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LOSE YOUR MOTHER (Chapter One)Afrotopia
“NO MATTER HOW BIG a stranger’s eyes, they cannot see.” I don’t think Stella, the housekeeper at the Marcus Garvey Guest House, was the person I first heard use these words to describe the proverbial blindness of Westerners, but she might as well have been. I credit her with my initiation. The judgment stung as much the first month as it did ten months later. It was as if these words were always floating about in my head, just waiting for the right occasion. Now it’s impossible for me to recall that first evening without them.
The Marcus Garvey Guest House was in precipitous decline. When Stella opened the door to the room that would be mine, I hoped my disappointment wasn’t too obvious. I didn’t want to appear the spoiled American. Looking at the dingy yellowed walls and the brown water stains that seeped across the ceiling and the green carpet stiff with dirt, I felt the first pang of homesickness and realized that a week at the guesthouse was going to be a long time. The room was sweltering and the air was thick with mildew. A colleague at the National Museum had chosen the guesthouse because it was a bargain for Accra. It was only forty dollars a night, one-third the price of the average two-star hotel. So I would have to stick it out until my too expensive flat in Osu, a trendy commercial district of Accra with a sprawl of stores, restaurants, bars, Internet cafés, and discotheques, was ready at the end of the week.
Stella turned on the overhead fan, which churned the stale air but brought no comfort, retrieved a small stack of threadbare towels from the corner bureau and placed them on the bed, pointed out the bathroom down the hall, and then excused herself for the night. The room made me uneasy, so I turned up all the lights and delayed getting into bed. I was writing in my journal about the squalor of the guesthouse and Marcus Garvey’s faith in Africa’s redemption and wondering if I shared his optimism when I dozed off in the overstuffed chair.
“Turn off the lights! Turn off the lights!” Stella screamed as she burst into my room and the door slammed into the wall. She was naked except for a towel wrapped around her, which barely covered her breasts and privates. The terror on her face made me obey. I jumped out of the chair, turned off the lamps on the nightstands, and ran to the corner to shut off the overhead light. Before I had the chance to ask what was going on, she flew out of the room and pulled the door behind her. Then I heard the firecrackers or what I first thought were firecrackers. It was pitch-black outside. All the exterior lights of the guesthouse had been cut off. I peered from behind the heavy gold curtains and saw soldiers and jeeps and armored tanks moving along the streets of the capital. Oh, my God. A coup. My knees began to tremble and then urine rushed down my legs.
There had been a series of coups in Ghana. In 1966, Colonel Kotoka and Lieutenant General Afrifa had deposed Kwame Nkrumah; there were coups again in 1972, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1983. Five military governments and three civilian governments had ruled the country since independence. Ghana’s current president, Jerry Rawlings, had been a flight lieutenant in the Air Force when he seized the state through a military revolt on December 31, 1981; he had staged the last successful coup. (He had since been elected in 1992 and again in 1996.) In sub-Saharan Africa, more than seventy leaders of state had been overthrown by the armed forces. It was how the state changed hands. Soldiers decided who held the reins of power.
I fumbled around in the darkness until I found my money belt and passport, which I quickly strapped beneath my skirt, hoping that three hundred dollars and a few thousand more in American Express traveler’s checks would be enough to buy my way out of trouble, thwart a rapist, and make my way to the airport. Maybe the soldiers would leave me alone because I was an American. God, please let me survive this night, I prayed, and I promise I will leave Ghana on the first available flight. I blockaded the door with a chair and put on running shoes so I would be able to flee if and when I needed to. As I listened to the tanks rolling through the streets, I began to cry. What was I doing here?
For more than an hour I listened to the sounds of vehicles rumbling along the road and the boots of soldiers striking the pavement and the volley of commands and the crack and pop of exploding shells. Where was Stella? I knew she lived with her children in a small building on the grounds of the DuBois Center complex, which included the guesthouse, but I didn’t know exactly where. I should have followed her. I knew she was too frightened to come back for me.
I turned on the radio, but all I could find was static, except for a prerecorded program on the Voice of America Radio about Jackie Robinson breaking the color bar in baseball.
I had to use the bathroom, but I was too scared to venture down the hallway, so I peed (that is, I tried to) in an empty water bottle. Fear had stripped away the veneer of civility.
An hour before sunrise, the street quieted. I crawled over to the window and peered out from behind the drapes. The road was empty. All the soldiers were gone. I stretched out on the bed and waited for daylight.
Pots banging in the kitchen woke me up. I heard Stella’s voice and ran out.
“Is it over? Is it safe to leave?”
“Yes, it’s finished.”
“Is Rawlings still the president?”
“Yes, Rawlings is the president.”
“The coup failed?”
Stella looked at me blankly and then she laughed. “The house next door catch fire. I had to cut all the lights, so we wouldn’t burn too.”
“Did the soldiers set the house on fire?”
“There was no coup.”
“But I saw the soldiers on the road.”
“The army barracks are near here, just a little ways down Military Road. They practice their maneuvers at night.”
She laughed again. And her nine-year-old daughter Abena snickered at the obruni talking foolishness to her mother.
When I moved out of the guesthouse at the end of the week, I doubted whether my way of seeing things had any footing in reality. Daily conversations with Stella painted a dire picture of Accra, which was quite different from the city I had come to know during a four-week visit the previous summer. The Accra I remembered was always saturated in the golden-rose color of sunset. When the taxi pulled away from the guesthouse I could not tell if the grim expression on Stella’s face was intended to issue one last warning.
THE APARTMENT IN OSU was less than a mile from Christiansborg Castle. Even with the fort in clear sight, it was hard to picture the slave routes and pathways hidden beneath the concrete pavements and the tar roads of the city and terminating at the shore. The seat of government was housed in what had been a Danish slave-trading post and then the headquarters of British colonial administration. Before the heels of parliamentarians clicked against the polished floors of the castle, captives restrained with neck rings and iron clamps were imprisoned inside the garrison until Danish, English, Portuguese, and French slave ships transported them to the Americas. Guns, brandy, cowries, and gold decided their fate, ensured their disappearance, and dictated that they be forgotten. Centuries later, this state of oblivion has yet to be remedied.
Aban is the Akan word for “castle.” It is how Ghanaians refer to the government and how they perceive it: as a fortress and a foreign entity protected by great white walls. Even Kwame Nkrumah, the great anti-imperialist, had chosen the castle as his presidential residence, appropriating the symbol of colonial authority as his own and, at the same time, distancing himself from its corruption by building a new edifice for the Parliament. “The old slave castle had become the proud seat of the new rulers,” writes Ayi Kwei Armah, “the blind children of slavery themselves.”
The specter of captives glistening with palm oil and stripped of everything except the neck collars and chains connecting one to the other or of ships’ captains prying open the mouths of slaves to inspect their teeth, palming their genitals for signs of disease, and readying their flesh for the brand did not encumber the daily workings of the state. The brutality of the past had been exorcised with the demise of colonialism—at least this was the position espoused by the new statesmen. The monumentality of the castle gave heft to the assertion and grandeur to the fledgling post-colonial state. The old days had ended and the era of freedom had arrived. And after all, at this late date, what claim could slaves, factors, and merchants have on the seat of government? Why diminish the glory of nationhood with mention of an ugly past? Independence had done away with all of that. The uncanny feeling that the new days were too much like the old ones plagued only dissidents, intellectuals, and the poor.
In Accra, the landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundabouts named after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemic power of ideals like liberation, independence, and autonomy. The city propped up thwarted and grand schemes of an Africa for Africans at home and abroad. I had been living in Accra for a month before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollow ideals to most people, who had never committed the names to memory and who plotted their course through the city with a map patterned out of contempt for the officialdom of the state, nostalgia for the bad old days of colonialism, and the desire to name the world in their own terms. I quickly learned when asking for directions that the street names inscribed on maps with unequivocal certainty were virtually useless. As far as I could tell, not one taxi driver in Accra could find his way to African Liberation Square, but almost all knew the location of the U.S. Information Service, the American and British embassies, and KLM. The drivers joked that the only change in forty years of independence was the name of the place. In getting around the city, few were mindful of the signs of slavery or independence.
In my daily trek from Osu to the University of Ghana in Legon, which was a twenty-to thirty-minute excursion by taxi, I began to map the city in my own terms. I identified the street on which I lived as Volta River Club Street, because the club was adjacent to the apartment building and no other street markers existed. My signposts were Not Independence Avenue and Obruni Road and Beggar’s Corner and Shitty Lane. In a month I had become as indifferent to the elusive glory of the age of independence as everyone else in Accra. I passed through Thomas Sankara Circle every afternoon on the way home, oblivious to his dream of eradicating poverty, hunger, and illiteracy and unaware of the ten million trees he intended to plant in the sahel to contain the spread of the desert, mend the ravages of slavery and colonialism, and right the balance among humans, nature, and society. I was not bolstered by his words, which I had first read as a graduate student: “We must have the courage to invent the future. All that comes from man’s imagination is realizable,” or sobered by them: “We are backed up against the wall in our destitution like bald and mangy dogs whose lamentations and cries disturb the quiet peace of the manufacturers and merchants of misery.” On the anniversary of Sankara’s assassination, I didn’t respect his memory with a moment of silence or think of the makeshift grave in which his body had been dumped or shed a tear because another path to Utopia had been blocked. These grand visions and beautiful promises were the ruins of another age and as remote and distant from my present as the dream of forty acres and a mule. So I hurried up Osu Road as blind to the future Sankara had envisioned as every other beleaguered pedestrian.
I MET MARY ELLEN RAY at Kwatson’s, the neighborhood grocery store, which catered to the taste of homesick foreign nationals and charged exorbitant prices for the comforts of milk and cheese from Holland, Ceres juice, three kinds of nori, expensive tins of wasabi and smoked oysters, French bread, and Planter’s cashews. We acknowledged one another with a tentative hello. There were enough African Americans in Accra to cultivate a polite indifference when we encountered one another. The reasons we were in Ghana could be summed up with a glance: the gerontocracy, those over-sixty-five men and women who had been invited to Ghana by President Nkrumah because of their skills as engineers, physicians, educators, and contractors were settled in upscale enclaves like Labone or Cantonments. They kept their distance from the steady wave of new arrivals and the ideologues. The less senior branch of the well-to-do were employed by international corporations and aid organizations; a few were entrepreneurs. They were rarely seen outside their gated compounds and air-conditioned SUVs. The visiting scholars, artists, and journalists lacked the comforts of air-conditioned vehicles and drivers and spacious, lovely homes and lived in the borderland between rich foreigners and middle-class Ghanaians, paying obruni prices for rent and everything else but not receiving the quality of goods and services that the powerful commanded and that Ghanaians exacted. The young ones bedecked in jeans, shorts, T-shirts, and cowrie shell necklaces were exchange students and Peace Corp volunteers. Sometimes we nodded in recognition when we passed one another; at other times, it was more convenient to avert your gaze and not call attention to the fact that you too were a stranger.
Mary Ellen was an attractive woman in her sixties with luminous, sad brown eyes, a mischievous smile, and the unmistakable comportment of a bohemian. There was no trace of the matron about her, and her unrestrained brunette dreadlocks, magenta tank top, and linen shorts flouted the sartorial regulations for female modesty; either she relished being a bad girl or she simply didn’t gave a damn what people thought. All of which made me instantly admire her. She had been living in Ghana with her husband, John, for well over a decade. Mary Ellen was a technical writer and John a sculptor and photographer. We discovered we were neighbors. She lived near the Fulbright compound (virtually all of the tenants of the Kwatchie family were Fulbright scholars) and invited me over to dinner the following evening.
Mary Ellen and John lived only five blocks away from me, but finding their house was tricky. The concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets didn’t extend beyond the main artery of Osu. Cars moved carefully on these roads, not out of concern for the goats, chickens, and pedestrians with whom they shared it but because of the large potholes. Only the poor walked, which was the majority of the city’s million and a half dwellers. The neighborhood consisted of squat apartment buildings, modest middle-class homes, and one-room cinder-block dwellings populated by a dozen or more inhabitants who rotated hours in order to sleep. I asked a pair of teenage boys hanging out in front of a convenience store if they knew the American couple, and they escorted me to the Rays’ front door.
John Ray was a slender, handsome man with dark, piercing eyes that made you falter and a mouth set in a fixed expression of disapproval. He was fiercely intelligent and self-educated, so he had little patience for most academics, whom he could think circles around and whom he found tedious. When I said hello, I saw he was trying to decide whether I was painfully dull or only moderately so. Interesting wasn’t on the list of possibilities.
When I told John about my project on slavery, he asked, “Why Ghana? There are no archives here. There is nothing to discover that Wilks and Van Dantzig and McCaskie haven’t already written about.”
“I know where the archives are. I’ve been to the British Museum, the Public Records Office in Kew, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and to the National Archives in Accra.”
John smiled, pleased that I could bite if pushed. He was a cantankerous type who didn’t hold back his opinions, even if they hurt your feelings. He didn’t care.
“I’m interested in the popular memory of slavery. My plan is to retrace the slave route.”
“Which one?” John asked.
I hadn’t accepted Mary Ellen’s dinner invitation to prove I wasn’t a fool to an old man I had never seen before this evening, so I ignored John and sipped the lukewarm beer Mary Ellen had placed in front of me.
“There were nine major slave routes in Ghana,” John replied, answering his own question. “Every step you take in Ghana crosses the trail of slaves. It’s not hard to find a slave route. It’s the freedom trail you should be looking for.”
“Have you been to Elmina and Cape Coast yet?” Mary Ellen asked, trying to compensate for John’s summary dismissal and to rescue the flagging conversation.
“Yes, on my first trip here in 1996,” I said. “I plan to spend a few weeks there at the end of October. I can’t believe how long it has taken me to get settled.”
“In Ghana, one has to go and come, go and come, go and come, before you can get a damned thing done,” said Mary Ellen.
“I know that now,” I said. “Last summer it seemed like paradise. But living here it feels more like hell.”
Mary Ellen raised her bottle of beer in a toast and said, “It just may be, my dear.”
“Mercenary soldiers, thieves, refugees, prostitutes, broke soldiers, corrupt policemen, and the desperate hard-pressed enough to try anything are out there on Osu Road too,” John said. “Remember that, Professor. Keep your eyes open. Read the signs. People are still being bought and sold in Ghana. People will sell their soul for five thousand cedis.” (Two thousand cedis was the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.)
Depending upon how he said it, “professor” sounded like a diminutive or a synonym for idiot. I was growing irritated.
“Another beer?” Mary Ellen asked as she cleared the empty bottles. I nodded my head. She didn’t ask John but placed another beer before him. I suspected they had begun drinking before I arrived.
“Did your mother raise a fool?” John asked me after taking a swig.
“Did your mother raise a fool?”
“Well, then don’t act like one. Accra is no different than New York. So follow your instinct and don’t let anyone make you a fool. I can’t stand watching folks from the States come here and lose the sense they were born with. The Ghanaians will take your head.”
“Take my head?”
“When a chief died, they would make sacrifice.” John pulled his fingers across his throat. “Slaves and servants and wives were killed so they could accompany the chief as they had during his lifetime. Now ‘taking heads’ means ripping somebody off. They say hustling black Americans is like stealing candy from a baby. The obruni even thanks you when you do it.”
“I guess I must be headless, then. I’m paying five hundred and fifty dollars a month in rent. That’s almost as much as graduate students pay in Berkeley, and I’m not living as well.”
“Don’t complain too much,” John said in a tone of reproach. “You’re still sitting pretty compared to most. Do you know how many families could live on your Fulbright fellowship?”
“John, that’s not the point,” said Mary Ellen. She extended her arm and patted the top of my hand in a gesture that I might have mistaken for maternal if it hadn’t seemed so perfunctory. “My dear, you are being chopped. That’s how they welcome you home.”
“And calling you a white person,” I added.
“Don’t think of every black person here as your brother and sister,” John cautioned. “As long as you remember that you won’t be taken advantage of, at least not too badly.”
“Welcome to the motherland,” Mary Ellen added with a bitter laugh. “This is what it means to be a black American in Africa.”
“Not all of it—” sputtered John.
Mary Ellen interrupted him. “I’m sick of it. John, he doesn’t care. He wants to die here.”
“Where else can I go, Mary Ellen? Where else? You tell me,” John said.
“We can go to Cuba.”
John sucked his teeth and turned his head in frustration. “I’m too old to try a new country.” The despair unloosed by these words engulfed him, and his thin frame sagged under its weight. He excused himself and headed down the hall toward the bathroom.
“I won’t die here, John,” shouted Mary Ellen to his back. “Not in a place where people will spit on my grave.” She turned to me. “You know they hate us, or haven’t you figured that out yet?”
MARY ELLEN WAS NO LONGER WILLING to call herself an African American. “I’ve been here too long to call myself anything except a black American,” she confided. “That is what feels true.” For Mary Ellen, there was no longer a future in being an African American, only the burden of history and disappointment.
What connection had endured after four centuries of dispossession? The question of before was no less vexed since there was no collective or Pan-African identity that preexisted the disaster of the slave trade. Were desire and imagination enough to bridge the rift of the Atlantic? The nightly conversations I had with Mary Ellen and John made me doubt it.
My research made me even more pessimistic. Each afternoon I went to the university library and read about the role of African merchants and royals in the Atlantic slave trade. Yellow Post-its scribbled with all the ugly details plastered the cover of my laptop. Ghana, or the Gold Coast as it was called until 1957, had been entangled with the West for at least five centuries, and the buying and selling of slaves had been central to this association. The slave trade required that a class of expendable people be created. The big men of Africa and Europe proved themselves suited to the task. The sentence I recalled most vividly was one written by Walter Rodney: “There was in existence a fundamental class contradiction between the ruling nobility and the commoners; and the ruling classes joined hands with the Europeans in exploiting the African masses—a not unfamiliar situation on the African continent today.”
These words made me think hard about the Africa in “African American.” Was it the Africa of royals and great states or the Africa of disposable commoners? Which Africa was it that we claimed? There was not one Africa. There never had been. Was Africa merely a cipher for a lost country no one could any longer name? Was it the remedy for our homelessness or an opportunity to turn our backs to the hostile country we called home? Or was there a future in Africa too? There was still the chance that all the poverty, death, and suffering would come to an end. There was still the chance that the manufacturers of misery would be toppled and the empires derailed. There was still the chance that Sankara’s dream of a White House in Harlem might be realized. As long as I believed this, I could still call myself an African American.
ON THE DAY BEFORE I left for Elmina, which is about one hundred miles west of Accra on the curved shoreline that forms the Gulf of Guinea, I suffered my first migraine. All the terrible details of the slave trade thundered in my head and I spent the day battling nausea. I drank ginger ale, pressed a cold compress against my forehead, shut all the blinds, and hid from the world in my dark bedroom. Nothing helped. I wasn’t able to dislodge the atrocities committed in wars of capture and slave raids: the elderly and infirm slaughtered by the conquering army, infants murdered by bashing their heads against trees, pregnant women disemboweled with a lance, girls raped, and young men buried in anthills and thrown onto pyres and burned alive. Nor could I clear my head of what one historian had described as the trail of bleached bones that led from the hinterland to the sea. Or forget the disobedient wives who were sold under the pretext of witchcraft, the quarrelsome young men who were sentenced to slavery for being troublemakers, and the ever-growing list of petty infractions punishable by slavery that cost many commoners their lives. Desperate situations and bad luck exacted their toll as well: famished children were sold by their parents so that they might live, the indigent offered themselves as slaves to escape poverty and hunger, nieces and nephews were corralled in barracoons and packed in slavers because of their uncles’ unpaid debt. Varied circumstances funneled persons into the market and transformed them into commodities. Yet the outcome of theft and exchange was identical: the slave was born.
For every slave who had arrived in the Americas, at least one and perhaps as many as five persons died in wars of capture, on the trek to the coast, imprisoned in barracoons, lingering in the belly of a ship, or crossing the Atlantic. Death also awaited them in pesthouses, cane fields, and the quarters. Historians still debate whether twelve million or sixty million had been sentenced to death to meet the demands of the transatlantic commerce in black bodies.
Impossible to fathom was that all this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective. Death wasn’t a goal of its own but just a by-product of commerce, which has had the lasting effect of making negligible all the millions of lives lost. Incidental death occurs when life has no normative value, when no humans are involved, when the population is, in effect, seen as already dead. Unlike the concentration camp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but from the vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made it easier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump a shipload of captives into the sea in order to collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to kill cargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of the trade.
When my headache finally subsided, I decided to walk to the ocean to sort out the jumble of painful facts and awful details that I had worked so diligently to learn. I needed to see the Atlantic, which was where I reckoned with the dead, the men and women and children who were all but invisible in most of the history written about the slave trade; academics had continued to quarrel about how many slaves packed per ton constituted “tight packing” and a deliberate policy of accepting high mortality, estimate rates of cargo productivity in the slave trade versus the other kinds of commodity trade, and quantify the gains and losses of the slave trade with algebraic formulas that obscured the disaster: Deck Area = Constant × (Tonnage) 2/3. The ocean never failed to remind me of the losses, and its roar echoed the anguish of the dead.
I could get access to the shore a few blocks away from my apartment. I was slightly apprehensive about going to the beach alone but decided to do so anyway. There was a small path to the beach on the other side of Labadi Road. The walkway was surrounded by a small settlement of shanties. The rickety houses had been assembled from discarded shipment containers and cardboard boxes and stray pieces of wood and were topped with corrugated tin roofs. I felt like an interloper walking through the community as women washed their children and fanned small coal fires for the evening meal. Poor people couldn’t afford gates to keep trespassers out. I looked straight ahead and kept my eyes fixed on the rocky outcrops and dunes, avoiding what I suspected were quizzical and irritated glances. I pretended not to notice the stench and quickened my pace. The closer I got to the sea, the worse the smell, which reeked of things dead and rotten. Many of the streets of Accra were lined with open sewers, and poor neighborhoods were often without toilet facilities, but this was more intense than usual. I knew there was no plumbing in these dwellings, but was there an outhouse nearby? Had the community latrine overflowed? When I reached the dunes I noticed a little swamp that had been created by sewage pipes emptying onto the beach. A group of children were playing near the fetid pool, and one boy created ripples on its surface with his small arc of urine. The black water allowed no reflection of their hovering faces.
The children looked at me, curious as to what I was doing here, in a zone of Accra that people like me entered only by accident. I don’t know why I continued to approach the beach in light of all of this, but I did. The ocean was a few yards away, but it was impossible to smell the sea. Atop the dune I could see Christiansborg Castle and the little fishing village that sat on the other side of it. I had taken a few steps toward the beach when I noticed the men hunkered down on their heels and scattered across the dune. The men squatting in irregular rows looked like mushrooms sprouting from the sand. It took me a minute before I realized what they were doing. Stupid obruni! I was embarrassed more for myself than for them. For weeks I couldn’t shake the vision of men defecating with their backs to the statehouse.
“DON’T LIE when you go back home. Everyone goes home and tells lies.” It was the only thing John ever asked of me. I didn’t promise him that I would tell the truth. Nearly two months in Ghana had already made the truth too difficult. Telling the truth risked fueling the racism that could see Africa only through the Kurtzian lens of horror, warring tribes, filth, pestilence, famine, and AIDS. Telling the truth risked savaging the dreams of those who might never travel to Africa but still imagined soil on which they would be embraced. Telling the truth risked sullying the love of romantics who kissed the ground as soon as they landed in mother Africa, not caring that it was the tarmac of the airport.
“We have to stop bullshitting about Africa. The naïveté that allows folks to believe they are returning home or entering paradise when they come here has to be destroyed,” John said. I nodded in silent agreement. It was as far as I could commit myself. As I drank the beer Mary Ellen placed in my hand, I wondered how Ghana would look in my eyes by the end of the year. Would I love it, or would I never want to return?
The country in which you disembark is never the country of which you have dreamed. The disappointment was inevitable. What place in the world could sate four hundred years of yearning for a home? Was it foolish to long for a territory in which you could risk imagining a future that didn’t replicate the defeats of the present?
In 1787 Prince Hall didn’t believe so when he petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts, along with seventy-three other black men, requesting that the state repatriate its black residents because he thought it doubtful that they would ever experience anything other than racism and inequality in the white man’s country. In our native country, he wrote, “We shall live among our equals and be more comfortable and happy, than we can be in our present situation; and at the same time, may have a prospect of usefulness to our brethren there.” By the nineteenth century, the Africa envisioned by blacks in the Americas had everything to do with a future in which our subjection would end and the race would be redeemed. Nearly a century and a half later, in 1951, when William Patterson, the national executive secretary of the Civil Rights Congress, and Paul Robeson presented a petition to the UN charging the United States with genocide against the Negro people, they too conceded that black folks in the United States were without a state to protect their human rights. An entire people, the petition stated, were “not only unprotected by their government but the object of government inspired violence.”
IN 1957, Ghana’s independence was a beacon of freedom to the civil rights movement and Nkrumah, the liberator of black people worldwide. Not only did black Americans identify with the anticolonial struggle, they believed that their future too depended upon its victory. An article published in the Chicago Defender in February 1957 declared: “Some day black men from Ghana may stand before the U.N. and plead the case for American Negroes and be the cause for their winning complete equality…The free people of Ghana may be able to strike the last of the shackles from their brothers in America.” The Amsterdam News expressed a similar sentiment: “The independence of Ghana breaks another link in the powerful chain that…enchained the black man…It is not so much a question of color that we rejoice over Ghana as it is a question of freedom.”
African Americans had flocked to Ghana in the fifties and sixties. They came running away from Jim Crow, the Cold War, the backseat of the bus, a trail of slain leaders, spent dreams, and what they called, euphemistically, second-class citizenship. They knew either you were a citizen or you were not. They knew the outhouse wasn’t the parlor.
John came to Ghana for the first time during the early sixties. He said it was hard to determine which was greater: the love of mother Africa or hatred of the United States. George Jackson, writing his father from a cell in Soledad Prison, imagined that he would crawl back from the grave of solitary confinement. “I’ll see Ghana yet,” he declared.
The architects and laborers of the Pan-Africanist dream had arrived in these first waves. They were comrades in the Black International. It was an age of possibility, when it seemed that as soon as tomorrow the legacy of slavery and colonialism would be overthrown. Richard Wright had visited the Gold Coast in 1953 and written a powerful account of the struggle for independence. In 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Bunche, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, and Horace Mann (at the request of Nkrumah and against the expressed wishes of the U.S. State Department) had traveled to Ghana for the celebration of its independence. King, upon seeing the Black Star replace the Union Jack as the flag of the nation and listening to the audience of half a million people shout, “Freedom! Freedom!” began to weep.
An apocryphal story captures the bittersweet quality of these tears. Vice President Nixon, who attended the ceremonies as the head of the U.S. delegation, asked a group of jubilant men, “How does it feel to be free?” “We don’t know,” they replied. “We’re from Alabama.”
These early journeys had been auspicious. African Americans crossed the Atlantic in droves to do something momentous—to participate in an international movement for freedom and democracy and to build a black nation. Nkrumah solicited Africans and those of African descent from Cairo to Cape Town and from Harlem to Havana to build the new nation. He envisioned a United States of Africa that would embrace those exiled in the Americas among its citizens. When he had been a student at Lincoln University, Nkrumah experienced firsthand the assault of Jim Crow. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he was refused a glass of water at a restaurant in the bus station. When Nkrumah explained that he was very thirsty, the waiter pointed to a spittoon and said, “You can drink there.”
Nkrumah believed the independence of Ghana meant nothing unless all Africans were free. Black émigrés shared that dream. They came from the United States, the Caribbean, Brazil, and the United Kingdom, as well as other countries in Africa still fighting against colonialism and apartheid. George Padmore, the Trinidadian intellectual who had presided over the sixth Pan-Africanist Congress in Manchester, England, in 1945 (where Nkrumah and Kenyatta pledged to defeat imperialism and abolish the poverty and servitude of Africa), was Nkrumah’s adviser on African affairs. Padmore organized the first meeting of Independent Africa’s Heads of State and the first All African Peoples Congress. W.E.B. DuBois spent his last days working diligently on the Encyclopedia Africana, a comprehensive reference to the black world. Shirley Graham Du Bois established Ghana Television. Drs. Robert and Sara Lee were the first black dentists in the country. Robert Lee had become friends with Kwame Nkrumah while they were both students at Lincoln University. Carlos Allston laid the power lines that helped illuminate the fledgling nation. Julian Mayfield wrote for the Ghana Evening News. Anna Livia Corderia opened the first women’s clinic at the Military Hospital. Malcolm X visited and lectured in Ghana in an effort to build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Frantz Fanon wrote a large part of The Wretched of the Earth while in Ghana. Maryse Condé taught French at the Institute for Ideological Training. Tom Feelings, Ted Pointiflet, Frank Lacey, and John Ray taught school and trained young Ghanaian artists. Sylvia Boone acted as a cultural ambassador, always schooling new arrivals that “the single key to seeing Africa as it is, not as a reflection of the bogus stories you have been told [was] to think of every African you meet as a person just like yourself, with the same needs and desires, hopes and dreams.” None of which prevented her from describing Accra as a “dream come true, for here is a city in a country that is black up and down.”
With all the conceit and ardor of youth, a small group dubbed themselves the Revolutionist Returnees. The Ghanaians called them the Afros, short for Afro-Americans. They arrived with what Maya Angelou described as a “terrible yearning to be accepted,” to pitch in their lot with Ghanaians, and to undertake the hard labor of nation building. They wanted their talents to be used. The lucky ones enjoyed the privilege of serving the bourgeoning black republic; the ones waiting tried to be patient and reassured themselves that as the months stretched out they weren’t being idle.
I envied them. In the sixties it was still possible to believe that the past could be left behind because it appeared as though the future, finally, had arrived; whereas in my age the impress of racism and colonialism seemed nearly indestructible. Mine was not the age of romance. The Eden of Ghana had vanished long before I ever arrived.
INDEPENDENCE WAS A short century. It lasted for as little as two months in the Congo and less than a decade in Ghana. In 1966, the police and the armed forces overthrew the government of Kwame Nkrumah and the goodwill evaporated. The dream of an age after colonialism, after racism, after capitalism, which had provided the bridge across the Atlantic for the émigrés, fell to pieces. African Americans were no longer welcome. They were accused of betraying Nkrumah and of being in cahoots with the CIA, which had engineered the coup. They were accused of blindly loving the old autocrat—who had by then engineered a one-party state and declared himself president for life. The political opponents of the Osagyefo, the Redeemer, who after the coup were now the leaders of the country, distrusted the Afros because they had been religiously loyal to Nkrumah. The Afros adored him because of his unwavering commitment to the freedom of black people worldwide. The Ghanaians criticized him for his dictatorial style and inattention to domestic matters. The British-educated elite and the conservative middle classes were hostile to Nkrumah’s socialist revolution, and they resented his attacks on traditional forms of caste and privilege. As Nkrumah tried to embrace the world, he lost the home front. Upon hearing the news that Nkrumah had been overthrown, African Americans wept as Ghanaians rejoiced and danced in the street.
The émigrés had no illusions about their status, according to Leslie Lacy: “We were tolerated out of sufferance of Nkrumah, and if they could kill him at eight o’clock, our fate would be his at eight-thirty.” Ghanaians resented the Afros for occupying positions that were rightfully theirs, having the president’s ear, and presuming to know what was best for Africa. Most African Americans fled voluntarily. A handful were deported. The military officers who forced them from their homes and abandoned them at the Togo border cursed them and called them strangers. The Afros expressed their chagrin in the language of ex-slaves: “They sold us once and they will sell us again.”
A small community remained and stuck it out, weathering more coups and food shortages. Typically those who stayed were married to Ghanaians or were the rich ones who owned businesses and were insulated by wealth or were the stateless ones who were unable to erase the image of a fourteen-year-old boy’s bloated corpse dredged from the Mississippi, or four dead little girls buried in the rubble of a church in Birmingham, or Malcolm’s slumped figure on the floor of the Audubon Ballroom, or Martin’s body on a hotel balcony in Memphis, or the bullet-shattered bodies of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
MY ARRIVAL IN GHANA was not auspicious. Mine was an age not of dreaming but of disenchantment. I grew up in the aftermath of African independence and the civil rights and Black Power struggles, and like many of my generation I was pessimistic about my prospects at home and abroad. I came of age in the demise of liberation movements and after the visionaries had been assassinated. Marcus Garvey’s vision of an Africa for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora was a theme, which in college I chanted and danced to in the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Third World, but dared not believe. It belonged to the Old Garveyites who assembled every August in Mount Morris Park to celebrate Garvey’s birthday and who wore their United Negro Improvement Association uniforms no less proudly half a century later. Every year I was there with them, the skeptic among the faithful.
The dream belonged to the émigrés, whose “horizon of hope” was the historical debris of my present. The revolutionaries had come to Ghana believing they could be made anew, reborn as the African men and women they would have been had their ancestors not been stolen four hundred years ago. Every revolution promises to stop all the old clocks, jettison the old entailments, and institute a new order. They left the States hoping to leave slavery behind too. America had made them, but Ghana would remake them. They had faith that the breach of the Middle Passage could be mended and orphaned children returned to their rightful homes.
The émigrés had wanted to belong to a country of the future. Who wouldn’t yearn for a place where the color line didn’t exist and black bodies were never broken on the rack or found hanging from trees or expiring at the end of a police officer’s gun or wasting away in a cell on death row? What orphan had not yearned for a mother country or a free territory? What bastard had not desired the family name or, better yet, longed for a new naming of things? Why not dream of a country that might love you in return and in which your skin wasn’t a prison? Desire was as reliable as any map when you were searching for the Promised Land or trying to find the path to Utopia or imagining the United States of Africa.
The dreams that defined their horizon no longer defined mine. The narrative of liberation had ceased to be a blueprint for the future. The decisive break the revolutionaries had hoped to institute between the past and the present failed. The old forms of tyranny, which they had endeavored to defeat, were resuscitated and the despots lived long and vigorous lives. The freedom dreams had been routed and driven underground.
I knew that no matter how far from home I traveled, I would never be able to leave my past behind. I would never be able to imagine being the kind of person who had not been made and marked by slavery. I was black and a history of terror had produced that identity. Terror was “captivity without the possibility of flight,” inescapable violence, precarious life. There was no going back to a time or place before slavery, and going beyond it no doubt would entail nothing less momentous than yet another revolution.
While the Afros were far too intelligent to believe the past could be forgotten, they definitely wanted their distance from slavery and colonialism. They valued history to the extent that it aided the task of liberation. So it was more common for them to disparage the slave mentality than to claim the slave. They preferred romance to tragedy. In trying to reverse the course of history, eradicate the degradation of slavery and colonialism, and vindicate the race, they looked to the great civilizations of ancient Africa. The restoration of a noble past would provide the bridge to a radiant future. African Americans weren’t the only ones who desired a monumental history and hungered for a grand narrative. Nkrumah also indulged this vision of a splendid royal past. In changing the name of the Gold Coast to Ghana, which had been an ancient kingdom at the edge of the desert and a seat of civilization more than a thousand years ago when Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Nkrumah “conjured up the image of a New Jerusalem.” And even his enemies considered him a messiah. Redemption and resurrection infused the language of African nationalism. The new era was to incarnate the best features of antiquity and to create “the golden city of our heart’s desire.”
WHAT HAD ATTRACTED the émigrés to Ghana were this vision of a new life and the promise of rebirth; what attracted me were the ruins of the old one. They were intent upon constructing a new society; I was intent upon tracing an itinerary of destruction from the coast to the savanna. They went to be healed. I went to excavate a wound. The expatriates crossed the Atlantic to break the chains of slavery, and I did so doubting that I would ever be free of them.
There was nothing exceptional about me. My predecessors had been the most gifted men and women of their generation. The political exiles of the late fifties and sixties possessed pedigrees much more impressive than my own. They had participated in freedom struggles around the globe. They understood they were actors on the stage of world history. I always have felt at a distance from the events of my time, and I have never believed that the balance of power hung upon any act of mine.
There was nothing exceptional about my journey. Any tourist with the willingness and the cash could retrace as many slave routes as her heart desired. But there was something particular, perhaps even peculiar, about it. My generation was the first that came here with the dungeon as our prime destination, unlike the scores of black tourists who, motivated by Alex Haley’s Roots, had traveled to Ghana and other parts of West Africa to reclaim their African patrimony. For me, the rupture was the story. Whatever bridges I might build were as much the reminder of my separation as my connection. The holding cell had supplanted the ancestral village. The slave trade loomed larger for me than any memory of a glorious African past or sense of belonging in the present.
I was struck by this difference when I read Maya Angelou’s memoir about her residence in Ghana. She steadfastly avoided Cape Coast and Elmina castles. As she described it, if she succeeded in keeping the ugly history of slavery at a distance, then perhaps she could be something more than a stranger, perhaps she could pass for being a young Ghanaian woman: “I didn’t want to remember that I was an American. For the first time since my arrival I was very nearly home…I drove into Cape Coast before I thought of the gruesome castle and out of its environs before the ghosts of slavery caught me. Perhaps their attempts had been halfhearted. After all, in Dunkwa, although I let a lie speak for me, I had proved that one of their descendants, at least one, could just briefly return to Africa, and that despite cruel betrayals, bitter ocean voyages and hurtful centuries, we were still recognizable.” A lie was the price of kinship, which as the émigrés discovered was much less inclusive or elastic than they had anticipated. Kinship was as much about exclusion as affiliation. As it turned out, eluding the slave past was the prerequisite to belonging.
I was not trying to dodge the ghosts of slavery but to confront them. To what end? was the only question. John said there was no point to it. There was nothing new to be discovered. He and Mary Ellen had refused the invitation to accompany me on the journey from Accra to Elmina, which was a three-hour excursion on the State Transport Bus. I had not wanted to travel to Elmina alone. Small towns always made me uncomfortable and a bit claustrophobic. I preferred the crowded sidewalks and traffic of Osu, where I could move almost unnoticed among the stream of foreigners and affluent Ghanaians entering and exiting the shops along Osu Road.
John and Mary Ellen had visited the castle once and had never felt the need to return. John resented the way Ghanaians had made the slave trade into their new hustle. He called them slavery pimps and joked, “Man, they sold me once, now I have to pay to return. I won’t pay-o.”
I pressed him about it. “You know more about the history of black people than I do, so why are you so disinterested in slavery?”
“It’s the exercise of freedom that matters,” he said. This sounded idealistic to me. Freedom and slavery had always been tethered, and freedom was more than a state of mind or exercise of the will. He knew this as well as I did, especially when he was in his cups. Whenever he was drunk, Mary Ellen would say, “We’re losing my husband,” as if to assure herself that the belligerent man tottering through the living room wasn’t the same man she had married. As of late, hardly a night passed without her uttering these words. I too learned to make excuses. As I grew to love John and Mary Ellen, I pretended not to see the pain and isolation of their exile, not to notice what living in Ghana had cost them.
The unrealized dreams of two continents had embittered John. Resentment and loneliness were the proof of his statelessness. When he was in his cups, he said all the things that were too painful to admit when he was sober.
“You don’t know anything about defeat!” John yelled at me the evening before I departed for Elmina. I had been talking about the despair of the post–civil rights age and wondering if it was the same kind of despair Ghanaians had experienced in the aftermath of independence. I recently had read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a novel about the disillusionment that followed in the wake of decolonization. I was surprised that it had all seemed so familiar: the betrayal of freedom and the sickening despair and aching emptiness experienced after the beauty of the first days of independence had passed.
“What do you know, Professor? Soon the Europeans will own all of it again. Do you think slavery is just some old buildings and dead folks?” John demanded, trying to control his slurred speech. “No, it’s when other people decide whether you live or die.”
John’s eyes were on me and he was assessing all my shortcomings with his stern gaze. He was contemptuous of most of the African Americans in Ghana. Would I turn out to be no better than the rest of them? John often spoke as if the expatriates who had returned to the States had betrayed him personally. They had abandoned the dream and been rewarded with university chairs, fat salaries, and celebrity, while he labored in the trenches and pieced together an existence. They claimed to love Ghana but stayed at the Golden Tulip, one of Accra’s five-star hotels, when they visited. They loved Ghana from a comfortable distance. John resented the privileged black visitors almost as much as did the Ghanaians, perhaps more, because he knew them better. He knew exactly how full of shit they were. That night I represented all of them.
“Do you know what it feels like to be living in a place for nearly twenty years, scraping to get by and still being treated like a foreigner?” But he was a foreigner. He hadn’t found home, he was stranded. There was no question John hoped to answer in the dungeon, because like many exiles he no longer hoped for anything.
It was the opposite for me. I was willing to enter the dungeon again and again and encounter the disaster anew, as if the Portuguese were still in transit, as if the sugar crops had yet to be planted in Brazil, as if the first slave had yet to be exiled, because, at this late date, I was still hoping for a different outcome. I was convinced that even now lives hung in the balance. My own as much as anyone else’s.
Like John, I was stateless too. I had never been at home in the world. It was a sensibility I had inherited sitting on my great-grandfather’s knee in Morning Pilgrim Baptist Church as he implored in his scratchy baritone voice along with the other congregants, “Lord, I’m going home, / No more toils, no more care, /No more grief to bear.” Even as a child I perceived the gravity of these words and I knew they contained an appeal as well as a complaint. Abandoned by all but God, song after song declared. It was a feeling that seemed too ancient for my thirty-six years, but I came by it honestly. I was trying to get to the bottom of it, and for me it began in a holding cell.
An old storehouse built by white men had everything to do with who I was in the world, or at least it had no less to do with it than did the great kingdom of Asante or a shortsighted plan, hatched by a Dominican friar, for saving the “Indians.” Whether I could pass for a young Ghanaian woman could not redress my losses, settle the questions that plagued me, or bring me any comfort. It was a desire whose moment had passed. The questions before me—What was the afterlife of slavery and when might it be eradicated? What was the future of the ex-slave?—could not be answered by deciding whether or to what degree I could blend into African society.
In any case, by the time I landed in Ghana, the slogan “Africa for Africans at home and abroad” had been out of favor for at least three decades. In 1999, a measure to grant African Americans Ghanaian citizenship was defeated. No one seemed to be waiting any longer for the hour of Africa’s redemption. Disenchantment prevailed. On radio talk shows Ghanaians debated whether they had been better off under colonialism. The structural adjustment programs and debtor country initiatives orchestrated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were the new slavery. Ghana didn’t even print its own currency. It was manufactured in Europe and paid for with U.S. dollars. Pan-Africanism had yielded to the dashed hopes of neocolonialism and postcolonialism and African socialism (which Nkrumah defined as the traditional spirit of African humanism and communalism refashioned for the modern world), had been ambushed by the West and bankrupted by African dictators and kleptocrats, all of whom had made a travesty of independence.
I had come to Ghana too late and with too few talents. I couldn’t electrify the country or construct a dam or build houses or clear a road or run a television station or design an urban water system or tend to the sick or improve the sanitation system or revitalize the economy or cancel the debt. No one had invited me. I was just another stranger, an academic from the States conducting research on slavery, which, in most people’s eyes, made me about as indispensable as a heater in the tropics. There were a handful of African Americans who were useful; I wasn’t one of them. I found myself, like most members of the small community of nearly one thousand African-American expatriates, living on the periphery of Ghanaian society. It was a lonely existence even after I had grown accustomed to living in country. “When you really really realize you are not African,” one expatriate admitted, “it’s the loneliest moment of your life, and if you can withstand that, you can make it here. It goes on being lonely, and it’s how you adjust yourself to that loneliness that matters, not how you adjust to Africa.”
WHEN I LANDED at Accra’s Kotoka Airport, I had come looking for the underground, not Utopia. Even so, the dreams of the émigrés were a part of my inheritance, which I couldn’t entirely shake loose, no matter how hard I tried. Utopia had left its traces in my disappointment, and in the pang of desire that reminded me something was missing, something had been lost. The self-forgetfulness of belonging would never be mine. No matter where I went, I’d always be a stranger lurking outside the house. And this interminable condition—“the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human,” to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt—was nowhere more apparent than in Ghana. And the futures envisioned by Nkrumah and King and eclipsed by assassins, military coups, and the CIA never seemed more distant.
Utopias always have entailed disappointments and failures. They cast a harsh light on the limits of our imagination, underscore our shortsightedness, and replicate the disasters of the world we seek to escape. Utopia never turns out to be the perfect society. Look hard enough and you’ll find the underworld occupied by drudges, inferiors, conscripts, and prisoners. Look long enough and you’ll identify the winners and losers, the big men and small boys, the royals and the slaves, the owners and the owned. You’ll see the African elites and nobles fashioning themselves after Europe’s kings and the captives trailing behind them in tow. You’ll discern the disease of royalty beneath the visage of eternal glory. You’ll witness the dream of freedom crash and burn.
No better demonstration of the missed opportunities and the tragic disappointments of Utopia could be found than in the work of its sixteenth-century architect Thomas More. He had imagined a commonwealth where all the necessities of life were provided for, where the comforts were abundant and experienced by all, where the land easily supported the people, where greed had been eliminated, where money had been abolished, where the idle crowd of gentlemen and nobles had been eradicated, and where all true pleasures were encouraged. No one wanted for the necessities of life, no one lived off the labor of others, and no one bared his head or bent his knee before another. But even in Utopia there were slaves laboring in chains. They were assigned the foul and degraded labor suited only to those bereft of the dignity and compassion of free men. The lowest rung wore shackles, albeit of gold, which was associated with pollution, excrement, and dishonor: “From gold and silver they make chamber pots and all the humblest vessels for use everywhere, not only in the common halls but in private homes also. Moreover they employ the same metals to make the chain and solid fetters which they put on their slaves.”
The utopian equation of gold, filth, and slavery also resonated in Ghana. There was an Akan saying: Atantanie nti ye to odonko—We buy a slave because of filthy work. What better illustration of the degradation of gold than its capacity to transform persons into things; what better example of its offensive character than the excremental conditions of the barracoon; what better sign of its mutability than the “black gold” of the slave trade. Before Sigmund Freud detailed the symbolic affinities between gold and excrement, African royals were stockpiling their gold in privies and selling slaves for chamber pots. And European traders were transforming humans into waste and back again through the exchange of gold.
Kinishi wo wu shua, kumo e nan wu ebin gba: The eye that sees gold will see excrement too. So it is said in the heartland of slavery where people knew firsthand the scent of the slave hold. Karl Marx didn’t put it any better when he described the genesis of capital, which came into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” He didn’t mention excrement, but he should have. Mounds of waste were also the testament of pillage and exchange. The reek of trading forts and slave ships identified the presence of merchant capital and human commodities on the West African coast, as the foul odor of toilet beaches and open sewers marked the end of “the beauty of the first days,” or the shortfall of independence.
The smell hung in a black cloud over Accra. When I breathed deeply I swore I could discern the sulfurous odor of things dead and decaying. Utopia could not be separated from this rottenness. For the dream of a black country was born in slave pens and barracoons and holding cells. When the path home disappeared, when misfortune wore a white face, when dark skin guaranteed perpetual servitude, the prison house of race was born. And so too was the yearning for the black promised land and the ten million trees that would repel the enemy’s advance and stand in for all of those gone and forgotten.
LOSE YOUR MOTHER Copyright © 2007 by Saidiya Hartman