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Djimon Hounsou’s race series honors Africa’s history and the enslaved

The Richmond portion of the event held Saturday will take participants past historic sites and celebrate unity in diversity

Djimon Hounsou, actor and producer, during a visit to the Ark of Return at U.N. headquarters in New York in 2019. (Luiz Rampelotto/EuropaNewswire/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
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Several years ago, actor Djimon Hounsou was visiting his home country of Benin. As he looked out on the West African coast, he thought about what it represented; specifically, its significance in the transatlantic slave trade.

Hounsou starred in the Steven Spielberg-directed historical drama “Amistad” in the mid-1990s. While doing so, the 58-year-old actor says he learned much more about the history of the African people and how, in the aftermath of the slave trade, many lost the knowledge of their families, origins and ancestry. “We are talking about a severe identity issue,” Hounsou said. “If you don’t know where you come from, you sure don’t know who you are.”

That realization was one of the inspirations behind his founding of the Djimon Hounsou Foundation in 2019 on Dec. 2, which the United Nations marks as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. The foundation aims, in part, to reconnect the people of the African diaspora with their roots and culture, and to fight modern slavery and human trafficking.

On Saturday, as part of that vision, the foundation will host the inaugural Run Richmond 16.19, the first in a three-part running and concert event series called Africa Reconnect. Planned with events on three continents, it was designed to illustrate how the past is connected to the future while celebrating unity in diversity.

“I thought, what brings a mass of people from a diverse world together?” Hounsou said. “And I realized, it’s only around sports and music that you can bring people from different backgrounds together.”

Richmond’s statues fell. Now these sisters aim to lift up Black history.

Richmond and the other two Africa Reconnect event locations — Liverpool, England, and Ouidah, West Africa — are host cities to the Reconciliation Triangle created by Liverpool-based artist Stephen Broadbent. When connected through straight lines, the three sculptures form the Triangle of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Triangle of Hope. Each statue has inscriptions reading: “Acknowledge and forgive the past. Embrace the present. Shape a future of reconciliation and justice.”

Participants in Run Richmond 16.19 can choose either a 6.19-mile or a 16.19-kilometer distance, with tiered pricing ranging from $35 to $105. Before each race begins on Saturday morning, the Elegba Folklore Society will perform a drum call and libation ceremony.

As of Thursday afternoon, nearly 600 people had signed up, organizers said.

Each route has runners passing historical points that, DHF Program and Marketing Director Max Plank said, speak to the Black experience and celebrate the impact of African and African American culture.

In designing the routes, Plank studied Richmond’s history and researched extensively online. The foundation collaborated with the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia and other local grass-roots organizations, educational institutions and Black-run businesses and individuals in planning the event festivities and course routes.

“In Richmond, we are fortunate to have a number of African American landmarks or landmarks related to African American history and culture,” said Monroe Harris, board president and acting executive director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. “But the people that are coming together probably would not be doing so if it weren’t for an event such as this. You are educating people who may not be aware of some of the accomplishments of Black people in culture and history — it increases our awareness and understanding of each other, which if we have that, it makes the world a better place.”

From there, the foundation worked with Sports Backers, a Richmond-area group that supports active lifestyles, to determine possible road closures and logistics in allowing for the participants to experience as many historical landmarks as possible. At three sites along the route, participants will be able to stop and watch a short video on the historical significance of the location; there will also be signs with headlines, a short description and QR codes at 12 different historical markers for participants to scan, listen and learn.

Some notable places — such as the length of historical Monument Avenue and the site of “Rumors of War,” American artist Kehinde Wiley’s bronze sculpture commemorating African American youth facing social and political injustices — couldn’t be incorporated into this year’s course Plank said. But Plank said the foundation hopes to be able to include them as the event grows in future years.

Many other important areas were included. The crossing of different bridges is present on both routes, paralleling the symbolism of the transatlantic slave trade crossing the Atlantic. The route also passes through the historical Jackson Ward neighborhood, Shockoe Bottom and several murals of the “Mending Walls” public art project.

“I’m hoping it will bring a certain journey of experiencing 400 years of Black history, where you can touch and feel,” said Hounsou, who will run the 6.19-mile distance.

Anthony and Tara Clary grew up in the Blackwell neighborhood of Richmond. Several years ago, they founded #WeOfftheCouch, a running group built to bring diversity to running and build community. It has grown to around 80 people who attend one of the group’s three weekly runs. The members, Tara says, “are people of all shapes, ages, sizes, backgrounds, paces, faces and races. It’s such a beautiful thing because somehow, we have struck a chord with so many different people.”

When they learned of Run Richmond 16.19 six months ago, they were on the phone with Plank that same day, as part of the foundation’s initial outreach to local African American organizations and companies. “That was beautiful to us because we know we hold a special space in this place we’re occupying,” Tara says. “Long-distance running has traditionally been available to upper-middle class Whites. It’s not traditionally a Black or Brown sport.”

Even though they regularly run the streets of Richmond and pass many of these historical sites, the Clarys look forward to the impact it will have. “To experience it in real time, it’ll be a beautiful thing,” Tara says. “It’s connecting African American descendants to their identity. Because of the transatlantic slave trade, we’ve been stripped of our identity in so many ways. This is to commemorate the sacrifices African Americans have made to our nation and world.”

Several of the community partners will set up tents on-site following the race’s finish, including the Afrikana Film Festival taking place the same weekend. The Experience Band and Show will also perform live at the post-race Finish Festival, as will the Elegba Folklore Society along with guest artist Jah Baba from Cotonou, Benin, Hounsou’s home country. Food and drinks will also be available. (The finish area is free to anyone, whether a race participant or not.)

“We are trying to champion the idea of unity in diversity,” Hounsou says. “The purpose is all about healing. We’re at a historical moment in time to acknowledge that Black history is American history. It’s about the Afro-descendents of this world to feel the power of their history and to have a bit of knowledge about who they are, what they mean in this world and what they accomplished over time.”