Kofi LeNiles speaks to an audience in the Heritage Room of the Thurgood Marshall Center during the February 28 screening of “For Humanity: Culture, Community, & Maroonage.” (Photo by Sam P.K. Collins) 

In an era where much of the mainstream focus on enslavement in South America romanticizes the exploitative relationship between enslaved Africans and their captors — as seen recently in a Netflix film, the name of which won’t be mentioned — two scholars have set out to explore an aspect of that struggle that resulted in the maintenance of African customs, attitudes, and traditions preceding the Maafa.

Howard University researchers Kofi LeNiles and Kmt G. Shockley, Ph.D. said they want “For Humanity: Culture, Community, & Maroonage,” their film about the perennial Maroon settlement of San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, to serve as a case study in how people of African descent can move beyond the societal ills that have crippled communities decades after the Civil Rights movement.

“We’ve been taught about who we are from others, but this narrative gives you a sense of pride and understanding about what it means to be an unapologetic African,” said LeNiles, co-producer of the film and doctoral student at Howard University School of Education.

Recently, LeNiles spoke about the cultural and psychological impact of “For Humanity, Culture, Community, & Maroonage” during a film screening in the Heritage Room of The Thurgood Marshall Center Trust (TMCT) in Northwest. The event preceded screenings at Morgan State University in Baltimore and the National Council for Black Studies Conference in New Orleans. Another gathering will take place in San Basilio de Palenque in late March.

On the evening of February 28, more than two dozen people at TMCT watched half of the documentary before engaging LeNiles in conversation about aspects of Maroon culture, including the formation of Kuagros, groups of girls and boys of a similar age who rely on one another as they navigate various life stages.

Other factoids that piqued the audience’s attention involved the longevity of the Maroons’ indigenous African tongue, the absence of police and jails, and equitable gender relations — all of which LeNiles said resembles ancient African societies from which Black people had been stolen.

“We have been told that we are beings different than who we actually are,” LeNiles said. “We were told that we are three-fifths of a person, we are Negroes, etc. But what we are is what we were before the Maafa [African Holocaust]. We are Africans.In this film, we offer the identity of a Maroon, someone who understands the importance of sovereignty and reattachment to Africa.”

Three years ago, LeNiles and Shockley, a faculty member in the Howard University School of Education, teamed up in their endeavor to chronicle the lives of the African people living in San Basilio de Palenque. Their film project culminates a professional relationship that started when LeNile, interested in Shockley’s evolving scholarship on Maroonage, reached out to him during an arduous search for doctoral programs.

LeNiles and Shockley traveled to San Basilio de Palenque three times between 2017 and last spring, during excursions that lasted more than two weeks at a time, to film “For Humanity, Culture, Community, & Maroonage.”

This project follows the release of “Freedom! The Untold Story of Benkos Bioho and the World’s First Maroons,” a children’s book released in January about Benkos Bioho, founder of San Basilio de Palenque.

In 1713, after several futile attempts to recapture the Africans who escaped, the Spanish monarchy declared San Basilio de Palenque the first free village in the Americas. The more than 3,000 present-day inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque directly descend from the enslaved Africans who escaped captivity.

In 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization designated San Basilio de Palenque as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It stands as the sole remaining community of escaped Africans in that region, but not without reason said Shockley.

“Walking among the Maroons, everything is about family and community,” Shockley, a faculty member in the Howard University School of Education, noted. “When you have that community and family focus, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the luxury that we have in the west. You have your culture and community. That mindset comes from being family oriented. It creates a different type of person.”

For more information about “For Humanity: Culture, Community, & Maroonage,” and the March 23 fundraising campaign, send an email to thekainstitute@gmail.com.