*This is the second installment is a 3 part series on the Year of Return*
I have never really talked in depth about my experience in Ghana last year. However, as our community continues to be harmed by structural violence, I wanted to take this time to reflect on my experience publicly. And as I do, I continually ask God the meaning of the 400 Years Commemoration and the Year of Return in the context of what we are facing right now. Between the pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black bodies (physically and economically), police terrorism and murder of Black bodies, and the recent incidents of lynching – on top of everything that we already have to navigate – I believe that we have to ask different questions about the last 400 years and re-imagine another future moving forward.
The 400 Year Commemoration is not just a thing in the past; it is our present and our future! And I name this, recognizing that there is not unilateral agreement among us about the actual start of our enslavement and also recognizing that even prior to enslavement, Africans had been in the Americas. My point is not to unpack any of these view points, I happen to agree with them, but rather to examine what all of it means right here and now in order to move forward. That is the purpose of these reflections and this series overall.
In my first post, I talked about some of the things leading up to my going to Ghana. Folks who were not able to read that reflection can find it here. This post picks up where that one left off, with journal entries of my experience listed below. The first entry is about my experience seeing one of the remaining dungeons where Africans were held in Accra.
As we were out sight seeing after church today, a man stopped us an asked if we would like a tour. He would charge us 20 cedis each. We said yes. He was very knowledgeable and told us about the history of that particular area which use to be one of the many over 40 slave ports in Ghana alone. The one he showed us previously owned by the British and was named Jamestown after King James in England. I think he said it was established in 1611 or 1617 but I recognize the connection. This James also commissioned a Bible in 1611 and Jamestown, VA would also be named after him. We need to do more investigation of this James and how tied he was to the slave trade as I had never made the connection before today. Because then you have to investigate how he translated the Bible and the decisions that were made and how this version was used to oppress Africans who were enslaved.
Our guide talked about the slave dungeon that was in that site in particular and how there was an underground route that led out to the water where those who were enslaved took their last bath before getting on the boat. I took a picture of this and am quite disappointed that it did not save. It felt surreal to walk this same land that our ancestors walked. I wonder what they felt in their hearts before they left and if they could comprehend what was happening.
“Was this the land where my ancestors walked?
Was this the water their hands touched?
Was this the sky their eyes met as they petitioned God for their release?
Was this the door they went through to never return again
Am I their only hope of coming back and making amends?
Of walking through that door
Praying to that God
Bathing in that water
Letting my bare feet touch the dusty ground
Am I their only hope of healing this historical memory so that those coming after me breathe a little bit easier, move through the world a little more gracefully, sleep a little bit more soundly
Could our soul begin to rest because we came?
Could we find peace because we were here?”
And I wonder who my ancestors prayed to. I wonder what was in their thoughts? So many people didn’t make it out alive and yet, I am here. 400 years later. I am a living example of those who did. I don’t know how but know God did and that God answered the prayers of survival and endurance, though we cannot make sense of why God didn’t answer the prayers of deliverance. Coming back feels like an opportunity for coming together, like Nehemiah looking at the structure of things so we can build and move forward.
“Coming back feels like an opportunity for coming together, like Nehemiah looking at the structure of things so we can build and move forward.” This last part sticks out to me in particular because of how long we have been away from the continent. White people have deceived many of us into believing that Africa is some backward part of the world and that we are better off being in the United States in spite of what we are facing. However, many of us have never investigated the claims, either through careful study or going to see for ourselves what it is like. Failing to find out for ourselves leaves the continent increasingly vulnerable to exploitation of its land, its resources, and its people. The more we remain in the dark about this vast continent, the more the oppression continues not only for the people who are still there but for us in the diaspora here.
In going and setting my eyes on this place for myself, I saw beauty and horror juxtaposed in the same place. I saw beauty in the people, the land, the water, and the culture. Horror was the visual reminder of slavery because all of the places where our ancestors were held remain. In spite of this, one of the things that was immensely powerful was the Ghanians, like our tour guide, reclaiming the narrative of slavery for themselves and telling the truth about what happened to all of us.
The Spirit keeps the memories of the ancestors alive. There is so much that I want to say about today God. I will start with gratitude and from there. I remain thankful for being in this space in this year. It is not only symbolic but a spiritual necessity to bring us healing and redemption/
I want to start by talking about the water. Oh my God, the water. Arriving at the Coconut Grove and seeing that we are staying on the Atlantic ocean was something in and of itself. I want as much time with this water that I can possibly get. I felt the Spirit as soon as I stepped onto the sand with my bare feet. I can’t swim and was fully clothed so I did not go all the way in. But as I started singing out to God, the waves came and caught me. The bottom of my pants got soaked. What a powerful energy! I felt as if my ancestors were speaking, were welcoming me home, inviting me in which was absolutely amazing and refreshing. I wanted to cry tears of joy, sorrow, and disbelief all at the same time. I know we were supposed to go to the river where our enslaved ancestors took their last bath today. But we actually needed to be here, as this water is our watershed. This water carries the memory of who we were prior to enslavement. This land gave us life. I need to walk the road my ancestors walked first in order to have the historical imagination to understand who we were before we were enslaved and sold away from our home.
The waves are still speaking. They are still making melody. Give me the heart, the mind, the spirit to hear. I need to hear you God. I need to hear our the ancestors. I need to take it all in.
I also wanted to cry during Dr. Ebenezer’s lecture, where he talked about the role that some African tribes played in slavery. We keep trying to reconcile ourselves to that fact and make sense of the nonsensical but it does not work. If we tell and write the story, we can help ourselves come to grips with the fact that some Africans were complicit in what the Europeans were doing. That’s going to take a lot of work but the opportunity once we do, to bring ourselves back into relationship with each other, to heal the wounds, the heartache that we feel because of how we have treated each other, is tremendous. We have to find our way back to each other, we have to find our way back home and we have to find our way back to you.
Hearing Dr. Ebenezer’s lecture on slavery in Ghana, including the ways in which some of our own people were complicit in it was challenging. I had heard this narrative before but have always had a hard time believing it for obvious reasons. In a class that I took the semester before going on this trip, a professor from the continent had us read excerpts of David Northup’s”7 Myths of Africans in World History.” In one of the excerpts we read, Northup critiques Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” and states that opposed to Rodney’s claims, Africa largely benefited from the Transatlantic Slave Trade because of the economic gains that were made. Reading Northup’s words and listening to my professor defend him infuriated me. Dr. Ebenezer’s lecture, though still hard to hear, didn’t because he carefully articulated what went down in a way that did not equate complicit actions with what the Europeans were doing. I would recommend reading Hurston’s “Barracoon” and Gyasi’s “Homegoing” as additional examples of those who are able to tell this story with this same nuance.
I do think, however, there is a necessity for us to come together – those in the diaspora and those on the continent – to unpack what all of this means. The more I learn about epigenetics and the way that trauma is transmitted from generation to generation, the more that I am convinced that we as Africans in the diaspora not only carry the trauma of enslavement and structural racism, but also the trauma of being separated from our families and from our land. And I believe that those who remained on the continent have to carry trauma and residual anxiety about family members, neighbors, and maybe even enemies, being there one day and gone the next, never to be seen again. The work of Dr. Joy DeGruy and Resmaa Menakem have each given us a important resources in understanding how trauma has impacted the Black body as a result of slavery; I believe that we need the same sort of analysis to understand the trauma of those who remained on the continent (whether or not they have migrated to the U.S. in recent years).
I couldn’t sleep very well last night. That is not completely unusual. As I have not been able to sleep well most nights besides the time we first arrived. But still, I wonder what my spirit was stirring inside of me, knowing what I would face today.
I want to take things slowly so that I can take everything in. I want to move slowly so that I don’t miss anything on account of rushing, not paying attention, being aloof. I want to hear what the Spirit of God is speaking and I want to hear my ancestors voices.
From the first time I left the states for El Salvador in 2000, I knew my life existed beyond the confines of the U.S border. At the time, my imagination only took me as far as missions work – I was genuinely interested in the gospel but I also wanted to go. To be here in Ghana, not knowing that deep in my heart, this is what I longed for 19 years ago, is amazing. My soul is at peace here. My feet stand on holy land and I know this is for me. This is for us as a people. To come back as the children of Israel went back after living in Babylon. To come back a did Garvey, DuBois, and so many others who have taken up Ghana as permanent residence. Our watershed is calling us home.
Remembered notes from today:
We started our day at the place where enslaved Africans took their last baths. We came into the place learning that two ancestors were returned in 1998, emancipation day, July 31. One from Jamaica, the other from New York. Their remains were brought here by plane (?) and though the politicians wanted them to go through the front door, the people insisted that their bodies had to go back through the Atlantic and through the door of no return – which has now been renamed the Door of Return because those bodies came back. We keep coming back.
From learning about this, we went on the trail to the last bath. The tour guide invited us to remove our shoes and walk down the path barefoot. So I did. But I remember thinking about last night, reflecting that this land we have been standing upon was holy ground and so we should remove our shoes. The guide said we would start to hear our ancestors. I am opening my heart up more.
When we reached near the end of the walk, the tour guide mentioned that there was a woman who was deemed unmarketable and left for dead around a bamboo tree. A farmer helped her escape and not knowing how to get back home, she established a village right there that is still intact. The fact that she was so close tells me how much Europeans relied on some Africans to bring them enslaved Africans rather than Europeans running off and stealing them. Apparently the woman didn’t feel so threatened.
We made it to the river. We learned about how enslaved Africans were thrown in, with chains still on to take one last bath before being auctioned off. They were thrown in such a way that their bodies would be in water while they hung by their chains and were scrubbed with a bamboo stick split into 5 pieces. They ended up with scratches and bruises and drew blood. Some killed themselves right there unable to withstand the torture. They were then marched 35 miles to Cape Coast.
Before we ended the tour, we went down to the River. We were given permission to put our feet or hands in the water and make a wish. And so I did.
There is so much more I could write about but I will say that going to Cape Coast and going through the Door of No Return and going back through the Door of Return brought me to tears. They tried to conquer us and wipe us out but we are still here, many of us have even come back so we can trace out ancestors steps and put their stories to words. Keep speaking to me and showing me the way.
July 4, 2019
I have not journaled in a few days and feel compelled to write out my thoughts.
We saw the second castle at Elmina yesterday. It was much bigger than the castle at Cape Coast. It was initially built for trading before it was converted to slavery activities in the 1500s.
The castle at Elmina was built in 1485 by the Portuguese. It is the oldest one in Ghana. The castle at Cape Coast was built in 1665 by the English. It took 50 years to complete. The Castle at Cape Coast is surrounded by cannibals to protect it from the Europeans.
There were many things that were similar between the two places – including the dungeons, the rape of women, the place they would send slaves who resisted to die. There is a dungeon for men and two for women – one dungeon was where they would menstruate. The one for men held 1000, the one for women, 300.
The male dungeon at least the one where they would keep men who would be killed was at once pilled high with feces. They didn’t clean up after the waste, it has now be excavated but is still very much a part of the floor. There were four segments of this dungeon. The last segment was closest to the tunnels were men who were fit would be selected to go through the journey of slavery across the Atlantic. Women were brutalized and raped and those who resisted were punished through solitary confinement. If a woman got pregnant, she wouldn’t be taken on the journey but would go offsite to give birth, was sometimes freed, other times taken care of for 10 years before being put into captivity again. The mixed race children were freed.
The level of inhumanity and breaking of the Spirit is striking to me – our guide said that over 20 millions Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbeans. But since 1 in 3 made it to that point, at least 40 million died between being stolen from their lands to the Atlantic – many in the slave castles. Was it really cost effective to treat the Africans so inhumanly? Or was it pure evil and greed? I think it was evil and a breaking of the Spirit to let Africans know how much they were so regarded by the Europeans/ I get that slavery is an old institution and was practiced here but why treat someone, anyone so poorly, so awful as the Europeans did the Africans.
What was the hate and jealousy buried so deep in the European’s heart that they treated others this way? This was not and is not normal and we can’t claim that it was. There was something unique and specific about the slave trade that made it so awful. That is not easy explained away. And because whiteness is constructed against anti-blackness, the brutality continues. The brutality is not only driven by profit but a lust for power, control over another human life.
One of the things I just couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how hard I tried, was the level of brutality towards enslaved Africans. As I walked through the dungeons, I came to understand that the brutality was a part of not only enslaving our bodies but subduing our spirits and minds. This is why they changed our names, forbid us from speaking our native tongue, and treated us with so much disdain. For the Europeans, it was all about utter control, if not even a sick fascination in watching us suffer.
However, we must remember whatever they did to us, they perfected on themselves first as Menakem articulates in chapter 4, European Trauma and the Invention of Whiteness, in his book. Understanding that Elmina was built in 1482, so that the Portuguese could protect the goods that they were trading with the Ghanians from other European nations, with the walls of the castle lined with cannonballs and the interior full of dungeons before slavery even began, lets me know that the brutality was initially about them living in fear of other white bodies and needing to protect their wealth from other white bodies that might have been more resourceful than their own. It is that fear that continues to drive the brutality that we experience today; brutality that is ultimately not about us even as we bear the brunt of its force.
With this in mind, I end this post with a quote from James Baldwin:
“There appears to be a vast amount of confusion on this point, but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and will not be today and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”