the five weeks
that it took me upon my first visit there eight years ago. We are lucky
to have secured a steam-powered vessel; the days of being reliant upon
the winds are now passed into the history books. What a marvel of
technology! What a shame that this ship, along with so many others, was
built for war. War between brothers in what was nearly the end of our
great nation. We have prevailed not only for the North but also for the
South. It is my sincere hope that, now with the war ended, we can
reunite this once great country and perhaps repair the damage left by
the horrific institution of slavery.
“Captain.” A voice calls out from behind me as I peer back at the
horizon hoping to get one last glimpse of home.
It is Osumaka standing behind me. “Why do you do this?”
Osumaka is an African with a strong and muscular frame of an even six
feet in height. His dark skinned body is mostly devoid of hair less a
patch on his chest and a mat of short curls of dark black hair upon his
head. His body wears numerous scars; the origins of some of which are
not entirely clear. At least two of the scars appear to be deliberately
placed across his chest. I say this due to the symmetric nature of the
scars and the high improbability that neither an animal nor an
assaulting warrior could create such a consistent symmetry. He also
bears the marks of his captivity as a slave. His back is riddled with
lash marks from his master’s whip. The scars are heaped one upon the
other coursing every which way. His ears are slightly larger than most
but his nose was neither as wide nor the openings nearly as prominent as
that which I have observed of his countrymen. He has high cheekbones and
a firm, angled chin. His voice is deep and calm, no doubt reflective of
his strong constitution.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Why do you help us return?” Osumaka asked.
“It is the least I can do to help you,” I replied.
“But why would you or any other white man help me return home?”
“I do it…” I said but paused.
“Out of guilt,” he asked.
“Because it is the right thing to do,” I replied.
“That has not been my experience,” he said as he took a deep breath.
“Some white men are good but most are not. Some wear their hatred for
us openly while most others just look the other way as if we are not
there. How many times have whites seen me yet they did not really see
me? They look at me but they do not notice me. They know I am there but
they ignore my existence. They knew I was a slave but they thought, if
they did not see me then no wrong was being committed. Just because they
did not participate in my enslavement didn’t make them less guilty of
“I understand,” I replied. “Inaction can make one as guilty as the
one committing the crime.”
“Yes, this is so,” Osumaka said.
“That is why this country was nearly destroyed.”
“Because of slavery,” he asked.
“Because many of us looked away for too long. We let it go too far. We
did not stop slavery when we could have, when we should have.”
“Yes. For too long,” he replied solemnly.
“For too long,” I responded as I glanced back.
“I met a man once. A very important man,” Osumaka said. “He told
me, ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess
to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops
without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and
lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many
waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one;
or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power
concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.’”
“That is clearly a very wise man,” I replied, “Who was he?”
“His name is Fredrick Douglass. Have you heard of him?” He asked.
“I have. Many have. He is truly a very wise man,” I said.
“He said one other thing that has stayed with me, ‘The white man’s
happiness can not be purchased with the black man’s misery.’ Do you
understand this?” Osumaka asked.
“I do. And I agree with him and with you,” I said solemnly.
“You look back from where we came, Why,” he asked.
I smiled and responded, “Yes, it is hard every time I must leave.”
“Ah,” He said, “But it is not hard for me to leave.” He paused.
“It was much harder for me to arrive.”
“I have meant to ask you,” I stated. “I hoped to learn more about
you. About your life and your journeys… to put in my memoirs.
Hopefully to retell your story some day.”
“There is not much to know about me,” he replied. “I am but a
slave. One of many… who do not look upon your country favorably.”
“You speak eloquently for a former slave,” I stated.
“I learned English from a slave who used to be a freewoman and school
teacher. She was taken by bounty hunters from her home in the north and
forced into a life of slavery in the south. She risked her life to
educate me and several other slaves on the plantation. In the end, it
was her way of defying her masters.” He replied with a large grin.
“Well, I am favorably impressed!” I replied as I motioned to the
deck seat, which was within steps of us.
We sat down. “Can you tell me about your home?”
He paused and then began, “The memories of home are as clear as those
of today. Every night since I arrived, some eight years ago, I have
dreamed of my family, my wife, my children and my home. I know that they
are with me every time I close my eyes…
These are the memories and words from Osumaka himself, set to pen and
paper by me after his retelling of his journey:
His story took me back to April of 1861, some eight years ago and five
months after I had set sail on the USS Saratoga for Africa:
On the continent of Africa, Lower Guinea, in an area known as the Congo
lived the Matamba. A tribe of the BaKongo, I was told that they lived
in peace and that their unique geographic location placed them away from
the wars, which had torn the continent apart. They had heard of the wars
from stories related to them by travelers who occasionally passed
through their village peacefully. There existed a village, which had
been present in this particular location for untold generations. It was
situated on an elevated plateau and surrounded by palm groves and
fertile fields which expanded out to the horizon and in which the
village grew their food. The village itself consisting of some fifty
thatched huts, lined up in two long rows on either side of a central
open space. Within the center of the open space was a communal meeting
area, where a fire was maintained by the tribe and never permitted to
die out. The smell of heavy smoke was forever present and made its
presence known as if it managed to meander through the village on its
own accord. The sparks from this terrestrial eternal flame rose far into
the sky as ash fell gently to the ground and covered the pounded dirt of
the village square like a gentile flurry of snow.
In this village of peace and harmony existed a man named Osumaka. Whom,
I encountered through my life’s journey and from whom my knowledge of
such things exist. He lived there with his wife Likana. She was of
statuesque form. Her body was much leaner than most with, as Osumaka put
it, mounds upon her chest reminiscent of gentle rolling hills. Her skin
was of similar hue to Osumaka’s. Her hair was short and curly and kept
very neat. She wore a beaded band across her forehead and her smile
could make others smile by its’ mere presence. They had two children:
the elder a boy of six years of age named Bwana and a four year old
daughter named Nzinga. Bwana was a most affable child with a friendly
demeanor and an inquisitive mind. His face wore the distinct mix of
features from both parents. He too was lean but was tall for his age.
Their daughter Nzinga, whom I can only relate from description alone
since I had never the fortune to meet her in person, was equally affable
in nature and loving of animals of any kind.
As the sun arose, the village slowly came to life each morning. An
average day consisted of a separation of tasks not much different than
that of the naval service upon a vessel upon which I would spend a good
portion of my life. Village women primarily engaged in the processes of
preparing food. This included harvesting of the rice and cassava with
the children’s help. This followed by the separating of the rice grain
from its husk by mixing up quantities of it with coarse gravel, followed
by a rudimentary mortar made of wood. The women would then use the
mortar to punch and grind the harvest. Then the children separated the
grain and sand by tossing the mixture by hand into the air. They seemed
to make a game of it, singing and laughing while performing such an
arduous task that many of my childhood friends back in New York city
would find akin to the hard labor of a prisoner. Yet these children
enjoyed the task at hand and made game of it with competition to see who
was the best at creating separate piles from the components. All the
while, the women in the village sang song of hope and prayer to their
The men of the tribe congregated separately. When they were not hunting,
they would sit upon their heels talking and telling tales of their
exploits. Most spent the time honing their blades with stones as they
spun their tales. The sounds of metal upon stone, buoyant voices and the
rhythmic beating of the work of the women filled the village. Upon
occasion a child or wife would head over to the men to give their head
of family a bite to eat or a gentle touch of affection.
Osumaka was the most successful hunters of the tribe and he would often
lead the village men out to stalk game from which they would feast. On
the morning of one such excursion, Bwana approached his father.
“Why must you leave us again,” young Bwana asked his father.
“I must hunt for food so that you and your mother and your sister have
something to eat,” he replied.
“Can’t we just eat the foods from the plants that mother
collects?” he asked.
“Of course, but we need meat too and we need the other parts of the
animals for other things,” Osumaka responded as he lifted his son onto
“I’m afraid that you may get hurt or you may not return to us.”
Osumaka took out a small item from the pouch on his hip. It was a small
figurine of a warrior carved of ivory. Osumaka had been working on it
for weeks and took pride in the craftsmanship of the figure, which stood
no more than three inches high. Despite its diminutive appearance it was
rich in detail with a spear and a hip pouch similar to his own. Osumaka
handed it to his son. “I made this Ere Aworan (little statue) for you.
It is a piece of my spirit, which I will entrust to you. Keep it close
to you and I will always be right here with you.”
Bwana took the figure and examined it closely. “It doesn’t look
exactly like you,” he replied. “I like the spear.”
Osumaka responded, “It is me and it is for you. I will always be with
you and I will always love you. No matter what I will always find you as
long as you have this.”
“I will father, I will keep it safe and I will never let it go.”
Bwana replied as he held it tight.
“What did you give him?” asked Likana.
The young boy held out the figure to show his mother.
“So beautiful,” she responded. “Lets attach a piece to make it a
necklace. That way you will always wear your father close to your
Likana approached her husband, “This is a good thing you have done my
husband. He is so afraid to lose you.”
With that mother and son went into the hut as the father finished
sharpening the tip of his spear.
Suddenly from the hut Nzinga ran out, “What about me? I want one
“I don’t have another my dear,” her father replied “but I will
make you one too if it will make you happy.”
“It will, it will,” she gleefully responded, “but I don’t want a
spear on mine and can mine have long braids.”
“Certainly my dear,” he said as he dropped his spear and picked up
the young girl. “Anything for my little princess.” As he held her
tight and gave her little kisses all over her face. She giggled in
“I love you too my brave father.” As she kissed him back.
Osumaka placed the little girl back on the ground and she ran into the
hut. He followed close behind.
“I must go now my love. We will return before the sun sets.”
“Be safe my husband,” replied his wife.
Osumaka picked up his spear and headed back out.
Excerpted from "Ere àwòrán" by Michael Jay Nusbaum. Copyright © 2015 by Michael Jay Nusbaum. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.