Jacqueline Woodson on Africa, America and Slavery’s Fierce Undertow

Ghana’s Year of Return website celebrates “the cumulative resilience of all the victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” It promised everything from a welcoming World Music Festival to a Natural Hair Expo to a First Bath Of Return and Naming Ceremony in which participants, as is custom for African babies, are bathed, given African names and presented to their extended African family.

While these events sounded interesting and somewhat moving, it was not the way I wanted to see Ghana for the first time. I wanted the circumstance rather than the pomp. I wanted truth.

I HAD NEVER BEEN TO AFRICA. But stepping out of that airport the first morning, it felt as though I had always known Ghana. The deep heat of the early morning so much like the South Carolina of my childhood. The dark bodies that seemed to fill every space easily absorbed my own dark body. And the smell — of petrol and cooking oil, of nuts roasting and plantains frying, of sweat and sewage — quickly swept me up out of jet-lag into the right now of Ghana’s capital, Accra.

We had planned to begin our journey here with a visit to the slave castles and forts on the coast. But like a curtain all of us were a bit afraid to open, we knew the trip would reveal more of what we already knew — that Africans, including children, were sometimes kept for months in dungeons, until enough were gathered to pack the hold of a slave ship. That some of the captured Africans died in confinement while others died during the Middle Passage, the longest leg of the triangular journey between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

As we ate a breakfast of eggs and plantains in the cramped kitchen of an apartment we’d rented in Accra’s Tesano district, we tried to ready ourselves. Thick metal bars blocked the light coming in from the lush garden behind the house in the upper middle class area, and the shower, often cold, sometimes didn’t come on at all. Again and again, the small daily inconveniences reminded us that we were no longer in America.

Behind our home, in what’s known as the boys’ quarters, a “houseboy” named Ali, who didn’t look more than 15, squatted over a cookpot, making rice over a coal fire. Ali lived alone in a darkened cement structure with a single window. The “housegirl,” a woman who looked to be in her 60s, lived in an adjacent structure. Neither have electricity or running water.

Ali was quiet and shy. When we left, we had to call him to unlock the padlock to let us out of the gated building. In the night, when we returned, we had to call him to let us back in. No matter the hour. Bringing “houseboys” and “girls,” often distant relatives, to work in the homes of better-off families is not unusual among the upper classes. They are often paid very little and sometimes offered technical training in lieu of an education. Our host’s home was separated from ours by a lovely screened-in porch adorned with cushioned wicker furniture, decorative bird cages and palm fronds.

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