Samuel and Kasia
List of Illustrations
Prologue: The Path of Strangers
TwoMarkets and Martyrs
ThreeThe Family Romance
FourCome, Go Back, Child
FiveThe Tribe of the Middle Passage
SixSo Many Dungeons
SevenThe Dead Book
EightLose Your Mother
NineThe Dark Days
TenThe Famished Road
List of Illustrations
Convention of Former Slaves, Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress, Prints and PhotographsDivision, LC-USZ62-35649)
Kwame Nkrumah and Elizabeth II. (Getty Images)
Kwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Intellectual Properties Management, Inc.)
Kwame Nkrumah, March 7, 1957. The prime minister arrives at the Assembly House in Accrafor the opening of the new Parliament and the Declaration of Ghana’s Independence read by theDuchess of Kent. (Getty Images)
TOP: Prospect of the Coast from El Mina to Mowri. A Negro carrying slaves aboard Manfrow.BOTTOM: Prospect of St. George’s Castle at El Mina. From Labat, Voyages and Travels Alongthe Western Coast of Africa, D’Anville, 1745. (British Library)
Uche Okeke, Adam and Eve, 1965. (Courtesy of the artist)
Ludwig Emil Grimm, Die Mohrentaufe, 1841. 118 x 164 cm. Kassel, Bruder Grimm Museum.(Bruder Grimm Museum)
St. George Scourged. William Sedgwick sketches in William Dugdale’s Book of Monuments.3.6 Fol 156v. (British Library)
Comme les Portuguais fouettent leurs Esclaves lorsquils ont deserté, François Froger, Rélationd’un Voyage fait en 1695, 1696 & 1697 aux Côtes d’Afrique. (Bancroft Library)
Slaves Exposed for Sale. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-15395)
Elisabeth Van Eiyker, passport photo. (Collection of the author)
Wilson Chinn, a Branded Slave from Louisiana. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs,LC-USZ62-90345)
Frederick Hartman’s birth certificate. (Willemstad archives)
Isaac’s letter, 1996. (Collection of the author)
Frederick Hartman. (Collection of the author)
Annette Johnson House Porch, Clay-Ashland, Liberia. (Courtesy of Max Belcher)
The Bricks, Brattonsville, York County, South Carolina. (Courtesy of Max Belcher)
Mr and Mrs Cosway with a Black Slave. Etching by Richard Cosway, 1784. Whitworth Gallery,Department of Drawings and Water-colours. (Whitworth Gallery)
Samuel Miller, Untitled Drawing, 2003. (Courtesy of the artist)
Bryan Edwards, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies, 1794. (Art
Isaac Cruikshank, The Abolition of the Slave Trade; or, The Inhumanity of Dealers in HumanFlesh Exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s Treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for Her Virjen
Flesh Exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s Treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for Her Virjen[sic] Modesty, 1792. (Library of Congress)
Am I Not a Man and a Brother? (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Dennis Childs, Lincoln and the Slave. (Courtesy of the artist)
Kunta Kinte. (Permission granted by © ABC photo archives)
Salaga-Town. From Louis-Gustave Binger, Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le pays du Kong etde Mossi, 1887–1889, Paris, 1892.
The Savannah. (Photograph by author)
Gwolu defense wall. (Photograph by author)
Prologue: The Path of Strangers
AS I DISEMBARKED from the bus in Elmina, I heard it. It was sharp and clear, as it rang inthe air, and clattered in my ear making me recoil. Obruni. A stranger. A foreigner from acrossthe sea. Three children gathered at the bus station shouted it, giggling as it erupted from theirmouths, tickled to have spotted some extraterrestrial fallen to earth in Ghana. They summonedme, “obruni, obruni,” as if it were a form of akwaaba (welcome), reserved just for me. As thewords weaved their way through the crowd and landed on me, I imagined myself in their eyes:an alien tightly wrapped in the skin of a blue rain slicker, the big head bursting from its navypod.
My appearance confirmed it: I was the proverbial outsider. Who else sported vinyl in thetropics? My customs belonged to another country: my too-fast gait best suited to navigating thestreets of Manhattan, my unfashionable German walking shoes, my unruly tufts twisted intotwo French braids, fuzzy and unfurling in the humid air. Old and new worlds stamped my face,a blend of peoples and nations and masters and slaves long forgotten. In the jumble of myfeatures, no certain line of origin could be traced. Clearly, I was not Fanti, or Ashanti, or Ewe,or Ga.
Then I started to hear it everywhere. It was the buzz in the market. It was the shorthand mynew Ghanaian friends used to describe me to their old friends. Obruni lurked like an undertonein the hustle of street peddlers. People said it casually in my face, until I sucked my teeth andsaid “ehh!” informing the speaker that first, I knew what the word meant, and second, I didn’trelish the label.
But then I learned to accept it. After all, I was a stranger from across the sea. A black facedidn’t make me kin. Even when otherwise undetected, I was betrayed when I opened my mouthand heard my father’s Brooklyn brogue rippling across the surface of my studied speech,wreaking havoc with the regimented syntax enforced by my mother the grammarian, whosescrupulous speech was a way of masking her southern origins and blending into New York. Mydirect way of speaking sounded sharp-edged and angular when compared to the tactful evasionand obliging indirection of the local English idiom. The brisk clip of my speech, flattenedvowels, and sounds trapped in the dome of my mouth, expiring from lack of air, branded me theforeigner.
I was the stranger in the village, a wandering seed bereft of the possibility of taking root.Behind my back people whispered, dua ho mmire: a mushroom that grows on the tree has nodeep soil. Everyone avoided the word “slave,” but we all knew who was who. As a “slavebaby,” I represented what most chose to avoid: the catastrophe that was our past, and the livesexchanged for India cloth, Venetian beads, cowrie shells, guns, and rum. And what wasforbidden to discuss: the matter of someone’s origins.
Obruni forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t belong anyplace. The domain of thestranger is always an elusive elsewhere. I was born in another country, where I also felt like analien and which in part determined why I had come to Ghana. I had grown weary of beingstateless. Secretly I wanted to belong somewhere or, at least, I wanted a convenient explanationof why I felt like a stranger.
As a child, when I was angry with my mother and father, I’d conjure up glorious imaginaryparents who’d rescue me from the awful people forcing me to call them Mom and Dad. I oftenimagined that the singer Johnny Hartman was my father since we shared the same last name.
Whenever my dad played his Coltrane albums, I listened for Johnny Hartman’s lovely wistfulvoice. If I didn’t think too hard about why he had abandoned me, I could find succor in thisfiction of origins. The sting of obruni allowed for no such fiction.
I complained to an expatriate friend living in Accra that I had never felt as much a strangeras I did in Ghana. He muttered, “uh-huh,” and then he asked, “When you go to Chicago, do youexpect black folks there to welcome you because you’re from New York? Well, why should itbe any different here?”
THE MOST UNIVERSAL DEFINITION of the slave is a stranger. Torn from kin andcommunity, exiled from one’s country, dishonored and violated, the slave defines the positionof the outsider. She is the perpetual outcast, the coerced migrant, the foreigner, the shamefacedchild in the lineage. Contrary to popular belief, Africans did not sell their brothers and sistersinto slavery. They sold strangers: those outside the web of kin and clan relationships,nonmembers of the polity, foreigners and barbarians at the outskirts of their country, andlawbreakers expelled from society. In order to betray your race, you had first to imagineyourself as one. The language of race developed in the modern period and in the context of theslave trade.
The very term “slavery” derived from the word “Slav,” because Eastern Europeans werethe slaves of the medieval world. At the beginning of modernity, slavery declined in Europe asit expanded in Africa, although as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was stillpossible to purchase “white” slaves—English, Spanish, and Portuguese captives in theMediterranean ports of North Africa. The Iberians can be credited, according to one historian,“for restricting bondage, for the first time in history to peoples of African descent.” It was notuntil the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the line between the slave and the freeseparated Africans and Europeans and hardened into a color line.
For Europeans, race established a hierarchy of human life, determined which persons wereexpendable, and selected the bodies that could be transformed into commodities. For thosechained in the lower decks of a slave ship, race was both a death sentence and the language ofsolidarity. The vision of an African continental family or a sable race standing shoulder toshoulder was born by captives, exiles, and orphans and in the aftermath of the Atlantic slavetrade. Racial solidarity was expressed in the language of kinship because it both evidenced thewound and attempted to heal it. The slave and the ex-slave wanted what had been severed: kin.Those in the diaspora translated the story of race into one of love and betrayal.
I HAD COME TO GHANA in search of strangers. The first time for a few weeks in the summerof 1996 as a tourist interested in the slave forts hunkered along the coast and the second timefor a year beginning in the fall of 1997 as a Fulbright Scholar affiliated with the NationalMuseum of Ghana. Ghana was as likely a place as any to begin my journey, because I wasn’tseeking the ancestral village but the barracoon. As both a professor conducting research onslavery and a descendant of the enslaved, I was desperate to reclaim the dead, that is, to reckonwith the lives undone and obliterated in the making of human commodities.
I wanted to engage the past, knowing that its perils and dangers still threatened and thateven now lives hung in the balance. Slavery had established a measure of man and a ranking oflife and worth that has yet to be undone. If slavery persists as an issue in the political life ofblack America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of
a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculusand a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, andimpoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.
Nine slave routes traversed Ghana. In following the trail of captives from the hinterland tothe Atlantic coast, I intended to retrace the process by which lives were destroyed and slavesborn. I stepped into the path of more than seven hundred thousand captives, passing through thecoastal merchant societies that acted as middlemen and brokers in the slave trade, the inlandwarrior aristocracies that captured people and supplied slaves to the coast, and the northernsocieties that were raided and plundered. I visited the European forts and storehouses on thethree-hundred-mile stretch of the littoral from Beyin to Keta, the slave markets established bystrong inland states that raided their enemies and subordinates and profited from the trade, andthe fortified towns and pillaged communities of the hinterland that provided the steady flow ofcaptives.
I chose Ghana because it possessed more dungeons, prisons, and slave pens than any othercountry in West Africa—tight dark cells buried underground, barred cavernous cells, narrowcylindrical cells, dank cells, makeshift cells. In the rush for gold and slaves that began at theend of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Danes, Swedes, andBrandenburgers (Germans) built fifty permanent outposts, forts, and castles designed to ensuretheir place in the Africa trade. In these dungeons, storerooms, and holding cells, slaves wereimprisoned until transported across the Atlantic.
Neither blood nor belonging accounted for my presence in Ghana, only the path ofstrangers impelled toward the sea. There were no survivors of my lineage or far-flung relativesof whom I had come in search, no places and people before slavery that I could trace. Myfamily trail disappeared in the second decade of the nineteenth century.
Unlike Alex Haley, who embraced the sprawling clans of Juffure as his own, grafted hisfamily into the community’s genealogy, and was feted as the lost son returned, I traveled toGhana in search of the expendable and the defeated. I had not come to marvel at the wonders ofAfrican civilization or to be made proud by the royal court of Asante, or to admire the greatstates that harvested captives and sold them as slaves. I was not wistful for aristocratic origins.Instead I would seek the commoners, the unwilling and coerced migrants who created a newculture in the hostile world of the Americas and who fashioned themselves again, makingpossibility out of dispossession.
By the time the captives arrived on the coast, often after trekking hundreds of miles,passed through the hands of African and European traders, and boarded the slaver, they werestrangers. In Ghana, it is said that a stranger is like water running over the ground after arainstorm: it soon dries up and leaves behind no traces. When the children of Elmina christenedme a stranger, they called me by my ancestors’ name.
“STRANGER” IS THE X that stands in for a proper name. It is the placeholder for the missing,the mark of the passage, the scar between native and citizen. It is both an end and a beginning.It announces the disappearance of the known world and the antipathy of the new one. And thelonging and the loss redolent in the label were as much my inheritance as they were that of theenslaved.
Unwilling to accept the pain of this, I had tried to undo the past and reinvent myself. In agesture of self-making intended to obliterate my parents’ hold upon me and immolate thedaughter they hoped for rather than the one I was, I changed my name. I abandoned Valarie.
She was the princess my mother wanted me to be, all silk and taffeta and sugar and spice. Shewas the pampered girl my mother would have been had she grown up in her father’s house.Valarie wasn’t a family name but one she had chosen for me to assuage the shame of being Dr.Dinkins’s outside daughter. Valarie was a name weighted with the yearning for cotillions andstore-bought dresses and summers at the lake. It was a gilded name, all golden on the outside,all rawness and rage on the inside. It erased the poor black girl my mother was ashamed to be.
So in my sophomore year in college, I adopted the name Saidiya. I asserted my Africanheritage to free myself from my mother’s grand designs. Saidiya liberated me from parentaldisapproval and pruned the bourgeois branches of my genealogy. It didn’t matter that I hadbeen rejected first. My name established my solidarity with the people, extirpated all evidenceof upstanding Negroes and their striving bastard heirs, and confirmed my place in the companyof poor black girls—Tamikas, Roqueshas, and Shanequas. Most of all, it dashed my mother’shopes. I had found it in an African names book; it means “helper.”
At the time, I didn’t realize that my attempt to rewrite the past would be as thwarted aswas my mother’s. Saidiya was also a fiction of someone I would never be—a girl unsullied bythe stain of slavery and inherited disappointment. Nor did I know then that Swahili was alanguage steeped in mercantilism and slave trading and disseminated through commercialrelations among Arab, African, and Portuguese merchants. The ugly history of elites andcommoners and masters and slaves I had tried to expunge with the adoption of an authenticname was thus unwittingly enshrined.
I realized too late that the breach of the Atlantic could not be remedied by a name and thatthe routes traveled by strangers were as close to a mother country as I would come. Images ofkin trampled underfoot and lost along the way, abandoned dwellings repossessed by the earth,and towns vanished from sight and banished from memory were all that I could ever hope toclaim. And I set out on the slave route, which was both an existent territory with objectivecoordinates and the figurative realm of an imagined past, determined to do exactly this.
IT WAS MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER MOSES, my mother’s grandfather, who initiated meon this journey. On a hazy summer morning my brother and I set out with Poppa to learn aboutour people. The summer of 1974 would be the last time we visited Montgomery, Alabama, foranything other than a brief four-day trip, and Poppa, sensing this, introduced us to our past.Peter and I had outgrown the boundaries of Underwood Street and tired of the local kids who, inturn, had grown weary of us and too many sentences beginning “In New York,” which lordedthe wonders of our world over the restrictions of theirs—really good Chinese food, the rollercoaster at Coney Island, knishes, fire hydrants like geysers crashing on sweltering asphaltstreets, and the one-hour mass where we were allowed to wear jeans and Sister Madonna playedthe guitar, instead of the all-day trial of Morning Pilgrim Baptist Church, where you werepinched if you nodded off and had to wear dresses and tights and jackets and ties, no matterhow hot it was.
Poppa took us on a tour of the rural outskirts of Montgomery County, where our peoplehad lived before moving into town. As we drove through the monochromatic brown stretch offarmland broken only by dull grazing cows, Poppa would stick his hand out the window atregular intervals and declare, “Land used to be owned by black folks.” Now agribusiness ownedeverything as far as the eye could see.
Looking at all the land worked by us but that was no longer ours triggered Poppa’smemory. No doubt he remembered his grandfather, whose land had been stolen by a whiteneighbor upon his death, forcing his wife and children off the property. White neighbors had
poisoned his well and killed his farm animals, trying to drive him off the land, but only afterhis death did they succeed in evicting his family and taking his property with a fraudulent deed.In the middle of explaining how black farmers lost it all—to night riders, banks, and thegovernment—Poppa drifted into a story about slavery, because for men like Poppa and mygreat-great-great-grandfather to be landless was to be a slave. He called slavery times the darkdays.
What I knew about slavery up until that afternoon with Poppa had been pretty basic. Ofcourse I knew black people had been enslaved and that I was descended from slaves, butslavery was vague and faraway to me, like the embarrassing incidents adults loved to sharewith you about some incredulous thing you had done as a toddler but of which you had nomemory. It wasn’t that you suspected them of making it up as much as it concerned someearlier incarnation of yourself that was not really you. Slavery felt like that too, something thatwas part of me but not me at the same time. It had never been concrete before, not something aspalpable as my great-grandfather in his starched cotton shirt sitting next to me in a brown Ford,or a parched red clay country road, or a horse trader from Tennessee, or the name of a girl, notmuch younger than me, who had been chattel.
Slavery was never mentioned at my school, Queen of All Saints, although I learned aboutLittle Black Sambo from my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Conroy, whose lilting Irish tonesmollified offense. When I wore Afro-puffs, she called me an African princess, provoking thederisive laughter of my classmates, black and white alike. Nor was slavery discussed at theBlack Power summer camp where, unbeknownst to my parents who recognized only that thecamp was free and within walking distance from our house, counselors forbade us to apologizeto white people, where I wore T-shirts embossed with revolutionary Swahili slogans, themeanings of which I could never remember. The counselors taught us to disdain property,perform the Black Power handshake, and march in strict formation, but they never mentionedthe Middle Passage or chattel persons.
As we drove through the countryside, Poppa told us his mother and grandmother had beenslaves. His grandmother Ellen was born in Tennessee around 1820. She was a nursemaid for ahorse and mule trader. As a house slave, she was spared the onerous work of the field, dressedbetter than the hands, dined on crumbs and leftovers, and traveled with her owners. Yet therelative advantage she might have enjoyed when compared with other slaves didn’t prevent herfrom being sold when her owner discovered himself in a “situation.”
Ellen had accompanied her master and his family on a trip to Alabama, where he went tosell a parcel of horses. Something went wrong in Alabama and she was sold, along with thehorses. Maybe an unlucky hand at cards or outstanding debts or quick cash were what wentwrong, at least for Ellen. In Tennessee, she might have had children of her own becausenursemaids were often wet nurses who suckled their master’s children. If she was lucky hermother might have lived with the family too. If she had children or a mother or a man back inTennessee, then she was separated from them without a good-bye.
Poppa’s mother, Ella, was born in Alabama and still a girl when slavery ended. He saidless about her than about his grandmother, maybe because his grandmother raised him ormaybe because speaking of his mother made him feel like the grief-stricken fifteen-year-old hehad been in 1907 when she died. He preferred to stick to the essential facts—birth, death, andemancipation.
Sometime in 1865, a Union soldier approached Ella in the middle of her chores. “A soldierrode up to my ma and told her she was free.” The starkness of Ella’s story stunned me. Her lifeconsisted of two essential facts—slavery and freedom juxtaposed to mark the beginning andend of the chronicle. But this was what slavery did: it stripped your history to bare facts and
precious details.I don’t know if it was the bare bones of Ella’s story or the hopefulness and despair that
lurked in Poppa’s words as he recounted it, as if he were weighing the promise of freedomagainst the vast stretches of stolen land before him, that made me eager to know more thanwhat Poppa remembered or wanted to share. Peter and I listened, silent. We didn’t know whatto say.
Poppa didn’t remember any kin before his grandmother, who smoked a corncob pipe. Hehad inherited his love of pipes from her. It was one of the things I adored about him. He alwayssmelled sweet like the maple tobacco smoke rising from his pipe. What he knew about ourfamily ended with his grandmother Ellen. He remembered no other names. When he spoke ofthese things, I saw how the sadness and anger of not knowing his people distorted the soft linesof Poppa’s face. It surprised me; he had always seemed invincible, strapping, six foot two, andhandsome, even at eighty-five. I had seen this ache in others too. At a barbecue at mygrandmother’s, two of her cousins nearly came to blows disputing a grandfather’s name. I wasstill too young then to recognize the same feelings inside me. But I wondered about my great-great-great-grandmother’s mother, as well as all the others who had been forgotten.
If Poppa’s mother or grandmother shared any details about their lives in slavery, he didn’tshare them with my brother and me. No doubt he was unwilling to disclose what he consideredunspeakable. Still, he shared more with my brother and me than he had with my mother. Evennow, he liked to call her “little girl.” When I returned home and asked her if Poppa had everspoken to her about slavery or her great-grandmother Ella, the girl on the road, she replied,“When I was growing up we didn’t talk of such things.” Her great-grandmother had died beforeshe was born, so my mother recalled nothing about her, not even her name.
At twelve I became obsessed with the maternal great-great-grandmother I had neverknown, endlessly constructing and rearranging the scene: her unease as the soldier advancedtoward her, or the soldier on horseback looming over her and the smile inching across her faceas she digested his words, or the peal of laughter trailing behind her as she turned upon herheels, or the war between disbelief and wonder that overcame Ella as she bolted toward hermother. Mulling over the details Poppa had shared with me, I tried to fill in the blank spaces ofthe story, but I never succeeded. Since that afternoon with my great-grandfather, I had beenlooking for relatives whose only proof of existence was fragments of stories and names thatrepeated themselves across generations.
Unlike friends who possessed a great trove of family photographs, I had no idea what mygreat-grandmother looked like or even my grandaunts when they were girls. All these thingswere gone; some of the photographs were given as tokens to dead relatives and buried withthem; others were lost. The images I possessed of them were drawn from memory andimagination. My aunt Mosella, whose name was itself a memorial to my great-grandfatherMoses and his mother Ella, once described a photograph taken of her mother and my great-great-grandmother Polly, whom everyone called Big Momma. In the photograph, her mother,Lou, was wearing a ruffled dress with bloomers and seated on Big Momma’s lap. She didn’tremember what my great-great-grandmother wore but only reechoed my mother’s descriptionof her: she was a big-boned woman with a round face the color of dark chocolate.
Big Momma had never spoken of her life in slavery, nor had Ellen or Ella. Poppa could fillin only the bare outlines of their lives. The gaps and silences of my family were not unusual:slavery made the past a mystery, unknown and unspeakable.
THE TALES OF THE PAST that my mother had been willing to share were all about Jim Crow.She had grown up in a segregated world where essentially she was barred from childhood fromparks and swimming pools and malt shops. Her reminiscences were replete with proscriptions;the simplest needs, whether for a drink of water or to use the bathroom, were regulated by thecolor line.
My father’s stories about racism were few. He remembered being called nigger for thefirst time as an enlisted man in the Air Force in Alabama, and he barely escaped being court-martialed after striking a white corporal. But I never heard him utter the words “slave” or“slavery.” I knew even less about my paternal kin. My father and his family did not hankerafter unnamed ancestors or wonder what might have been. Their losses were too immediate.My grandparents had left Curaçao, a thirty-five-mile stretch of arid land adrift in the CaribbeanSea, vowing to make good in New York and to return home. But as the decades passed, theyconvinced themselves that it was still too soon, or that the money wasn’t right yet, or that itwould be easier to leave the following year.
Not ready to admit the defeat of their permanent estrangement, they held steadfast to thebelief in American opportunity. It was a word they uttered to stave off fear; it consoled them onbad days; it reminded them why they were in the States rather than at home. Opportunity—itwas intoned as if it was the consolation they required, as if it repelled prejudice, warded offfailure, remedied isolation, and quieted the ache of yearning. It shrouded the past and set theirgaze solely on the future. The money sent home didn’t assuage the anger of mothers nursingabandonment or teenage children anticipating a life in the States they would never have.Nostalgia or regret could kill you in a place like America, so they banked only on tomorrow.
At the same time, they blamed America for everything that went wrong. America was thebenediction and the curse. It was weather so frigid it brought you to tears. It was the high priceof coal. It was your son’s insolence. It was your daughters’ refusal to speak Papiamento.America was the cause of every complaint and the excuse for every foul deed.
When it became clear that they would never return home, my grandparents erected a wallof half-truths and silence between themselves and the past. They parceled time, lopping off thepast as if it were an extra appendage, as if they could dispose of the feelings connecting them tothe world before this one and banish the dreams they had always imagined as the route back. In
time, they decided the present was all they could bear. They died in the States with their greencards as the only proof that they had once belonged elsewhere.
Unlike my grandparents, I thought the past was a country to which I could return. I refusedthe lesson of their lives, which in my arrogance I had misunderstood as defeat. I believed that Iwould succeed in accomplishing what my grandparents had not; to me this meant tumbling thebarricade between then and now, liberating my grandmother and grandfather from the small,small world of Park Place, and revisiting a history that began long before Brooklyn. So Iembarked on my journey, no doubt as blindly as they had on theirs, and in search of people wholeft behind no traces.
I HAPPENED UPON my maternal great-great-grandmother in a volume of slave testimonyfrom Alabama, while doing research for my dissertation. I felt joyous at having discovered herin the dusty tiers of the Yale library. (Not Ella the girl on the road, but my great-grandmotherMinnie’s mother, Polly.) When asked what she remembered about slavery, she replied, “Not athing.” I was crushed. I knew this wasn’t true. I recognized that a host of good reasonsexplained my great-great-grandmother’s reluctance to talk about slavery with a whiteinterviewer in Dixie in the age of Jim Crow. But her silence stirred my own questions aboutmemory and slavery: What is it we choose to remember about the past and what is it we will toforget? Did my great-great-grandmother believe that forgetting provided the possibility of anew life? Was nothing to be gained by focusing on the past? Were the words she refused toshare what I should remember? Was the experience of slavery best represented by all thestories I would never know? Were gaps and silences and empty rooms the substance of myhistory? If ruin was my sole inheritance and the only certainty the impossibility of recoveringthe stories of the enslaved, did this make my history tantamount to mourning? Or worse, was ita melancholia I would never be able to overcome?
“I do not know my father.” “I have lost my mother.” “My children are scattered in everydirection.” These were common refrains in the testimony. As important were the silences andevasions, matters cryptically encoded as “the worst things yet” or the “dark days,” whichexceeded the routine violence of slavery—whippings, humiliation, and separation from kin—and identified abuses that were beyond description: excremental punishments, sexual violation,and tortures rivaling anything the Marquis de Sade had imagined. Alongside the terrible thingsone had survived was also the shame of having survived it. Remembering warred with the willto forget.
My graduate training hadn’t prepared me to tell the stories of those who had left no recordof their lives and whose biography consisted of the terrible things said about them or done tothem. I was determined to fill in the blank spaces of the historical record and to represent thelives of those deemed unworthy of remembering, but how does one write a story about anencounter with nothing?
Years later when looking through the Alabama testimony, I was unable to find her. Therewas an Ella Thomas in the volume. Had I confused one great-great-grandmother with another? Ireviewed my preliminary notes, desperately searched for the interview I had never copied,scoured five volumes, the two from Alabama and the adjacent ones, but there was no Minnie orPolly or anyone with a name similar, nor did I find the paragraph stamped in my memory: thewords filling less than half the page, the address on Clark Street, the remarks about herappearance, all of which were typed by a machine in need of a new ribbon. It was as if I hadconjured her up. Was my hunger for the past so great that I was now encountering ghosts? Hadmy need for an entrance into history played tricks on me, mocked my scholarly diligence, and
exposed me as a girl blinded by mother loss?The few traces of my great-grandmother had disappeared right before my eyes. This
incident turned out to be representative. It served as my introduction to the slipperiness andelusiveness of slavery’s archive.
The archive contained what you would expect: the manifests of slavers; ledger books oftrade goods; inventories of foodstuffs; bills of sale; itemized lists of bodies alive, infirm, anddead; captains’ logs; planters’ diaries. The account of commercial transactions was as near as Icame to the enslaved. In reading the annual reports of trading companies and the letters thattraveled from London and Amsterdam to the trade outposts on the West African coast, Isearched for the traces of the destroyed. In every line item, I saw a grave. Commodities, cargo,and things don’t lend themselves to representation, at least not easily. The archive dictates whatcan be said about the past and the kinds of stories that can be told about the persons cataloged,embalmed, and sealed away in box files and folios. To read the archive is to enter a mortuary; itpermits one final viewing and allows for a last glimpse of persons about to disappear into theslave hold.
I ARRIVED IN Ghana intent upon finding the remnants of those who had vanished. It’s hard toexplain what propels a quixotic mission, or why you miss people you don’t even know, or whyskepticism doesn’t lessen longing. The simplest answer is that I wanted to bring the past closer.I wanted to understand how the ordeal of slavery began. I wanted to comprehend how a boycame to be worth three yards of cotton cloth and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to abasketful of cowries. I wanted to cross the boundary that separated kin from stranger. I wantedto tell the story of the commoners—the people made the fodder of the slave trade and pushedinto remote and desolate regions to escape captivity.
If I had hoped to skirt the sense of being a stranger in the world by coming to Ghana, thendisappointment awaited me. And I had suspected as much before I arrived. Being a strangerconcerns not only matters of familiarity, belonging, and exclusion but as well involves aparticular relation to the past. If the past is another country, then I am its citizen. I am the relicof an experience most preferred not to remember, as if the sheer will to forget could settle ordecide the matter of history. I am a reminder that twelve million crossed the Atlantic Oceanand the past is not yet over. I am the progeny of the captives. I am the vestige of the dead. Andhistory is how the secular world attends to the dead.
“NO MATTER HOW BIG a stranger’s eyes, they cannot see.” I don’t think Stella, thehousekeeper at the Marcus Garvey Guest House, was the person I first heard use these words todescribe the proverbial blindness of Westerners, but she might as well have been. I credit herwith my initiation. The judgment stung as much the first month as it did ten months later. Itwas as if these words were always floating about in my head, just waiting for the rightoccasion. 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 doorto the room that would be mine, I hoped my disappointment wasn’t too obvious. I didn’t wantto appear the spoiled American. Looking at the dingy yellowed walls and the brown waterstains that seeped across the ceiling and the green carpet stiff with dirt, I felt the first pang ofhomesickness and realized that a week at the guesthouse was going to be a long time. The roomwas sweltering and the air was thick with mildew. A colleague at the National Museum hadchosen 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 tooexpensive 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 mademe uneasy, so I turned up all the lights and delayed getting into bed. I was writing in myjournal about the squalor of the guesthouse and Marcus Garvey’s faith in Africa’s redemptionand 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 andthe door slammed into the wall. She was naked except for a towel wrapped around her, whichbarely covered her breasts and privates. The terror on her face made me obey. I jumped out ofthe chair, turned off the lamps on the nightstands, and ran to the corner to shut off the overheadlight. Before I had the chance to ask what was going on, she flew out of the room and pulled thedoor behind her. Then I heard the firecrackers or what I first thought were firecrackers. It waspitch-black outside. All the exterior lights of the guesthouse had been cut off. I peered frombehind the heavy gold curtains and saw soldiers and jeeps and armored tanks moving along thestreets of the capital. Oh, my God. A coup. My knees began to tremble and then urine rusheddown my legs.
There had been a series of coups in Ghana. In 1966, Colonel Kotoka and LieutenantGeneral 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 thecountry since independence. Ghana’s current president, Jerry Rawlings, had been a flightlieutenant 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 in1996.) In sub-Saharan Africa, more than seventy leaders of state had been overthrown by thearmed forces. It was how the state changed hands. Soldiers decided who held the reins ofpower.
I fumbled around in the darkness until I found my money belt and passport, which Iquickly strapped beneath my skirt, hoping that three hundred dollars and a few thousand morein American Express traveler’s checks would be enough to buy my way out of trouble, thwart arapist, and make my way to the airport. Maybe the soldiers would leave me alone because I wasan American. God, please let me survive this night, I prayed, and I promise I will leave Ghanaon the first available flight. I blockaded the door with a chair and put on running shoes so Iwould be able to flee if and when I needed to. As I listened to the tanks rolling through thestreets, 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 theboots of soldiers striking the pavement and the volley of commands and the crack and pop ofexploding shells. Where was Stella? I knew she lived with her children in a small building onthe grounds of the DuBois Center complex, which included the guesthouse, but I didn’t knowexactly 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 onthe 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 (thatis, 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 outfrom behind the drapes. The road was empty. All the soldiers were gone. I stretched out on thebed 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 pictureof Accra, which was quite different from the city I had come to know during a four-week visitthe previous summer. The Accra I remembered was always saturated in the golden-rose colorof sunset. When the taxi pulled away from the guesthouse I could not tell if the grim expressionon 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 theconcrete pavements and the tar roads of the city and terminating at the shore. The seat ofgovernment was housed in what had been a Danish slave-trading post and then the headquartersof British colonial administration. Before the heels of parliamentarians clicked against thepolished floors of the castle, captives restrained with neck rings and iron clamps wereimprisoned inside the garrison until Danish, English, Portuguese, and French slave shipstransported them to the Americas. Guns, brandy, cowries, and gold decided their fate, ensuredtheir disappearance, and dictated that they be forgotten. Centuries later, this state of oblivionhas yet to be remedied.
Aban is the Akan word for “castle.” It is how Ghanaians refer to the government and howthey perceive it: as a fortress and a foreign entity protected by great white walls. Even KwameNkrumah, 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, distancinghimself from its corruption by building a new edifice for the Parliament. “The old slave castlehad become the proud seat of the new rulers,” writes Ayi Kwei Armah, “the blind children ofslavery themselves.”
The specter of captives glistening with palm oil and stripped of everything except the neckcollars and chains connecting one to the other or of ships’ captains prying open the mouths ofslaves to inspect their teeth, palming their genitals for signs of disease, and readying their fleshfor the brand did not encumber the daily workings of the state. The brutality of the past hadbeen exorcised with the demise of colonialism—at least this was the position espoused by thenew statesmen. The monumentality of the castle gave heft to the assertion and grandeur to thefledgling post-colonial state. The old days had ended and the era of freedom had arrived. Andafter all, at this late date, what claim could slaves, factors, and merchants have on the seat ofgovernment? 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 toomuch like the old ones plagued only dissidents, intellectuals, and the poor.
In Accra, the landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundaboutsnamed after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemicpower 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 amonth before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollowideals to most people, who had never committed the names to memory and who plotted theircourse 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 ownterms. I quickly learned when asking for directions that the street names inscribed on mapswith unequivocal certainty were virtually useless. As far as I could tell, not one taxi driver inAccra could find his way to African Liberation Square, but almost all knew the location of theU.S. Information Service, the American and British embassies, and KLM. The drivers jokedthat the only change in forty years of independence was the name of the place. In gettingaround 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-tothirty-minute excursion by taxi, I began to map the city in my own terms. I identified the streeton which I lived as Volta River Club Street, because the club was adjacent to the apartmentbuilding and no other street markers existed. My signposts were Not Independence Avenue andObruni Road and Beggar’s Corner and Shitty Lane. In a month I had become as indifferent tothe elusive glory of the age of independence as everyone else in Accra. I passed throughThomas Sankara Circle every afternoon on the way home, oblivious to his dream of eradicatingpoverty, hunger, and illiteracy and unaware of the ten million trees he intended to plant in thesahel to contain the spread of the desert, mend the ravages of slavery and colonialism, and rightthe balance among humans, nature, and society. I was not bolstered by his words, which I hadfirst read as a graduate student: “We must have the courage to invent the future. All that comesfrom man’s imagination is realizable,” or sobered by them: “We are backed up against the wallin our destitution like bald and mangy dogs whose lamentations and cries disturb the quietpeace of the manufacturers and merchants of misery.” On the anniversary of Sankara’sassassination, I didn’t respect his memory with a moment of silence or think of the makeshiftgrave in which his body had been dumped or shed a tear because another path to Utopia hadbeen blocked. These grand visions and beautiful promises were the ruins of another age and asremote and distant from my present as the dream of forty acres and a mule. So I hurried up OsuRoad 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 thetaste of homesick foreign nationals and charged exorbitant prices for the comforts of milk andcheese from Holland, Ceres juice, three kinds of nori, expensive tins of wasabi and smokedoysters, French bread, and Planter’s cashews. We acknowledged one another with a tentativehello. There were enough African Americans in Accra to cultivate a polite indifference whenwe 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 byPresident Nkrumah because of their skills as engineers, physicians, educators, and contractorswere settled in upscale enclaves like Labone or Cantonments. They kept their distance from thesteady wave of new arrivals and the ideologues. The less senior branch of the well-to-do wereemployed by international corporations and aid organizations; a few were entrepreneurs. Theywere rarely seen outside their gated compounds and air-conditioned SUVs. The visitingscholars, artists, and journalists lacked the comforts of air-conditioned vehicles and drivers andspacious, lovely homes and lived in the borderland between rich foreigners and middle-classGhanaians, paying obruni prices for rent and everything else but not receiving the quality ofgoods 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 andPeace Corp volunteers. Sometimes we nodded in recognition when we passed one another; atother times, it was more convenient to avert your gaze and not call attention to the fact that youtoo were a stranger.
Mary Ellen was an attractive woman in her sixties with luminous, sad brown eyes, amischievous smile, and the unmistakable comportment of a bohemian. There was no trace ofthe matron about her, and her unrestrained brunette dreadlocks, magenta tank top, and linenshorts flouted the sartorial regulations for female modesty; either she relished being a bad girlor she simply didn’t gave a damn what people thought. All of which made me instantly admireher. She had been living in Ghana with her husband, John, for well over a decade. Mary Ellenwas 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 wereFulbright 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 wastricky. 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 pedestrianswith whom they shared it but because of the large potholes. Only the poor walked, which wasthe majority of the city’s million and a half dwellers. The neighborhood consisted of squatapartment buildings, modest middle-class homes, and one-room cinder-block dwellingspopulated by a dozen or more inhabitants who rotated hours in order to sleep. I asked a pair ofteenage boys hanging out in front of a convenience store if they knew the American couple, andthey escorted me to the Rays’ front door.
John Ray was a slender, handsome man with dark, piercing eyes that made you falter and amouth set in a fixed expression of disapproval. He was fiercely intelligent and self-educated, sohe had little patience for most academics, whom he could think circles around and whom hefound tedious. When I said hello, I saw he was trying to decide whether I was painfully dull oronly 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 noarchives here. There is nothing to discover that Wilks and Van Dantzig and McCaskie haven’talready written about.”
“I know where the archives are. I’ve been to the British Museum, the Public RecordsOffice 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’thold 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 Ellenhad 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’sthe freedom trail you should be looking for.”
“Have you been to Elmina and Cape Coast yet?” Mary Ellen asked, trying to compensatefor 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 ofOctober. 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 adamned thing done,” said Mary Ellen.
“I know that now,” I said. “Last summer it seemed like paradise. But living here it feelsmore 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 boughtand sold in Ghana. People will sell their soul for five thousand cedis.” (Two thousand cedis wasthe equivalent of one U.S. dollar.)
Depending upon how he said it, “professor” sounded like a diminutive or a synonym foridiot. I was growing irritated.
“Another beer?” Mary Ellen asked as she cleared the empty bottles. I nodded my head. Shedidn’t ask John but placed another beer before him. I suspected they had begun drinking beforeI arrived.
“Did your mother raise a fool?” John asked me after taking a swig.“What?”“Did your mother raise a fool?”“No.”“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 Statescome 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 hadduring his lifetime. Now ‘taking heads’ means ripping somebody off. They say hustling blackAmericans 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 inrent. 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 prettycompared 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 ofmy hand in a gesture that I might have mistaken for maternal if it hadn’t seemed soperfunctory. “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 willspit on my grave.” She turned to me. “You know they hate us, or haven’t you figured that outyet?”
MARY ELLEN WAS NO LONGER WILLING to call herself an African American. “I’ve beenhere too long to call myself anything except a black American,” she confided. “That is whatfeels true.” For Mary Ellen, there was no longer a future in being an African American, only theburden of history and disappointment.
What connection had endured after four centuries of dispossession? The question of beforewas no less vexed since there was no collective or Pan-African identity that preexisted thedisaster of the slave trade. Were desire and imagination enough to bridge the rift of theAtlantic? 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 universitylibrary 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, orthe Gold Coast as it was called until 1957, had been entangled with the West for at least fivecenturies, and the buying and selling of slaves had been central to this association. The slavetrade required that a class of expendable people be created. The big men of Africa and Europeproved themselves suited to the task. The sentence I recalled most vividly was one written byWalter Rodney: “There was in existence a fundamental class contradiction between the rulingnobility and the commoners; and the ruling classes joined hands with the Europeans inexploiting 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 theAfrica of royals and great states or the Africa of disposable commoners? Which Africa was itthat we claimed? There was not one Africa. There never had been. Was Africa merely a cipherfor a lost country no one could any longer name? Was it the remedy for our homelessness or anopportunity to turn our backs to the hostile country we called home? Or was there a future inAfrica too? There was still the chance that all the poverty, death, and suffering would come toan end. There was still the chance that the manufacturers of misery would be toppled and theempires derailed. There was still the chance that Sankara’s dream of a White House in Harlemmight 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 onthe curved shoreline that forms the Gulf of Guinea, I suffered my first migraine. All the terribledetails of the slave trade thundered in my head and I spent the day battling nausea. I drankginger ale, pressed a cold compress against my forehead, shut all the blinds, and hid from theworld in my dark bedroom. Nothing helped. I wasn’t able to dislodge the atrocities committedin 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 alance, 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 bonesthat led from the hinterland to the sea. Or forget the disobedient wives who were sold under thepretext of witchcraft, the quarrelsome young men who were sentenced to slavery for beingtroublemakers, and the ever-growing list of petty infractions punishable by slavery that costmany 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 offeredthemselves as slaves to escape poverty and hunger, nieces and nephews were corralled inbarracoons and packed in slavers because of their uncles’ unpaid debt. Varied circumstancesfunneled 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 inthe 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 beensentenced 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 profitand to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidablelosses 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 oflives lost. Incidental death occurs when life has no normative value, when no humans areinvolved, when the population is, in effect, seen as already dead. Unlike the concentrationcamp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of apopulation, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making ofcommodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but fromthe vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made iteasier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump ashipload of captives into the sea in order to collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to killcargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of thetrade.
When my headache finally subsided, I decided to walk to the ocean to sort out the jumbleof painful facts and awful details that I had worked so diligently to learn. I needed to see theAtlantic, which was where I reckoned with the dead, the men and women and children whowere all but invisible in most of the history written about the slave trade; academics hadcontinued to quarrel about how many slaves packed per ton constituted “tight packing” and adeliberate policy of accepting high mortality, estimate rates of cargo productivity in the slavetrade versus the other kinds of commodity trade, and quantify the gains and losses of the slavetrade 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 thedead.
I could get access to the shore a few blocks away from my apartment. I was slightlyapprehensive about going to the beach alone but decided to do so anyway. There was a smallpath to the beach on the other side of Labadi Road. The walkway was surrounded by a smallsettlement of shanties. The rickety houses had been assembled from discarded shipmentcontainers and cardboard boxes and stray pieces of wood and were topped with corrugated tinroofs. I felt like an interloper walking through the community as women washed their childrenand fanned small coal fires for the evening meal. Poor people couldn’t afford gates to keeptrespassers out. I looked straight ahead and kept my eyes fixed on the rocky outcrops anddunes, avoiding what I suspected were quizzical and irritated glances. I pretended not to noticethe stench and quickened my pace. The closer I got to the sea, the worse the smell, whichreeked of things dead and rotten. Many of the streets of Accra were lined with open sewers, andpoor neighborhoods were often without toilet facilities, but this was more intense than usual. Iknew there was no plumbing in these dwellings, but was there an outhouse nearby? Had thecommunity latrine overflowed? When I reached the dunes I noticed a little swamp that hadbeen created by sewage pipes emptying onto the beach. A group of children were playing nearthe fetid pool, and one boy created ripples on its surface with his small arc of urine. The blackwater 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 inlight of all of this, but I did. The ocean was a few yards away, but it was impossible to smell thesea. Atop the dune I could see Christiansborg Castle and the little fishing village that sat on theother side of it. I had taken a few steps toward the beach when I noticed the men hunkereddown on their heels and scattered across the dune. The men squatting in irregular rows lookedlike mushrooms sprouting from the sand. It took me a minute before I realized what they weredoing. Stupid obruni! I was embarrassed more for myself than for them. For weeks I couldn’tshake 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 thingJohn ever asked of me. I didn’t promise him that I would tell the truth. Nearly two months inGhana had already made the truth too difficult. Telling the truth risked fueling the racism thatcould 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 travelto Africa but still imagined soil on which they would be embraced. Telling the truth riskedsullying 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 theyare returning home or entering paradise when they come here has to be destroyed,” John said. Inodded in silent agreement. It was as far as I could commit myself. As I drank the beer MaryEllen 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. Thedisappointment was inevitable. What place in the world could sate four hundred years ofyearning for a home? Was it foolish to long for a territory in which you could risk imagining afuture that didn’t replicate the defeats of the present?
In 1787 Prince Hall didn’t believe so when he petitioned the General Court ofMassachusetts, along with seventy-three other black men, requesting that the state repatriate itsblack residents because he thought it doubtful that they would ever experience anything otherthan racism and inequality in the white man’s country. In our native country, he wrote, “Weshall live among our equals and be more comfortable and happy, than we can be in our presentsituation; and at the same time, may have a prospect of usefulness to our brethren there.” Bythe nineteenth century, the Africa envisioned by blacks in the Americas had everything to dowith a future in which our subjection would end and the race would be redeemed. Nearly acentury and a half later, in 1951, when William Patterson, the national executive secretary ofthe Civil Rights Congress, and Paul Robeson presented a petition to the UN charging the UnitedStates with genocide against the Negro people, they too conceded that black folks in the UnitedStates 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 inspiredviolence.”
IN 1957, Ghana’s independence was a beacon of freedom to the civil rights movement andNkrumah, the liberator of black people worldwide. Not only did black Americans identify withthe anticolonial struggle, they believed that their future too depended upon its victory. Anarticle 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 thecause for their winning complete equality…The free people of Ghana may be able to strike thelast of the shackles from their brothers in America.” The Amsterdam News expressed a similarsentiment: “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 itis a question of freedom.”
African Americans had flocked to Ghana in the fifties and sixties. They came runningaway from Jim Crow, the Cold War, the backseat of the bus, a trail of slain leaders, spentdreams, and what they called, euphemistically, second-class citizenship. They knew either youwere 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 todetermine which was greater: the love of mother Africa or hatred of the United States. GeorgeJackson, writing his father from a cell in Soledad Prison, imagined that he would crawl backfrom 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 seemedthat as soon as tomorrow the legacy of slavery and colonialism would be overthrown. RichardWright had visited the Gold Coast in 1953 and written a powerful account of the struggle forindependence. 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 expressedwishes of the U.S. State Department) had traveled to Ghana for the celebration of itsindependence. King, upon seeing the Black Star replace the Union Jack as the flag of the nationand listening to the audience of half a million people shout, “Freedom! Freedom!” began toweep.
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 indroves to do something momentous—to participate in an international movement for freedomand democracy and to build a black nation. Nkrumah solicited Africans and those of Africandescent from Cairo to Cape Town and from Harlem to Havana to build the new nation. Heenvisioned a United States of Africa that would embrace those exiled in the Americas amongits 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 arestaurant in the bus station. When Nkrumah explained that he was very thirsty, the waiterpointed 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, andthe United Kingdom, as well as other countries in Africa still fighting against colonialism andapartheid. George Padmore, the Trinidadian intellectual who had presided over the sixth Pan-Africanist Congress in Manchester, England, in 1945 (where Nkrumah and Kenyatta pledged todefeat imperialism and abolish the poverty and servitude of Africa), was Nkrumah’s adviser onAfrican affairs. Padmore organized the first meeting of Independent Africa’s Heads of Stateand the first All African Peoples Congress. W.E.B. DuBois spent his last days workingdiligently on the Encyclopedia Africana, a comprehensive reference to the black world. ShirleyGraham Du Bois established Ghana Television. Drs. Robert and Sara Lee were the first blackdentists in the country. Robert Lee had become friends with Kwame Nkrumah while they wereboth students at Lincoln University. Carlos Allston laid the power lines that helped illuminatethe fledgling nation. Julian Mayfield wrote for the Ghana Evening News. Anna Livia Corderiaopened the first women’s clinic at the Military Hospital. Malcolm X visited and lectured inGhana in an effort to build the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Frantz Fanon wrote alarge part of The Wretched of the Earth while in Ghana. Maryse Condé taught French at theInstitute for Ideological Training. Tom Feelings, Ted Pointiflet, Frank Lacey, and John Raytaught 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 ofthe bogus stories you have been told [was] to think of every African you meet as a person justlike yourself, with the same needs and desires, hopes and dreams.” None of which preventedher from describing Accra as a “dream come true, for here is a city in a country that is black upand down.”
With all the conceit and ardor of youth, a small group dubbed themselves theRevolutionist Returnees. The Ghanaians called them the Afros, short for Afro-Americans. Theyarrived with what Maya Angelou described as a “terrible yearning to be accepted,” to pitch intheir lot with Ghanaians, and to undertake the hard labor of nation building. They wanted theirtalents to be used. The lucky ones enjoyed the privilege of serving the bourgeoning blackrepublic; the ones waiting tried to be patient and reassured themselves that as the monthsstretched out they weren’t being idle.
I envied them. In the sixties it was still possible to believe that the past could be leftbehind because it appeared as though the future, finally, had arrived; whereas in my age theimpress of racism and colonialism seemed nearly indestructible. Mine was not the age ofromance. 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 andless than a decade in Ghana. In 1966, the police and the armed forces overthrew the governmentof Kwame Nkrumah and the goodwill evaporated. The dream of an age after colonialism, afterracism, after capitalism, which had provided the bridge across the Atlantic for the émigrés, fellto pieces. African Americans were no longer welcome. They were accused of betrayingNkrumah and of being in cahoots with the CIA, which had engineered the coup. They wereaccused of blindly loving the old autocrat—who had by then engineered a one-party state anddeclared himself president for life. The political opponents of the Osagyefo, the Redeemer, whoafter 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 tothe freedom of black people worldwide. The Ghanaians criticized him for his dictatorial styleand inattention to domestic matters. The British-educated elite and the conservative middleclasses were hostile to Nkrumah’s socialist revolution, and they resented his attacks ontraditional forms of caste and privilege. As Nkrumah tried to embrace the world, he lost thehome front. Upon hearing the news that Nkrumah had been overthrown, African Americanswept as Ghanaians rejoiced and danced in the street.
The émigrés had no illusions about their status, according to Leslie Lacy: “We weretolerated out of sufferance of Nkrumah, and if they could kill him at eight o’clock, our fatewould be his at eight-thirty.” Ghanaians resented the Afros for occupying positions that wererightfully 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 whoforced them from their homes and abandoned them at the Togo border cursed them and calledthem strangers. The Afros expressed their chagrin in the language of ex-slaves: “They sold usonce 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 ownedbusinesses and were insulated by wealth or were the stateless ones who were unable to erase theimage of a fourteen-year-old boy’s bloated corpse dredged from the Mississippi, or four deadlittle girls buried in the rubble of a church in Birmingham, or Malcolm’s slumped figure on thefloor 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 ofdisenchantment. I grew up in the aftermath of African independence and the civil rights andBlack Power struggles, and like many of my generation I was pessimistic about my prospects athome and abroad. I came of age in the demise of liberation movements and after the visionarieshad been assassinated. Marcus Garvey’s vision of an Africa for Africans on the continent and inthe diaspora was a theme, which in college I chanted and danced to in the music of Bob Marleyand the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Third World, but dared not believe. It belonged to the OldGarveyites who assembled every August in Mount Morris Park to celebrate Garvey’s birthdayand who wore their United Negro Improvement Association uniforms no less proudly half acentury 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 ofmy present. The revolutionaries had come to Ghana believing they could be made anew, rebornas the African men and women they would have been had their ancestors not been stolen fourhundred years ago. Every revolution promises to stop all the old clocks, jettison the oldentailments, 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 theMiddle 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 aplace where the color line didn’t exist and black bodies were never broken on the rack or foundhanging from trees or expiring at the end of a police officer’s gun or wasting away in a cell ondeath row? What orphan had not yearned for a mother country or a free territory? What bastardhad not desired the family name or, better yet, longed for a new naming of things? Why notdream of a country that might love you in return and in which your skin wasn’t a prison? Desirewas 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 toinstitute between the past and the present failed. The old forms of tyranny, which they hadendeavored to defeat, were resuscitated and the despots lived long and vigorous lives. Thefreedom 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 mypast behind. I would never be able to imagine being the kind of person who had not been madeand marked by slavery. I was black and a history of terror had produced that identity. Terrorwas “captivity without the possibility of flight,” inescapable violence, precarious life. Therewas no going back to a time or place before slavery, and going beyond it no doubt would entailnothing less momentous than yet another revolution.
While the Afros were far too intelligent to believe the past could be forgotten, theydefinitely wanted their distance from slavery and colonialism. They valued history to the extentthat it aided the task of liberation. So it was more common for them to disparage the slavementality than to claim the slave. They preferred romance to tragedy. In trying to reverse thecourse 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 wouldprovide the bridge to a radiant future. African Americans weren’t the only ones who desired amonumental history and hungered for a grand narrative. Nkrumah also indulged this vision of asplendid royal past. In changing the name of the Gold Coast to Ghana, which had been anancient kingdom at the edge of the desert and a seat of civilization more than a thousand yearsago when Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Nkrumah “conjured up the image of a NewJerusalem.” And even his enemies considered him a messiah. Redemption and resurrectioninfused the language of African nationalism. The new era was to incarnate the best features ofantiquity 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 thepromise of rebirth; what attracted me were the ruins of the old one. They were intent uponconstructing a new society; I was intent upon tracing an itinerary of destruction from the coastto the savanna. They went to be healed. I went to excavate a wound. The expatriates crossed theAtlantic 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 menand women of their generation. The political exiles of the late fifties and sixties possessedpedigrees much more impressive than my own. They had participated in freedom strugglesaround the globe. They understood they were actors on the stage of world history. I always havefelt at a distance from the events of my time, and I have never believed that the balance ofpower hung upon any act of mine.
There was nothing exceptional about my journey. Any tourist with the willingness and thecash could retrace as many slave routes as her heart desired. But there was somethingparticular, perhaps even peculiar, about it. My generation was the first that came here with thedungeon as our prime destination, unlike the scores of black tourists who, motivated by AlexHaley’s Roots, had traveled to Ghana and other parts of West Africa to reclaim their Africanpatrimony. For me, the rupture was the story. Whatever bridges I might build were as much thereminder of my separation as my connection. The holding cell had supplanted the ancestralvillage. The slave trade loomed larger for me than any memory of a glorious African past orsense of belonging in the present.
I was struck by this difference when I read Maya Angelou’s memoir about her residence inGhana. She steadfastly avoided Cape Coast and Elmina castles. As she described it, if shesucceeded in keeping the ugly history of slavery at a distance, then perhaps she could besomething more than a stranger, perhaps she could pass for being a young Ghanaian woman: “Ididn’t want to remember that I was an American. For the first time since my arrival I was verynearly home…I drove into Cape Coast before I thought of the gruesome castle and out of itsenvirons 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 theirdescendants, 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 ofkinship, which as the émigrés discovered was much less inclusive or elastic than they hadanticipated. Kinship was as much about exclusion as affiliation. As it turned out, eluding theslave past was the prerequisite to belonging.
I was not trying to dodge the ghosts of slavery but to confront them. To what end? was theonly question. John said there was no point to it. There was nothing new to be discovered. Heand 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 totravel to Elmina alone. Small towns always made me uncomfortable and a bit claustrophobic. Ipreferred the crowded sidewalks and traffic of Osu, where I could move almost unnoticedamong the stream of foreigners and affluent Ghanaians entering and exiting the shops alongOsu Road.
John and Mary Ellen had visited the castle once and had never felt the need to return. Johnresented the way Ghanaians had made the slave trade into their new hustle. He called themslavery 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, sowhy 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 orexercise 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 assureherself that the belligerent man tottering through the living room wasn’t the same man she hadmarried. As of late, hardly a night passed without her uttering these words. I too learned tomake excuses. As I grew to love John and Mary Ellen, I pretended not to see the pain andisolation of their exile, not to notice what living in Ghana had cost them.
The unrealized dreams of two continents had embittered John. Resentment and lonelinesswere the proof of his statelessness. When he was in his cups, he said all the things that were toopainful to admit when he was sober.
“You don’t know anything about defeat!” John yelled at me the evening before I departedfor Elmina. I had been talking about the despair of –civil rights age and wondering if itwas the same kind of despair Ghanaians had experienced in the aftermath of independence. Irecently had read Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a novel about thedisillusionment that followed in the wake of decolonization. I was surprised that it had allseemed so familiar: the betrayal of freedom and the sickening despair and aching emptinessexperienced 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 thinkslavery is just some old buildings and dead folks?” John demanded, trying to control his slurredspeech. “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. Hewas contemptuous of most of the African Americans in Ghana. Would I turn out to be no betterthan the rest of them? John often spoke as if the expatriates who had returned to the States hadbetrayed him personally. They had abandoned the dream and been rewarded with universitychairs, fat salaries, and celebrity, while he labored in the trenches and pieced together anexistence. They claimed to love Ghana but stayed at the Golden Tulip, one of Accra’s five-starhotels, when they visited. They loved Ghana from a comfortable distance. John resented theprivileged black visitors almost as much as did the Ghanaians, perhaps more, because he knewthem 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 toget 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 likemany exiles he no longer hoped for anything.
It was the opposite for me. I was willing to enter the dungeon again and again andencounter the disaster anew, as if the Portuguese were still in transit, as if the sugar crops hadyet to be planted in Brazil, as if the first slave had yet to be exiled, because, at this late date, Iwas 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 heimplored in his scratchy baritone voice along with the other congregants, “Lord, I’m goinghome, / No more toils, no more care, /No more grief to bear.” Even as a child I perceived thegravity of these words and I knew they contained an appeal as well as a complaint. Abandonedby 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 beganin a holding cell.
An old storehouse built by white men had everything to do with who I was in the world, orat 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 youngGhanaian woman could not redress my losses, settle the questions that plagued me, or bring meany comfort. It was a desire whose moment had passed. The questions before me—What wasthe 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 Africansociety.
In any case, by the time I landed in Ghana, the slogan “Africa for Africans at home andabroad” had been out of favor for at least three decades. In 1999, a measure to grant AfricanAmericans Ghanaian citizenship was defeated. No one seemed to be waiting any longer for thehour of Africa’s redemption. Disenchantment prevailed. On radio talk shows Ghanaiansdebated whether they had been better off under colonialism. The structural adjustmentprograms and debtor country initiatives orchestrated by the World Bank and the InternationalMonetary Fund were the new slavery. Ghana didn’t even print its own currency. It wasmanufactured in Europe and paid for with U.S. dollars. Pan-Africanism had yielded to thedashed hopes of neocolonialism and postcolonialism and African socialism (which Nkrumahdefined as the traditional spirit of African humanism and communalism refashioned for themodern world), had been ambushed by the West and bankrupted by African dictators andkleptocrats, 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 orconstruct a dam or build houses or clear a road or run a television station or design an urbanwater system or tend to the sick or improve the sanitation system or revitalize the economy orcancel the debt. No one had invited me. I was just another stranger, an academic from theStates conducting research on slavery, which, in most people’s eyes, made me about asindispensable as a heater in the tropics. There were a handful of African Americans who wereuseful; I wasn’t one of them. I found myself, like most members of the small community ofnearly 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 youreally really realize you are not African,” one expatriate admitted, “it’s the loneliest moment ofyour life, and if you can withstand that, you can make it here. It goes on being lonely, and it’show 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, notUtopia. Even so, the dreams of the émigrés were a part of my inheritance, which I couldn’tentirely shake loose, no matter how hard I tried. Utopia had left its traces in mydisappointment, and in the pang of desire that reminded me something was missing, somethinghad 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—“theabstract nakedness of being nothing but human,” to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt—wasnowhere more apparent than in Ghana. And the futures envisioned by Nkrumah and King andeclipsed by assassins, military coups, and the CIA never seemed more distant.
Utopias always have entailed disappointments and failures. They cast a harsh light on thelimits of our imagination, underscore our shortsightedness, and replicate the disasters of theworld we seek to escape. Utopia never turns out to be the perfect society. Look hard enough andyou’ll find the underworld occupied by drudges, inferiors, conscripts, and prisoners. Look longenough and you’ll identify the winners and losers, the big men and small boys, the royals andthe slaves, the owners and the owned. You’ll see the African elites and nobles fashioningthemselves after Europe’s kings and the captives trailing behind them in tow. You’ll discernthe disease of royalty beneath the visage of eternal glory. You’ll witness the dream of freedomcrash and burn.
No better demonstration of the missed opportunities and the tragic disappointments ofUtopia could be found than in the work of its sixteenth-century architect Thomas More. He hadimagined a commonwealth where all the necessities of life were provided for, where thecomforts 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 ofgentlemen and nobles had been eradicated, and where all true pleasures were encouraged. Noone wanted for the necessities of life, no one lived off the labor of others, and no one bared hishead 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 andcompassion of free men. The lowest rung wore shackles, albeit of gold, which was associatedwith pollution, excrement, and dishonor: “From gold and silver they make chamber pots and allthe humblest vessels for use everywhere, not only in the common halls but in private homesalso. Moreover they employ the same metals to make the chain and solid fetters which they puton their slaves.”
The utopian equation of gold, filth, and slavery also resonated in Ghana. There was anAkan saying: Atantanie nti ye to odonko—We buy a slave because of filthy work. What betterillustration of the degradation of gold than its capacity to transform persons into things; whatbetter 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 SigmundFreud detailed the symbolic affinities between gold and excrement, African royals werestockpiling their gold in privies and selling slaves for chamber pots. And European traders weretransforming 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 excrementtoo. So it is said in the heartland of slavery where people knew firsthand the scent of the slavehold. Karl Marx didn’t put it any better when he described the genesis of capital, which cameinto the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” He didn’tmention excrement, but he should have. Mounds of waste were also the testament of pillageand exchange. The reek of trading forts and slave ships identified the presence of merchantcapital and human commodities on the West African coast, as the foul odor of toilet beachesand open sewers marked the end of “the beauty of the first days,” or the shortfall ofindependence.
The smell hung in a black cloud over Accra. When I breathed deeply I swore I coulddiscern the sulfurous odor of things dead and decaying. Utopia could not be separated from thisrottenness. For the dream of a black country was born in slave pens and barracoons and holdingcells. 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 yearningfor the black promised land and the ten million trees that would repel the enemy’s advance andstand in for all of those gone and forgotten.
Markets and Martyrs
WHEN THE BUS DEPOSITED ME at the lorry park in Elmina, I refused to heed the voicetelling me, “There is nothing here for you.”
Except for the castle, no visible signs of slavery remained. All about me, the commerce ofeveryday life proceeded in its banal course. A jagged row of blue kiosks, home to lotteryagents, seamstresses, chop bars, and makeshift stores, looped around the Benya River. Thebanks of the river swarmed with people: market women installed behind their stands tradedDutch print fabric, Lever Brothers soap, secondhand obruni clothes, iridescent lipsticks, andcut-rate nail polish. Others, less optimistic about the prospects of a sale, stretched out on strawmats, babies curled beside them, hidden behind black bricks of kenkey (fermented cornmealwrapped in a plantain leaf). Shoppers haggled for better prices, hoping to return home with afew cedis in their pockets. Clerks, unsullied in their oxford shirts and ties, exited chop bars andstrolled to their offices. Tourists drenched with perspiration scuttled en masse to the slavedungeon. Schoolchildren swept through the streets in their brown uniforms like clouds of dust.Street hawkers offered oranges, groundnuts, and toilet paper, piercing the air with their yelps.Adolescent girls, haloed by hair burnt the color of sienna from cheap perms, sold small bags ofcold water for fifty cedis. Children played guilefully, having abandoned their errands.Entrepreneurs, technocrats, and fashionable wives snaked through the crowd armored in the icyworld of air-conditioned Pajeros and Land Rovers and untouched by the sweat and dust of theoutside. Tro-tros crammed with passengers rushed through the streets, indifferent to theswarms of ambling pedestrians.
I recoiled from the whirl of life spinning about me and threatening to pull me under. It hadbeen more than a year since I had first visited Elmina, and the town I pictured barely resembledthe one spread out before me. I had remembered the town as a graveyard, so I was disturbed bythe greetings shouted back and forth between market women and the peals of laughter, whichinterrupted conversations in languages I could not understand. The smell of grilled plantainsand the astringent odor of sweat breaking through the white veneer of bath powder made the airpungent and sweet and heavy. Waves of heat rose from the bodies of lovely black and tawnycomplexioned girls who were vigorous and alive and who would bear even more life. It was tomy eyes a terrible beauty. It didn’t seem right that this prodigal and teeming display of lifebrushed against the walls of a slave warehouse and failed to notice it.
I would have preferred mourners with disheartened faces and bowed heads and the pallorof sadness coloring the town. Or at least something Gothic: bloodstained ruins, human skullsscattered like cobblestones in the street, the castle draped in black crepe. Instead I found myselfimmersed in the prosaic conduct of everyday life—the petty negotiations, squabbles, andcontested transactions key to good bargaining. The orchestrated dance between buyer and sellerreplayed endlessly in the sea of makeshift stands.
FOR CENTURIES, Elmina had been famed for its thriving trade. In the Middle Ages,merchants crossed the Sahara loaded with textiles and salt, which they exchanged for gold onthe coast. Malian cavalry units raided the farmlands of the forest and transported thousands ofcaptives southward. With these slaves they purchased bags of gold dust and sacks filled withnuggets. By the fifteenth century, the news of the Akan gold fields had spread in the ports ofAndalusia and Portugal. European sailors and merchants listened eagerly to rumors of nakedpeople with fists bulging with gold and eager to trade it for old clothes and other trifles. Twice-told tales goaded adventurers, entrepreneurs, and seamen to traverse the Atlantic.
When the Portuguese arrived, they called the area “Mina de Ouro” or “El Mina” after thegold mines of which they had come in search. From the fifteenth century onward, three hundredmiles of the Guinea coast were referred to as “the Mine” and centuries of common use made aproper name of Europe’s exploits. The Portuguese landed hungry for gold and eager to find itssource. They exchanged textiles, used garments, metal hardware, shells and beads, wine, andslaves for gold, which filled the treasury of Portugal’s kings with the greatest supply of thisprecious metal that Europe had ever known. The gold obtained from the Akan financed thePortuguese slaving efforts in Benin and Kongo, the first major sources of slaves in the Atlantictrade.
When the Europeans arrived in Guinea, the land of the blacks, “there was no servile classsimply waiting to be shipped.” Raids and kidnapping inaugurated Europe’s trafficking inAfrican slaves. Over the span of a few decades, commercial agreements forged betweenEurope’s merchant princes and Africa’s royals commenced the transatlantic slave trade properand established the protocols of theft, kidnapping, and war.
The Afro-European trade in slaves did not begin in Ghana as it did elsewhere withAfricans selling slaves and Europeans buying them. It began with Europeans selling slaves andAfricans buying them. The Portuguese started out as middlemen in the internal slave trade.They kidnapped and purchased slaves from Kongo and Benin and sold them on the Gold Coast.For each slave sold to African merchants and royals, the Portuguese received three to sixounces of gold. Slaves fetched better prices on the Gold Coast than they did in Lisbon. The goldtransported from El Mina spurred the traffic in slaves and rewarded the Portuguese with thepremier place in the Atlantic slave trade for its first two centuries.
By 1600, the Portuguese had enslaved and exported nearly half a million Africans. In thefirst century and a half of the trade, the majority of slaves were shipped to the Atlantic islandsand to Europe. By 1700, two million Africans had been captured, seized, and sold as slaves toEuropean traders from all nations.
The Gold Coast entered the slave trade as an exporter of slaves at the end of theseventeenth century. In 1637 the Dutch commandeered Elmina Castle, and a few decades laterthe Atlantic slave trade shifted into high gear. The selling of slaves had become more lucrativethan the gold trade because of the demand for labor in the plantation economy of the Americas.By the end of eighteenth century, there were sixty slave markets in Ghana. The merchants androyals of Elmina, like those of other major coastal towns, acted as intermediaries in theAtlantic slave trade. Elmina was a gateway between the African hinterland, the entrepôts ofWestern Europe, and the plantations of the New World.
Elmina was a boomtown with inns, dancing houses, gambling dens, brothels, artisanguilds, merchant-broker firms, and wealthy sprawling compounds. Rich men, criminals, rogues,skilled laborers, prostitutes, and growing numbers of the poor resided in the coastal settlement.The population consisted of nearly twenty thousand residents. The town had been as large thenas it was now. As the numbers of captives taken from the coast increased to the tens ofthousands, the population of Elmina declined rapidly. A smallpox epidemic, the harsh
governorship of the director general of the Dutch West India Company, and the instability,wars, and skirmishes endemic to the trade prompted many of the town’s residents to relocateelsewhere and at a safe distance from the dangers of the coast. While the royals and merchantsbenefited from the traffic in slaves, the commoners experienced only its chaos and dangers.This state of emergency made traveling on public roadways unsafe and the threat of captivityunremitting. By the first decades of the eighteenth century, according to the Dutch governor ofElmina, the settlement had become a ghost town and the Gold Coast a slave coast. Over thecourse of the eighteenth century, the population of the town expanded and contracted inresponse to the vagaries of the slave trade.
The storerooms of Elmina, which had once held bolts of cloth, copper and porcelainbasins, kegs of liquor, brass bracelets, and other trade goods, filled with captives. The majorityof them were seized from the north and sold on the coast by African brokers to Europeantraders. Ships crowded the harbor in wait of human cargo. By the first decade of the eighteenthcentury, large wooden cargo vessels of two hundred tons anchored offshore were commonplacesights. The boats resembled wooden houses with wings because of their great flying sails.Canoes carried small lots of slaves from the shore to the ships. Hundreds of captives werepacked between the decks. The stink of sweat and waste and disease thickened as the cargo wascompleted. The reek of slavers could be detected five miles off the coast.
The townspeople would have grown accustomed to the stench. Watching the canoes ferrythe slaves offshore, some might have wondered why none who boarded those ships were everseen again, and the curious might have speculated about what happened to them in the countriesacross the water. No doubt there were those who preferred not to think about them at all.
TAKING IN THE FESTIVAL of color and sound before me, what I found troubling was that thescars of slavery were no more apparent in Elmina than in Boston or Rhode Island or Charleston(or Lisbon or Bristol or Nantes). Only the blessings of the slave trade remained, according tothe town’s residents, by which they meant their modernity. The Atlantic slave trade hadintroduced them to literacy and Christianity, and of this they were very proud. Images of Jesusabounded, as if salvation rather than secondhand goods were for sale. The Son of God wearinghis crown of thorns illustrated kiosks, and “Blood of the Lamb” and “Jesus Saves” christenedopen-air beauty shops. Propagating and luminous, the many heads of Jesus encircled the town,overseeing exchange and pledging deliverance. A defiant driver emblazoned his van, “Try. LetGod rest.” A lone kiosk was adorned with hagiographic portraits of Tupac and Biggie Smalls;the hip-hop saints vied with the Son of God for devotees.
For the ever-increasing throngs of Pentecostals, Christ promised a future unencumbered byhistory; he was the antidote to recollection. Nothing could have been more at odds with my owndesire than the aspiration of the faithful to enter the world anew, to be born again cleansed ofthe past. What we shared was the wish to resurrect the dead. I wanted to redeem the enslavedand they wanted to give the repentant a new life. The congregants were steadfast in their belief,whereas I wavered and doubted. My pessimism was stronger than my longing. In my heart Iknew my losses were irreparable.
I scanned the town, hungry for a detail or trace of the hundreds of thousands of personsdeported from the Gold Coast. I tried to imagine how many sacked villages and abandoneddwellings and destroyed families and orphaned children made up this number. But I was unableto translate a string of zeros into human figures or to hear the clamor of slaves assembled onthe beach or to catch a whiff of their fear as they stood before the ocean. I tried to calculatehow long it would have taken to embrace each one and whisper good-bye. If each farewell tookas long as a minute, it would have added up to seven hundred and seventy-seven days, a littleover two years, which didn’t seem like enough time. Besides, there had been no one to see themoff and say I love you and we will never forget you. These words were of no use now.
The old town surrounding the market had changed little in two centuries, except of coursethat there were no small lots of slaves for sale. The stone houses on Liverpool Street andBuitenrust Lane, in which Dutch traders cohabited with their “local wives,” were lined up alongthe road, robust and stationed like sentinels. Fort St. Jago, nestled on the hill, still overlookedthe town. Elmina Castle sprawled on the rocky point of the peninsula. The Atlantic roared as itapproached and recoiled beneath the underbelly of the castle. The intimacy of civilization andbarbarism was everywhere apparent in the castle’s dazzling vastness, architectural prowess, andunabashed monumentality.
The castle appeared inviolate, which made me want to deface it, to inflict damagecommensurate with the wreckage of the slave trade. I would have preferred to find ElminaCastle in a heap of stones. I would have preferred a Jacobin bloodbath: the captors trounced,their throats slit, and their heads planted on pikes along the beach and a band of slavescelebrating their ruin; or the soldiers poisoned by the very same slave women who washed theirclothes, prepared their meals, and fellated them; or the castle set ablaze by the mixed-raceoffspring of the Portuguese governor.
Now it was too late for retribution. The director general of the Dutch West India Companyhadn’t resided there since the nineteenth century. The Portuguese were ousted almost fourhundred years ago. The Akan royals and merchants were dead. The captives had been scattered.
Those I wanted to harm were not within my reach. Those I wanted to rescue were gone. Thebanks, shipping companies, insurers, nation-states, manufacturers, and ports still thrived, butthey were too powerful for any blow or kick or complaint of mine to make them cry out in painor wish they were dead.
FROM THE SMALL BRIDGE spanning the Benya River and connecting Elmina Castle to thetown, I couldn’t quite see the yard where the Portuguese corralled their captives and where theDutch branded the human property of the Dutch West India Company. The perimeter wall ofthe castle blocked any view of the courtyard, but this didn’t stop me from looking. Nor did theriver stench of dried fish and human waste drive me from the overpass.
People strode past me wiping their drenched brows with madras handkerchiefs, walkingdeterminedly but with sparse and conservative steps designed to avoid any undue expenditureof energy in the oppressive midday heat. Most failed to notice me and simply pushed past,shuffling onward in an elusive quest for shade. A few heads turned, curious about why I wasstanding frozen in the middle of traffic and allowing myself to be trounced by the sun’s harshrays. I couldn’t imagine that anyone wondered why I was here or what held my attention in thedistance. Glances tempered with disdain, amusement, and pity: another American here to cryabout what happened so long ago. The polite ones waited until they were a few feet away beforeangling their heads back; others, bolder, stared nakedly. A woman muttered to her friend inEnglish for my benefit, “Americans come here to cry but they don’t leave their money behind.”
An octogenarian brushed by me as I loitered on the bridge. He walked a few steps ahead ofme, then turned around and asked, “Is it negro or nigra?” The old man’s words fell upon melike a hail of stones, stinging and accusatory, openly decrying what could be skirted in a gaze—the isolation of my implacable grief and the unbridgeable gulf between stranger and kin. Icaught myself before Brooklyn rushed from my mouth in a string of profanity. I looked at theman’s face; either he was sincere or he was crazy, so I settled for returning his gaze with astony stare that I hoped translated into a polite “Don’t fuck with me.”
Chance encounters in the street made plain the difference between how I saw myself andhow I was seen by others. In my estimation, I was the aggrieved; to others I was a privilegedAmerican and as such was required to perform regular acts of penance. My ignorance regularlycollided with that of passers-by. To my hoary inquisitor I was an oddity. “Who and what areyou?” was what the old man wanted to know. His curiosity was counterbalanced by detachment,and for this reason his assessment of me was more judicious than my assessment of him. Myfirst thought was old fool.
I doubted he had ever wasted an afternoon daydreaming about my arrival, whereas I haddreamed of living in Ghana since I was in college. I had imagined a world less racist than theone from which I came. I had longed for a country in which my inheritance would amount tomore than dispossession and in which I would no longer feel like a problem. Three months inGhana were enough to disabuse me of these notions. People might call me the white man, butno one treated me as one. In supermarkets and banks, I grew accustomed to clerks and tellerscalling white people to the front of the line, to the rude way Syrian and Lebanese storeownerstreated their black customers, to there being one set of rules for white people and another forblacks. Black life was even more expendable in Africa than in the United States; only theparticulars varied.
I was already angry, so it was not surprising I heard the old man’s question as fightingwords. His clear doubts about my identity dashed whatever hopes I had of losing myself in asea of black faces and experiencing the intimacy and anonymity of the crowd. When I calmed
down, I realized that he was only trying to name me, to figure out exactly who I was, which hewas smart enough to know was not something that he could take for granted. After all, I was astranger. His words acknowledged what we didn’t share—a common identity. I had been namedin another place and under disparate circumstances. I was a mystery, so the only assumption hemade about me was lodged in the form of a question.
In truth I knew no more about the old man than he knew about me. As a boy he might haveattended the blackface minstrel and vaudeville shows staged in Cape Coast by traveling actorsinspired by Al Jolson and heard the word “nigger” for the first time in a “plantation song”; orhis father might have used that word or a similar one when he told him stories about the blacktroops from Barbados and Jamaica who had helped the British defeat the Asante empire (in awar that has been described as a case of chickens coming home to roost); or “nigger” mighthave been the only word he could discern in the X-rated gansta rap that played uncensored onGhana radio, precisely because no one could make out the words of the explicit lyrics; or hemight have picked up the word “nigger” from the reruns of Roots, which were regularly airedon Ghana TV; or a friend of his who had studied at Lincoln University might have told him thiswas what black people were called in the United States; or he might have overheard a group ofboisterous Americans in town bandying the word back and forth like a term of endearment, orcomplaining bitterly that they didn’t expect to be treated like niggers here.
It dawned on me that the man’s question explained why I was standing on a bridge andgawking at a castle. Negro or nigra—it tethered me to the past. I lost my footing in the worldswirling about me: the shoppers plodding their way through the labyrinth of the market, themanifold faces of Jesus, the mottled sea of umbrellas shading market women. Everythingregressed, and archaic forms assumed their place. I mistook a market woman selling deadobruni clothes for a sixteenth-century feitor de roupa velha (factor of used clothing). One erasettled upon another. The apparitions of slaves and sovereigns hovered above the town.
THE PORTUGUESE BUILT Elmina Castle in 1482. Ten years before Columbus stumbled ontoHispañola and professed to discover it, the trade post and military fortification was erected. Itwas the first durable European edifice constructed in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly thePortuguese had intended to put down stakes. Things didn’t turn out as they expected—theynever found the goldfields of which they had come in search—but they resided in Elmina for150 years before the Dutch expelled them from the fort.
It would be tempting to say that in 1482 the handwriting was already on the wall. It wouldbe easy to trace a straight line from then to now, as if the twelve million who arrived in theAmericas, or the millions who were slaughtered in war; left for dead on the trail; killed bydysentery, cholera, and dehydration; or dumped in the Atlantic were sentenced to their fatewhen the ground was broken for the castle. In hindsight it would appear as if the demise ofcenturies could be foreseen in the exchange of gifts and promises between a Portuguese captainand an Akan viceroy.
In an apocalyptic account of history, the end is inevitable and destruction can be traced tothe most innocuous and routine beginnings, like the exchange of salutations and vows of loveon the Atlantic coast. The certitude of hindsight gives the demise an inevitable cast. But therewere no black clouds casting a shadow on the Portuguese when they arrived, nor were stormsbrewing on the horizon. The heavens did not weep. All the omens that might have betrayedsomething terrible about to happen failed to appear or went unnoticed. Who knew then the priceto be paid for love? Who knew the cost of naming the world anew? Who could have imaginedthe worlds destroyed by the horse and the musket, or the death reaped by luxury goods, or that
sugar, coffee, and tobacco would transform three continents? It was not possible to foresee thePortuguese royal insignia scored along the West African coast as far south as Angola or toanticipate the crucifix branded onto the breasts and arms of captives. Nor could anyone haveknown that the gold revenue earned from El Mina would enable the Portuguese to become themasters of the slave trade in its first two centuries. So is it fair to blame two men meeting onelate afternoon on a beach in Guinea for more than forty thousand slaving voyages thattransported nearly twelve million Africans to the Americas?
Deciding the matter of cause and effect is, by necessity, belated; causality is the benefit ofretrospection. One apprehends the signs of an inevitable demise only in hindsight. It is liketrying to figure out when things began to change in a failed relationship: are the signs visibleonly after things have ended badly, or were the signs always there and you just failed to heedthem? Only in looking back can the course from now to then be traced; or can we say, “Ah, thisis how it began”; or weigh contingency and necessity, chance and causality; or wonder if theseemingly inexorable character of events was little more than the collective force ofcircumstance, accident, and caprice.
The randomness and contingency of history nonetheless produces two classes, winners andlosers. Like men at a gaming table, over the course of time the gap between these groups willbecome bigger and bigger. The exchange of vows of love and friendship between two men oneafternoon in 1482, albeit a kind of fiction, was one of the many occasions in the early modernperiod that set in motion a new order. Chance events engendered a racial global order sointractable that it now appears fated.
The record of the encounter between Europe and Africa is a litany of stories about eventsthat never happened. Myth is the threshold of history. On the slave route, it is no different. It allbegins with apocryphal tales of knights and princes, with searches for Utopia, quests for fabledkingdoms, visions of the Garden and premonitions of the Fall. The “land of the negroes,” wrotea Portuguese chronicler, seemed “a gracious fruit garden ordained for the sole end of theirdelight.” As late as the eighteenth century, Europeans still imagined Africa as paradise or Eden.Not even Marx was able to resist the language of the Garden when recounting the violence thatinaugurated modernity. In his essay on primitive accumulation, he described the scene of theFall, which in his account was triggered not by the plucking of the apple but by the commercialhunting of black skins.
Two men meeting on the Guinea coast was yet another myth of beginning. Imagination
created the event by endowing one afternoon with undue significance. Gods and kingsappointed the central players. Cartographers drew the imaginary places. The royal scribes ofPortugal authored the written account, so it began with Diego de Azambuja at the helm of hisship.
ON JANUARY 19, 1482, ten caravels and two transports loaded with four hundred tons oftimber, bricks, tiles, stone, and mortar, and with a small pinnace in tow, set anchor off the coastof Guinea. Diego de Azambuja, the captain of the expedition, espied the landscape and recordedits features: the stark headlands, red cliffs, small bays, and the river winding through the townand slicing it in half. Surveying the coast, he decided on the best location for the trading fort:the narrow peninsula at the mouth of the river. It was an ideal spot, protected by the bay, theriver, and the rocky shore, and offered suitable defense from enemies.
When Azambuja landed on the beach, six hundred men and a handful of womenaccompanied him. Among this company were the not yet legendary Bartolomeu Dias andChristopher Columbus, and the nameless—an army of soldiers, artisans, manual laborers,impoverished dreamers, exiled convicts, slaves, and prostitutes. The captain and his officerslaid claim to the territory with the symbols of their sovereign and God, planting the royalinsignia in the landscape and hoisting a banner with the royal escutcheons. With this elaborateceremony, they took possession of terra nullius, no-man’s-land; the following day theyrequested permission to do so.
Decked out for his meeting with the Akan statesman, Captain Azambuja cut a strikingfigure clothed in a jerkin of silk brocade with a golden collar of precious stones. The menposted at his side were also dressed in silk to impress “King” Caramansa with the riches ofPortugal, although it was the riches of Guinea, the famed goldfields, that Azambuja and hismen hoped to command. Through the mouthpiece of his black slave, who in all likelihood hadbeen seized from Mina years earlier, Azambuja explained the purpose of his mission, whichwas to build a storehouse in Mina for the king of Portugal. Fala de preto, black man’s speechor slave Portuguese, was the language of diplomacy; it bore little resemblance to the courtlylanguage and embellished speech represented in the royal chronicles.
The captain began his remarks by declaring his love and that of his king: “The knowledgethat the King, his Lord, had of Caramanca’s [sic] desire to serve him well, as he had striven toshow by the rapid lading of his ships when they arrived in that part; and because these thingsproceeded from love, the King wished to repay them with love, which would be moreadvantageous than his [Azambuja’s], for it was love for the salvation of his soul, the mostprecious thing that man had, because it gave life, knowledge, and reason, which distinguishedman from beast.”
To which Caramansa replied: “Friends who met occasionally remained better friends thanif they were neighbors.” According to the royal chronicle, “He did not speak thus to disobey thecommands of the King of Portugal, but for the benefit of the peace and trade he desired to havewith those who might come to that port…with peace between them, his people would be morewilling to hear of God, whom he wished them to know.”
Azambuja convinced Caramansa to change his mind, whether with threats or a flurry ofsweet words is anyone’s guess. The two men reached an accord. In exchange for love, salvation,and rent, Azambuja gained permission to build a storehouse for the lord of his country. At leastthat was the story told in the royal chronicle, a story that established Portugal’s rights ofoccupation and deterred other European princes from commanding title to Mina. But thecaptain and the viceroy were just stand-ins for a greater set of social forces—emergent
maritime technologies, merchant capital, competing trade interests, and divergent politicalstratagems.
Even the king’s scribes disagreed as to exactly what happened on the beach that afternoonin 1482. It is impossible to know whether Caramansa granted the Portuguese permission tobuild the fort or if they proceeded to build without it, since beneath the silk brocade ofAzambuja and his men were hidden firearms in case of need. If the bargain had been rejectedand the gift of God spurned by “idolaters,” then presumably the force of arms would haveachieved what “love speech” failed to accomplish. Needless to say, love had many expressions.Once the settlement had been completed, a portion of Elmina was torched to protect trade andestablish peace firmly. Love was the language of dominion, and its offspring were men andwomen in chains.
SOON AFTER THE fort was erected, the courtyard began to fill with slaves. Every fifty or sodays, a ship loaded with slaves arrived at the fort. The slaves disembarked in small groups ofone to two hundred. Between five hundred and one thousand slaves passed through the fort eachyear. By 1540, anywhere between ten thousand and twenty thousand slaves had been confinedwithin its gates.
A handful worked inside the garrison, mostly girls and women assigned to the soldiers fortheir personal use; the rest (anywhere from one hundred to one hundred fifty slaves) werechained in the courtyard in wait of buyers. Some hunkered against the walls of the fort, othersskulked about as far as the ropes and chains would allow. The women sat curled and slumpshouldered, aware of their nakedness because of the gaze and groping of soldiers. Thechildren’s eyes darted about nervously with the fear plain on their faces.
Caravels had ferried the captives from the Slave Rivers of Benin and the ports of Kongo toElmina. In a single expedition to the Slave Rivers, the Portuguese sometimes returned to thefort with as many as four hundred captives. Most of those taken from Benin were girls andwomen between the ages of ten and twenty. The oba (king) of Benin had restricted the sale ofmen and boys and eventually prohibited it. Each woman seized by the Portuguese had her rightarm seared with the cross.
Locked away in the courtyard were also the ones stolen from Kongo. Prisoners of wartaken by marauding armies; artisans, farmers, healers, weavers, fishermen, and metalworkerscaptured in raids on their towns and villages; undesirables, criminals, and troublemakers
sentenced to slavery; and students, the sons of Kongolese nobles, kidnapped in São Tomé ontheir journey to seminary in Lisbon, all shared the same fate. Kongo was a Christian kingdom.The mani-Congo (king) Dom Affonso had converted to Catholicism in 1490. The spread ofChristianity among royals and nobles and the commerce in slaves proceeded apace, since theroyal converts tied their fortunes to the slave trade.
The ubiquitous crucifix had spearheaded the great numbers of captives headed to the slaveports.
IN HONOR OF the patron saint of Portugal and their newly discovered African El Dorado, thePortuguese bestowed the storehouse with the name O Castellano de São Jorge or São Jorge deMina, Saint George of the Mine. Like the hallowed and melodious names of slave ships—Christ the Redeemer, Amistad, Blessed, John Evangelist, The Lord Our Savior, Recovery,Trinity—so too the saintly eponym of Elmina Castle, São Jorge, announced the sacred errandcommenced on the Guinea coast.
A religious crusade against infidels—ad propagandam fidem (for the propagation of thefaith)—had inaugurated the slave trade forty years earlier on the upper Guinea coast. In 1444,the Portuguese had seized two hundred thirty-five captives in a raid for chattel.
Upon catching sight of the village of “Moors,” the soldiers attacked, crying out, “SaintGeorge,” their patron and protector, and, “Portugal.” The royal chronicle depicted the rout asbooty gained with the Lord’s blessings: The Portuguese attacked the villagers, “killing them,and seizing as many as they could. There you would have seen mothers forsaking their children,husbands abandoning their wives, each person trying to escape as best they could. And somedrowned themselves in the water; others tried to hide in their huts; others, hoping they wouldescape, hid their children among the sea grasses where later they were discovered. And in theend our Lord God, who rewards every good deed, decided that, for their labors undertaken inhis service, they should gain a victory of their enemies that day.”
Saint George had many faces: martyr, proselytizer, celibate, submitter, procreator, soldier,and heretic. The villagers of the Rio de Oro experienced the avenging knight and the carnageconducted in the name of our Lord God. The Age of Discovery required a man of arms, andGeorge fit the bill. The conquering knight personified civilization pitted against beastlyantagonists and monstrous races. The dragon slayer mounted on his steed antedated the charge:“Exterminate all the brutes.” It would be hard to imagine a better representative of thePortuguese errand or a saint more suitable to the task.
Saint George was also a martyr among martyrs. Most saints endured one particular tortureto evidence their faith. But the hapless George suffered virtually all the tortures known. SaintSebastian’s body pierced with arrows and Saint Agatha’s slashed breast and Saint Peter’scrucifixion paled in comparison.
In Palestine, Saint George was imprisoned. He was tortured with iron spikes, scourged, andhis skull was crushed. In Persia, he was poisoned by the king’s magician. In Nubia, aneyewitness averred that he was tortured for seven years and killed four times. First, he wasroasted over a flaming pit, but he was resurrected. Then his body was divided in two by adouble-bladed saw, but again he defeated death. Next he was dismembered, but angelsassembled his body parts and pieced him back together, and last he was boiled in a cauldron ofoil. In Greece, he was bound to a post and his flesh lacerated with rakes and burned with aflaming torch.
The trial of saints and the anguish of martyrs would be put to the test in the holding cellsof the castle and beyond. Did Saint George also provide an emblem for the suffering of slavesor a vision of life resurrected? In the Gold Coast, his ears were cut off and then he was put todeath. In São Tomé, he was drowned in the sea. In Dahomey, he was decapitated. In Kongo, hewas asphyxiated in a barracoon. In Santo Domingo, boiling sugarcane was poured on his headand withered the flesh on his body. In Barbados, he was flogged with a seven-headed whip. In
Cuba, he was filled with gunpowder and blown up with a match. In St. John, he was burned atthe stake, sawed in half, and impaled. In Maryland, he was hanged and decapitated. In Georgia,he was covered with sugar and buried in an anthill. In Curaçao, his face was scorched and hishead cut off and placed on a pole for the amusement of vultures. In Surinam, they cut off hishands and crushed his head with a sledgehammer. In Trinidad, he was dismembered and hisbody parts were thrown into the Atlantic. In Brazil, his ears were chopped off and a daggerburied in his back, his putrefied head displayed in the central square. In Panama, a sworddisemboweled him. In Lima, he was paraded through the streets, beaten with the lash, and hiswounds were washed with urine and rum. In Jamaica, he was force-fed excrement and burnedon a pyre. In Grenada, he was shoved into a kiln and roasted. In Paramaribo, they cut hisAchilles tendon and amputated his right leg. In Virginia, he was skinned. In Texas, his feetwere bound and he was dragged through the streets by a horse. In New York, he was beatenwith cudgels and hanged from a lamppost. In North Carolina, they burned him with torches andthrew his body into quicklime. In Mississippi, he was cut to pieces on a wheel of blades. InWashington, D.C., he was mounted like a beast of burden and driven to death. In Alabama, hewas tied to a cross, scourged by flaming torches, and beaten with chains. In Louisiana, his bellywas sliced open and his entrails spilled out.
In the face of such torments, some allowed themselves to dream that the defeated mightrise and the world be transformed. Broken bones, severed appendages, and charred limbs didn’tstop them from swearing oaths to destroy their enemies, or rejoicing that they were goinghome, or taunting their masters, “You can roast me today, but can’t tomorrow.”
THE SIGNS AND SYMBOLS of Saint George’s world were firsthand knowledge to the slavesimprisoned in the fort. The crucifix and a cursory baptism had ushered them into slavery. In thehorrible trials endured by saints, there is, at least, the gift of consolation provided by faithaffirmed and the promise of being liberated from the stench of the grave. But no solace can befound in the death of the slave, no higher ground can be located, no perspective can be foundfrom which death serves a greater good or becomes anything other than what it is. The slavescorralled in the yard of the castle experienced the death of slaves—they lived and breathed, butthey were dead in the social world of men. They were “commodities in the hands of merchantsand use-goods and patrimony in the hands of buyers.” Seized from home, sold in the market,and severed from kin, the slave was for all intents and purposes dead, no less so than had hebeen killed in combat. No less so than had she never belonged to the world.
The dead were reborn as new identities were foisted upon them. But what the slaves knewintimately was that “neither death nor rebirth was glorious”; rather, they were part and parcelof the life of the commodity. Slavery annulled lives, transforming men and women into deadmatter, and then resuscitated them for servitude. Toiling away in the aftermath of death couldonly be a curse, not a miracle, and Saint George was the exterminating angel.
The lives awaiting them after Elmina were to be spent excavating gold in the mines of theforest, slogging away as head porters and hauling the luxury wares of merchants from the coastto the savanna; clearing land, tilling soil, and harvesting maize and millet; catering to sexualappetites and bearing children in the role of concubines and wives; joining the ranks of low-level functionaries who attended the royals: caretakers, umbrella holders, fan wavers, hammockcarriers, gun and sword bearers, personal attendants, sweepers, cleaners, and executioners;suffering the knife and living as a eunuch; passing between the hands of slave traders in a stringof interior markets from Elmina to Jenné; heading for a life in the cane fields of São Toméafter being rejected by all the buyers at Mina; laboring as domestic servants and silver miners
in Mexico; and toiling away in Lisbon alongside thousands of other black slaves.Gold dust; copper basins; brass bracelets, bars, and pots; colored textiles; linen and Indian
cloth; barrel-shaped coral beads; strings of glass beads; red beads fashioned from bones;enamel beads; felt caps; and horsetails—all these determined the worth of slaves and providedthe measure of their existence. The Portuguese referred to them as braços, arms or units. TheSpanish called them pieza de India, which roughly translated into an “Indian piece.” A piezawas a “mercantile unit of human flesh,” which often comprised more than one human being. Amale slave in the prime of his life was the standard against which other slaves were measured.Slaves possessing limited physical abilities or who were elderly constituted a fraction of apieza. Two boys or a mother and her child might equal one pieza. The Dutch called themleverbaar, that is, a healthy or deliverable male or female slave.
The exchanges between persons and things, or property rights exercised in people, werecommon modes of acquiring wealth in Africa. Unique to the Atlantic slave trade was theimmense scale of accumulating persons and the great violence and death required to producewealth; and this predatory accumulation was often described by the enslaved in the language of“being eaten” or as sorcery. And to their eyes, the Europeans were sorcerers of the worst kind.Who could deny that white men gained their strength from black flesh? It was clear foreveryone to see: they possessed the power to transform the bones of slaves into gunpowder, toconvert blood into wine, and to dine on their organs.
I COULD NOT DETECT any blood or bones or gunpowder. I had tried, desperately, to wrenchtragedy from the landscape and had failed. It had produced the opposite effect. I was blind toeverything but the insignificance of the past and the unremarkable routine of the present. Littlethat I saw seemed noteworthy. Perhaps I had even been mistaken about the ghosts. In the sprawlof the market, I was the creature out of step with time. I was the sole revenant. Even the castlelooked spanking new and resplendent in its fresh coat of white paint, as if it were untarnishedby the filth and blood of its history.
The African-American residents of Elmina had complained that the refurbishment of thecastle offended the dead and “whitewashed the black man’s history” by camouflaging the foulcharacter of the place. But the paint was like perfume on a rank body; it exaggerated the stinkrather than diminished it. The castle was picturesque in a way that made you cringe, unless, ofcourse, you forgot the cost of its grandeur. And it was easy to forget the slaves crushed underthe weight of all that monumentality.
I began to fear that perhaps John was right. Maybe there was no point to being here. I hadnot wanted to believe this. I was stubborn, so I had convinced myself that I could unearth whatothers hadn’t, but I was wrong. All I could see was a five-hundred-year-old trading fort, amonument to a past that no one wanted to remember.
Monuments, like graves, are intended to preserve the dead and to suspend the past. Buteverything I could see refuted this. I still thought of the castle as a tomb, but if it were, thenwhere were the mourners? Didn’t a gravesite require the company of the bereaved?
In Ghana, they took the work of mourning seriously. Professional mourners wereemployed at funerals. These expert grievers ensured that the deceased received the properamount of crying and keening to guide them into the spirit world. The failure to properly mournthe dead was considered a transgression. If not sufficiently honored, the deceased would punishthe living by wreaking havoc among them or sending trouble and misfortune their way.Glorifying the dead was imperative, because it determined the esteem with which the deceasedwould be received in the afterlife. Funerals were costly and extravagant, and people often
complained the dead received better treatment than the living and too often at their expense.Abusua dò funu: The family loves the corpse.
But there were no corpses that I could tend in Elmina. There were no bodies draped in finecloth, or rum poured down the throat of the dead, or dirges sung around the laid out figure. Noone had sent a message announcing the death of slaves with a pot of palm wine, or fired shotsto notify their neighbors, or tied their wrists with amulets and packets of gold dust for thejourney to the next world. No one did these things for them, or fasted, or held a wake for twonights with drumming and dancing. No one placed burial gifts alongside the corpse orwhispered messages that were to be delivered to dead relatives in the land of ghosts.
“Africa was a land of graves without bodies.” It was a line I recalled from a poem by theGhanaian poet Kwadwo Opoku-Agyeman. The poem was about the millions of people whodisappeared from Africa during the slave trade and the empty homes, deserted villages, andopen graves left behind in their wake. But it made no mention of mourners. Were there nomourners because the graves were empty?
IF YOU ASKED the peddlers selling drinks and peanuts outside the castle or the childrenplaying at the foot of the hill about what happened inside its walls, few could tell you. Most ofElmina’s residents, with the recent exception of schoolchildren, had never set foot inside thecastle, despite its status as a World Heritage Monument, or in any of the other forts scatteredalong Ghana’s coast. I had colleagues at the university who had grown up in this area, literallyin the shadows of the castle, who had never entered it or even inquired about its purpose. Noone I spoke with could recall asking a parent about the edifices that lorded over the coast, orshared with me an adolescent adventure about scaling the walls of the castle, sneaking acrossthe bridge, peering into the moat, or dashing through the courtyard. No one volunteered anystories about the slaves sold across the water.
They were baffled that what had happened more than a century ago could still hurt me,although the same individuals recited proudly their family genealogies back ten and elevengenerations. I couldn’t do the same. I could go back only three or four generations. IfGhanaians wondered why so many from the Americas crossed the water to cry about slaveancestors, it was not because Ghanaians honored their ancestors any less but because of theshame associated with slave origins. To revere your forbears was one thing; to speak openly ofslave descent was a different matter altogether. Silence was the only reasonable position to beassumed by a descendant of slaves. Yet each year ten thousand African-American touriststraveled to Ghana and none of them failed to visit the slave dungeons. Ghanaians wonderedwhat kind of people boasted of slave ancestry. Or made such a big show of emotions.
With a shrug of resignation, a taxi driver or clerk or seamstress would tell me thatGhanaians had too many pressing concerns in everyday life to ruminate about the past. Theaverage daily wage was less than a dollar a day and per capita income was two hundred seventydollars a year. Each year the cedi plunged in value. The unemployment rate was 30 percent.Most laborers didn’t make enough in a day to buy a loaf of bread on their way home. “We don’thave time to ponder and worry about slavery,” they explained with exasperation to another richAmerican. And all Americans were rich in their eyes.
When I thought of slavery, the images that came most readily to mind were of scorchedvillages, the corpses abandoned en route to the coast, the filthy hold of slave ships, the bonesheaped on the floor of the Atlantic, the breasts and genitalia bared on the auction block, thesteel bit in a woman’s mouth, the iron mask clamped on a man’s face, the white master with awhip in his hand, and ripped apart black flesh. What I discovered was that when Ghanaians, at
least those of the elite classes in the south, thought about slavery, they envisioned a “distantcousin from the north” washing clothes and preparing meals in a well-appointed home, thepretty slave wife of their grandfather, or the foreigners in their village. They exulted in thewealth of slave-trading ancestors, if only because it was less humiliating to have been amerchant than to have been a slave. “People pride themselves that their great-grandfathersrather kept slaves, and were not among the numerous slaves that abounded,” as one manexplained. “To be called a slave is an insignia of shame.” The dishonor of the slave hadpersisted, as had the dignity and self-respect of the affluent and the powerful. The regret wasthat the wealth had not lasted. In Elmina, they lamented, “In those days we were rich, but nowwe’re poor. The Dutch boat has left Elmina.”
Few dared to mention the slaves chained in holding cells or taken off the coast, and if theydid, they explained that African traders didn’t know how badly the whites treated the slavesacross the water. Others called the Atlantic slave trade the European trade, insisting that theWest alone was to blame. It sanitized the whole ugly business and permitted them to believethat they were without scars.
Kofi, an assistant curator at the castle’s museum, confided that it was difficult for him tothink of slavery as a terrible fate. “There were slaves in my family,” he told me. “Mygrandfather owned slaves. I never thought much of it. They were treated no differently thananyone else.” I doubted that Kofi believed this, but he supposed that I was gullible enough toaccept it as the truth. The terror of slavery, he tried to convince me, had been confined to theAmericas.
Terror was what I took for granted. My own understanding of slavery and Kofi’s could nothave been more contrary. Which wasn’t surprising since he was the son of a slave owner and Iwas the daughter of slaves. In Ghana, kinship was the idiom of slavery, and in the UnitedStates, race was. The language of kinship absorbed the slave and concealed her identity withinthe family fold (at least that was the official line), whereas the language of race set the slaveapart from man and citizen and sentenced her to an interminable servitude. But, as I found out,the line between masters and slaves was no less indelible, even when it wasn’t a color line.
Talking with Kofi, I wondered if the problem was mine. I had presumed that the blackworld shared a thread of connection or a common chord of memory based upon this, our tragicpast. In this assumption, I was proved wrong. I didn’t experience what Ralph Ellison describedas the “identity of passions,” which connected the black world through our common sufferingand history of struggle. I soon found out that most people didn’t have a clue as to the scope ofthe transatlantic slave trade and didn’t imagine that it had any lingering effects, which madethem no different from the average American. And if they knew otherwise, they weredisinclined to discuss it.
Months later when I met Kwadwo, I asked him, “Where are the mourners?” The poetproceeded to explain, “We, as Africans, are ashamed for our participation in the slave trade,and for this reason are unwilling to talk about the very issue that brings most of you here. Andon both sides there is ignorance and a failure to understand one another’s lives.” It was his wayof telling me there weren’t any mourners.
I DON’T WANT to paint too simple a picture of things. Slavery was a bitter pill for black folkseverywhere. My brother and I argued vigorously about its lasting impact. Were our lives stilldisfigured by slavery, or were we just haunted by stories of the past that no longer served us?Peter accused me of exaggerating the link between the past and the present and downplayingblack people’s responsibility in doing badly. My brother was one of those “working two jobs”
black men, trying to do better than make ends meet, pay the mortgage, juggle the debts, andhave just enough to take care of his family. But he was barely keeping his head above water andhe could not forgive himself for this, so he was hard on himself and even harder on black folks.He made no excuses for his failures, so he made none for those of the race.
Whenever Peter and I quarreled, he tried to win the argument simply by speaking louder,which wasn’t easy since I could get pretty thunderous myself. During the pitch of battle, myfather would weigh in with a measured judgment uttered at an even louder volume. A house fullof Hartmans yelling at the top of our lungs about slavery in my parents’ modest lower-middle-class dwelling populated by more televisions than persons and outfitted with Ethan Allenfurniture set off by muddy abstract paintings, which had been purchased in shopping malls, andcluttered with treadmills and exercise bikes and obsolete encyclopedias and dusty copies of theNegro Almanac and The Miseducation of the Negro, and dog-eared issues of Jet, Ebony, Time,and Newsweek would have made most Ghanaians laugh at the absurdity of it all or suck theirteeth in resentment. The fury and the abundance, no doubt, would have made their heads spin.
Whenever we had our “what’s wrong with the race” conversation, my brother wouldpunctuate his argument with, “Slavery was a long time ago.” I would answer back about theuneven playing field, the disparity between white and black wealth, racial profiling, the warbeing waged against the poor, and the prison system. He didn’t deny these facts; to thecontrary, our description of the present wasn’t all that different. We simply drew dissimilarconclusions about who was to blame and where to go from here.
“Black people have always been in crisis,” he remarked. “We’ve never been wanted inAmerica, at least not since the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s still no excuse for not doingbetter.” No matter how vehemently he and I disagreed, what we both accepted was that theexperience of slavery had made us an us, that is, it had created the conditions under which wehad fashioned an identity. Dispossession was our history. That we could agree on.
The solidarity I felt with other black people depended largely on this history, whereas inGhana their identity as Ghanaians and as Africans depended on silencing a past in which elitessold commoners and southerners viewed northerners as disposable people and alienable goods.The lines of division between kin and stranger, neighbor and alien, became hard and fast duringthe era of the Atlantic slave trade. It decided who lived and died, who was sold and who wasprotected. In Ghana, slavery wasn’t a rallying cry against the crimes of the West or the evils ofwhite men; to the contrary, it shattered any illusions of a unanimity of sentiment in the blackworld and exposed the fragility and precariousness of the grand collective we that had yet to beactualized.
The Family Romance
THE WHITE MEN WHO OWNED and sired the family line were phantasmal, as if we hadconjured them up and they threatened to vanish under the pressure of scrutiny. We uttered theirnames reluctantly, never forgetting that their names were also our names, but as if still fearingthe punishment of thirty-nine lashes or the auction block for disclosing the identity of thefather.
Every now and then my aunt Laura would share a story about “a German from Bonaire” orone of our other shadowy progenitors. Unlike my aunt Beatrice, who believed it was best toleave the past in the past and who was tight-lipped, especially when it concerned matters likeindifferent fathers, troublesome origins, or other revelations that could only leave youshamefaced, my aunt Laura was willing to tell all. She relished the perverse details, liberatingthe skeletons from the closet and dutifully recounting the scandals that comprised our familyhistory. Nothing fazed her, so whenever I wanted to find out some piece of information aboutthe family that others considered taboo, she was the one to whom I turned.
Aunt Laura never shared any anecdotes about the ones who crossed the Atlantic fromAfrica. There were no anecdotes. “Genealogical trees don’t flourish among slaves,” asFrederick Douglass remarked. In my family, too, the past was a mystery. The story boiled downto remote white men, missing black fathers, lies and secrets about paternity, and wayward linesof descent. From time to time, my aunt Laura shared a name, Wilhelm Hartman or RainerHermann, or an attribute, “Hermann was a stingy SOB. That was all Mama ever said abouthim.”
Our genealogy added up to little more than a random assortment of details aboutalcoholics, prosperous merchants, and dispassionate benefactors. Given this paucity of
information, all talk of our forebears was sketchy. No matter how much we embellished anddressed things up, the truth couldn’t be avoided: slaves did not possess lineages. The “rope ofcaptivity” tethered you to an owner rather than a father and made you offspring rather than anheir.
The classic story of slavery: A gray-haired gentleman succumbs to the evil of the peculiarinstitution and a wretched dark woman “lays herself low to his lust.” Who fails to recognize thefigures, the planter and the concubine, the other tragic couple of the New World romance, aromance not of exalted fathers but of defiling ones? Who hasn’t heard it all before? The storyof murky adulterated bloodlines, rapacious masters, derelict fathers, and violated mothers.
Bastaard was what the Dutch called their mixed-race brood; the term implied anillegitimate child as well as a mongrel. If these dead white fathers could speak, no doubt theywould be hard-pressed to allow “son” or “daughter” to pass through their lips. Yet these ghostlypatriarchs commanded more attention than anyone else in our battered line, if only becausethey could be named.
I HAD READ numerous books and articles about the Dutch slave trade. I knew that the Dutchwere the fourth largest slave-trading nation, falling in behind England, Portugal (incombination with Brazil), and France, and that from 1700 until the official end of the slavetrade, the Gold Coast was a primary source of slaves for the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch calledthe female slave hold the hoeregat, or whore hold. I knew that Dutch ships were regular freightships that had been refitted for slaves. I knew that slaves were forced to dance on deck to theaccompaniment of African drums, flutes, and whips. I knew that of the 477,782 captivesexported by the Dutch from 1630 to 1794, 89,000 were from the Gold Coast. I knew that thisnumber might be an underestimation, but even if I multiplied it by ten or one hundred, all themissing and the dead still would not be of enough significance for the world to care or toacknowledge the crime. I knew that textiles, most of which were manufactured in Haarlem andLeiden, made up 57 percent of the goods the Dutch exchanged with African brokers forcaptives, and that guns, gunpowder, alcohol, and trinkets made up the rest of the merchandisetraded. I knew that anywhere from 3 percent to 15 percent of the slaves held in the storeroomsof Elmina Castle died there. I knew that slaves sometimes languished for as long as fourmonths on board a slaver until a “complete cargo” had been purchased and that the journeyacross the Atlantic could take anywhere from 23 to 284 days. I knew that the slaves were calledkop, or head, as in head of cattle, and not hoof’d, as in human head. I knew a consignment ofslaves was called armazoen, which meant living cargo, as distinct from other kinds of goods,and that the Dutch used the term “Negro” as an equivalent to “slave,” so they called the slaveship a neger schip. I knew that the death rates of the slave trade, according to one Dutchhistorian, “reached 70% before the survivors were adjusted to life in the Western Hemisphere.”
But what did all this information add up to? None of it would ever compensate for all theother things that I would never know. None of it had brought me any closer to replacing alacuna with a name or an X-ed space with an ancestral village.
FOR TRACKING PURPOSES, the officials of the Dutch West India Company branded slavestwice. When captives arrived at Elmina Castle, Arabic numerals and/or the letters of thealphabet were seared onto their breasts. When they arrived in Curaçao, which was the waystation for the slaves sold by the Dutch West India Company to the Spanish Americas, they
were again branded with a red-hot iron. The scars identified the slaves at sales, at criminalproceedings, and in death affidavits, without which company officials were unable to able saylittle more than, “It is the honest truth that on the first of March this year a certain purchasedwoman slave died, giving as the evidence of our knowledge that we saw the body after shedied.”
The numbers identified each person as the cargo of a particular ship, or designated thecompany that purchased him, or simply itemized her as one unit, a pieza de India, or leverbaar.Slave ship officers traveled with instructions for branding: “Note the following when you dothe branding: (1) the area of marking must first be rubbed with candle wax or oil; (2) Themarker should only be as hot as when applied to paper, the paper gets red. When these[precautions] are observed, the slaves will not suffer bad effects from the branding.”
A vivid picture of the purchase and branding of property was drawn by William Bosman,one of the chief factors at Elmina Castle. The scene he described was repeated at every port ofembarkation along the West African coast. When a parcel of slaves arrived, the traders,accompanied by a surgeon, inspected them “without the least distinction or modesty.” Thesurgeon examined their eyes, prodded their teeth and genitals, and separated the healthy fromthe infirm. The ones deemed suitable, reported Bosman, “are numbered, and it is entered whodelivered them. In the meanwhile, a burning Iron, with the arms or names of the companies,lyes in the Fire; with which ours are marked on the breast. This is done that we may distinguishthem from the slaves of the English, French or others; (which are also marked with their mark)and to prevent the Negroes exchanging them for worse. I doubt not but this Trade seems verybarbarous to you, but since it is followed by mere necessity it must go on; but we take allpossible care that they are not burned too hard, especially the women, who are more tender thanthe men.”
WICS25 or T99—no one wants to identify her kin by the cipher of slave-tradingcompanies, or by the brand, which supplanted identity and left only a scar in its place. I’mreminded of the scene in Beloved in which Sethe’s mother points to her mark, the circle andcross burned on her rib, and says to her daughter, “This is your ma’am…If something happensto me and you can’t tell me by my face, you can know me by this mark.” The mark of propertyprovides the emblem of kinship in the wake of defacement. It acquires the character of apersonal trait, as though it were a birthmark.
PARTUS SEQUITUR VENTREM—the child follows in the condition of the mother. The bill ofsale includes “future increase,” so that even the unborn were fettered. “Mothers could onlyweep and mourn over their children,” according to the ex-slave Mary Prince, “they could notsave them.” The stamp of the commodity haunts the maternal line and is transferred from onegeneration to the next. The daughter, Sethe, will carry the burden of her mother’s dispossessionand inherit her dishonored condition, and she will have her own mark soon enough, as will herdaughter Beloved.
The mother’s mark, not the father’s name, determined your fate. No amount of talk aboutfathers could suture the wound of kinship or skirt the brute facts. The patronymic was an emptycategory, “a blank parody,” a fiction that masters could be fathers and wayward lovers morethan the “begetters of children”; it was as well the placeholder of banished black fathers.
My grandmother had been a Van Eiker, as had her mother and her mother before her. I wasa descendant of a long line of fearless and strong-willed women—Leonora Van Eiker, MariaJulia Van Eiker, Elisabeth Juliana Van Eiker—who were denied marriage or eschewed it. Fourgenerations were born with a blank space where a father’s name should be. In its place was thestroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, which had left a line less dramatic than an X and which suggestednothing as harsh as erasure but simply “not applicable.” My aunts Laura and Beatrice wereproud to be Van Eikers; the other path, the dishonor that was the bastard’s inheritance as wellas the slave’s, was too dangerous. The lessons they imparted tried to affirm this maternalinheritance and to make of it something other than monstrosity. The stories my aunts sharedwere offered as an antidote to shame and they esteemed a web of intimacy and filiation outsidethe law of paternal sanction.
I WAS A HARTMAN TOO. The predecessors of my grandfather Frederick Leopoldo werespectral figures. All I knew about my great-grandfather was that he had been a prosperousJewish merchant. My aunts called him “Daddy’s father,” tacitly acknowledging that this bloodrelation did not extend beyond father and son and did not include them within its embrace.
The Hartman name, according to my father, was our anchor in the world. It was our soleinheritance; we possessed no wealth but it. So when my grandfather’s white cousins tried tobuy back the family name from the brown ones in an attempt to erase a history of owners andproperty they feared would be mistaken for kinship, our clan doggedly held on to it. It had beenpassed from Wilhelm to Frederick to three generations of sons who were all named Virgilio.
Tracing the family genealogy at the archives in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, I wassurprised to discover that my grandfather wasn’t a Hartman at all.
On his birth certificate was the name Maduro, the surname of his mother, Clarita. I don’tknow if his father had acknowledged him belatedly or if he had ever given his son permissionto use his name as my aunt Laura insisted, or if Hartman was something my grandfather hadpilfered as a man-child when at seventeen he set out into the world. Hartman was the name onhis passport and his green card, and no doubt it would have been the name on my grandparents’marriage certificate, if I had ever been able to locate it.
Growing up, I had envied my brother, who as son was the rightful heir to the Hartmanname and who in turn would pass it on to his children. My father and mother had placed somuch stock in the family name that even after getting married, I held on to it. But, as it turnedout, there was no long lineage to which the name had been anchored or to which we had anyentitlement. Who, after all, was the Hartman to whom we were staking claim?
Come, Go Back, Child
THE SIGN POSTED on the hurricane fence warned: “No one is allowed inside this area excepttourists.” As I climbed the muddy incline leading to the entrance of Elmina Castle, a group ofadolescent boys approached me yelling, “Sister!” “One Africa!” “Slavery separated us.” Kwesi,the leader of the pack, handed me a letter scribbled on the crumpled pages of a school notebookand the other boys followed suit, stuffing my hands with missives that felt like suede becausethey had been carried in back pockets and sweaty palms too long. When I opened the letters,they threatened to dissolve in my hands, as with old dollar bills that have circulated for ages.Perforations appeared along the folded edges and the penciled script, barely legible, swirledlike smoke against the grayed pages.
Kwesi’s letter began:
Beloved Sister, please write me. We are one Africa which means we are the samepeople and I know it’s because of the slave trade that’s why you left here to U.S.A.and I want you to know that you are my sister and I am your brother according to thehistory of our ancestors and Africa is both of us motherland so you are welcome backhome (Akwaaba) please let keep in touch by letters so that we could learn from eachother and know ourselves well as brother and sister. Share my greetings with my otherbrothers and sisters in America. Thank you. Peace and love to you senior sister.
Francis’s letter was a replica of Kwesi’s. It opened with me losing my mother and closedimploring me to write. The only difference was that Francis addressed the dead too andwondered when those taken across the Atlantic would return home.
Isaac’s letter was short. In three lines he stated the basics: his grade in school, his need ofpencils and paper, and my status as a foundling. His letter concluded with the admonishmentthat I learn my history or risk not knowing who I really was: “Because of the slave trade youlose your mother, if you know your history, you know where you come from.” To lose yourmother was to be denied your kin, country, and identity. To lose your mother was to forget yourpast. The letters distilled the history of the transatlantic slave trade to this: I was an orphan.
The boys addressed me as if I were the child sold across the Atlantic, as if pledges of lovecould mend the breach of slavery, as if errant spirits were destined to return home. Theymistook me for the kosanba—the spirit child—who dies only to return again and again in asuccession of rebirths. Because of this cycle of departure and return, exile and homecoming,demise and resurrection, the spirit child is also called the “come, go back, child.” The spiritchild shuttles back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead because of thestories not passed on, the ancestors not remembered, the things lost, and the debts not yet paid.The “come, go back, child” braves the wreckage of history and bears the burdens that othersrefuse.
The comings and goings of the spirit child aggrieve its mother. The first eight days after achild is born are filled with anxiety, because the mother hasn’t yet discovered if her infant is awandering ghost rather than a human child. To prevent the child from dying again and returningto the spirit world, she attempts to trick the forces that would claim its life. So the mothermarks the infant to make it ugly or she names the child odonkor—slave—fettering the child tokeep her in the world. Or she scars the child with the tribal markings of the slave class. Thissleight-of-hand convinces the spirits that the child’s life is not valuable and thus not worthtaking. Mothers, disavowing their love, have called their children donkor (slave) in order tosave them, while slaveholders have called their property “beloved child” in order to protecttheir wealth. Mothers plead with the kosanba to remain in the mortal world and not to return toits spirit mother, and masters command the slave to stay put and to forget all thoughts of themother country, the natal land. Come and stay, child, they both implore.
THE WORD FOR “slave” in Akan that comes closest to what we mean by the term in the Westis odonkor. It refers to someone who is bought and sold in the market, a commodity. Of all theterms that describe involuntary servitude—akoa, which means “subject,” “assistant,” or“slave”; awowa, which is a pawn ransomed for the debt of a relative; akyere, someone enslavedas punishment for a crime; domum, a captive of war—odonkor is the only derogatory andstigmatized term. It is the one that carries dishonor and shame. Yet the etymology of odonkoris not to be found in words like “idiot,” “clod,” “oaf,” “lout,” “dolt,” or “barbarian.” Theorigins of the word odonkor are in the words “love” (odo) and “don’t go” (nti nka). Odo nti nka:because of my love for you, don’t go.
Love encourages forgetting, which is intended to wash away the slave’s past. Love makesa place for the stranger; it domesticates persons from “outside of the house” and not “of theblood”; it assuages the slave’s loss of family; it remakes slaveholders as mothers and fathers.Owning persons and claiming kin are one and the same; so love cannot be separated fromdispossession or property in persons. Affection perhaps softens the sting of dishonor but doesnot erase it. The slave does not enjoy the rights and entitlements of “royals” and “nobles,”those who are the legitimate heirs of the lineage. Love extends the cover of belonging andshrouds the slave’s origins, which lie in acts of violence and exchange, but it doesn’t remedythe isolation of being severed from your kin and denied ancestors.
“Don’t go.” “Stay put.” These are the words of the master. The slave must stay put or stayin her place. If you have no master, a beast will catch you. A proud slave is buried with thecorpse of his master. But staying is at odds with the very definition of a slave; the bought-and-sold person comes and goes by way of the transactions of the market. The slave is always thestranger who resides in one place and belongs to another. The slave is always the one missingfrom home. Being an outsider permits the slave’s uprooting and her “reduction from a personto a thing that can be owned.”
The slave and the master understand differently what staying implies. The transience ofthe slave’s existence still leaves its traces in how black people imagine home as well as how wespeak of it. We may have forgotten our country, but we haven’t forgotten our dispossession.It’s why we never tire of dreaming of a place that we can call home, a place better than here,wherever here might be. It’s why one hundred square blocks of Los Angeles can be destroyed inan evening. We stay there, but we don’t live there. Ghettos aren’t designed for living. Thedebris awash in the streets, the broken windows, and the stench of urine in the project elevatorsand stairwells are the signs of bare life. “The insistent, maddening, claustrophobic pounding inthe skull that comes from trying to breathe in a very small room with all the windows shut,”writes James Baldwin, daily assaults the residents of the ghetto, the quarters, the ’hood. Itproduces the need to “destroy tirelessly” or “to smash something,” which appears the mostobvious path of salvation. As C.L.R. James observes about the San Domingo masses, theydestroyed “what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it wasbecause they had suffered much.”
Two people meeting on the avenue will ask, “Is this where you stay?” Not, “Is this yourhouse?” “I stayed here all my life” is the reply. Staying is living in a country without exercisingany claims on its resources. It is the perilous condition of existing in a world in which you haveno investments. It is having never resided in a place that you can say is yours. It is being “of thehouse” but not having a stake in it. Staying implies transient quarters, a makeshift domicile, atemporary shelter, but no attachment or affiliation.
This sense of not belonging and of being an extraneous element is at the heart of slavery.Love has nothing to do with it; love has everything to do with it.
PEDDLERS, SWINDLERS, and ingenious adolescents were the only ones in Elmina brazenenough to espouse the love of slaves. It was a hustle, and we were all aware of this;nonetheless, we assumed our respective roles. In New York, the game would be three-cardmonte or a shell game, and two lanky teenagers at a cardboard gaming table would solicit youwith “miss” or “sister” initiating the ritual, while the third one keeps an eye out for the police.You’d approach the table knowing that you shouldn’t, but something about these boys actingmannish, and the mix of guile and innocence, and the sharp edge of desperation would breakdown the protective barrier and convince you that you had a chance after all and that you were
not predator and prey but somehow all in it together. You’d participate in the game knowingthat the odds were stacked against you and that in all likelihood you’d walk away having lostwhat you staked. But you risk it anyway, and just as you expected, but contrary to what you hadhoped, the right card keeps evading you and you never find the elusive object.
In Elmina, the traffic was in redemption. The past was at stake and the odds were not anybetter. I could not recuperate my losses, nor could beloved sister right the balance betweenthings lost and things gained. What I could salvage amounted to flattering words, make-believebrothers, and vows of love. Go, come back, I love you. The tug and pull, the advance and therecoil, the longing and the disappointment: Wasn’t this the dance of love? Wasn’t this thefamily romance, a fantasy of exalted strangers, a fantasy of reunited kin? It was anindiscriminate and promiscuous love that did not differentiate between persons; it neverrequired a name or retreated from the wretched and the loathed; it thrived in lowly places. Inthis game, winning or losing mattered less than the willingness to close your eyes and take thefirst step.
But how could these scruffy adolescents love me or anyone else like me? You could neverlove the foreigner whose wealth required you to inveigle a handful of coins. It was not the kindof relationship that cultivated tender feeling. I had fled to their world and the boys yearned toescape to mine. They wanted to break out of this dusty four-cornered town and never see thecastle again or the sign barring their entrance; they wanted never to plead for small changefrom an obruni or repeat the words “slave trade” and “one Africa.” In their eyes, I must haveappeared a foolish woman who acted as if slaves existed only in the past and who conductedherself as if dispossession were her inheritance alone. Looking at me, the boys imagined thewealth and riches they would possess if they lived in the States. After all, who else but a richAmerican could afford to travel so far to cry about her past? Looking at me, the boys wishedtheir ancestors had been slaves. If so, they would be big men.
“RETURN” WAS THE WORD that reverberated throughout Elmina Castle, as though the onlylife possible was the one that existed in the past. Travel guides, docents, and wistful Americanstossed it off without an afterthought: Return to the motherland. Welcome back. It’s good to behome.
Peering through the hatch at the back of the holding cell, I remembered an image from thefilm Sankofa. A file of actors costumed as slaves and weighted with chains exited through thisdoor and onto a slaver. You couldn’t see the ship waiting for them because of the mist thathung over the door. So it looked as though the slaves were stepping into the gray haze ofoblivion. And as I stood in the cell recalling this, what transpired was almost exactly like whathappened in the movie—the assimilated race-traitor heroine, who has now recovered herauthentic African identity after being transported back in time to slavery days and beaten andraped on a Louisiana plantation, emerges from the dungeon, stumbles into the courtyard, andembraces her true home—the docent says to me, “It is no longer the door of no return, becausenow you are back.”
We both smiled at the absurdity of it. How could a slave fort be a welcome house? Heconfirmed what I already knew. The trail back ended at the bars of the holding cell. I later readan article in The New York Times about African Americans attempting to fill in the blankspaces of their history with DNA tests. By matching Y chromosomes and mitochondrial DNAwith that of contemporary Africans, they had hoped to get closer to an African home than aslave dungeon. History had failed to solve the mystery of an unknown past, so they had puttheir faith in science, despite the ambiguous and inconclusive results of the test. One man’s
words stayed with me. Having discovered that his ancestors were from Cameroon, he remarkedthat he felt more lost than before. Now he was estranged from an ancestral tribe as well as thecountry of his birth. “It’s like being lost and found at the same time,” he said. Being in ElminaCastle was like that too.
Wandering through the castle, neither the iron balustrades adorned with the initials of theDutch West India Company nor the storerooms solicited me. Perhaps it was because nothingwas as it had been. The male dungeon was now a gift shop. At the entrance stood life-sizecardboard cutouts of an African-American couple, recognizable by the glimmer and shine ofthe oily waves of their S-curl. Yards of kente were draped around their two-dimensional forms.The trade hall was now a museum and the secret entrance from the female dungeon to thegovernor’s private chamber was the scandal of an otherwise dull tour. The holding cells wereempty and the slaves long dead. Nothing was left but the ball and chain outside the women’sdungeon, awaiting the prisoners who would never arrive.
I shall return to my own land. For at least a century and a half, the slave revolts of the Americaswere fueled by this longing. It was not until July 14, 1789, when the Bastille fell, that the word“revolution,” according to Hannah Arendt, was first used “without any connotation of abackward revolving motion.” Until then, revolution and restoration of an earlier order had beensynonymous. No event made this point more directly than the rebellion of Mina slaves thatshook St. John. From the outset of the insurrection, the rebels had intended to restore the oldworld of Akwamu. To do so, they needed first to destroy the prevailing order. For theinsurrectionists, return was the language of triumph and political ascendancy. It was also thelanguage of defeat.
While the revolt that erupted on St. John in 1733 was a mere footnote in the annals of theAge of Revolution, this “minor event” registered the reverberations of the Old World in theAmericas. It painted in blazing detail the paths opened and impeded when your sights werefixed on the past.
In the spring of 1733, a drought destroyed the majority of St. John’s sugarcane crops. Inthe summer, a hurricane descended upon the island and ruined the few crops that survived.Then a plague of insects afflicted the island, swarming bedchambers, houses, ovens, andpantries, and causing famine. And just when everyone imagined no worse fate was possible, awinter storm beat the already battered island, destroyed the maize crop, and reduced the slavesto starvation. The disasters were of biblical proportions, but what was to follow in the wake ofthese events was not a story of providential deliverance from slavery but one of bloodyrebellion and a short-lived freedom won by the musket and the sword.
In the predawn hours, the rebels struck. An apocryphal account written by a French planterdescribes in lurid detail the inaugural gesture of the revolt, which mirrored the retributionfeared and anticipated by the planters: “That unhappy day was the 23rd of November, 1733, atthree in the morning. Mr Soetman’s Negroes, assisted by others, broke down their master’sdoor, while he was sleeping, ordered him to get up, and, after having stripped him naked, forcedhim to sing and dance. Then, after having run a sword through his body, they cut his head off,cut open his body, and washed themselves in his blood. To this execution, they added that of hisdaughter Hissing, thirteen years old, by slaughtering her on top of her stepfather’s body.”
The tragic events began, according to a missionary’s report, when “a number of Negroesfrom the warlike Amina nation took control of the fort while fulfilling their accustomed job ofsupplying the place with firewood.” At four in the morning, the rebels commandeered the
island’s fort. Masquerading as hewers of wood, they entered the garrison with their firearmshidden in bundles of twigs and branches. When the sentry called out, “Who goes there?” theyanswered, “Kompni nega mi’ hoot,” company’s slaves with wood, and were permitted to enter.They killed the five soldiers on watch and fired the cannons to alert the other slaves of theinsurrection. At least one hundred of the island’s one thousand slaves heeded the call andjoined the rebels. Some say as many as three hundred slaves revolted.
Amina or Elmina slaves, as they were called because they had been shipped from the areasurrounding Elmina Castle, comprised the majority of the rebel troops. Amina slaves enjoyed areputation for being a rebellious and troublesome property. They battled their masters, refusedto labor, absconded from plantations, created maroon communities, and committed suiciderather than countenance slavery. Traders and planters complained that Amina slaves weremutinous, treacherous, self-important, and not afraid to die, but no one had ever described themas inclined to forget.
The lines of royals and slaves crossed in the rebel band. The deposed members of theancien régime of Akwamu led the front ranks of the rebellion. Akwamu was one of theprincipal states exporting slaves from the Gold Coast between 1680 and 1730. When the king ofAkwamu began enslaving and selling his subjects on the pretext of debt, a civil war erupted thatdestroyed the state. Those allied with the defeated king were sold into slavery by theconquering army. The Amina rebels were part of this defeated elite. The head of the rebels,King June, had been the king’s representative in trade relations with Europeans. After the fallof Akwamu, he entered Fort Christiansborg not as a diplomat and trade partner, but as a slave, apieza de India. Five princes, a princess, the king’s brother-in law, and other members of theroyal court also found themselves aboard a slaver and destined for the fields of St. John.
The royals didn’t easily adapt to slavery. They resisted, not because of any commitment tothe ideas of the equality of man or opposition to slavery in principle or objection to the ideathat some men lived off the labor of others, but because their aristocratic heritage made slaveryuntenable. Staggered by their arrogance, a missionary stationed on the island observed that theobstinacy of the Amina nation “goes so far that nothing—not even death itself—is capable ofdissuading them of their intended course of action.” They would break before yielding.
Clashes between masters and slaves were routine. But don’t imagine the raised fist ofdisgruntled and exploited workers, or the righteous indignation of the wretched, or thecommoner’s bawdy songs of protest and derision, or the collective rage of the downtrodden; beprepared for the complaints of the entitled and the boasts of the superior. When ordered bymasters and overseers to complete a task, pick up the pace, carry manure, or haul water, theywere likely to refuse what they called “donkor work.” One young man, explaining the reasonfor disobedience, told his master, “I am a prince. For the time being, I happen to be in yourpower; but nothing will ever persuade me to serve you. I would rather die of my own free willand thus end my life as a free man.” The prince refused to eat and died as a result of starvation.A young woman, “filled with ideas of her former greatness,” shrugged off the command of hermistress: “I was much greater in Guinea than you are here. I had many more slaves in myservice than you have. Now you expect me to be your slave? I would rather die of starvation.”Others jumped from hills, hanged themselves, and drowned in the ocean.
The rebels decided first to take up arms. They found themselves on the stage of history asactors in a carnival masque, these former traders and raiders now costumed as slaves. But therevelers were eager to cast off the garments of the defeated. They opposed slavery, but the onlyshackles they were intent on removing were their own. King June, as his title might indicate,was no Toussaint L’Ouverture or Dessalines determined to win complete liberty for all. KingJune was a man of his time and no charters or declarations yet existed that declared the rights
of man and citizen. And even had the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of the Rights of Man andCitizen been written, the black rebels would have fallen outside the embrace of the stateduniversal principles.
Princes without kingdoms and generals without armies and big men without dependentsheaded the St. John rebellion. The rebels longed to exercise power again and so planned toreassert their sovereignty by overthrowing the white planter class and assuming their place. AnAkan-style polity would replace the plantocracy. When they first gained control of the island,the rebels didn’t burn the plantations or factories, because they intended to run them and withslave laborers. They were accustomed to a world ruled by royals and nobles and serviced byslaves, bonded commoners, and peasants. The world they remembered and tried to re-create onthe island was not a world in which slavery was abolished but one in which they ruled as asovereign political class.
During the early months of the revolt, when faced with a shortage of ammunition, theytraded ten non-Amina slaves for a barrel of gunpowder (replicating in miniature the gun-slavecycle that helped to fuel the slave trade in Africa). This attitude might explain why the majorityof the island’s slaves did not join the rebellion. There is the distinct possibility that some of theslaves envisioned the rebels not as their liberators but as the ones responsible for their exile. Nodoubt, in the eyes of the rebels, the reluctance of the majority of the island’s slaves to take uparms consigned them to servitude. It was said that “the Aminas looked at all those who werenot on their side as enemies.”
It is difficult to narrate the course of events because no single mode can fully describewhat happened on St. John. The rebellion was a romance because the enslaved overtook theirmasters and discarded their chains. It was a farce with deposed royals outfitted as slave rebelsseeking to be the new masters. It was a tragedy because the Amina rebels imagined they couldpreserve their identities and carry on in the New World as they had in the Old. And this failureto establish a language of solidarity with the other slaves of the island doomed the rebellion.Had they been willing to refashion their identities, would the other slaves have joined them?(There would have been few if any Creoles since the island had been colonized for only fifteenyears and the enslaved did not reproduce but were replaced.) Would the commoners haveenvisioned a new social order in which there were no slaves? Would the imperial ambitions ofthe royals have interdicted the freedom dreams of the lowly? The revolutionary fervor of theAmina rebels could not be separated from their vision of re-creating the Old World, which,ironically, was a social order as dependent on slavery as was the plantation society of St. John.
The St. John revolt toppled, albeit temporarily, the white planter establishment. King Juneestablished a new court and controlled the island for six months before being routed by acompany of two hundred French troops from Martinique. As the French troops, who wereequipped with adequate arms and composed of vigorous men not exhausted by six months ofbattle, gained on the rebels, they discovered a trail of bodies. On May 4, in a wooded retreat,eleven rebels ended their lives. On May 15, twenty-five rebels, including six women, took theirlives in a mass suicide. Some insist that as many as three hundred were assembled on the hillnear Brimsbay, when the rebels “sat down in a circle and were mortally shot one after anotherby the two leaders whom they had selected in the course of the rebellion. When those twocompleted the task, they then shot themselves.” Before they fired their rifles, they avowed,“When I die, I shall return to my own land.”
IF DEAR TO THE HEARTS and minds of the rebels was the idea of revolving back to formertimes, then on the hill at Brimsbay they faced the hard truth that only death would make return
possible. Revenants would achieve what rebels could not. On the precipice, return was nolonger the language of self-making or reconstruction but of resignation and exhaustion. Whatthe rebels acknowledged by their collective act of suicide was that the past was the onlycountry left, the only horizon visible, the only world inhabitable. Having lost the battle andfacing defeat, they hoped they would find their way back home to Akwamu.
The rebels knew that return was bound inextricably with loss. The invocation of who theyhad been, which earlier had provided the ground of insurgency, now signaled an imminentdefeat. Suicide represented not the collapse of their political will but the recognition that theirweapons were inadequate to those of their enemies. The lesson offered by their example isvexed and contradictory, because return and remaking, or restoration and transformation, can’tbe separated into tidy opposing categories. Sometimes going back to and moving towardcoincide.
Remembering the Old World prodded deposed royals to insurrection. But what vision ofchange stirred those who possessed no home to which they could look back and who failed tosee any signposts in the Atlantic? What of the commoners who blamed their abject plight onavaricious kings and imperial states? Their decision to flee and fight would have had little to dowith the past and everything to do with hopes for the future. No doubt, the country for whichthey longed promised first and foremost a radical break with the present. Perhaps what theyunderstood was that restoration was neither the enabling condition nor the end of rebellion andthat it was not necessary to look back in order to move forward. And even if they had conjuredup the vision of a glorious fanciful past, all that really mattered was the end to which thisimagined past—the time before slavery—was mobilized.
The futures anticipated and eclipsed in the course of the rebellion employed the languageof return, which lent itself indiscriminately to dreams of a free territory and to recollections ofpredatory kingdoms. When King June imagined returning home, did he envision himself onceagain at the side of his deposed king and in the silk robes of the statesman? Did he picture hisretinue of dependents dutifully attending to him or foresee reuniting with his lost friends andkin? Could he have remembered the dank holding cell of the fort and still desired to returnhome?
I shall return home was what he told himself and the others; it gave him the courageneeded to point a rifle at his chest and pull the trigger.
I shall return to my native land. The children and grandchildren of the rebels might havereiterated the same vow. Inevitably, time did erase the Old World or, at least, blunted itsfeatures and silenced its image. No doubt there were also those who chose to “murder thememory” because it was easier that way. Forgetting might have made it less painful to bear thehardships of slavery and easier to accept a new life in a world of strangers. Perhaps it wasn’t achoice at all, and the past slowly disappeared over the course of years, or the shock ofenslavement destroyed it in one fell swoop. How long did it take for the mother tongue to beeradicated by a new language? Was the ephemera of everyday life—the pat and scratch ofwomen’s feet in the compound at dawn, the low rustle of reeds in the lagoon, the rhythm andnonsense of childhood games, the murmur of trees at nightfall, the mutter of wakeful spirits,the charcoal skies of harmattan, the aroma of boiled cassava, the spire of anthills, or the ambercolor of grasslands in midafternoon—the first thing to disappear or the only thing that lasted?Was it time or the lash of watapana rods or the cat-o’-nine-tails that shattered a mother’simage or erased her impression? Did men curse the gods of their country for their captivity?Did women appeal to the gods of their country because of their captivity?
Of course, the children born in the Americas had no other world to forget. They mighthave tired of stories of life across the water, let the past fall away, and set their eyes on a futuredifferent from the present. Unlike the love of the bozales, the ones born in Africa or the“saltwater” blacks, for the country they had lost, the love of Creole children for an imaginedcountry across the ocean would not have been weighted by experience but borne by loss andfueled by fantasy. Yet for those bound to a hostile land by shackles, owners, and the threat ofdeath, an imagined place might be better than no home at all, an imagined place might affordyou a vision of freedom, an imagined place might provide an alternative to your defeat, animagined place might save your life.
This inchoate, fugitive elsewhere was espoused in their dreams, elaborated in their songs,and envisaged as their future; it was expressed in an idiom, which, like themselves, was born ofthe new country, a blend of African, Native, and European elements. “Possessing nothing,”according to Wilson Harris, “but breath and the calamitous air of broken ties in the NewWorld,” enslaved Africans sustained, amended, and abandoned the customs, manners, andproclivities of the Old World. They created a new language out of the languages they hadknown and the languages foisted upon them. They danced the old dances for new purposes.They built dwellings like the ones in which they had lived with new materials. Theyremembered and renamed old gods and invented and adopted new ones. Cleavage—theseparation from and clinging to the Old World—gave rise not only to dispossession but as wellto a new set of possibilities.
For the first and second generations born in captivity, the Americas were the only homethey knew. Yet this didn’t stop them from dreaming of a province free of masters, plantations,whips, and the four degrees of torture. Even if Creoles could not share the ardor of their parentsfor the country lost, did they fancy it anyway? Or were imagined countries always doomed tobe evanescent? Or did the opposite hold true: Were the only countries able to entice us and tograb hold of our hearts the ones that we imagined?
It is only when you are stranded in a hostile country that you need a romance of origins; itis only when you lose your mother that she becomes a myth; it is only when you fear thedislocation of the new that the old ways become precious, imperiled, and what your great-great-grandchildren will one day wistfully describe as African.
BY THE TIME SLAVERY was abolished in 1863, in all likelihood my family in Curaçao hadturned their back to the Old World. When my grandfather regaled me with tales of Africa,which he had visited several times as a merchant seaman, he never mentioned any ancestralconnection or bond between that place and us. The stories he told me of people who elongatedtheir lips with plates, because this was what they found beautiful, or who prayed five times aday, or of lovely women who adorned the length of their necks with beaded rings, which ifremoved would cause their death, filled me with wonder. But they were tales of a faraway placethat had nothing to do with me.
My grandfather never said Africa was our home because he didn’t need it to be. As apolyglot and a sailor, he thought of the world as his home. It was hard to mention a spot on theglobe for which he didn’t have a story. To him, I imagine, one place was as good as the next.Maybe it was that he had no desire to put down roots or to reclaim them. He had embracederrantry or taking to the sea as the closest thing to freedom he would experience.
He was a fugitive, not from justice but from the confines of a four-cornered world. Even inhis later years, when Manhattan was as far away from Brooklyn as he’d ever get, he traveledthe world each night listening to foreign news broadcast from Europe and Latin America on his
short-wave radio. My grandfather had discovered years back that the only home he would everknow was the imagined country, the promised land of the heart, the territory of dreams. Heaccepted the peril and promise of being without a country. It explained why, as much as hespoke of Africa, he never imagined it as his natal land. The route he charted back and forthacross the Atlantic, as a young seaman aboard a merchant ship, was an adventure, a detour, nota return. Though I can’t believe that as he listened to the rumble of the ocean he was unmindfulof that other crossing.
STANDING IN the dark recesses of the holding cell for female slaves, I felt both the pull andthe impossibility of regaining the country lost. It has never been more clear than it was then:return is what you hold on to after you have been taken from your country, or when you realizethat there is no future in the New World, or that death is the only future. Return is the hungerfor all the things you once enjoyed or the yearning for all the things you never enjoyed. It bearsthe impress of everything that has been taken from you. It is the last resort of the defeated. It isthe diversion of suicides and dreamers. It is the elsewhere of insurrectionists. It is the yearningof those who can “summon filial love for persons and places they have never known.” Like themyth of the mother, the promise of return is all that remains in the wake of slavery. If you closeyour eyes, you can imagine yourself once again safe in her arms. With a rifle pointed at yourchest, you can travel home.
Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as muchas they are passed on. The past depends less on “what happened then” than on the desires anddiscontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has asmuch to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn.But when does one decide to stop looking to the past and instead conceive of a new order?When is it time to dream of another country or to embrace other strangers as allies or to makean opening, an overture, where there is none? When is it clear that the old life is over, a newone has begun, and there is no looking back? From the holding cell, was it possible to seebeyond the end of the world and to imagine living and breathing again?
The rebels, the come, go back, child, and I are all returnees, circling back to times past,revisiting the routes that might have led to alternative presents, salvaging the dreamsunrealized and defeated, crossing over to parallel lives. The hope is that return could resolvethe old dilemmas, make a victory out of defeat, and engender a new order. And the
disappointment is that there is no going back to a former condition. Loss remakes you. Returnis as much about the world to which you no longer belong as it is about the one in which youhave yet to make a home.
I shall return to my native land. Those disbelieving in the promise and refusing to makethe pledge have no choice but to avow the loss that inaugurates one’s existence. It is to bebound to other promises. It is to lose your mother, always.
The Tribe of the Middle Passage
The rich ones have come too late. A glance at the luxurious homes towering on the seacoast,which were dwarfed only by Elmina Castle, provided all the proof needed. The stately whiteresidences of the descendants of slaves fueled envy as well as the suspicion that slavery mightnot have been so bad given the wealth African Americans clearly possessed. Everyone in townagreed they had come too late to change anything and relished seeing the longings of theaffluent defeated. Some wondered if the buronya had come to Ghana earlier, what might havebeen possible. Others mocked them, saying the nouveaux riches paraded every stitch of theirwealth because they were desperate to show they were big men.
The ones who had come too late couldn’t rid themselves of the label, so they accepted itgrudgingly. Kohain and the others didn’t flaunt their wealth, nor were they rich, but thedisparity between the way they lived and the way most of the residents of Elmina lived wasimpossible to miss. The thatch and mud dwellings of the surrounding villages and the shanties,one-room cinder-block houses, and dilapidated colonial buildings of town made the spacioushomes occupying the coast appear like mansions.
But the villas, cottages, and bungalows had little to do with wealth. Debt was what theyrepresented—a history of things owed, stolen, and destroyed. The elegant dwellings lined upalong the seacoast reminded me of the mansions built in Liberia by ex-slaves from North andSouth Carolina and Mississippi, which replicated the world from which they had migrated,except now they were the new masters.
The homes of the rich ones were also the bittersweet reminder of the freedom they wouldnever enjoy in America. The homes announced to the rest of Elmina that the rich ones haddisembarked and that they were black white men. Every brick and pillar testified to the
impossibility of returning and to the imprudence of believing in origins and trying to recoverthem. Built in the shadow of the castle, as if issuing a provocation—we will now thrive wherewe once were branded and sold—the homesteads were the product of the struggle still beingwaged between creditor and debtor races, predators and prey, merchants and slaves. What elsecould be the point of staking a future in the shadow of a slave fort? It was plain to see:prosperity was the face of dispossession.
The tribe of the Middle Passage was how Kohain and his neighbors, Imakhus and NanaRobinson, identified themselves. As Imakhus often repeated, “We are the descendants ofMiddle Passage survivors.” It was the tribe created by the rapacity of African elites, theterritorial expansion of strong states, and the greed, cruelty, and arrogance of white menpossessing the world. It was the tribe of those stolen from their natal land, stripped of their“country marks,” and severed from their kin.
Slavery made your mother into a myth, banished your father’s name, and exiled yoursiblings to the far corners of the earth. The slave was as an orphan, according to FrederickDouglass, even when he knew his kin. “We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Whyshould they be attached to me, or I to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slaveryhad made us strangers. I heard the words brother and sisters, and knew they must meansomething; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.” The only sureinheritance passed from one generation to the next was this loss, and it defined the tribe. Aphilosopher had once described it as an identity produced by negation.
The Middle Passage was the birth canal that spawned the tribe. The Middle Passage wasthe death canal in which “the African died to what was and to what could have been.”Revisiting “what could have been” explained the presence of this tiny community of AfricanAmericans sandwiched between two slave forts. Had they come earlier, who knows what theymight have done.
The tribe of the Middle Passage had returned to Africa, but they possessed no kin, clan, ora village home, all of the essential elements that defined belonging in the eyes of Ghanaians.The arrival of African Americans in Elmina could hardly be called a homecoming. Rather itwas a continuation of a long local tradition of renting land to foreigners, which had started asearly as the fifteenth century when the Portuguese first arrived. No one envisioned Kohain, ablack rabbi and activist from Mount Vernon, New York, or Nana Robinson, a retired fireman,and his wife, Imahkus, from the Bronx, as errant children who had returned or as chickenscome home to roost. No one rejoiced that they were back. They had been allowed to lease the
beachfront property for ninety-nine years, since no foreigner could own land in Ghana. AfricanAmericans were tenants rather than sons and daughters. No one knew this better than thereturnees.
One Africa Productions, which Kohain had founded along with Nana and Imakhus,organized The Door of No Return Ceremony, a reenactment of the slave trade intended to mendthe psychic wounds of the descendants of slaves. At present they were embroiled in a trademarkdispute with a Ghanaian tour operator about who owned the ritual. One Africa Productions alsoassisted African Americans who wanted to settle in Ghana and lobbied for a measure to grantthem dual citizenship. Ghanaians opposed the measure, fearing that waves of African Americanriffraff would flood the country and dominate with their U.S. dollars.
It was ironic that the kind of African Americans who would fit best in Ghana were the onesleast attracted to Africa. The straightened-hair, prim, Bible thumping, flag-waving blackChristian conservatives would be much more at home in Ghana than the frayed band ofdreadlocked and nappy-headed radicals who inundated the place. Evangelicals were welcome;protesters need not apply. Most Ghanaians were Christian, respectful of hierarchy and authorityto a fault, straitlaced, and wary of foreigners in need of love. The country that most of us hadcome running from was the one of which they dreamed. They would have traded places with usin the blink of an eye.
I PREFERRED Kohain’s house to the hotels in town. Renting a room from him was cheaperthan lodging at Oyster Bay or Coconut Grove Hotel. Besides, after a day of wandering aroundin a slave fort, the last thing I wanted to do was explain myself to an inquisitive desk clerk orown up to the fact that I could not. The sprawling six-bedroom home, which was nestled alongthe ten-mile stretch of coast between Elmiana and Cape Coast castles, provided a reprieve fromcurious glances and unanswerable questions. All the rooms in the villa had private baths,running water as circumstances permitted, electricity when there wasn’t a power cut, and cleansheets and towels always.
Kohain was a pensive man with a broad, handsome smile and payess, which he tuckedbehind his ears. I liked him because he never pontificated about the problems with Africa,which distinguished him from the majority of expatriates. Exhaustion had driven him to Ghana.Thirty years of participating in the struggle for black equality in the United States withseemingly little to show for it had worn him out, so he decided to jump ship. “It doesn’t reallymatter where you live,” he said. “Everywhere in the world African people are in struggle. Thisplace is as good as any other.”
From the back porch of his house, I could see Elmina Castle jutting into the ocean. I hadalways intended but never asked him or the Robinsons why they had chosen to build theirhomes within clear sight of the slave fort. Did the sight of the castle make them rejoice becausethey had been able to find their way back? Or was their proximity evidence of the fact that thiswas as near to home as they could get?
A passage from Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons described the folly of ex-slaves, who, blinded by filial duty, tried to return home. Although their villages had beendestroyed by the slave trade, they continued to long for the world in which they once had lived.“The sickness of nostalgia,” writes Armah, fixed the gaze of the wistful solely on the past. Theywere like children “hankering after situations forever lost” and “craving the love of bloodrelatives” who were better in memory “than they could have ever been in their own flesh.”
Did the rich ones suffer from the sickness of nostalgia? Did I? Was longing or melancholy
what defined the tribe of the Middle Passage? I had never thought of my life as being driven byfilial duty. I had been a bad daughter, not a good one. My offenses were many: I became anatheist in the eighth grade and never failed to remind Father Cavanaugh of this duringconfession. I joined the Young Socialist Party at fourteen, primarily because my best friend atthe time was high school organizer. I hung out with privileged, disaffected white kids. Mymother feared they would lead me astray, and they did. I refused to accept a college scholarshipfor minority students partly funded by J. P. Stevens. At the time, I was participating in anational boycott campaign because of the company’s treatment of its textile workers. I calledmy mother a handkerchief-head Negro when she tried to force me to attend the scholarshipdinner, and she, in retaliation, called me an Oreo. I refused to wear my cap and gown for myhigh school and college graduations. There had been pressing political reasons for not doing soand the dissenter’s armband was red for both occasions. I changed my name and shamed myparents. I lived with a college boyfriend in Lincoln Houses, a Harlem project in which he hadbeen raised. I don’t know which my mother was more embarrassed by, the fact that I wascohabiting out of wedlock or that I was living in public housing. Not much besides self-identification divided the lower middle class from the working poor, so my perilous spiraldown the class ladder terrified my parents. I went to graduate school to study literature and notto medical school as my mother had hoped. My mother had wanted to become a doctor,following in the footsteps of her uncle, grandaunt, and great-grandmother. I replicated herfailure.
I had spent most of my adulthood bucking parental designs, so it was hard to believe that Iwas now on the path of sacrificial daughters and dutiful sons. Yet I found myself, like the othermembers of the tribe, expecting to discover my legacy in a pile of stones that had been cartedacross the Atlantic in the fifteenth century. Looking at the castle from Kohain’s back porch, Iwondered what besides dispossession had been transmitted from one generation to the next? Inhis Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, Henry Highland Garnet had warnedthat not even death brought an end to the wretchedness of slavery, because the children of theenslaved assumed the condition of their predecessors. Was this as true now as it had been in1843? Could a negative inheritance be passed from one century to the next, as if, as GeorgeJackson wrote, “time had faded nothing”?
I knew I wasn’t in Ghana solely to reckon with slavery; if so, I could have traveled just aseasily to Portugal or the Vatican, the localities that had inaugurated the Atlantic slave trade.The unrealized dreams of Nkrumah and King and the unfinished struggle of commoners, slaves,fugitives, and socialists had as much to do with it. I shared Mary Ellen’s pessimism about thefuture, but I wanted to be proved wrong. I wanted to imagine a present not tethered to a longhistory of defeat, but this was difficult to do with Elmina Castle dominating the shoreline. Itentailed a great effort to remind myself that the destruction of the holding cell hadn’t beenabsolute and that I was part of what had lived on. Ghana was as good a place as any other tothink about the afterlife of slavery and the future of the ex-slave. Secretly I hoped that it wasn’ttoo late to believe in freedom dreams.
WITH MY EYES SHUT, the ocean sounded louder and even more threatening. It hushed thevoices of Kohain and his wife, Chessy, talking at the dining room table and isolated the verandafrom the rest of the house as though it were a separate world of its own. The roar and clap ofthe Atlantic reverberated in my head. I was determined to listen until I couldn’t bear it anylonger.
The back door screeched across the porch floor and I opened my eyes. A handsome
twenty-something-year-old man joined me on the porch. He took the seat next to me.“It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.“The castle?” I asked.“No. The ocean.”“Yes. Somehow the Atlantic seems larger here than on the other side.”“Maybe it’s just that it feels more tragic,” he replied.“At night it’s so loud I can hardly sleep,” I said, instantly regretting it. It seemed
suggestive.“Here you can’t forget,” he said.I wished that were true, but I didn’t contradict him.Khalid was an aspiring filmmaker from Atlanta. It was his first visit to Ghana. He
explained that he had come to Elmina because he felt an ancestral call. “All the folks takenacross the waters are returning home through me,” he said with absolute earnestness.
“Really,” I murmured.“It’s like when I visit my grandmother’s grave,” he continued. “It feels like the entire
family is out there with me. My father, my cousins, I mean everyone.”“I have never felt so alone in my life,” I told him, revealing more than I had intended.He was surprised. “Why?”“I’m not sure if I can explain it.” I heard my voice wavering like it does when I’m about to
cry.“It’s okay,” he said.“I’m sorry.”“No reason to be.”“It feels like the crash to me, not the grave,” I went on in an unsteady voice. “It’s the place
where the car hit the tree and your mother and brother died. And your father survived but hebecomes an alcoholic, so it’s like he’s dead too or worse. But it’s just a regular street foreveryone else.” I bit my lower lip but the tears streamed down my face, anyway. Khalid didn’tsay anything, which I appreciated. The silence allowed me to pull myself together. I laughednervously and apologized again.
He squeezed my hand. “Sis. It’s all right. Don’t forget we’re survivors.”I wondered if a gesture of tenderness defined a tribe. Or if it was a fantasy of who you
once were or who you never were. Was a tribe as fleeting and as treacherous as a promise oflove? How was it that a stranger uttered “sis” in exactly the same tone as your brother or thatone syllable could make you realize how very far away from home you had come? “I’m okay,”I said, too quickly to be convincing.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.“Five months.”“Tell me what you like about Ghana.”“That’s hard. There are lots of things,” I replied.“Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind.”“Okay. I like to watch the boys in my neighborhood play soccer. Some of them own
sneakers and some don’t. So the boys who have sneakers lend a shoe to the ones who don’t.During the game, there are all these boys racing down the field with one sneaker and hopingthat foot is going to be the lucky one.”
“In Atlanta, kids are killing one another over shoes,” he said. We both fell silent.“They’re poor here but less defeated,” I said. “Maybe I’m just being romantic.” Ghana
wasn’t Liberia or Sierra Leone or Congo. All reasons for hope hadn’t disappeared.“They didn’t lose everything. We did,” he responded.
“And all for so little,” I said. “The worse thing is that it doesn’t hurt any less now. Itshould, but it doesn’t.”
“Have you ever thought about staying for the long term?” he asked.“In Ghana? No, I’m nonreturnable goods,” I answered. “What about you?”“No. I mean it’s great here. I totally respect Kohain and the rest of them, but to me it
would be like trying to live in a cemetery. I like visiting my grandmother, but I don’t plan ontaking up residence there.”
We laughed and listened to the ocean long after our words had faded away.
So Many Dungeons
EVERY TALE OF creation I had ever read began in a place like this—in the underworld, in thebowels of the earth, in the gloom of man’s prehistory. The cradle of life bore an uncannyresemblance to the grave, making plain the fact that the living eventually would assume theirstation among the ranks of the dead. Human life sprang from a black abyss, and from dust andmuck we traced our beginning. Base elements were the substrate of life. Blood and shit usheredus into the world. Gods vomited human beings into existence or populated the world by rapingthe earth or coupling with their daughters, or, in their benignity, led us from the darkness intothe light.
Adam and Eve were created in this filthy pit. So the British called the first man andwoman plucked from the dungeon and bound aboard the slave ship, replaying the drama ofbirth and expulsion in the Africa trade.
THE SLAVE HOLD WAS BURROWED deep in the earth. Unlike the Portuguese whooriginally built Elmina Castle to store nonhuman goods, the British designed Cape Coast Castleto warehouse slaves. In the sixteenth century, the British had begun raiding the Gold Coast forslaves and by the end of the seventeenth century they were the foremost slavers in Africa. Theyalone were responsible for deporting nearly five hundred thousand slaves from the Gold Coast.Half of these captives were shipped from Cape Coast Castle, which provided the headquartersof the Royal Africa Company and its successor, the company of Merchants Trading to Africa.When the company built the fort in 1674, transforming a mud fortification into the largestcastle on the coast next to Elmina Castle, which stood only ten miles to the west, they designedthe slave pens to deter rebellion and for this reason placed the vaults beneath the earth. “Thecastle looks very fine from the sea,” wrote the French trader Jean Barbot in 1681, but “the mostnoteworthy item is the slave-house, which lies below ground. It consists of large vaultedcellars, divided into several apartments, which can easily hold a thousand slaves…The keepingof the slaves thus under ground is a good security to the garrison.”
The lesson imparted to the captives by this grand design was that slavery was a state ofdeath. Who else but the dead resided in a tomb? But the Royal Africa Company and theCompany of Merchants didn’t imagine their human cargo as a pile of corpses, nor did theyconsider these dank rooms a grave. As they saw it, the dungeon was a womb in which the slavewas born. The harvest of raw material and the manufacture of goods defined the prison’sfunction. The British didn’t call it a womb; they called it a factory, which has its first usage inthe trading forts of West Africa. (The very word “factory” documents the indissoluble linkbetween England’s industrial revolution and the birth of human commodities.)
In the company’s view, the dungeon was a way station for human refuse and a cocoon forlaborers. The miracle of the slave trade was that it resuscitated useless lives and transformed
waste into capital. Africa benefited from this commerce, avowed the merchants, because “herwants were satisfied at a very trifling expense” and paid for with “the refuse and offscouringsof her population.” What Aimé Césaire later described as “walking compost hideouslypromising tender cane and silky cotton.”
THE INTERIOR OF THE DUNGEON exposed an open wound of earth, and the roughly hewnwalls perspired, making the chamber dank. The cells were hollowed out of the rocky deposit ofa hillside, which had been a sacred shrine devoted to the local pantheon of gods. Nana Taabiriwatched over all the creatures on earth and in the sea. When the fort was built, the shrine wasdisplaced and the gods exiled. Two decades ago, the shrine returned to the castle and the godsto the rocks they had once inhabited. The shrine now occupied a wall at the far end of thedungeon. The candles placed on the altar gave off a faint light that was swallowed by theblackness of the hold. Whether the gods were indifferent or attentive to the captives imprisonedin the garrison was of little consequence as far as I could tell. The old man who attended theshrine disagreed with me. He insisted that the gods tended to the slaves and guided them fromthe places across the water back home. Life is more than matter, he said, there is spirit too.When he convinced African Americans and others from the diaspora of this (the priest did notoffer these services to Ghanaian visitors, most of whom, being Christians, eschewed traditionalreligion and associated it with evil), he received a small donation and then poured libations forthe dead.
The arched ceiling of the vault and the tubular shape of the connecting cells resembled alarge intestine. Walking from one end of the dungeon to the other, I did feel as though thecastle were ingesting me, as though I were inching my way along the entrails of power. Thebelly of the beast no longer seemed a figure of speech but rather a precise description of thisplace. What was it about eating that so aptly captured the dynamics of power? The gluttony ofthe ruling classes was proverbial. As they said in Ghana, Only the big man has a full belly. Therich are sated, but the commoner wants. Seeing is not eating. The poor man lives in the worldbut does not own it. When the slave eats mutton, it irritates his stomach. The fine things in lifeare reserved for the powerful. If one refuses to eat, another’s stomach will be filled. One mantakes advantage of another’s misfortunes. Ingestion provides a vivid picture of the relationbetween the haves and the have-nots, the rulers and the ruled, the parasite and the host.
“Everything which is eaten is the food of power,” according to Elias Canetti. None knewthis better than the slaves. They consistently described their captors as cannibals. Flesh eatersand roasters of men personified the dynamics of plunder and dispossession, unlike theeuphemism of trade, which made the rout appear bloodless and consensual. None of theenslaved had ever agreed to any bargain that landed them here. Anthropophagy, the practice ofeating the flesh of other human beings, aptly described the devouring of life by the machineryof the slave trade.
The mouth was an organ of power. African nations at war vowed to “eat the other,” that is,they would seize all their enemies, “sell them as slaves, and enjoy themselves with the goodsreceived in exchange.” But white men were the cannibals most feared. Stories of blood orgiesand men cooked in boiling cauldrons circulated from the coast to the interior. Upon seeing theslave ship and its European crew, Olaudah Equiano believed he had entered a world of badspirits: “I no longer doubted of my fate, and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fellmotionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people aboutme…I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces,
and long hair?” The first time Ottobah Cugoano encountered the white men of the coast, he toowas convinced they intended to devour him. “I saw several white people, which made me veryafraid they would eat me.” Back in the city of Agimaque, he had listened to tales about thebounsam, the devil, who resided near the sea and feasted on human flesh.
Slaves were “often under great apprehension at the sight of the sea,” according to the slavecaptain John Newton, because “they imagine they are brought to be eat [sic].” An officer in theAfrica Corps, testifying before the English Board of Trade, described the great anxiety of thecaptives upon being delivered to the European traders of the coast. “The [African] masters orEuropeans hold out as a general doctrine to their slaves, that Europeans will kill and eat them…by which means the slaves are kept in order, and in great fear of being sold to Europeans. Thisdoctrine…has a very political effect on the minds of these people.”
The fear of white ogres incited mutiny and self-destruction. On the slaving voyage of theAlbion Frigate, the captain recorded in his journal: “some slaves fancy they are being carriedaway to be eaten, which makes them desperate, and others are so on account of their captivity,so that if care not be taken, they will mutiny and destroy the ship’s crew in hopes to get away.”Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the slave revolt aboard the Amistad, said he and forty-eight otherslaves rebelled after being told by a slave of the ship’s captain that they were going to bedismembered and eaten. On other occasions, slaves jumped overboard to escape this gruesomefate or asphyxiated themselves by swallowing their tongues.
A terrible end awaited them, of that they were certain. Paul Isert, a surgeon stationed at aDanish slave fort neighboring Cape Coast, remarked that the slaves don’t believe the futurecould possibly “hold anything good in store for them, when the Europeans use such violentmeasures to secure them.” Reports of the savagery of white men had spread to the most remotecorners of the hinterland: “In their own country they have themselves heard such dreadful talesof how the slaves are treated in Columbia [America] that one is appalled when one hears them.I was once asked by a slave, in complete earnest, if the shoes I was wearing had been made ofBlack skin, since he had observed that they were the same colour as his skin.”
Cannibalism provided an allegory for usurping and consuming life. If the wage laborer,according to Marx, was “someone who has brought his own hide to market and now has nothingto expect but a tanning,” then the slave was the prey hunted and the flesh eaten by the vampireof merchant capital. The slaves did not doubt it.
IF INGESTION EXEMPLIFIED the merchant’s accumulation of capital and the slave’sdispossession, then waste was the proof that the powerful had eaten. Excrement was thematerial residue of this politics of the belly. As Canetti writes of the voracious and bestialcharacter of power:
Anyone who wants to rule men first tries to humiliate them, to trick them out of theirrights and their capacity for resistance, until they are as powerless before him asanimals…[The] ultimate aim is to incorporate them into himself and to suck thesubstance out of them. What remains of them afterwards does not matter to him. Theworse he has treated them, the more he despises them. When they are no more use atall, he disposes of them as he does of his excrement…The excrement, which is whatremains of all this, is loaded with our whole blood guilt. By it we know what we havemurdered. It is the compressed sum of all the evidence against us.
Human waste covered the floor of the dungeon. To the naked eye it looked like soot. Afterthe last group of captives had been deported, the holding cells were closed but never cleanedout. For a century and a half after the abolition of the slave trade, the waste remained. Tocontrol the stench and the pestilence, the floor had been covered with sand and lime. In 1972, ateam of archaeologists excavated the dungeon and cleared away eighteen inches of dirt andwaste. They identified the topmost layer of the floor as the compressed remains of captives—feces, blood, and exfoliated skin.
I refused this knowledge. I blocked it out and proceeded across the dungeon as if the floorwas just that and not the remnants of slaves pressed further into oblivion by the soles of myshoes. I came to this fort searching for ancestors, but in truth only base matter awaited me.
Waste is the interface of life and death. It incarnates all that has been rendered invisible,peripheral, or expendable to history writ large, that is, history as the tale of great men, empire,and nation. It “evokes the dull ordinary horror of what is vile, worthless and contemptible—apile of shit.” Waste is the remnant of all the lives that are outside of history and “dissolved inutter amnesia.”
The only part of my past that I could put my hands on was the filth from which I recoiled,layers of organic material pressed hard against a stone floor.
I HAD ENTERED the dungeon intending to do all the fine things stated in the marble plaqueposted at the entrance: commemorate the dead, remember the anguish of the ancestors, andprevent such crimes against humanity from ever happening again. They were the kind of wordsone encountered at sites of atrocity throughout the world, and, in all likelihood, men wouldcontinue to produce the occasions for such words. They were confident words, which promisedjustice and espoused faith in humanity and quarantined the past with a flurry of boasts. But fiveminutes in the underground dashed these grand aspirations. The stark facts won out—it was ahold for human cargo, and knowing what happened here couldn’t remedy oblivion or betoken abrighter future or lessen the suffering of the dead.
Like most people willing to cross the threshold of a slave dungeon, I wanted to give thedead their due. But I was unsure how to accomplish this. The crush of empty space defeated anysurety in the power of memory to deter future crimes. Words like “oblivion” and “catastrophe”crossed my mind. In the dungeon, there were remains but no stories that could resurrect thedead except the stories I invented.
Upstairs in the museum, a glass display case contained the items for which the slaves hadbeen exchanged: checkered cotton cloth, brass and iron bracelets, china, glass beads, red stones,umbrellas, guns, whiskey, mirrors, and chamber pots. There you were educated about thebenefits of the trade—new agricultural crops and animals, literacy, and Christianity—as well asthe drawbacks of the slave trade—the suffering of millions of enslaved people. You learnedthat despite the terrible ordeal, the descendants of the slaves triumphed in the end. Largeportraits of Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and AngelaDavis concluded the story on an upbeat note. But how do you weigh literacy and Jesus andluxury goods against four centuries of rout and the millions gone?
Even in the museum, the slaves were missing. None of their belongings were arrangednicely in well-lit glass cases. None of the waste found in the dungeon was placed neatly ontrays with small flags. None of their sayings were quoted on placards throughout the hall. Norwas their family life and social organization described. How they farmed or fished or appealedto their gods or buried their dead goes unmentioned. The museum was as bereft as theunderground.
I CLOSED MY EYES and strained to hear the groans and cries that once echoed in thedungeon, but the space was mute. Muffled sounds from other parts of the castle didn’t findtheir way here. I didn’t hear a peep, not even the bland reggae covers of Negro spirituals playedin the café adjoining the castle, which was owned by a white guy from the United States. Yearsago, there had been a café inside the fort. Strains of Ghanaian high-life and R & B blastingfrom the café drifted into the underground. But visitors complained it was inappropriate todrink beer and hum along with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes or Marvin Gaye in a slaveprison, so the café was shut down.
The first time I entered the underground I was accompanied by a chirpy teenager namedPhyllis. I had been waiting for a tro-tro on a road a few miles outside of town when sheattached herself to me and decided to become my guide for the day and accompany me to thecastle. Had I arrived a few years later, no doubt she would have taken me to Assin Manso to seethe Slave River and the graves, but these places were not yet packaged for tourism. Phyllis wasa student at the Wesley Girls’ School, an elite private school in Cape Coast attended by the beststudents in Ghana. She chattered nonstop about her plans to study fashion design in the States.She did have an eye for style and sported a retro-mod look. Her shimmering pink lipstick,headband, and cascading hairpiece made her look like one of the Supremes. As we movedthrough the rooms of the fort, she told me that she loved American movies and ran through thelist of the films she had seen most recently. Phyllis was delighted to hear that I lived inCalifornia and asked me if I’d ever been to Hollywood. When I said no, I could sense herdisappointment in me. Her favorite film was Waiting to Exhale because the women werebeautiful, independent, and had lots of money. She said I reminded her of those women. I knewshe intended it as a compliment so I tried to take it as one. When I asked her if she had been inthe castle before, she replied she had. She had visited the castle on a class trip and again on herown. Well, what do you think about what happened here? I asked. “It’s a sad story whathappened to the slaves,” she replied. “We should go to the canteen for lunch.”
My first visit had been deflating. With Phyllis trailing at my side, I was certain I hadmissed something vital. I racked my brain to figure out exactly why the experience had beendisappointing. I had entered with the wrong attitude and sailed through the chambers carelesslyrather than with the necessary sobriety. I hadn’t prepared myself for the encounter. I hadn’tbeen properly attentive. The last thing I expected, of course, was to be talking about TerryMcMillan, Titanic, and a teenager’s favorite stars as I crossed the threshold. I didn’t believethis slave fort was sacred ground because terrible things had transpired here. Brutality doesn’tmake a place worthy of veneration. But I did believe that the gravity of what had happenedrequired a degree of solemnity. I blamed Phyllis for what didn’t happen. Only later did I realizethere was nothing to see. I hadn’t missed a thing.
Since then, I had come to the dungeon more then a dozen times. I had been with tourgroups and I had wandered through alone. It had always felt as painfully incomplete as it did onmy first visit. That is, when it was not absurd. Once an intoxicated docent led my friends andme through the castle, all the while complaining bitterly about Americans, ignoring ourquestions and bawling that he was an educated man who deserved better than this. On anotheroccasion, I got into a squabble with a visitor from Sierra Leone when she remarked to herfriend, “Why make such a big deal over one slave dungeon. There are so many dungeons inAfrica.”
Alone, I was the absurd figure. By myself, there was no one else to blame for mydiscomfort. There was no running away from it. I had come too late for it to make any
difference at all, but I kept coming back. I was waiting. For whom or what I couldn’t say orperhaps I was just embarrassed to admit. I couldn’t explain it because it didn’t make sense. Iknew only how it felt, which was akin to choking. My chest grew congested and my palmsstarted sweating and I got light-headed. My skin became tight and prickly, as if there was toolittle of it and too much of everything else. The hollow inside my chest expanded. I could feelmy torso bulge and distend like a corpse swelling with gasses. And the emptiness was a hugeballoon expanding inside me and pressing against my organs, until I could no longer breatheand was about to explode. Five minutes back in the sunlight and I was breathing easily again.No one could discern it was just the husk and not really me.
Each time it was the same. I failed to discover anything. No revenants lurked in thedungeon. The hold was stark. No hand embraced mine. No voices rang in my ears. Not oneliving creature dwelled here. Not even a fly darted about. In the silence, my own breath wasloud and raucous.
I trudged from one side of the dungeon to the other; each step I took was tottering andindecisive. I moved back and forth with the slumped shoulders of defeat. I traced the perimeterof the cell disappointed. I stepped over the gutters traversing the floor. My hands glided overthe walls, as though the rough surfaces were a script that I could read through my dull fingers.But the brush of my hands against stone offered no hint or clue. What I wanted was to feelsomething other than bricks and lime. What I wanted was to reach through time and touch theprisoners.
NOTHING HAD ENDURED except blood, shit, and dirt. So it was hard to imagine a thousandor more men and boys imprisoned in the male dungeon or to grasp that of this company at least150 were likely to die here. Among the dead might be ten men offered as tribute to a suzerain,two brothers stolen from a garden, four young men captured while playing within arm’s reachof home, five debtors, forty whose village was razed, three adulterers, twenty-five defeatedsoldiers not sacrificed by the enemy, two teenagers entrapped by neighbors, thirty farmersseized by mercenaries, a nephew pawned by an uncle but never redeemed, a father and sonaccused of witchcraft, a thief who had stolen a pig, a debt-ridden weaver, three gamblers, and acastle slave deemed incorrigible.
Most had arrived at the castle in small lots conveyed by African brokers and less often byprivate individuals. Northerners comprised the majority of slaves crammed into the dungeonand shipped from the castle to the Americas. The coffles traveled hundreds of miles beforearriving on the coast, and the bodies of the enslaved charted the arduous journey. Traders easilyidentified them by their bloated stomachs, contusions, and ulcers. Bruises covered their armsand legs, which had been cut and pricked on branches and thorns in narrow forest paths thatadmitted only one person at a time. Sunken cheeks and distended bellies were the clear signs ofscant food and little water. Necks, wrists, and ankles were abraded by the fetters that connectedone donker to the other, although women and children usually were not chained. Slavesdisappeared along the route to the coast; the lucky few escaped, some were sold at interiormarkets, others died along the way.
Once inside the gates of the fort, the women and men were separated and marched to theirrespective prisons. Upon being delivered to the dungeon, irons were attached to their feet andnecks, replacing the shackles and ropes and heavy logs used by African traders. The doubleirons used to secure them were so burdensome that even the company officials described themas “too painful” to be endured. Depending on the arrival and departure of ships, captives wereconfined in this chamber for a few weeks or as long as three or four months. The number of
prisoners fluctuated with the trade. Sometimes the rooms were packed with as many as fifteenhundred men and boys, and when trade lagged, a hundred or fewer occupied the dungeon. Eachslave was confined to his own place and prevented from moving about in the dungeon.
The slaves slept on bare floors. They ingested and eliminated in the same quarters.Excrement and food debris accumulated on the floor and soiled their limbs. Even when thecaptives were washed in the sea twice a day, the stench of the dungeon was unbearable. Thefeculent condition of the hold made dysentery commonplace; it was the leading cause of deathin confinement. The disease attacked the stomach and bowels, leading to pains in the abdomen,infected intestines, inflamed mucous membranes, and ulcerated tissues. Overcrowding, poorsanitary conditions, and ingestion of food or water contaminated by feces facilitated the spreadof the disease. Traders and surgeons called it the bloody flux because of the profuse dischargeof blood, mucus, and pus that were its symptoms. The pools of fluid on the brick floor wouldhave glistened when light trickled through the small openings in the roof.
THE DUNGEON PROVED no less fatal than the Middle Passage. The corpses dragged from thedungeon each week alarmed the surgeon stationed at the castle. To reduce the rate of death thesurgeon recommended constructing a platform eighteen inches high in the dungeon for theslaves to rest on during the night, lining the bottoms and sides of the dungeon with boards halfan inch thick to protect the slaves from the damp walls, reducing the stench by smoking andcleaning the quarters with citrus and green herbs, and placing sanitary or necessary tubs in thedungeon so that the captives might “ease themselves at night,” rather than steep in their waste.None of these recommendations were ever implemented.
A century would pass before an improved prison was built. In 1768, “an enormous vaultedslave prison of seven bays” was built beneath a huge new battery intended to increase the fort’ssecurity by adding space for thirteen cannons. These additional cells beneath the battery wereconsidered “more wholesome” than the underground prison because of the large openings in theceilings. The portholes were designed to permit supervision by guards, but they also enabledgreater circulation of air. Indifferent to the spirit of reform, slaves continued to die. And a pileof corpses was not the kind of refuse that was of any use to the Company of Merchants Tradingto Africa. A corpse was unresponsive to the logic of conversion that transformed dead men intocommodities.
NO ONE IMPRISONED in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle had ever described it. There wasno record left behind by the captives who entered and exited the underground. Not a singleaccount. All the journals, reports, letters, and trade documents belonged to merchants andcompany men. The rare instances of slave testimony described neighboring forts or slave holdselsewhere on the West African coast, but these recollections didn’t amount to more than a fewlines, none of which provided the merest hint of their experience in the holding cell. Was thescene too horrible to describe or too painful or both? Or was forgetting the price exacted bysurvival? All that Venture Smith was willing to say was, “All of us were then put into the castleand kept for market. On a certain time, I and other prisoners were put on board a canoe.”Perhaps he no longer remembered the six-and-a-half-year-old boy who had been confinedinside the cell with its rocky floor and towering dark walls, or he preferred not to conjure up animage of what he had spent his adult life trying to erase.
The nine lines written by Ottobah Cugoano in his 1787 antislavery tract, Thoughts and
Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, provided the most detailed account of the slave hold.(Cugoano, in all likelihood, had been imprisoned at Anomabu or Cormantin, which were theneighboring trade posts of the British. He had forgotten the name of the fort.) But even heconceded it was impossible to convey the horror of the prison or to describe “the miserablesituation of the poor exiled Africans.” In 1787, he said it was already too late for suchtestimony to change hearts and minds; the world had become habituated to black suffering.According to Cugoano, it was “needless to give a description of all the horrible scenes whichwe saw, and the base treatment which we met in this dreadful captive situation, as the similarcases of thousands, which suffer by this infernal traffic, are well known.” Given this, he wasreluctant to share the details of his captivity. What he remembered most vividly about thedungeon were the groans and cries of his fellow inmates.
I had read Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery at least a dozen times, so it wasimpossible for me not to think of Cugoano as I roamed through the empty chambers. I tried topicture him here, but I couldn’t. The only image I had ever seen of him was in the etching Mrand Mrs Cosway with a Black Slave. He was the anonymous manservant standing to the left ofMrs. Cosway, with his head bowed, his eyes cast downward, and donning the fashionable blackwig of his times. Only the hand of Mrs. Cosway hanging awkwardly in midair as she blindlygrabbed for a handful of grapes acknowledged his presence.
But the image of the dutiful convert and the faithful black retainer was already after thefall. I preferred not to think about him tucked away in the servants’ quarters of a stately housein London. I was most interested in the story he had been disinclined to share. I wanted toimagine the boy entering the gates of the fort on the day he lost his name.
HIS NAME WAS Kwabena. But once he was shoved inside the fort it no longer mattered. Noone would ever call him by that name again. Trudging across the threshold, the boy asked,“Why am I here?” The keeper replied, “To learn the ways of the browfow: the white-facedpeople.” Then he jerked the boy’s hand and pulled him into the trade hall. For a gun, a bolt ofcloth, and three bars of lead, he was handed over to the soldiers. The boy begged, please don’tabandon me, but the man only quickened his pace as he headed out the gate. Please, don’t leaveme with the browfow. The white-faced men twisted his arms and trussed his limbs like he was ashoat and they intended to flay and roast him.
He didn’t cry and he didn’t shout until he saw the men in the courtyard chained two andtwo with their hands bound behind their backs. He cried because he had never seen terriblethings like this before and he shouted because he was happy to see his countrymen.
Inside the cell, it was so dark he could barely discern the other bodies chained to the wall.The odor made his insides spill out. The filth from the floor clung to his legs and buttocks andhe made an even worse mess of things. After the first day, his eyes adjusted to the gloom andhe saw more clearly the men and boys imprisoned in the room. Ashamed, he pretended not tosee. The odor of rotting things no longer made his stomach heave. He no longer recoiled whenvermin scuttled across his body. He learned to take shallow gulps of the fetid air.
Chained in the holding cell, he never stopped thinking about that afternoon in Assine. Itwas too late, but he imagined all the ways his captivity might have been avoided. He shouldhave stayed inside his uncle’s house. He had said no when his friends asked him to come outand play, but they had teased and tormented him. “He feared the devil would capture him,” theytaunted. To prove he wasn’t afraid of the devil he set out with the band of children. The badfeeling he had he kept inside; he didn’t say anything when they stepped into the woods and hisheart quickened.
They had gathered white plums, star apples, tamarind, and mangoes and then feasted onthe fruit. The juice left sticky white streaks that ran from their palms to their elbows. Beforethey could trap a lovebird or a fire-crowned bishop, men with pistols and cutlasses surroundedthem. The children pleaded, “What have we done wrong?” “You have committed offensesagainst our lord,” one of the men replied, without providing details of their crime. Kwabenaand a few of the others tried to run away, but they were caught and threatened with death if theystirred.
The gunmen divided the twenty children into small groups and herded them to the town ofthe ohene (great man). The journey took many hours, and by the time they arrived it was toolate to appear before the lord and make amends. The next day the ohene left town before theycould offer their apologies. With the great man gone for the day, one of the kidnappers invitedthe children to a feast a day’s journey away.
When they arrived at the town after a full day’s trek, multitudes of people filled the squareplaying drums and horns and flutes, others sang and clapped their hands, a circle of dancersswirled and gyrated as onlookers encouraged them with ululations and praise. The childrenwatched the festivities entranced and afraid. That night they slept in the homes of the very nicesinging and dancing townspeople. When Kwabena awoke the next morning, all of hiscompanions had disappeared. The kind man with whom he lodged assured him that hiscompanions had gone to the seaside to fetch provisions and would return in the afternoon. Butnone of them returned that day or the days that followed.
When Kwabena stopped eating and drinking, his host promised to return him to his motherand father. Days later he set out for Ajumako with a stranger who introduced himself as afriend of his father’s. Kwabena was relieved to hear this. They traveled for two days beforearriving at the seaside. Is this where my friends are? Kwabena asked. Before his keeper couldreply, he saw the white-faced men and then the fort.
Three days locked in the dungeon made him feel as though he had always been missingfrom his uncle’s house. Time was at a standstill. In the underground, there was no measure ofthe days, just walls of stone and mortar. The sky was barely visible from the small holes cut inthe ceiling. So he could not tell when the sun transformed the sky from slate to gold, or if it wasthe time of the day when the sun washed away his shadow, or when it fell behind his shouldersmaking him twice as tall, or when the sun slipped below the horizon and colored the milletfields ocher.
Now his only bearings in the world were the groans and cries that echoed through thechamber, the ring and clank of the chains, the smack and hiss of the whip. When the browfowbegan leading the men from the cell to the ship, a number of them clung to the ground alreadyanticipating a worse place and refusing the next leg of the journey. Then the browfow with thewhip started beating them, but they still would not move, more rushed into the cell whippingand kicking until they dragged the limp bodies from the ground.
The boy hung back. He didn’t affix his body to the floor, but he allowed his legs to slackenand his feet to inch along. He didn’t know what the future held, but by this point he knewenough to dread what awaited him aboard the slaver. From the holding cell, he didn’t see thetwo years laboring in a slave gang in Grenada, he didn’t feel the sting of the lash on his back,he didn’t ache from a belly distended with hunger, he didn’t know the delight of a piece ofstolen sugarcane or if caught that the price of the feast was having your teeth knocked out witha cudgel or your mouth stuffed with excrement. He didn’t wish he was dead yet, but he waswise enough to fear the future.
As the men filed out of the dungeon, he rightly suspected there was no way back to hisparents’ house in Ajumako. But he told himself otherwise. Like every other person who crossedthe threshold before him, he promised he would find a way back. But the sight of the oceanmade even the stalwart crumble. When Kwabena boarded the slaver he knew why the men hadclenched the muck of the floor as though it were the soil of their country.
IF THE GREAT NOISE of the dungeon drifted into the chaplain’s residence, Philip Quaquenever mentioned it in the fifty-four letters he wrote from his quarters above the holding cells tothe Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). If the priest caught sightof the boy Kwabena as he was being shipped from the fort, it was unlikely that Quaque wouldhave ever suspected that their paths would cross again as black writers in the Age ofEnlightenment, as representative men of the era of the slave trade. If they encountered oneanother in the courtyard, it is unlikely that they would have exchanged words, or that the boy,the captive, would have guessed that residing in this fort the priest was as cut off from his pastas any slave. How could the boy have known that the priest no longer spoke his mother tongueand that his country too had withered away?
Before I stumbled over his grave in the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle I had never heardof the black priest. Only later did I read his letters in a dusty folio box at the Bodleian Libraryat Oxford University. Buried alongside Governor Maclean and his wife, an English poetrumored to have been poisoned by the governor’s African mistress, and a soldier killed duringthe war with Asante, Quaque commanded the respect and attention that eluded him during hislife. As he lay dying, he asked to be buried in the spur of the castle so that he would beremembered. No doubt he feared being forgotten given his lackluster career and frustratedambitions and agonized that he too might be unceremoniously buried, another corpse hastilydispatched. For half a century he had watched countless slaves disappear without leavingbehind any indication that they had ever existed. Seeing such things might have made him feelvulnerable and caused him to question whether his own life was as ephemeral. By his ownadmission, he had been a failure. A deathbed plea saved him from oblivion.
Quaque was born in the Gold Coast, the son of a wealthy slave trader. At thirteen, he hadbeen sent to England along with two other boys to be educated for service in the slave trade.The other two boys never returned home. They died in England. Thomas Coboro died fromtuberculosis and the other, William Cudjo, Quaque’s cousin, descended into madness and diedin confinement. After twelve years abroad, Quaque returned to the Gold Coast at twenty-five,
the first African priest ordained in the Anglican church. The Company of Merchants paid himto serve as chaplain at Cape Coast Castle and the SPG employed him as a missionary,schoolmaster, and catechist to convert the Akan.
On September 28, 1766, in his fourth letter to the SPG after six months of residing at CapeCoast, he described the “wretched creatures who [were] now languishing under despair in theshadow of death,” by which he meant not the slaves but his heathen countrymen who refused“the glorious light of the gospel.” The African traders and caboceers (headmen) were interestedin commerce, not conversion. Quaque had been unable to secure a single convert among them.His inability to speak any language other than English must have appeared ridiculous andpretentious to them. He had come back from what he described as “the blessed country ofGod,” with no words of his own except those of the whites. As Phyllis Wheatley remarkedabout Quaque, “How like a Barbarian shou’d I look to the natives…being an utter stranger tothe language.”
By his own estimation, he was a shepherd attending to the lost souls of the fort, that is, theEuropean officers and personnel. After a year of indifference, hostility, and insult, heconsidered himself the lamb and the men he had come to shepherd as wolves. The companypersonnel had refused to listen to the Gospel delivered from “sooty lips.”
From the perch of his quarters, he was able to watch one of the largest migrations, albeitforced, that had yet occurred in history. He observed the coffles of slaves arriving on the coast,“bulked” in the underground by the governor, transported by canoes to the slavers waitingoffshore, but he mentioned none of this in his letters. He had viewed it all but decided not towrite a word about the slaves imprisoned two floors below him. Why had he refused to be awitness? Was the sight of his “poor abject countrymen…in cruel bondage” too awful todescribe? Rumors and secondhand reports detailing the violence, which he failed to disclose inhis reports to the SPG, circulated in Britain. A paycheck and a chaplaincy made him a servantof the company. Silence was the proof of his loyalty.
Quaque was writing into a void and he knew it. After seven years in residence on the coast,he had not received “so much as a line from [his] worthy benefactors” since he arrived. Hismissives were self-pitying, obsequious, and percolating with rage. Page after page recited alitany of complaints about the dissolute ways of Europeans on the coast, the poverty of hisquarters, not being paid by the company, the vicious rumors spread about him, the silence ofthe SPG, his lack of prayer books, the governor’s refusal to support his work, the lack of robesfor service, and the poor example of Christian principles offered by slave traders. As long asthere were slaves to be purchased at cheap rates, he commented, the fort personnel would haveno more to do with prayers. Most of Quaque’s time was spent instructing the mixed-raceoffspring of company personnel in reading, writing, and the catechism.
The SPG blamed the failure of Quaque’s mission on his taste for commodities. “Payingmore attention to the purposes of trade than of religion” was, according to them, the primaryreason Quaque had never been able to win any converts. The Company of Merchants promoted“private trading” by the officers because it encouraged African brokers to deliver their slavesand commodities even in the absence of ships. Eking out an existence on small wages or, attimes, no wages at all might have encouraged Quaque to buy and sell slaves.
Quaque resided in the castle for two decades before he dared mention the slaves in a letterto the SPG. Even then, he focused not on the ones languishing below him but on the captives ofa Dutch slaver. This single paragraph in a lifetime of correspondence made him a better manthan his counterpart, the black chaplain at Elmina, Jacobus Capitein, who wrote a thesis at theUniversity of Leiden defending the slave trade on the basis of Christian principles. ThatCapitein had been a slave himself had made no difference.
The nine sentences of Quaque’s letter described a “most melancholy and unhappycircumstance” aboard a Dutch slaver. The captives had revolted and overtaken the ship’s crew,but the victory was short-lived. “They consisted in number about 150. But the most dreadfulcircumstance of all is that after having laid their scheme with subtlety and art, and decoying asmany of their countrymen who came far and near to plunder on board and near the ship, andalso some white sailors of the English in hopes of relieving them, were all indiscriminatelyblown up to upwards of three to four hundred souls.” Quaque blamed the captain’s “brutish”behavior for the tragedy. The captain had denied the slaves sufficient provisions of food andwater.
If even before the slaves arrived at markets in the Americas they could be treated withsuch cruelty, Quaque wondered, then what fate awaited them in the West Indies? “Can we helpbut figuring to ourselves the true picture of the inhumanity those unhappy creatures suffer intheir miserable state of bondage, under the different degrees if austere masters theyunfortunately fall in with in the West Indies?” When a month later the castle slaves ran away,he wrote, “It is easy to conceive that the evils which they seem to complain of, to bear anaffinity to the excess of burden the Children of Israel suffered in the reign of Pharaoh, King ofEgypt, under their task masters.”
After twenty years spent on the coast whining about the respect he had been denied and theinvitations he hadn’t received and the important men who had snubbed him, he had finallyturned his glance elsewhere, at least for one long paragraph. He had seen the traders and theslaves in a new light. The hierarchy was turned upside down. The traders were now thebenighted and the slaves the chosen. The English had disappointed him, so he turned to theslaves. Looking at them, he awaited a confirmation of the workings of Providence, some proofthat the venture had been worth it, some assurance that he hadn’t risked everything but hadnothing to show for it.
I, TOO, WAS a failed witness. Reckoning with my inheritance had driven me to the dungeon,but now it all seemed elusive. I struggled to connect the dots between then and now and to chartthe trajectory between the Gold Coast and Curaçao and Montgomery and Brooklyn. But I keptfumbling.
I could rattle off all the arguments about the devastating effects of having been property,denied the protection of citizenship, and stripped of rights of equality. The simple fact was thatwe still lived in a world in which racism sorts the haves and have-nots and decides who livesand who dies. Racism, according to Michel Foucault, is the social distribution of death; like anactuarial chart, it predicts who would thrive and who would not. Blacks are twice more likely todie than whites at every stage of life and have shorter life spans. In my city, black men havelife spans twenty years shorter than white men’s, and the infant mortality rate among blackwomen rivals that of a third-world country. Blacks are five times more likely to die ofhomicide and ten times more likely to be HIV positive. Half of black children grow up inpoverty and one-third of all African Americans live in poverty. Nearly half of black menbetween the ages of eighteen and twenty-five are in jail, on probation, or on parole, and are fourtimes more likely to be sentenced to death than whites; and black women are eight times morelikely to be imprisoned than white women.
The distribution of wealth is no less dire. Forty years after the passage of the Civil RightsAct, black households possess one-tenth of the wealth of white families; blacks own sevencents for every dollar owned by whites.
This in part explained why I was in the dungeon. But it was personal too. Hovering in an
empty room was my attempt to figure out how this underground had created and marked me.Could I trace my despair back to the first generation stolen from their country? Was it why Isometimes felt as weary of America as if I too had landed in what was now South Carolina in1526 or in Jamestown in 1619? Was it the tug of all the lost mothers and orphaned children? Orwas it that each generation felt anew the yoke of a damaged life and the distress of being anative stranger, an eternal alien?
I was loitering in a slave dungeon less because I hoped to discover what really happenedhere than because of what lived on from this history. Why else begin an autobiography in agraveyard?
THERE WAS a whole set of proscriptions about what I should and should not do based uponmy mother’s childhood in Montgomery, Alabama. When she came to New York aftergraduating from college, her understanding of the color line changed little, if at all. As she sawit, New York was even more dangerous than Alabama because Northerners said one thing butbelieved another; at least with Southerners you knew where you stood. She taught my brotherand me that an array of expected and unforeseen dangers lay in wait for us because we wereblack. For my brother, things were really dire. The smallest mishap could result in hisimminent death. I think Peter was nine when he received his first lecture about white policeofficers. That our father was a police officer at the time didn’t make my brother’s prospectsany less terrifying, but only made the dangers more vivid. The rule was simple: policemen wereto be avoided whenever possible. It was the exact opposite of the lesson white children weretaught.
But it was I, not my brother, who stepped out of line and flouted all of my mother’s rules.She was on her way to pick me up from the dentist’s office late on a freezing Februaryafternoon when her car skidded across an ice patch and she ran a red light. She didn’t see thepolice officer but he saw her. He followed her the block to the dentist’s office where I waswaiting. My mother retrieved me from the office, and when we returned to the parking lot theofficer was waiting for us. He said she ran the light at the corner and told her to hand over herlicense. My mother didn’t have her license because in the rush to pick me up she had left herpurse on the dining room table. I feared that everything my mother had warned me of was aboutto happen.
“Hand over your license, miss,” the officer repeated in a gruff voice. When I looked overat my mother, tears were running down her face. I didn’t know if the tears were due to the coldor if they were the signs of her distress, but seeing my mother cry made me reckless. I calledthe officer every foul name a good twelve-year-old girl who attended Catholic school and whowas prohibited from cursing could utter, the first being a racist and the second being a bully;had I known the word “fascist” then, I would have called him that too. I asked the officer if hewas going to lock us up or shoot us because my mother’s brakes failed and she left her licenseat home. He closed his ticket book with my mother’s half-written ticket inside and said,“Young lady, I’m sorry you believe all that,” and walked back to his patrol car.
I’m certain the police officer could not have imagined his daughter saying the awful thingsI had said to him. A black girl with two ponytails and ashy knees and a plaid school jumper hadshared her view of the world and it frightened him or it shamed him. He recoiled from theugliness of it. To put on that uniform each day, he needed to believe it wasn’t true. As he droveaway, I’m sure he was thankful no child of his lived in the same country I did.
My mother and I drove home in silence. To speak about it would have been to invite badluck. Nor did we breathe a sigh of relief, because we didn’t feel any safer. That evening we had
been fortunate, but we might not be so again.Looking back, I wonder if my mother worried that the rules she had drilled into my brother
and me to protect us in fact might endanger us, or worse, that there was nothing she could do toprotect her children. Even as a child I knew that a wrong turn off the highway, a whistle, or awalk on the wrong side of town could cost you your life if you were black.
Like many black children, my brother and I were taught a set of contradictory lessonsabout our country and our place within it. The picture of the world my mother drew was one ofinfinite possibilities and absolute limitations. Her vision of America was an amalgam of dreamand nightmare: spacious skies, amber waves, and niggers hanging from trees.
I inherited this vision. My understanding of being black was defined by some rudimentarynotion of us and them that was clarified whenever my mother spoke of Governor Wallace,White Citizen’s Councils, and her life in Alabama, or when I witnessed the anxiety that filledher body as she watched the evening news waiting for word of some new terrible thing that hadhappened to black people or of some crime of which we had been accused.
My mother had grown up in a context in which white violence was something you took forgranted and tried your best to avoid. She taught us the lesson her mother had taught her: “Becareful. All the white world sees is black skin.” My mother’s stories had become mine. Soonenough I would have my own stories with my own names.
None of the lessons imparted by my mother had anything to do with radical politics, atleast not officially. She was an integrationist and a striver; she, along with my grandmother,had participated in the bus boycott in Montgomery. Yet the map of racial power in America shehanded me might as well have been taken from a Black Power handbook. It was perhaps the oneway I saw the world as my mother did. I too saw it as being ruled by the color line. It was aworld in which blackness too often translated into “no human involved.”
I, TOO, LIVE in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. Itis the ongoing crisis of citizenship. Questions first posed in 1773 about the disparity between“the sublime ideal of freedom” and the “facts of blackness” are uncannily relevant today. Theechoes could be heard in a plea, still waiting for an answer, chalked onto a rooftop in the NinthWard of New Orleans: “Help. The water is rising. Pleas.” Six people are trapped on the roof andtwo of them are waving American flags, hoping against the odds that the Stars and Stripesmight make their plight visible, keep them afloat, and demonstrate unequivocally, “We arecitizens too.” But the anxiety and the doubt fueling the assertion was made plain by thephotograph’s caption: “Cast Away.”
History doesn’t unfold with one era bound to and determining the next in an unbrokenchain of causality. It is “without providence or final cause,” writes Foucault. “There is only ‘theiron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance.’” So the point isn’t the impossibility ofescaping the stranglehold of the past, or that history is a succession of uninterrupted defeats, orthat the virulence and tenacity of racism is inexorable. But rather that the perilous conditions ofthe present establish the link between our age and a previous one in which freedom too was yetto be realized.
The past is neither inert nor given. The stories we tell about what happened then, thecorrespondences we discern between today and times past, and the ethical and political stakesof these stories redound in the present. If slavery feels proximate rather than remote andfreedom seems increasingly elusive, this has everything to do with our own dark times. If theghost of slavery still haunts our present, it is because we are still looking for an exit from the
IN THE PHOTOGRAPH of the dungeon in the tourist guide for Cape Coast Castle, the space iscrammed with boys and girls from the local school costumed as slaves. Eight adolescent boysare chained to the walls with their arms spread in giant Ys. Their scrawny bare chests jut out asthey pull against the iron fetters. Rows of boys and girls are packed in front of them. The girlsin the first row are wearing plain cotton wrappers, which make them appear like village girlsrather than like slaves. They are sitting primly in front of the boys as if posed for the annualclassroom picture. The girls seem uncomfortable and a bit shy. Most of them have averted theirgazes from the camera and are looking toward the far left corner of the room, where I imagine ateacher is standing. One girl stares head-on at the camera with a furtive smile. The boys,squatting in rows behind the girls and filling the entirety of the room, have affected a morestolid and downcast look. Their arms are folded across the tops of their knees with the elbowssticking out at sharp angles. The photo is underexposed so I could barely make out their brownfaces in the dark room.
I wondered how the children made sense of pretending to be slaves. Did being crammedinto the dungeon and forced to sit on the cold grimy stones help them to understand the past?Did it frighten them, or did they daydream as the photographer counted to three? It was not thekind of make-believe they would have dreamed up on their own. Explaining that the slaves hadbeen forced to stay in this room for as long as three months wouldn’t have made the childrenany less uncomfortable. It might have made them feel sad for the people locked inside or theymight have giggled nervously because they didn’t really understand it or they might haveshifted restlessly because they wanted to be outside playing. Their teacher would have toldthem that in the eighteenth century one-fourth of the slaves transported were children and in thenineteenth century children made up nearly 40 percent of the Atlantic slave trade. But historywas one thing, and having to pretend something bad was happening to you was another.
The photograph tried to create an endearing image of the captives. How could you look atchildren in chains and not be moved? But the effort to invoke the dead and to lodge experiencein tangible persons failed. By providing the anonymous with faces, the image succeeded only inkilling the dead a second time by replacing them with stand-ins. The loss that the photostruggled to articulate was at cross-purposes with the gaggle of children huddled in thedungeon. Through a sleight of hand, by substituting one set of bodies with another, the phototried to remedy the slave’s oblivion. It didn’t bring them any nearer but hid the one true thing—they were gone. The photo could only express the loss, not repair it.
No one looking at the photograph could forget for a moment that the picture did notreproduce or document the past. “The hell holes of the most horrific conditions imaginable”read the text in the brochure. But what did a picture of hell look like? All the photograph reallyexpressed was yearning. But proxies and surrogates couldn’t mend the wound or bridge thedistance between the living and the dead.
The picture was a fiction of love. It permitted us to believe that we could coexist with thecaptives, witness their suffering, and remedy their defacement. The photo intended to bind ourlove to persons rather than totems. But the crowd packed in this room would remain withoutnames and faces. That was the nature of the crime that had transformed persons into cargo. Itwas now impossible to fill in the blank spaces.
Love longed for an object, but the slaves were gone. In the dungeon, missing the dead wasas close to them as I would come. And all that stood between artifice and oblivion was themuck on the floor.
The Dead Book
IT IS SAID that if you look at the sea long enough, scenes from the past come back to life. It issaid that “the sea is history.” And “the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.”Looking at the Atlantic, I thought of the girl. There were countless others buried at the bottomof the ocean, but she was the one I had my eyes set on. If I concentrated hard enough I couldsee it all happening again.
The billow of the ship’s sail shuddered in the rush of air. The canvas awning occluded thesky. It could have been dawn or noon or dusk. Time had stopped. The Recovery was a world allits own. Three sailors, the captain, and the girl were the only ones visible on the ship. Whathappened next, no one could agree on, except, of course, that the girl ended up dead.
Everything else depends upon how you look at things or where you were standing when herbody was suspended from the slaver’s mast. No one saw the same girl; she was outfitted in adifferent guise for each who dared look. She appeared as a tortured virgin, a pregnant woman, asyphilitic tart, and a budding saint. And the explanation of how she came to hang in the air,flailing like a tattered banner, was no less fanciful: The girl declined to dance naked with thecaptain on the deck. The girl snubbed the captain and refused his bed. The girl had the pox andthe captain flogged her as a cure for the venereal disease.
The captain, the surgeon, and the abolitionist all disagreed about what happened on thedeck of the Recovery, yet they all insisted they were trying to save the girl’s life. In this
respect, I am as guilty as the rest. I too am trying to save the girl, not from death or sickness ora tyrant but from oblivion. Yet I am unsure if it is possible to salvage an existence from ahandful of words: the supposed murder of a Negro girl. Hers is a life impossible to reconstruct,not even her name survived. I suppose I could have called her Phibba or Theresa or Sally orBelinda. With a name she might have been more difficult to forget. A name would haveafforded the illusion of knowing her and made less painful the fact that the girl “never willhave any existence outside the precarious domicile of words” that allowed her to be murdered.
A few lines from a musty trial transcript are the entire story of a girl’s life. Barring this,she would have been extinguished without a trace. These words are the only defense of herexistence, the only barrier against her disappearance; and these words killed her a second timeand consigned her to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Of the twenty-one slaves who died aboard the Recovery, and the million and more tossedinto the Atlantic, one girl comes into view. Exceptional circumstances prevented her fromsimply vanishing into the heap of obscure lives scattered along the ocean’s floor: a captain wastried for her murder.
The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade first brought the case to the attentionof the public. On April 2, 1792, William Wilberforce immortalized the girl in a speechdelivered before the House of Commons and the world lent its attention, at least for a few days.When the trial ended, so did any interest in the girl. No one has thought of her for at least twocenturies, but her life still casts a shadow.
THE CAPTAIN TIED a gun tackle around her wrist, fastened it to the mizzen stay, andsuspended the naked girl above the deck. Her skin was covered with pustules, the ribs jutted outof her slight torso, and one of her legs was misshapen. The captain held the tackle while one ofthe cabin boys pulled and jerked her limbs as her body hung in the air. She swung for fiveminutes before the captain released the tackle and the girl fell to the deck. Then the captainsuspended her by the other wrist. He watched the body writhe and then let her drop to the deck.He strung her up by her right leg, then he repeated the ritual with the left leg. Gravity emptiedher upper half of blood. Her appendages turned gray, then blue from the lack of oxygen. Thepressure of the rope made bloody cuffs around her wrists and ankles and caused her limbs toswell. The color in her face drained. Her insides gave way. Her wrist and elbow were dislocatedfrom bearing the weight of her body.
The captain then tied the tackle around both wrists and pulled her into the air. He reachedfor his whip and he beat the girl on her back, buttocks, behind her knees, then slashed her withhis whip across her arms, her ribs, the sides of her abdomen, her hips, and then across herbreasts, torso, and the front of her legs. Her body twisted and turned as the rawhide struck her.The whip tore and blistered her flesh, covering her with welts.
The captain let go the rope and the girl crashed onto the deck. She didn’t budge. She wasstill breathing, but she didn’t move. She collapsed on the deck, with her head drooping towardher knees. The captain lifted her head, slapped her face, and said, “The bitch is sulky.”
Watching the girl crawl on hands and knees back to the ship’s hold, the third mate askedthe captain if he should help the girl down. The captain cursed her again and said, “She mayfind her own way.”
The girl crept to the hatchway and tumbled down the steps of the ladder. The ship’ssurgeon retrieved the girl from the hold the next day. She had fouled herself, so he washed herand attempted to revive her by rubbing alcohol on her temples, her nose, and her back. Hespooned water into her mouth but she would not swallow. For three days she refused all
sustenance. As the girl lay on the deck, she racked with convulsions. Fluids escaped her bodyand formed a puddle beneath her. The open wounds and the smell of decay attracted vermin.When a sailor discovered that she was dead, he notified the captain and then threw heroverboard.
THE THIRD MATE ARRANGED the dancers. The women moved with grudging andperfunctory steps and kept their arms locked close to their sides and clasped around theirwaists. The rows of faces were dull and impassive. The figures swayed and jiggled andbounced, and he danced alongside them. The sun crept overhead as the women shifted back andforth and reeled from side to side. The girl sat alone at the outskirts of the group, drowsy andlethargic. She hung back like she always did and ignored the third mate when he motioned forher to join the others. Not even the threat of the whip could stir her, so he let her be. When thecaptain saw she was idle, he called to the boy Evans, “Get the tackle.” Since they had left OldCalabar three weeks earlier, the captain had singled this girl out and beaten her for not eating ornot dancing or some other thing.
When the third mate looked up again, the girl was hoisted into the air. From where he wasstanding, just to the side of the barricado, the slave quarters on deck, he saw her clearly. Thesurgeon was on the awning deck next to him. The rest of the men were scattered about the shipdoing their chores and didn’t much notice the girl hanging from the rigging. They didn’tobserve the girl because you couldn’t see that well around the barricado; it was about seven feethigh and partly concealed the captain and the girl, and the men didn’t give much attention tosuch things, anyway. Many of them had been in irons and on the receiving end of the captain’sblows. It was best to stay away from what didn’t concern you.
He was watching the women and laughing with the surgeon when they caught sight of thegirl. The women continued to dance but they had turned to look at the girl thrashing at the endof the rope. They paid more attention to the girl than to their jig and shuffle. All you could hearwas their feet pounding on the deck and the dull thump of the whip on the girl.
She didn’t cry out. The captain beat the girl himself, and he tugged at her leg as she hungin the air. The captain sputtered something at the girl, but the third mate couldn’t hear what wassaid. The whole thing took about half an hour, but it seemed longer. When the captain untiedher and she fell to the deck, the girl was still alive. She was sitting all rolled up like a ball withher head touching her knees. Then she started to crawl back to the hatchway, but the third matecould see she would never make it on her own. Wanting to assist the girl, he asked the captain,“Sir, should I put her down?” But the captain forbade anyone to help the girl.
The third mate couldn’t say for sure if the captain was trying to heal the girl or to harmher. It might have been for either purpose. Mostly the captain was a fair man.
THE GIRL WAS SICK from the time she set foot on the Recovery. It was gonorrhea, thesurgeon was sure of it. The pox was what they called it. A few days after she had come onboard, he perceived it. Pus-filled sores covered her skin, a discharge ran down her legs, and shewas falling away in the flesh. It was definitely not the bloody flux, which when bad so coveredthe deck with blood and mucus that it resembled a slaughterhouse. The venereal distemper wascommon among the blacks, which was no surprise. The other dead one, Venus, which was whatthe crew called her, had it too. No, the girl didn’t die because of it. It was a simple discharge,which was why he hadn’t given her any mercury. Bleeding, purging, injections, and medicine of
niter (potassium nitrate) and gum arabic—he had used all the precautions in his power. It washis first voyage as a surgeon on a slaver and he didn’t intend to set foot on another.
The disease had been stable, although the girl could not eat as the other slaves did, or joinin any of their amusements. Had the surgeon not been much interrupted in his treatment by thecaptain—that is, by the captain beating her—the girl would have recovered. The pox didn’t killthe girl, the captain did. She died in consequence of the flogging. If it had not been so, shewould have gone to market.
None of the other sailors besides the surgeon himself and the third mate and the two boyswho assisted the captain ever talked about what happened with the girl. Such things werecustomary aboard a slaver. Everyone knew murder was part of “work at sea.” “Outrages of thatnature were so common on board the slave ships that they were looked upon with as muchindifference as any trifling occurrence; their frequency had rendered them familiar.”
The surgeon meant the flogging, but taking the women was customary too. It was commonknowledge. Any seamen would tell you, “Sailors were allowed to have intercourse with such ofthe black women whose consent they can procure. The officers were permitted to indulge theirpassions among them at pleasure, and sometimes were guilty of such brutal excesses, asdisgraced human nature.” When the girls came on board, the sailors decided which ones they’dtake for themselves. “The prey was divided, upon the spot, and only reserved until opportunityoffered. Where resistance or refusal would be utterly in vain.”
He had not mentioned the girl or any of the others in the journal he handed over to thecustomhouse in Grenada because he was afraid. It was a record of the white people only. Hewould not swear to the dead book, the journal of the black people who died on board. Therehappened so many deaths among the slaves and so many cruelties committed by the captainthat the surgeon couldn’t swear to the dead book. He pretended to kiss the Bible and mutteredthe oath, but he kissed his thumb and not the book. A true account would have been verydisagreeable to the captain and dangerous for himself.
The captain had locked him in irons, cheated him of half his pay, and deceived him of twoslaves, but this had nothing to do with his testimony. He never told anyone he would ruinCaptain Kimber. It was as false as God was true. “Revenge” wasn’t a word that had crossed hislips. He was promised two slaves and it was only fair that he should get them.
WILLIAM WILBERFORCE ONLY HALF LISTENED to what the surgeon told him about thegirl. The details weren’t the truth of it, anyway. He had heard them before, the accounts ofslaves trussed, burned, mutilated, ravaged, and dumped into the sea, and had learned by heartthe facts about person-to-tonnage ratios, the most efficient arrangements of slaves tightlypacked in the hold, the seasonal fluctuations of mortality rates, and the portion of each cargolikely to suffer from dehydration, malnutrition, and dysentery. But the captain and the girl—itwas allegory. Wilberforce didn’t see the wreck the surgeon described or the unsightly creatureshunned by the other women, but a bashful girl costumed as an English maiden, a Venus pudicawhose modesty dictated that she hide herself, a virgin persecuted by a monster.
It sickened him to think about her pudenda exposed and her wrists tied and her long legsand buttocks covered with stripes, so frighteningly vulnerable to the whims of the captain. Shewas no Bridgetown prostitute or Kingston whore, but a chaste girl who died trying to shieldherself from the tyrant’s eyes. She had fallen into the hands of a brute, when she needed aprotector.
The girl touched something in Wilberforce. It was his shame. He wanted others to feel ittoo.
On April 2, 1792, when the fiery young moderate stood before the House of Commonsarguing yet again for the abolition of the slave trade, he was desperate. In 1789 he hadpresented his first motion; it had been postponed for nearly two years and then defeated. Thistime he had chosen his words carefully, so as not to offend his adversaries. He wanted the menassembled before him aroused by the urgency of the task. He wanted them to smell the stenchof slavery and to feel the great misery condensed into the small space of the slave ship. Hewanted them to envision the girl and to know what he knew: we are all guilty. What he wantedthem to see was not the girl’s disgrace but their own. It is we ourselves that degraded them tothat wretched brutishness. It is we ourselves that have been degraded so much more than them.He wanted the members of Parliament to squirm in their seats, to flinch before her batteredbody, to recoil with every lash that cut the girl’s flesh. He wanted them to bear the burden ofshame, so he paraded her before them:
A young girl of fifteen, of extreme modesty, who finding herself in a situationincident to her sex, was extremely anxious to conceal it. The captain of the vessel,instead of encouraging so laudable a disposition, tied her to the waist, and placed herin a position so as to make her a spectacle to the whole crew. In this situation he beather; but not thinking the exhibition he had made sufficiently conspicuous, he tied herup by the legs, and then also beat her. But his cruel ingenuity was not yet exhausted,for he next tied her up by one leg, after which she lost all sensation, and in the courseof three days expired. This was an indisputable fact. If anything could in the annals ofhuman depravity, go beyond this, he owned he did not know where to look for it.
He chose not to speak of Venus, the other dead girl. The pet name licensed debauchery andmade it sound agreeable. Nor did he mention the nineteen men who died. Too many dead slaveswould have had the opposite effect and diminished the significance of the tragedy. From theZong case he had learned that 132 live slaves dumped into the sea were just cargo. It was easierto feel fully the loss of one life and to hang your hopes on one girl. Too many deaths wereunmanageable.
THE CAPTAIN HAD CALCULATED wrong. It was too late by the time he realized it. She wasa rack of skin and bones and he had tried everything, but she wouldn’t eat horse beans or yamsor manioc with slabber sauce. He had used the speculum orbis (to pry her teeth apart and shovelin some food), thumbscrews (to make her submit), coals pressed near the lips (to scare her),and four days of the whip (to break her stubbornness), all to no avail. Melted lead poured on thehead sometimes worked, but none of the surgeon’s remedies improved her lethargy orsulkiness. Nor would she dance, which likely would have lifted the black cloud of melancholy.The girl’s low spirits and refusal to eat were the telltale signs. He had once heard a surgeon say,“No one who had the melancholy was ever cured.”
When he observed her to be wasting away, she had been aboard only a few days. He knewenough to be suspicious. Slaves from Old Calabar had a reputation for destroying themselves.The first mate confirmed it. The girl had not taken her food and refused to take any. Mildmeans were used to divert her from her resolution but she still refused to eat. He believed hecould save her, but then the girl forced his hand.
When they first left the Guinea coast he had been hopeful for a good journey. But with two
boys and seven men dead, he began to fear all his labor was in vain. To be frustrated by theirmortality after all his efforts was too much to bear. What had to be suffered to load andtransport a slave cargo was beyond the capability of most men. The natives would steal youblind if you let them. A fixed price was a game to them and the terms of trade changed on awhim: one season it would be striped cloth, then the next season only red was acceptable, butyou had none and a ship to load. Sometimes the gun was the only way to strike a bargain. Butthe slaves were the true affliction. The slaves were filthier than swine. To endure that reek formonths, to have the violent smell of waste and sickness and death cling to your clothes andyour skin and inside your lungs (the camphor and citrus and the smoke didn’t make a damneddifference), and to watch it all, everything you had hoped for, disappear with each morning’scount. Well, it was hard to maintain your wits about you.
On the awning deck, he saw it all slip away and they still had a month to go before theyreached Grenada. When the girl refused to dance with the others…well, what could he do? Thegirl would never be corrected. That much was apparent. Such a waste. His attempts atinstruction had failed with her, but by God the others would learn. Otherwise, he’d have tostave off an insurrection. It took only one bad seed to plant the idea of rebellion, so you had todestroy it quickly, before it took root and spread. The others would take their lead from how hehandled the girl. It was essential to teach them that their will was no match for his. He’d seethem all dead first.
Each time the whip hit her, her head jerked around as if she was trying to find him to starehim down with those cold, flat eyes. The slattern was trying to show him she still had somefight left. One way or the other, she’d be dead in a few days. It was a defeat and a smallcomfort. “Let her down,” he shouted to the boy.
EIGHT DAYS AFTER Wilberforce’s speech, London gawked at the girl being beaten. Asatirical print depicting the flogging was plastered in taverns and coffeehouses and print shops.All that bruised flesh on display attracted pornographers, flagellants, and abolitionists alike.There was no hiding from English vice. In order to fight depravity, it had to be exposed. Gazingat the girl’s buttocks and shapely legs caused a riot of warring passions in gentleman viewerswho would have been familiar with the lubricity that attended whipping bottoms. Parlor roomreading of Abbé Boileau’s Historia Flagellantium would have explained the relation betweenthe loins and the buttocks. When the buttocks are stricken, “the animal spirits are forced backviolently towards the os pubis and they excite lascivious movements on account of theproximity of the genitals.” And The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure schooled them in therejuvenating effects of flogging on “sluggish juices and flagging, shrivelly parts, that rise tolife only by virtue of those titillating ardors created by the discipline of their opposites.”
The public was flummoxed. Clearly the illustration, titled The Abolition of the Slave Tradein homage to Wilberforce’s motion, was intended to arouse, but how was the question? Was itprotest or a send-up? Was the print ridiculing Wilberforce’s moral conceits or mocking thecaptain? Was the girl a tart or a suffering innocent? The nubile maiden persecuted by theleering captain provoked indignation and stirred those flagging shriveled parts too. The whitecloth draped over the girl’s dark sprawled limbs made her appear indecent and exposed, moreso than if she were simply naked. The cloth was an indulgence of the artist. It created apeekaboo or striptease effect and called attention to the parts of her body—the long legs, roundbottom, and pert breasts—that it should be covering but failed to. The girl’s nudity wasexaggerated by the contrast with the fully outfitted captain and the similarly attired sailors, andthe threat made plain by the vertical pole behind her.
No doubt the gentlemen tried to avert their gazes, but everywhere they looked, they couldsee her. They assured themselves that what held their attention was a loathing of depravity,rather than depravity itself. The exposed body of the negresse exercised a certain gravitationalpull, which they fought to subdue, at least in public. Luckily there was the captain to blame forhaving to behold the girl’s battered body. He was the brute responsible. An enlightened mancould not enjoy looking at a picture like this, but morally they were required to.
Unlike a man of decency, the captain enjoyed what he saw. It was clear from the way heleered at the girl. The line of his mouth was squiggled up in a smile. His hands fondled hischest in the way a man might after eating a delicious meal of mutton and sweetbreads andfancy iced cakes and tea thick with spoonfuls of sugar, then pushing away from the table,drowsy and sated. Contented was how he looked.
It was plain to see there was no delight in the boy’s face. He wanted to look away,although he didn’t, fearing how the captain might take it. The girl writhing like that made himtremble too. Torn between hauling the girl as the captain demanded and letting her down, whichwas what he wanted, he decided to protect his hide. What could a boy do? He himself had beenbadly used but could do nothing to stop it. It was between him and the girl, well what could hedo?
The two sailors made a joke of it. The first sailor remarked, “Our girlies at Wapping arenever flogged for protecting their modesty.” And the other responded, “By God that’s too bad ifhe had taken her to bed with him it would have been well enough. I’m sick of this blackbusiness.” The girlies at Wapping (a parish on the Thames notorious for its ale-houses filledwith pirates, mutineers, and sailors) were prostitutes, loose women, and disorderly persons, thefemale complements of the picaresque proletarian.
The joke derailed the terror of the scene and relieved the gentlemen viewers’ anxiety. “Nodifference, no-none at night” when all beauteous dames, whether slaves or whores, were alike.Then the gentlemen could imagine themselves as either the spanker or the spanked and relishthe pleasures and dangers of slavery. After a few chuckles and the exchange of a bawdywisecrack, it was easy to turn your back and walk away.
HAD JOHN WESKETT SEEN the girl slumped on the deck, no doubt he would have decidedthat her death was the result of melancholy, in which case it was an uninsurable loss. The
standard cargo policy covered slaves against all accidents except “death from natural causes.”The London Assurance Company Policy on slaves provided “that it was free from the death ofslaves either natural, violent or voluntary.” No, the insurers were not liable for natural or self-inflicted death; such deaths were the result of “an inherent vice in the slaves themselves.”
In his eighteenth-century tome on English insurance law, A Complete Digest of the Theory,Laws, and Practice of Insurance, John Weskett defined the parameters of damages needing tobe taken into account by insurers. Under the entry “slaves,” he wrote: “The insurer takes uponhim the risk of loss, capture and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them; butnatural death is always understood to be expected: by natural death is meant, not only when ithappens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair,which often happens: but when slaves were killed or thrown into the sea in order to quell aninsurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.”
Weskett arranged things in classes according to degrees of perishability. A slave cargo wasno different from other commodities. Slaves, like china, limes, or silk, were susceptible to risksof many different kinds and were in the median range of peril. The hazards presented by thetransport of slave commodities at sea were divided into two classes—accidental destructionand natural death. Yet natural death was not in itself sufficient to distinguish slaves from othercommodities that withered and decayed. Death was just a variant of spoilage. A dead girl wasnot really all that different from rotten fruit.
WHEN CAPTAIN KIMBER WAS DELIVERED to Newgate prison seven days afterWilberforce delivered his speech at the House of Commons, he didn’t write a word about whathad happened on the ship’s deck in the note he sent to his lawyer. During the trial, he nevertook the stand or tried to defend what he had done. Nor did he bring forth a single witness tocontradict the charges of the third mate and the surgeon. He counted on his peers to understandwhat was required of him. Forms of correction, which might on first appearance seem harsh,were sometimes necessary in achieving the desired results. His sole aim had been to keep thegirl alive and healthy until they reached the market at Grenada. As master it was his duty tomanage the risks and hazards as best he could. A ship was its own government and none couldbe safe with a fainthearted commander.
The abolitionists had made a big scandal of one dead nigger, two now that they had addedthe second girl, with all their lies. The whole of the country was pointing the finger andlaughing at him. In Cruikshank’s illustration, he looked like a degenerate and the wench atormented sprite. He had wanted to smash his fist through the pane of the print shop window.Wilberforce would answer for sullying his name.
It was his good fortune that the owners of the Recovery hadn’t lost faith in him. Mr. Jacksreassured him that nothing would come of the charge. The Duke of Clarence supported him,and he trusted the Admiralty Court to do what was right. Were two dead girls more importantthan the prosperity and commerce of Great Britain? Were the fools and idiots ranting aboutabolition blind? The fruits and majesty of the empire would be impossible without slavery.Prosperity had a price. There was no getting around it—death was the cost of the Africa trade.It was as certain as the day was long. An iron hand was the only way to manage it.
The judge said as much during the opening of the trial. He advised the jury, when decidingthe matter of the captain’s guilt, to take into consideration the particular circumstances of thehigh seas, “where all life is violence. This consideration makes a very great difference betweenthe actions done upon sea and actions done upon land…You have to judge of ferocious men,who have few but strong ideas, peculiar to their own employment, hardened by danger, fearless
by habit. The preservation of ships and lives depends often upon some act of severity, tocommand instant obedience to discipline and supreme command. These scenes of violencepresent a picture of human nature not very amiable, but are frequently justifiable, andabsolutely requisite; as without which no commerce, no navigation, no defence of the kingdomcan be maintained or exist.” When the jury acquitted him of the murder of the two girls andcharged the third mate and the surgeon with perjury, the captain knew they believed it too.
EVEN AFTER Wilberforce’s measure for the abolition of the trade had been eviscerated by theaddition of the word “gradual,” which allowed the trade to flourish for another fifteen years, thegreat emancipator experienced the bliss of knowing that he had demanded justice for millionswho could not ask for it themselves. He did not permit the ugly truth of things to contaminatethis joy. The girl’s death had changed nothing.
Had she lived, however, everything would have been different. While he would havepreferred that the girl never have been stolen and sold to a trader on the Guinea coast andstowed away in the hold of a merchant ship bound for the Americas, had she arrived inGrenada, then he too would have clung to the word “gradual” and used it like a shield or abarricade or a rampart before the word “emancipation.” Liberty was a seed that if planted inpoor soil failed to vegetate into maturity. It was the child of reason. “Before men can benefitfrom the wisdom of laws, it was necessary they should have some idea of freedom. Freedomitself was a blessing the most valuable in nature; but it could be enjoyed only by a nation wherethe faculty of thought had been for some time employed. He hoped the day would arrive whenall mankind would enjoy its blessings; but this neither was nor could be the case at present withthe unhappy negroes in the West Indies; and from these reflections he was led to believe that noman could in reality be their friend, who proposed anything that could lead them to hope fortheir emancipation.” The course toward freedom need not be precipitous. The thought of slavesset loose in the world without masters seemed reckless and likely to end in atrocity—the canefields aflame with French ideas.
He regretted deeply the circumstances that destroyed the girl’s life, but in truth she wasmore useful dead than alive. Her sacrifice had not been without purpose; it afforded a salutarylesson. In this respect she had been fortunate. He hoped as much for himself. It was thisembrace of sacrifice that led others to call him a saint. He held his own life to be no moreimportant than the girl’s, and this was tested when the captain threatened to kill him. On theadvice of the prime minister, who was a close friend, Wilberforce had quickly dispatched amemorandum refusing the captain’s ridiculous demands for a public apology, five thousandpounds in cash, and a comfortable place in government. Unfortunately, the captain persisted.The rascal had followed him in the streets shouting insults, challenged him to a duel, stalkedhis private residence, and promised revenge. A friend (Lord Rokeby), concerned that his lifewas in danger, had insisted on sharing his carriage and riding with a pistol in his pocket.Entertaining the idea of a revolver in his own hand made Wilberforce wince. He had allowedhimself to be called a coward rather than duel with another enraged slave captain whom he hadoffended. By his own estimation, the right was with the bleeding lamb and not the raging tiger.Unafraid, he reassured his friend that “if the captain were to commit any act of violence itwould be beneficial rather than injurious to the cause.”
THE LADLE OF cold horse beans settled in her palms. She pressed her fingers together and the
fibrous mash oozed between them and made a squishing sound like a foot stuck in mud. Theboatswain eyed her as he passed among the rows of women and watched her lips move. Therewas nothing inside her mouth, since she had decided against eating. Her lips moved slowly asshe talked to herself and her head was tilted to one side as if she were listening to someone atthe same time. The other women couldn’t understand her words, but from her eyes they knewshe was gone.
When she landed on the ship, the wish, which had taken root in the holding pen in Calabar,blossomed. No matter what new torments the captain inflicted, nothing would pass her lips. Noteven the hands attacking her each night could break her resolve. The hands swarmed her bodyand pinched her thighs and stabbed her insides and nipped her breasts and strangled her throatand stuffed their claws in her mouth so that she could hardly breathe. They plucked her eyesout. They tore off her limbs. A rat scampered away with her tongue. The others pretended not tonotice anything. But she knew they were not sleeping. She could hear the racing hearts of thewomen packed around her. The hands were trying to kill her, and the women didn’t budge fromthe wooden planks, acting as though they were already dead. In the morning, her missing armsand legs were replaced, waterlogged and twisted; her tongue no longer fit her mouth; her eyessank to the back of her head. Her middle was bloated and stretched tight like the skin of a drum.
For twenty-eight days, she had climbed through the hatchway and poured onto the deckwith the others and not eaten. Once they had lost sight of the coast, her hunger had disappearedtoo. Four weeks without food left her dreamy and intoxicated. Short-lived bouts of elationmade her feel unoccupied, disburdened, sovereign, as though she had found a country of herown. When the rapture ebbed, she was just a worldless girl again; her belly turned into stonesand the thing gnawing her intestines took a ferocious bite. The leaden feeling radiated from thepit of her stomach and spread through her body, and she nearly collapsed from its weight. Herfeet became unsteady and her legs crumpled, forcing her to recline on the deck.
The women were assembled a few feet away, but it might well have been a thousand. Theyheld back from the girl, steering clear of her bad luck, pestilence, and recklessness. Some saidshe had lost her mind. What could they do, anyway? The women danced and sang as she laydying.
One hundred forty-eight women pounded the deck. The sound entered the girl’s body insmall tremors. She listened to the songs, uncomprehending. The din in her head prevented herfrom keeping track of what they were saying. The world clamored. In the jumble of sound, shediscerned the creaking of the ship as it expanded and contracted, the grumble and complaint ofthe sailors, the men wrestling with their chains belowdecks, the barked orders of the captain,rats scuttling in the hold, the whirr of ropes, canvas whipping in the air, the ring and tug of thepulleys, the gulls squawking, the whales spurting, flying fish slicing through the water, the lowrumble of sharks, the high-pitched hum of the sea, and the cities of the dead laughing andcrying out.
She had discovered a way off the ship. It worried her that the ancestors might shun her, orthe gods might be angry and punish her by bringing her back as a goat or a dog, or she wouldroam the earth directionless and never find her way beyond the sea, but she risked it anyway, itwas the only path open. When the two boys plummeted into the sea, they had made leavinglook so easy.
She curled into a ball in the corner of the deck. Her body hurt and she trembled. Thefurtive glances of the women made her feel pitiful and weak. Had she been capable of tears,they would have streamed down her face. Had her tongue not made speech impracticable, had itbeen possible for a corpse to speak, she would have said, “You are wrong. I am going to meetmy friends.” All they could see was a girl slumped in a dirty puddle and not the one soaring and
on her way home.
IF THE STORY ENDED there, I could feel a small measure of comfort. I could hold on to thisinstant of possibility. I could find a salutary lesson in the girl’s suffering and pretend a storywas enough to save her from oblivion. I could sigh with relief and say, “It all happened so longago.” Then I could wade into the Atlantic and not think of the dead book.
Lose Your Mother
AS I TRAVELED through Ghana, no one failed to recognize me as the daughter of slaves, sothe few stories people shared were kinder and less severe than they would be otherwise. No onesaid things like slaves were a bunch of stupid and backward people, or confided they were fitonly for manual labor that required strong arms, or called them barbarians or criminals. If youbelieved that slavery was a relatively benign institution in Africa, then you certainly would notexpect to hear such things, but in fact, masters and traders spoke about their slaves in exactlythese terms and people continue to do so today. In my company, the polite refrained from suchremarks and instead made jokes about how I had found my way back home or teased me aboutsearching for my roots. They were used to Americans with identity problems. None openlyexpressed surprise or amazement that nearly two centuries after the abolition of the Atlanticslave trade, I was still hoping to find a hint or sign of the captives. If they experienced a twingeof remorse, no one let on. And even if I was indiscreet enough to mention my slave origins,most refused to follow me down this dangerous path and responded with studied indifference toall my talk of slavery. But silence and withholding were not the same as forgetting. Despite thedictates of law and masters, which prohibited the discussion of a person’s origins, everyoneremembered the stranger in the village, everyone recalled who had been a slave and with adiscerning glance just as easily identified their descendants.
As it turned out, the slave was the only one expected to discount her past. It surprised meat first. Why would those who had lost the most be inclined or likely to forget? Clearly evensomeone like me, who was three generations away from slavery and who had neither a countrynor a clan to reclaim, hadn’t been deterred from searching. But as I traveled along the slaveroute, I soon found out about all the elaborate methods that had been employed to make slavesforget their country.
In every slave society, slave owners attempted to eradicate the slave’s memory, that is, toerase all the evidence of an existence before slavery. This was as true in Africa as in theAmericas. A slave without a past had no life to avenge. No time was wasted yearning for home,no recollections of a distant country slowed her down as she tilled the soil, no image of hermother came to mind when she looked into the face of her child. The pain of all she had lost didnot rattle in her chest and make it feel tight. The absentminded posed no menace. Yet morethan guns, shackles, and whips were required to obliterate the past. Lordship and bondagerequired sorcery too.
EVERYONE TOLD ME a different story about how the slaves began to forget their past. Wordslike “zombie,” “sorcerer,” “witch,” “succubus,” and “vampire” were whispered to explain it. Inthese stories, which circulated throughout West Africa, the particulars varied, but all of themended the same—the slave loses mother. Never did the captive choose to forget; she was
always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke ofbad fortune, was never an act of volition.
When I asked, “What happened to the ones taken across the waters?” people passed ontwice-told tales in which herbs, baths, talismans, and incantations transformed slaves into blankand passive automatons. In Ouidah, a town that had been a significant port on the Slave Coast, auniversity student told me that slaves were marched through a grove that induced forgetting, orthat they encircled a tree of forgetfulness. Women had to circle the tree seven times, and menhad to circle it nine times in order to forget their origins and accept their slave status.
The student joked, “The tree didn’t work because now you are back.” He pointed out thetree of return on the slave route.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I replied. “Why did they want the ones who had forgotten toreturn?”
He just smiled.“Well, how do you say tree of return in the Fon language?” I asked.“There’s no word for it in our language because it’s just something we tell foreigners.”Every part of West Africa that trafficked in slaves possessed its own Lethe, rivers and
streams whose water made slaves forget their pasts, dense groves that trapped old memories inthe web of leaves, rocks that obstructed entrance to the past, amulets that deafened a man to hismother tongue, and shrines that pared and pruned time so that only today was left. Traditionalhealers devised herbal concoctions that could make the most devoted husband forget his wife inthe blink of an eye, marabouts applied potions and dispensed talismans that erased the trailhome, priests forced captives to vow oaths of allegiance to their captors, sorcerers tamedrecalcitrants with the powers of the left hand. European traders, too, employed occultists topacify and entrance slaves with medicinal plants.
A famous slave trader on the Rio Pongo subdued his captives with the aid of an enchantedrock. He lined them up and forced each in turn to take a seat on the rock, which drained awayall will. After this treatment, the prisoners no longer resisted their bonds, recalled their pasts,or attempted to flee the trader. After being washed with a brew distilled from plant roots, theslave was integrated into a group of the newly pacified.
In Ghana, captives were given ceremonial baths before sale to wash them clean of oldidentities. Medicine men, fetish priests, and slave traders recited songs and incantations thatlulled the captive into embracing servitude and that eradicated all visions of home. In Ewecountry, on the eastern coast, people still told stories of a brew or tonic that prevented slavesfrom retracing the path back to their country.
In the north, they possessed medicine so powerful that it transformed able-bodied men andwomen into vacuous and tractable slaves. The plant Crotalaria arenaria, a leguminousundershrub found in the savanna, was called manta uwa, which means “forget mother” inHausa. Traders boasted that slaves ingesting the plant soon forgot their origins and no longerattempted to run away.
Manta uwa made you forget your kin, lose sight of your country, and cease to think offreedom. It expunged all memories of a natal land, and it robbed the slave of spiritualprotection. Ignorant of her lineage, to whom could the slave appeal? No longer able to recallthe shrines or sacred groves or water deities or ancestor spirits or fetishes that could exactrevenge on her behalf, she was defenseless. No longer anyone’s child, the slave had no choicebut to bear the visible marks of servitude and accept a new identity in the household of theowner.
It was one thing to be a stranger in a strange land, and an entirely worse state to be astranger to yourself.
This was the fate from which the boys in Elmina were trying to rescue me. Through theirletters, they were trying to call me back from donkorland, not the territory raided for slaves butthe land of oblivion. But what, if anything, could I remember after hundreds of years offorgetting?
THE PATHS LEADING from the hinterland to the coast, to listen to slave traders tell it,swarmed with amnesiacs, soulless men, and walking corpses. As early as the fifteenth century,European traders had described their black captives as absentminded and innately servile. “Intime,” one traveler observed, “they soon forgot all about their own country.” And by theeighteenth century these accounts had been repeated so often that they were accepted as truth.These people of no country were called “negroes” and “donkors.” In the end these names werejust another way of identifying them as the living dead. Race, Hannah Arendt observed, “is,politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end…not the natural birth of manbut his unnatural death.”
Like the term “Negro,” donkor was a badge of servitude, a stamp of those who had beenuprooted, an earmark of dead men. It did not refer to any home or country or history but only toa dishonored condition. Like the term “nigger,” donkor implied that “the human pulse stops atthe gate of the barracoon.”
Donkor was used as an epithet in Asante, the powerful inland state that controlled thetraffic in slaves to the coast. It was “synonymous with the barbarian of the Greeks andRomans,” a European factor explained, “which they [the Asante] apply to all people of theinterior but themselves, and implies an ignorant fellow.” A tome on Asante law and customheld that donkor was “applied strictly to any man or woman, other than an Asante, who hadbeen purchased with the express purpose of making him or her a slave.”
With the knowledge gained from ten slaving voyages to Africa, in which he traversed theterritory from Cape Palmas to the Congo River, Captain John Adams judged “the Dunco” to bethe most passive of all the people he encountered north of the equator. He first noted theirappearance—“they were middle size and the color of their skin is not of so deep a black asthose of the Fantee or Asshantee”—and then provided an assessment of their character: mild,tractable, and inoffensive. “They may be called a simple people, who never exhibit anysullenness of manner, but a uniform willingness to do to the best of their ability whatever theyare desired; and the term Dunco, which in the Fante language signifies stupid fellow, orignorant man, from the back country, is invariably given to them by the Fantees, as a term ofderision, in consequence. To the Fantees, as well as to the Asshantees, they have a strongaversion, because they consider these people as the authors of their misfortunes.”
In the opinion of Ludewig Roemer, a trader at Fort Christiansborg, a Danish settlement,“One could hardly call them human…The farther up in the land the slaves come from, the morestupid they are.” But contrary to the prevailing view of northerners as a “well-mannerednation,” Roemer insisted they were wilder and more savage than other slaves. To his eyes, theypossessed a physiognomy like that of a tiger with comparable teeth in their mouths.Notwithstanding their wild nature and feral appearance, Roemer conceded that the fear of menlike him hid behind their truculence. “The slaves who come from far north in the land think weEuropeans have bought them to be fattened like swine, and that we eat them when they becomefat. I cannot describe to what degree of desperation this fear drives them, so they seek to killus.”
Roemer was not the only trader fearful of slaves set upon destruction and revenge. Theoccult practices to induce forgetting were attempts to avert rebellion and forestall retribution. It
wasn’t only the memory of their kin and country that royals and merchants wanted the captivesto forget but, as well, those responsible for their wretched circumstances.
AN ELDERLY AKAN MAN RUMINATED about the cost of enrichment while conductingbusiness with Roemer.
“It is you, you Whites,” they say, “who have brought all the evil among us. Indeed,would we have sold one another if you, as purchasers, had not come to us? The desirewe have for your fascinating goods and your brandy, bring it to pass that one brothercannot trust the other, nor one friend another. Indeed, a father hardly his own son! Weknow from our forefathers that only those malefactors who had thrice committedmurder were stoned or drowned. Otherwise the normal punishment was that anyonewho had committed a misdeed had to carry to the injured party a large piece offirewood for his house or hut, and ask on his knees for forgiveness, for one, two, orthree days in a row. In our youth, we knew many thousands of families here and at thecoast, and now not a hundred individuals can be counted. And what is worse, you haveremained among us as a necessary evil, since if you left, the Negroes up-countrywould not let us live for half a year, but would come and kill us, our wives and ourchildren. That they bear this hatred for us is your fault.”
This man was not alone in fearing the punishment to be meted out by slaves. Others sharedhis apprehension. By the middle of the eighteenth century, African merchants had begun toponder the consequences of the Atlantic trade. While many weren’t aware of the populationdecline occurring in West Africa as a result of the slave trade, which has been likened byscholars to the demographic impact of centuries of war, they had started to experience thesocial disruptions of the trade. The state of emergency caused by predatory greed wasbecoming slowly apparent and fears of social collapse or personal affliction haunted the rulingclass. Royals, big men, and merchants feared the revenge of slave spirits, the envy of theirinferiors, and the indictment of their riches. Like ruling men everywhere, they dreaded thehewers of wood, the rabble, the multitudes. They fretted about the course of events that mightplace the bottom rail on top. They nervously anticipated the retribution of slaves. The livessacrificed for cloth, guns, rum, and cowries left their traces in the anxieties of the ruling class.
In the Congo, a group of traders formed an association called Lemba, which was atherapeutic cult for those afflicted with the disease of wealth. Lemba, which means “to calm,”contained the disruptions caused by the slave trade with ritual and medicine. Like Keynesianeconomists, Lemba priests tried to cure capitalism by regulating the violence of the market andredistributing wealth to their kin and community. The members of the Lemba cult were theelite: healers, chiefs, judges, and the affluent. They were the ones vulnerable to the envy of theless fortunate and blamed for the social ills associated with the trade. Infirmity, sterility, andwitchcraft tainted those allied with merchant capital. Gifts offered to high-ranking priests andriches shared with subordinates provided the remedy.
In Senegambia, the Diola built altars to their captives. Shrines adorned with woodenfetters (hudjenk) and consecrated with palm wine and the blood of animal sacrifice protectedraiders and their captives and also determined who could and could not be seized as a captive.The priests who tended these shrines were required to have captured at least one slave with
their own hands. A shrine was named after the first slave taken so that his or her name wouldperdure and the songs performed at the altar invoked the name of the man or womanresponsible for the family’s prosperity. The Diola traders recognized that slaves produced theirwealth and for this reason they committed the names of their captives to memory. (In Antwerpor Lisbon, Nantes or Bristol, Charleston or Providence, no one invoked the names of thepersons responsible for their riches.)
The spirit shrines of the Diola protected the communities involved in slave raiding frominternal disruption. If the rules governing raiding were violated, traders were afflicted with adisease called hupila, which “made one feel like all one’s limbs were bound in a rope.” Thedisease replicated the bonds and immobility of the captive.
On the Slave Coast, the Ewe incorporated the donkor into their pantheon of spirits. In theGorovodu religious practice, the spirits are amefeflewo—bought-and-sold people. This practiceof spirit possession by slaves, explains an anthropologist, was a form of sacred debt paymentby which the stolen lives of captives were redressed. The Ewe host offered her body as a vesselfor donkor spirits. Possession, as a form of spiritual expenditure or loss, reversed the theft andaccumulation of slave trading. By honoring slave spirits, the Ewe endeavored to amend the pastand to make a place for strangers.
Even if the captives had managed to forget the acts of violence that made them slaves,ironically the traders could not. They remembered the riches and debts they had incurred bytheir participation in the trade. Apprehension regarding what they had done and how it mightcome back to them motivated these rituals of atonement. Royals and merchants could notafford to forget, at least not without risking all they had gained and being engulfed by the chaosand disorder of the slave trade.
FEW OF THE ENSLAVED forgot the royals, merchants, and thieves responsible for theircaptivity, even when they had forgotten their country. Each generation passed on tales of menwho bled dry the lives of other men, who stank from the smell of corpses, and who gorgedthemselves on human flesh. The ones made property didn’t take pleasure in the great wealth ofruling men, so their stories recounted the gruesome means by which the big men had acquiredcoffers of gold and cowries. In a volume of folktales titled Nigger to Nigger, collected in SouthCarolina by a white amateur folklorist, E.C.L. Adams, there is a portrait of a slave-trading king.The storytellers called him a “big nigger.”
Way back in slavery time and way back in Africa, there had been a chief who betrayed hisown tribe by helping white folks catch and entrap slaves. White folks used to give him moneyand trinkets, and, for this the king sent thousands into bondage. He would trick them onto theboat where the white men trapped and chained them. The last time the white men came to thecoast, they “knocked dat nigger down an’ put chain on him an’ brung him to dis country.”
When the king died, he was not desired in heaven and was barred from hell. God, theGreatest Master, condemned the king to roam the earth for all times. As retribution for havingkilled the spirits of men and women as well as their bodies, he would never be permitted anyresting place. He would forever wander with the other marauding spirits of the bush. Banishedto the dismal swamp, he was forbidden from ever touching a living thing and allowed to feedonly off the dead. As he had sucked away the life of men, so he would spend the rest of his daysas a buzzard with carrion as his only food.
Sometimes he would appear before those wandering or lost in the swamp, but his doomhad been settled. He wouldn’t ever hurt another person again. His evil beak and claw wouldnever poke, scratch, or wound any creature still alive. Known all over the spirit world as the
King Buzzard, he would travel forever alone.
IF IN THE ERA of the trade the enslaved had been forced to forget mother, now theirdescendants were being encouraged to do the impossible and reclaim her. In the 1990s, Ghanadiscovered that remembering the suffering of slaves might not be such a bad thing after all, iffor no other reason than it was profitable. So contrary to the legal precedents and prohibitionsof three centuries, the state was now trying to create a public memory of slavery. Under thestewardship of Shell Oil, USAID, and a consortium of North American universities, theGhanaian Ministry of Tourism and the Museum and Monuments Board crafted a story for theten thousand black tourists who visited the country every year hungering for knowledge ofslave ancestors. Tourism provided a ready response with a tale of the Atlantic slave trade as adistinctly African American story, with no mention of the expansion and increasing severity ofAfrican slavery in response to the Atlantic trade or of destitute commoners.
Local cottage industries in slave route tourism began sprouting up all over Ghana. In 1998,the Ministry of Tourism encouraged every district to form a Tourism Development Committee.Every town or village had an atrocity to promote—a mass grave, an auction block, a slave river,a massacre. It was Ghana’s equivalent to a fried chicken franchise. McDonald’s had alreadyorganized McRoots tours to Senegal and Gambia. No one knew for sure, but Ghana might benext. Few of the tour operators, docents, and guides put any stock in the potted history of the“white man’s barbarism” and the “crimes against humanity” that they marketed to blacktourists or believed the Atlantic trade had anything to do with them. They only hoped thatslavery would help make them prosperous.
For Ghana, the slave route was a desperate measure to generate needed revenue and todevelop a viable economy. For towns and villages scattered throughout the countryside, it wasthe possibility of digging new wells, building a school, or buying a vehicle to transport the sickto the small hospital one hundred miles away. For the jobless, it was the opportunity foremployment in the tourism industry. For petty traders, it was an expanded market for theirgoods. For dreamers, it was the chance of a ticket to America.
Door of No Return rituals, reenactments of captivity, certificates of pilgrimage, andAfrican naming ceremonies framed slavery primarily as an American issue and as one ofAfrica’s relation to her “lost children.” The biennial Panafest Historical Theatre Festival(Panafest), which began in 1992, attracted participants from all over the African diaspora. Thereunification of the African family and the return of its children to the homeland were theanimating themes of the festival. On the ground, this often translated into a comedy of errors,as in 1994 when the Ghanaian Concert Party Union decided to welcome black Americans toGhana and pay homage to their culture with an old-style blackface performance. (Abureaucratic obstacle prevented the show from being performed.) A “take their heads” crusadewas the response of taxi drivers, peddlers, and merchants.
Most recently, the Ministry of Tourism launched an advertising campaign to change thecommon perception of African Americans from one of rich tourists to one of brothers andsisters. This effort to make Ghana feel more like Jerusalem and less like Disneyland requiredGhanaians to strike obruni from their vocabulary and welcome their African American kin backhome.
“Remembering slavery” became a potent means of silencing the past in the very guise ofpreserving it, since it effectively curbed all discussion of African slavery and its entailments—class exploitation, gender inequality, ethnic clashes, and regional conflict. The sorcery of thestate, like the sorcery of marabouts and herbalists, was also intended to wash away the past (at
least those aspects that might create conflict) and to pacify the heirs of slaves, except that nowthis process was described as memorializing rather than forgetting. The arrival of “the oneswho had been taken away” did not encourage a working through of this history but a bittersweetcelebration of return, reunion, and progress.
So the descendants of slaves were welcomed with the red carpet treatment. They mournedtheir ancestors in great public ceremonies where chiefs assembled to atone for the past and tocollect alms. And the brothers and sisters gave generous donations and shopped vigorously,perhaps hoping that the breach of the Atlantic would be bridged by their new roles asconsumers. It was to everyone’s advantage to believe this.
The heirs of slaves wanted a past of which they could be proud, so they convenientlyforgot the distinctions between the rulers and the ruled and closed their eyes to slavery inAfrica. They pretended that their ancestors had once worn the king’s vestments and assumedthe grand civilization of Asante as their own. They preferred to overlook the fact that theAsantehene (king of Asante) had helped to shove their ancestors onto slave ships and refused toadmit royal power emanated from “the abuse of human beings and things.” It was comic andtragic at the same time. The children of slaves were as reluctant to assume their place amongtoilers, laborers, and peasants as the elites. The irony of this was suggested by Aime Césaire:“We’ve never been Amazons of the King of Dahomey, nor princes of Ghana with eight hundredcamels, nor wise men in Timbucktu under Askia the Great, nor the architects of Djenné, norMadhis, nor warriors…I may as well confess that we were at all times pretty mediocredishwashers, shoeblacks without ambition, at best conscientious sorcerers and the onlyunquestionable record that we broke was that of endurance under the chicote [whip].”
And even if African Americans were seduced by tourism’s promise of an African homeand willing to dance joyfully around trees of return and eager to experience solidarity with theirnewfound kin through freshly minted memories of slavery, most Ghanaians weren’t fooled bythe mirage, even when their survival necessitated that they indulge the delusion. The story ofslavery fabricated for African Americans had nothing to do with the present struggles of mostGhanaians. What each community made of slavery and how they understood it provided littleground for solidarity. African Americans wanted to regain their African patrimony and toescape racism in the United States. Ghanaians wanted an escape from the impoverishment ofthe present, and the road to freedom, which they most often imagined, was migration to theUnited States. African Americans entertained fantasies of return and Ghanaians of departure.From where we each were standing, we did not see the same past, nor did we share a commonvision of the Promised Land. The ghost of slavery was being conjured to very different ends.
IN THE UNITED STATES, black people’s insistence on reckoning with slavery in the face ofnational indifference, if not downright hostility, has been an effort to illuminate the crushingeffects of racism in our lives. It is less a historical exercise than an ethical and politicalmandate. Simply put, the “legacy of slavery” is a way of saying that we had been treated badlyfor a very long time and that the nation owes us. Martin Luther King, Jr., employed thelanguage of creditor and debtor races to underscore the elusive quest for racial justice. In thespeech delivered at the March on Washington, he said, “America has given the Negro people abad check, a check which has come back marked with insufficient funds.” The promissory noteto which King referred was the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. As he saw it,the civil rights movement was an effort to “cash this check, a check that will give us upondemand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
No one has ever been able to make the case persuasively enough to convince the
government that this was true or even to be granted a day in court, despite the recent flurry oflawsuits for reparations. In overturning the use of affirmative action in granting city contracts,Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “Under our Constitution there can be no such thing as either acreditor or a debtor race…We are just one race here. It is American.” In the eyes of the court,no enduring harm had been passed across generations. And, even if it had been, we hadslumbered on our rights for too long. Too much time had passed between the injury and theclaim for redress. But for us the opposite was true. The time passed had only intensified theinjury. History was an open wound, as Jamaica Kincaid writes, that “began in 1492 and hascome to no end yet.”
Who could deny that the United States had been founded on slavery or disregard thewealth created by enslaved laborers? Or brush aside three centuries of legal subjection? Yet Iremain agnostic about reparations. I fear that petitions for redress are forms of political appealthat have outlived their usefulness. Did the bid to make a legal or political claim in anofficially “post-racist” society require us to make arguments in a moral language that appealsto the abolitionist consciousness of white folks, who accept that slavery was wrong and believethat racism has ended? Are reparations a way of cloaking the disasters of the present in theguise of the past because even our opponents can’t defend slavery now? Did we want a FederalBureau of African American Affairs to decide and manage what we were owed? Or did we hopethat the civil suits could accomplish what a social movement had failed to do, that is, toeradicate racism and poverty?
I had grown weary of pleading our case and repeating our complaint. It seems to me thatthere is something innately servile about making an appeal to a deaf ear or praying for relief toan indifferent and hostile court or expecting remedy from a government unwilling even toacknowledge that slavery was a crime against humanity.
In 1817, the black abolitionist Robert Wedderburn had warned of the dangers of appeal. Inan address to the slaves of Jamaica, he encouraged them to stage a general strike to win theirliberty. “Union among you, will strike tremendous terror to the receivers of stolen persons. Butdo not petition, for it is degrading to human nature to petition your oppressors.” In 1845,Frederick Douglass echoed this sentiment when he described the slave’s appeal as “a privilegeso dangerous” that anyone exercising it “runs a fearful hazard” of inviting even greaterviolence.
I couldn’t help but think of Josiah Wedgwood’s famous antislavery medallion of the
chained slave on bended knee, begging in supplication, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Themedallion had enjoyed such popularity that it became the favored icon of the abolitionmovement and was worn as a brooch or hairpin by women of fashion in the 1780s and ’90s. Butthe bid for emancipation reproduced the abject position of the slave. And the pleading andpraying for relief before the bar struck me in exactly the same way—it was as an act of stateworship. I didn’t want to get down on my knees as a precondition to arriving at freedom. Ididn’t want to plead my case, “Yes, I have suffered too.” I didn’t want to display my scars.
When I envisioned the slave I didn’t think of this fellow on bended knee, trying tomaintain his dignity as he made the case for his humanity. His clasped hands were folded as ifhe were praying and his head was upturned slightly as if he were looking for God, but Iunderstood that it wasn’t God to whom he was looking and praying but to the people of Englandor France, who might as well have been God. And anyone looking down upon his naked figurecould see that this man was helpless and needed their assistance despite his rippling musclesand broad chest and mighty shoulders. His humiliation moved them and made them feel guiltyand excited their sympathy.
Of course, once you have assumed the position of supplicant and find yourselfgenuflecting before the court or the bar of public opinion, then, like the strapping man on themedallion, you have conceded the battle. It is hard to demand anything when you are on bendedknee or even to keep your head raised. And you can forget trying to counter the violence thathad landed you on your knee in the first place. Being so low to the ground, it is difficult not togrovel or to think of freedom as a gift dispensed by a kind benefactor or to imagine that yourfate rests in the hands of a higher authority, a great emancipator, the state, or to implore thatyou are human too. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Having to ask such a question, no doubt,would have made the petitioner’s nostrils flare with anger and perspiration bead on hisforehead and the bile rise to the back of his throat.
Needing to make the case that we have suffered and that slavery, segregation, and racismhave had a devastating effect on black life is the contemporary analogue to the defeated postureof Wedgwood’s pet Negro. The apologetic density of the plea for recognition is staggering. Itassumes both the ignorance and the innocence of the white world. If only they knew the truth,they would act otherwise. I am reminded of the letter that James Baldwin wrote his nephew onthe centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. “The crime of which I accuse my
country and my countrymen,” he wrote, “and for which neither I nor time nor history will everforgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and donot know it and do not want to know it…It is not permissible that the authors of devastationshould also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
To believe, as I do, that the enslaved are our contemporaries is to understand that we sharetheir aspirations and defeats, which isn’t to say that we are owed what they were due but ratherto acknowledge that they accompany our every effort to fight against domination, to abolish thecolor line, and to imagine a free territory, a new commons. It is to take to heart their knowledgeof freedom. The enslaved knew that freedom had to be taken; it was not the kind of thing thatcould ever be given to you. The kind of freedom that could be given to you could just as easilybe taken back. Freedom is the kind of thing that required you to leave your bones on the hills atBrimsbay, or to burn the cane fields, or to live in a garret for seven years, or to stage a generalstrike, or to create a new republic. It is won and lost, again and again. It is a glimpse ofpossibility, an opening, a solicitation without any guarantee of duration before it flickers andthen is extinguished.
The demands of the slave on the present have everything to do with making good thepromise of abolition, and this entails much more than the end of property in slaves. It requiresthe reconstruction of society, which is the only way to honor our debt to the dead. This is theintimacy of our age with theirs—an unfinished struggle. To what end does one conjure theghost of slavery, if not to incite the hopes of transforming the present? Given this, I refuse tobelieve that the slave’s most capacious political claims or wildest imaginings are for backwages or debt relief. There are too many lives at peril to recycle the forms of appeal that, atbest, have delivered the limited emancipation against which we now struggle.
IN GHANA, they joked that if a slave ship bound for America docked off the coast today somany Ghanaians would volunteer for the passage that they would stampede one another tryingto get on board.
But who would ever envy slaves or view a cargo hold as an opportunity or risk death toarrive in the Americas? Every year Ghanaians stowed away in packing crates, cargo holds, andship containers trying to make their way to the United States or Europe. Twenty-three menarrived in New York in 2003 hidden in a cargo ship. The year before, two Ghanaian boys werefound dead in the baggage compartment of a plane at Heathrow Airport. The subzerotemperatures and lack of oxygen killed them. Each year young men and boys risked deadlyvoyages to escape poverty and joblessness, while girls fled to Abidjan and other cities and weretrafficked internationally as prostitutes. It was the dire circumstances of the present that causedGhanaians to make wisecracks about volunteering for the Middle Passage and to view blacktourists as the fortunate heirs of Kunta Kinte.
What they didn’t discern were the two decades of political setbacks and economic declinethat had inspired these trips to the dungeon; what they didn’t understand was that many of usalso lived in poverty. (It didn’t look the same, but the assault of poverty was life threatening inthe United States too.) A growing sense of despair and an exhausted political imaginationincapable of dreaming of radical change had everything to do with the busloads of blackstrangers looking to shed tears in a slave fort. There were no obvious signs of this diminishedhope for the future. The grief of African Americans was opaque here. We were encouraged tomourn because it generated revenue, but our grief struck no common chord of memory, nobedrock of shared sentiment.
To most Ghanaians the government’s efforts to commemorate the Atlantic slave tradewere irrelevant. Besides, what had Jamaicans and Americans to do with their lives? WhenPresident Rawlings declared that on August 1, 1998, Ghana would celebrate Emancipation Dayto commemorate the abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, Ghanaians retorted, “Hasslavery ended in Africa?” The British had also abolished slavery in Ghana, but PresidentRawlings had not planned any public celebrations of the colonial ordinances that ended slaveryin the Gold Coast in 1874 and in the Northern Territories in 1897. Had Rawlings asked, “Arewe yet free?” most Ghanaians would have answered with a resounding, “No.”
This “no” resonated on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the reminder of what abolitionand decolonization had failed to deliver. This “no” was the language we shared, and within itresided a promise of affiliation better than that of brothers and sisters.
The Dark Days
“OPEN YOUR EYES,” John had been scolding me for months. Now, through no fault of myown, I spent most of my time in the dark. In the mornings, I was bleary-eyed as I labored tomake out the world concealed beneath the blustery gray sky of harmattan. In the evenings, thecity slowly disappeared as the light shifted from the color of ash to a charcoal black, as if Accrahad been buried under a mound of soot. From my terrace, I watched the city vanish at nightfall,straining my eyes to make out the human forms hidden in the shadows, training myself todiscern the subtle intimations of life in the sea of blackness.
I had scoffed at the December headlines in the Daily Graphic and the Ghanaian Times,“Power Cut in Half,” and dismissed the articles warning of the severity of the energy crisis. Ididn’t imagine that it would be possible to go without electricity for three and a half days of theweek. I didn’t worry about living in darkness, because I was convinced the headlines had to bemistaken or that the news reports were a scheme intended to increase readership by alarmingthe public about an event that would never come to pass. I hadn’t stopped to think that at least60 percent of Ghanaians regularly lived without electricity. So I was unprepared when themiddle classes were also plunged into darkness.
The rationing of electricity began at the end of January. A shortage of rainfall had loweredby half the water level of the Volta Lake and drastically reduced the hydroelectric powerprovided by the Akosombo Dam. Power was available only on a rotating schedule: twelve hourson and then twelve hours off. This soon increased to power on for twenty-four hours and off fortwenty-four hours, but there were periods as long as thirty-six and forty-eight hours when therewas no electricity. Since the water system employed an electric pump, no electricity meantthere wasn’t any running water. Nor could you predict when it would come back on. So atwhatever hour the power was restored, whether it was eight p.m. or two a.m., you had to getmoving. When the electricity returned I would often stay up all night writing on my computeror watching videos with my friend Anna and her daughters.
Osu was divided into zones of darkness and light. The clubs, restaurants, and eliteresidences owned private generators, but most of the neighborhood was dependent on thewhims and calculations of the Volta River Authority. The glare of the brilliant main drag castthe rest of us into an even greater obscurity. Once you left Osu Road, the neighborhood wasimmersed in shadow and the streets were pitch-black. It was the kind of velvety black that wasrare ever to see in cities, because artificial light robbed the sky of this jetty density.
Walking through the streets after eight p.m., I navigated with a flashlight. I wasn’t afraidthat I would be robbed or assaulted, as I would have been in New York or Oakland. Instead, Ifeared twisting my ankle in a pothole or stumbling into a sewage-filled ditch or being attackedby field rats. I was self-conscious about my flashlight and feared it was the equivalent of thepith helmet worn by colonial administrators. Illuminating the world seemed like an act ofviolence, when everyone else was willing to fare in darkness.
I lived in darkness, not the darkness of African inscrutability or the gloomy cast of abenighted landscape but rather in a blind alley of my own making, in the deep hole of myignorance. And what is truth if not insight? In Western philosophy, knowledge has been
ignorance. And what is truth if not insight? In Western philosophy, knowledge has beenconceived of primarily as an ocular function. To know is to see and to see is the inception ofthought. The mind has been described as an inner eye and knowledge as a series of visualperceptions or pictures. Sight is the sense elevated above all others in apprehending the world.Not being able to see clearly is tantamount to ignorance, and since early modernity theignorance of the West had been projected onto Africa—the heart of darkness, the darkcontinent, the blighted territory.
But I knew better. My flashlight was a defense not against dark, dark Africa but againstmy own compromised sight, my own thickheadedness. I had been in Ghana nearly half a yearand I barely understood the world around me. All I had discovered was a series of empty roomsand abandoned warehouses. I had nothing to show for the time endured. I had collected noartifacts. I had found no stories.
Initially, I tried to beat back the darkness. But over the course of weeks, I began toexperience a kind of relief when the lights went out, as if the world were meeting me on myown terms or pardoning me for my flawed perception. The darkness provided a welcome retreatfrom my failure and, to my surprise, the threshold to a world I had failed to notice.
The world I glimpsed at night was not one that I had encountered previously. It was atenebrous realm, which, prior to the blackout, usually emerged around eleven p.m. or midnightand disappeared every morning by dawn, but now it flourished under the cover of twilight andcrossed paths with my own. Midnight began at eight o’clock in the evening because the worldhad shut down earlier. Businesses had reduced hours and people retired shortly after dusk, oftenjust to escape the boredom of having nothing to do. But I became a roving nocturnal creature, atfirst just to get away from the heat of my apartment, which without a fan was unbearable. In amonth I had adjusted to a city without lights and I began prowling the neighborhood. As I mademy way through streets, familiar and unknown, the people hidden from view and the things Ihad failed to notice now bumped into me in the night.
My light stabbed through the darkness and haphazardly entered intimate spaces, whichwere also public spaces since the poor commanded no place that was truly private. I stumbledupon an old man bathing himself in a plastic tub near the gutter of Lokko Road. His ganglylimbs were sprawled over a large red container, so that the lower half of his body formed aninverted U. The white lather covering his dark skin was luminous in the small beam of light,but the foam didn’t hide his nakedness. The flash of illumination froze him in time, as thoughhe were a photograph of a moment that had already passed, rather than a flesh-and-blood manscrubbing himself before my eyes. I caught a pair of lovers holding hands as they crossed thelot of the soccer field and my wayward stream of light exposed their tryst. I spotted a night soilman surreptitiously carting away a pan of waste that he balanced on his head, and my gazemade him cringe. I saw ordinary flies darting above the sewers and in the artificial ray theyappeared incandescent. I discovered that the seamstress, Sarah, who during the day was alwaysbusily at work on her foot-powered sewing machine, slept in her kiosk at night with herdaughter. Others, never more than two or three, slumbered in the alley right outside theKwatchie compound. In the dark, they crept up the lane and huddled against the compound’shigh walls, which were crowned with broken glass bottles to deter trespassers, and they slept onmakeshift cardboard beds, no longer fearing being discovered or chased away. I watched littleorbs of pulsating light from charcoal fires fade away against the black backdrop, as if they weredead stars emitting their last light. The women tending the flames were invisible.
In the deep hole of night lived all the people whom I passed by during the day but failed tosee. They had not been tucked away in some remote corner of the city; they lived within arm’sreach of me but at the periphery of my world and beyond my notice. The beggars, the poor, theragtag street children, the whores down on their luck, the slum dwellers, the discharged small
ragtag street children, the whores down on their luck, the slum dwellers, the discharged smallboys and small girls with no place to go, the refugees who had escaped camp, the soldiers forhire between assignments, the derelict and the drunk, the sleepwalkers, the toilers who tidiedand swept the world for those who owned it, and the roaming and lost spirits who would neverbecome anyone’s ancestors—all resided in this nocturnal world.
Shortly after I had first arrived in Osu, Mary Ellen had encouraged me to walk through theneighborhood just before dawn to see how people really lived. “You don’t have any idea,” shesaid. “The First World and the Third World are reproduced in a one-mile square. Guess whichworld is bigger? The zone of privilege doesn’t extend very far. Get out and see.”
I promised her I would, but I had never gotten around to it. The blackout introduced me tothe multitude outside the circle of light. They were the ones Nkrumah had wanted to lead to theNew Jerusalem and catapult into a new era. But the dark days hadn’t ended with the demise ofcolonialism. Nkrumah had hoped one generation was enough to jump-start development,eradicate backwardness, and deliver the masses from poverty. “What other countries have takenthree hundred years or more to achieve,” he said, “a once dependent territory must try toaccomplish in a generation if it is to survive. Unless it is, as it were, ‘jet-propelled,’ it will lagbehind and then risk everything for which it has fought.” For Nkrumah, dispelling the shadowswas the aim of progress. “Electricity in abundance” would flood the country with light andaccelerate the nation into a new era.
In September 1965, when Nkrumah switched on the power at the Akosombo Dam, whichhad been his brainchild, he believed the nation had taken a giant leap forward on the road todevelopment. A few months after unveiling the facility, he was overthrown by a military coupand his dreams for Ghana were swept away. The future envisioned by Nkrumah, in which eachwould give according to his ability and receive according to his needs, had been eclipsed.
Four decades after independence, most of Ghana was still in darkness. The “natives” werenow citizens of a sovereign nation, with its own flag and national anthem, but they struggledagainst the same poverty and the same heavy darkness. I didn’t know if they were resigned to itor if they longed for new eras as they readied for the night.
But the slumbering city was not placated; it was volatile. Who could predict when it mightrouse, bolt, and hurtle us all into the future?
The Famished Road
THE LAND OF BARBARIANS was what southerners called it. Most of them had never beennorth of Kumasi, so a full day’s journey from Accra to Salaga was unthinkable, but this didn’tprevent them from sharing fanciful tales about air so thick with dust you could hardly breathe,or describing bare-breasted women with the kind of revulsion and fascination you would expectfrom an American provincial opening the pages of National Geographic for the first time, ormapping the north-south divide along the lines of brawn versus intelligence, or bemoaning aworld without indoor toilets or electricity, or complaining of lazy and untrustworthy servants.Listening to them you would have imagined that northerners had stumbled out of their cavesjust yesterday and had yet to lose their scraggy feral manner. My landlady in Accra swore youcould smell the stench of the untamed at the edge of the forest. Her daughter openly mockedprimitives who had never set eyes on the sea, as if this alone were enough to damn them foreternity. The crudeness and poverty of northerners would send me running back to Accra, theywarned. It was an inhospitable country. The north was the heartland of slavery.
THE ROAD to Salaga was more an idea than an actual path. Craters threatened to swallow ourmammoth van as we inched our way along. It was harmattan. Billowy gray clouds of sand fromthe Sahara extinguished the first light of daybreak and colored the world slate. The pall of dusthid everything more than a foot away: dwellings, people, the whole lot of it. The world recededfrom our gaze; everything was bleary and indistinct. A boy on a bike emerged from the swirl ofdust and disappeared a moment later. Thatched dwellings bobbed in and out of sight, here onemoment and gone the next, as if a trickster god alternately cast the world into light and shadow.
On this road, people had always arrived unawares and as swiftly disappeared. Slavestrekked on rutted pathways like this one en route from sacked villages surrounding the upperreaches of the Volta River, or from the barren stretches of land bordering Mossi country, to thestring of markets extending from the north all the way to the coast. A woman named Thiambahad stumbled along this route before she arrived in Louisiana in the latter half of the eighteenthcentury, where she was renamed Ester and sold once again with a parcel of slaves in 1790, butthis time with her four-year-old son Raphael and fourteen-month-old daughter Marguerite. Allthree of them estimated together were valued at 550 piastres. As she marched along, trying toavoid rocks and thorn covered bushes, had she expected the ship’s hold or the master? Had shefeared an existence as an object in an inventory of belongings? Had she anticipated the childrenborn as slaves in a country she would have preferred never to see? It was unlikely that Thiambaever forgot the road that led to the hell of St. Charles Parish.
SEVEN ROADS RADIATED from the hub of Salaga. Had you been traveling along this road in
the eighteenth or nineteenth century, no doubt you would have seen a band of strangers, whosechains were the clear sign that they would never pass this way again, heading toward themarket. A fleeting horseman with a young girl tied across the back of his steed remindedeveryone they passed that life was at the mercy of men with guns and horses—kambonga. Thehefty bags of cowries saddling the pack animals of mercenary soldiers sauntering home at duskwere the only remnant of the hamlet upon which they had descended, the houses they hadburned, the men they had slaughtered, and the women and children they had sold at the market.
Caravans from Hausaland (Nigeria) and Mossi (Burkina Faso) approached from the northand the east with as many as four and five hundred slaves in tow. The slaves were exhaustedfrom traveling hundreds of miles and hauling the goods, textiles, hides, copper, jewelry, andpots of shea butter that, like they themselves, were to be traded. They were filthy from trailingalongside cattle, oxen, sheep, and donkeys. When the caravans entered Salaga, the residentsrushed toward the procession, greeting them with shouts and rejoicing.
The largest caravans contained between one and two thousand travelers. Armed menmounted on horses accompanied the leaders of the caravan at the head of the procession. Adrummer directed the group, announcing rest stops and departures, and guiding the expedition.The livestock followed behind the advance party. Hundreds of donkeys were loaded withtextiles, leather, and natron (an alkaline substance used as a medicine for stomach-andheadaches, mixed with ash and palm oil to make soap, used in dying and tanning, and fed tolivestock). Slaves, pawns, and apprentices guided the donkeys. The rich merchants and theirfamilies were mounted on horses and asses behind them. The commander of the caravanbrought up the rear. The expedition was well armed to prevent attacks from bandits and hostilestates. In the most dangerous stretches of the journey, women were dressed like men toexaggerate the appearance of able-bodied warriors. Those unable to keep up with the arduoustrek, as well as the ailing and pregnant, were abandoned along the way.
Jihadists and soldiers of fortune drove throngs of stunned captives through the entrance ofthe market. Dagomba and Gonja raiders trotted in on horses with every single inhabitant of anewly desolate village in tow. On the road from Kafaba, Ashanti merchants advanced with acaravan of donkeys and head porters saddled with baskets of kola. An “ass-load” of kola was anofficial unit of measure, just as large amounts of currency were calibrated in units of slaves. Onthe road from Daboja, salt dealers ambled toward the bazaar. Petty traders approached from alldirections carrying their produce on the backs of donkeys, mules, bullocks, and, sometimes,camels.
On these roads, men, women, and children stolen from their homes became commoditiesdestined for the market. Men were bound with ropes and chains. Little children two years oldand upward, and women, young and old, trailed along beside them. Most were prisoners of waror victims of raiding. Reeling along this gutted pathway, they began to anticipate what awaitedthem. The sinking feeling that they had seen their home for the last time and the fear that at thenext town they would lose their son or sister made them drag their feet, search out an escaperoute through the grasslands, and with their eyes ask one another what they might do. Whatthey knew was that one life had ended and the one they could foresee was terrifying. The firststeps propelling them away from home had cut loose the familiar. Once inside the market atSalaga, it was clear: the old life was a pile of ruins.
The Salaga road, like the one immortalized by Ben Okri, was a famished road thatdevoured those who trod on it. The people walking along the road didn’t suspect this; theythought it was a path like any other, until the road revealed its true nature and they discoveredthat it was the kind of road that didn’t lead you anywhere—this was the end of you. It was aroad of torment and devastation, a road of insatiable and cruel appetites, a road where you lost
everything, and remade yourself from the wreckage.
SALAGA WAS the grand emporium of the kingdom of Gonja and the crossroads of a traffic inslaves, which traversed the Sahara and extended as far south as the Atlantic coast. The trans-Saharan, transatlantic, and African trade all fed upon the northern territories of Ghana. Salagawas perched above the Volta River in a broad belt of grassland that stretched across WestAfrica. To the north of Salaga was the Sahel and to the south was the forest.
The famed warriors of Gonja began raiding for slaves from the moment the state wasfounded in the seventeenth century. It was not by chance that the emblem of Gonja was a handclenching a spear. The cavalrymen of the warrior state swept through the savanna capturingthose they deemed prey. The raiding expeditions were bountiful and the captives sold at localmarkets were many.
At its peak in the nineteenth century, Salaga was a bustling metropolis of forty to fiftythousand people. There were four mosques in the town. At least a thousand dwellings, each oneconsisting of ten to twenty small conical buildings and enclosed within a circular wall thatdivided one compound from the next, covered the grassy plain of the valley and spread overone or two miles. Slaves were posted at the entrance of the outermost buildings facing thestreet. The royal farms, which were on the outskirts of town and extended for miles, werecultivated entirely by slave labor.
Nearly all of the male residents were literate and read and wrote in Arabic. The Salagapeople, most of whom were landlords and brokers in the slave trade, were most often describedby nineteenth-century travelers as intelligent, diligent, industrious, and cruel. All the rich andimportant people owned horses, and when riding they were accompanied by footmen andattendants. Horse races took place on Friday afternoons at an open-air track. The town’sinhabitants dressed in finery, the women wore silk wrappers and heavily embroidered Hausagowns and lovely head ties and bangles of gold and ivory, and the men were outfitted with silkcaps and turbans, voluminous trousers, smocks and Arab robes, and finely tooled leatherslippers and sandals; even the horses were decorated for the entertainment. After the races, thejockeys would amuse the crowds by making their horses canter to the tune of trumpets. Thegood life sprang from a thriving market.
The Salaga marketplace was legendary; it was called the Timbuktu of the south. Slavesand kola were the prized commodities in the market. “Zaa ni gun ja goro”: I am going to theplace of the red kola nuts, said Hausa merchants en route to Salaga. Each year, an estimated
15,000 to 20,000 slaves and 150,000 to 300,000 pounds of kola were sold to merchants from asfar away as Timbuktu and the Niger bend. Both the demand for kola and the growing number ofslaves sold at the marketplace were a consequence of the Islamic reform movement that sweptthrough the savanna at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Kola was the only stimulant permitted by Islam and it replaced alcohol among reformedMuslims and new converts. The devout treasured it because kola liberated the spirit from thecravings of the physical body. The nut sustained the body in the absence of food and water,reduced fatigue, cured headaches and sexual impotence, and improved the taste of brackishwater.
The spread of Islam also expanded the slaving frontier. “Infidels” and “nonbelievers” whoresisted the call to conversion were captured and sold. That the appetites of nobles andmerchants for rum, brandy, and tobacco stoked the transatlantic slave trade is, by now, commonknowledge. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that devotion to Allah and the renunciation ofappetites also contributed to the development of one of the most famous slave markets in thesavanna.
SALAGA HOUSED the largest slave market in Ghana and trafficked in slaves from thebeginning of the nineteenth century to its end. Near the entrance of the market, rows of beggarslined up along the street and with extended palms pleaded for assistance. They thanked thegenerous with the stock phrase: “May Muhammad reward you with much riches, slaves, andmany kola nuts.” Each day upward of ten thousand people entered the market. A dazzlingvariety of goods was on display in the stalls: piles of kola nuts, balls of shea butter, lumps ofnatron the size of duck eggs, stacks of animal hides, small mountains of gold dust, finelycrafted bags and saddles and footwear, leathers tanned red, blue, and yellow, pelt rugs, shawlsand girdles of silk from Timbuktu, heaps of woolen and silk and cotton textiles, pyramids ofblue and green glass containers, neat rows of sweet and pungent spices, tobacco in balls andplaited leaf, bowls of henna, glistening copper pots, earthenware jars filled with perfume andsweet oils, ostrich feathers, ivory tusks, Arabian horses, braying asses, and bleating sheep. Theaisles of the bazaar were filled with people speaking nearly all the languages of Africa. Allkinds of currency—gold dust, silver, coins from all of Europe from the British shilling to thePrussian thaler, and cowries—changed hands. The music of the drummers and the poems andsongs of minstrels entranced buyers. The distracted and weary lingered at the barbers’ boothslistening to the tales being swapped. The carpenters’ workshops and ironsmiths created a din inthe market. Small crowds gathered to watch the blind basket and mat weavers. The scent ofmyrrh and frankincense, the reek of freshly slaughtered oxen, and the stench of offal waftedthrough the air.
AND THEN THERE WERE the slaves. Small groups of slaves bound to one another with ropesand iron shackles attached to their legs or cords fastening their wrists to their throats could befound scattered throughout the market. Bodies were washed and oiled for display. Medicineswere dispensed to shrink the appetite and herbs were utilized to enhance appearance and perkup a sad lot. According to one trader, “Every slave had a cut in the tongue and medicine was putin it so that it healed quickly; then the slave ate little and still stayed of good appearance.” Thehealthiest and the most attractive were grabbed quickly. Others lingered in the market formonths because they were in poor condition or a missing ear had raised doubts about their
character and steered buyers away, and others, considered defective, the sickly and thedisabled, were sold for rock-bottom prices—a few thousand cowries or a secondhand robe—orwere left behind when the traders returned home.
Acts of sale all took on the same trappings. Potential buyers appraised the fettered bodieslooking for hardy slaves suited for agricultural labor on the farms of Salaga, gold panning andkola production in Asante, and palm oil processing in Krobo and Akuapem; or polite andrefined persons suited to attend to the needs of the household; or young pretty women to betaken as concubines and wives; or the average and the unexceptional to be used as head portersor hammock carriers on the return journey. Then the slaves too would play their part. Theywould step forward or turn or bow or speak as the buyer demanded. Cowries would changehands, or if the buyer was also a trader, he might exchange his goods for the price of the slave.And the man or woman purchased would leave behind the rest of the lot and follow after his orher new master.
In the journal he kept during his three-week stay in Salaga in March 1877, the ReverendTheophil Opoku, an African pastor with the Basel Missionary, described the great number ofslaves who passed through the market:
Among the numerous articles of trade, unfortunately human wares ever and anon playthe main part. On 14 March, for example a caravan led by Mossi and Hausa tradersarrived with some 400 slaves, as well as horses, asses, oxen, cows and many others.On March 19 I saw another troop of Hausa and Mossi people with many slaves, cattleand shea butter. The slaves, 350 to 400 in number were mostly young people, boysand girls, and people of middle age. They were all sold in a few days…These pitifulpeople are chained together in groups of ten to fifteen, by the neck, and exposed thewhole day from morning to evening in the piercing sun, hungry and thirsty, naked andailing, often sick and deadly weak, standing there till one after another is sold. Andhow hunger plagues them. A lad of gruel is their entire nourishment, morning andevening. If you stand in front of them and they catch sight of you, they look at youimploringly and make signs of their longing for you to buy them…Mothers showtheir empty breasts and their small hungry children. And how fortunate they feelwhen they are bought together with their children by the same master. For itfrequently happens that young children are taken from their mothers and fall in thehand of different buyers.
By the time Opoku left Salaga, he had seen emaciated old slaves sold for a trifle, others scarredfrom being lashed by the whip or toothless from blows to the face, and sickly slaves abandonedin the market and left to die.
Each year tens of thousands of slaves exchanged hands in Salaga. After the officialabolition of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, the volume of slave trading increased. Extensivesmuggling continued well into the 1840s and not until the 1850s did the abolition of theoverseas trade become decisive. In 1860, the last group of African captives arrived in theUnited States aboard the slave ship Clotilde. As late as 1881, a slave ship from the port ofBahia, The Spade, was reported near the mouth of the Volta River. More than three millionslaves were shipped from Africa to the Americas in the nineteenth century. On average, at leasta third of a million people were deported each decade.
After the Atlantic outlets disappeared, the pillage of slave trading continued. The prices of
slaves decreased, enabling people other than royals and merchants to purchase them. Theinternal trade persisted until the end of the nineteenth century. As late as 1899, Hausamerchants conducted slaves along hidden paths from Salaga to the coast. The greater demandfor slaves increased the numbers of captives hauled to the market and widened the expanse ofconquered and depopulated territory in the savanna.
IN THE CENTRAL SQUARE of Salaga, we piled out of the van. Ours was a small group. Yaya,Lawrence, and I lived in the same apartment complex in Osu. Ayanna, Lawrence’s fiancée, wasvisiting from the States. Yaya and Lawrence were junior Fulbrighters who were headed toColumbia University in the fall for graduate degrees in international relations. They were bothworking on development projects, but, like most African Americans, they were very interestedin the history of slavery. One evening at dinner I had shared with them my plans to travel northto the site of the largest slave market in Ghana. They were shocked to learn that the domestictrade in slaves had continued until the end of the nineteenth century, decades after thetransatlantic slave trade had been abolished. Their mouths fell open in disbelief when Iexplained that there were more slaves in Africa in the nineteenth century than in the Americasand that slaves and the descendants of slaves comprised anywhere from one-half to three-quarters of the total population of West Africa. When I invited them to join me on the trip, theyeagerly accepted.
Orbiting the square, all I saw was a sleepy dusty town, not unlike the old mill or miningtowns one passes through in West Virginia or California, so on first glance Salaga seemedvaguely familiar, as if I had been there before, but the first visit left no lasting impression. Insuch places the signs of inevitable decline and diminished prospects are more readilydiscernible than the former glory. This was true of Salaga. There were no fine dwellings insprawling compounds, or sumptuously clad residents, or any recognizable features of a oncevibrant metropolis. The town consisted of mud-walled dwellings with thatched roofs, and ifthey were once beautiful it was no longer possible to see. A battered old wooden building,which looked like it was about to tumble, squatted at the far end of the plaza.
Everything was as it had been. Nothing was as it had been. The earmarks of the distinctlycontemporary were readily visible in the landscape, the recycled car parts housed in amakeshift shelter, the sputter and clack of a motorbike speeding up the road, and denim-cladyouth with faux American university T-shirts. They were the overlay of the present on the past.As were we—the only strangers in the square.
An elderly man approached and introduced himself to what was clearly a group of straytravelers. He was stout and well dressed, wearing the classic indigo and white striped smocktypical to the north, khaki trousers, and polished loafers. With the formality that was customarywhen addressing strangers, he stated his name and profession. Haruna had lived in Salaga all ofhis life. He was a retired schoolteacher. After welcoming us, he asked why we had come toSalaga. When I uttered the words “slave trade,” the schoolteacher interrupted me inmidsentence and reeled off the names Gasare and Babatu and Samori. “They were the onesresponsible,” he said, nodding his head.
Gasare and Babatu entered northern Ghana in the 1870s as mercenaries for hire, and assoon as their stint was completed, they began pillaging towns and villages and selling theconquered in the Salaga marketplace. The anticolonial fighter Samori Touré swept through theupper regions of Ghana kidnapping conscripts to replenish his anticolonial army and sellingthem cheaply to fund his war, feed the troops, and purchase arms to battle the French. Theselate-nineteenth-century slave raiders were the ones who came most immediately to mind when
you asked anyone in the north about the slave trade.“What happened to the ones sold here?” I asked. “Where did they go?”“The white man shipped them across the waters,” he said. “The Dutch and the Portuguese
came into the hinterland and seduced people with their merchandise. They were the landlordsand the slave traders.” Together we retraced the history.
“The Europeans started this trade in people,” the teacher explained.“But who sold the ones here?” I asked.“We were the middlemen, but others introduced us to the trade,” he said defensively.“But it wasn’t until 1876 that the first European claimed to have reached Salaga,” I
replied. “The captives passed through the hands of African traders before they arrived on thecoast.”
“The white men lied about what happened.”“Didn’t Africans control this leg of the trade?”“Those who sold slaves no longer lived in Salaga,” the teacher insisted. “The Salaga
people involved in the trade were landlords. They were go-betweens.” Not exclusively. TheGonja state was predatory and raided the less powerful and decentralized societies of thesavanna.
“The human trade has stopped. Those who sold slaves are dead or have gone away. Thepeople in Salaga, those who remain here, are the descendants of slaves.” The teacher separatedthe innocent from the guilty, but I was curious about the ones gone.
“The Gonjas too were sold,” continued the teacher. “Asante raided the Gonjas and capturedentire villages.” Gonja was also under the thumb of Asante, the powerful empire to the south.Each year the Gonjas were required to hand over one thousand slaves as tribute to Asante.When the British defeated the famed Asante empire, no less with the sons of slaves, theparamount chief of Gonja welcomed the British with songs of praise: “You, the white man,come from a great nation which has freed us from our enemies. Every year we had to send onethousand of our brothers to the Kumasi knife, and to the Kumasi king all our money withoutcomplaint.”
It was a complex history. Even the small communities ravaged by the trade on occasioncaptured others rather than hand over their own members as tribute to predatory states andfreebooters or sold captives to purchase the guns and powder necessary to battle raiders andmercenaries. The peoples raided had to resort to the tactics of their enemies in order to survive.The slave trade created a state of emergency in which firearms were essential for defense andwars of capture extended over more and more territory.
“We suffered too,” the teacher reminded me. “The big market was called ubancaswah,which means ‘we captured our own people.’” He sounded like Aeschylus: A kingdom laid uponits house a treacherous destruction. It was a house divided against itself and eventually it fell.
It was a lovely tale of who “we” never were. No chain of common ancestors supported theGonja and the peoples they raided. Violence was the sole link between them. The teacher knewthis as well as I did.
The Gonjas or ngbanya were the ruling class. They conquered the area and subjugated theoriginal inhabitants, who first became their slaves and then their subjects or who fled to otherparts of the savanna. The Gonja called these people nyemase, which means “he has it but won’tgive it away unless he is forced to do so.” Need anymore be said?
The Gonjas also enslaved grunshi, which was a pejorative term equivalent to pagan,primitive, or barbarian. Like nyemase, grunsi, or grunshi, was a ragtag name for the “stateless”people living on both sides of the Ghana and Burkina Faso border and to the north and west ofGonja. Grunshi was a name synonymous with defeat. Most of the slaves sold in the
marketplace were grunshi. They came from small-scale, non-Islamic, agricultural societieswithout chiefs. Aristocratic warrior states viewed them as inferior, savage, and weak. Africanroyals and elites, like their European counterparts, envisioned the stateless and thesovereignless as suited for slavery. Vassals, subjects, and commodities were what they weremade for in the eyes of the Gonja.
“It is hard to speak of these things,” the teacher admitted wearily. “Africans prefer toforget slavery. If we tell the story, we weep.”
In wrestling with the past, he and I redrew the lines of blame and responsibility. Where Isaw a raiding empire fattened by the slave trade, the teacher saw his own people suffering. Hewas convinced that the slave trade had been responsible for Salaga’s decline.
“No one wanted to come here because of the slave trade. Trade in other areas neverdeveloped because of it,” he complained. His ire was directed at Asante, the coastalmiddlemen, and European merchants. Mine was floating and amorphous.
What we chose to disclose and what we withheld was determined as much by who we were—strangers meeting in a square—as by who we feigned to be—a singular we. The story thatunfolded was less about what happened then than it was a way of navigating our present.Telling it over and over again, we hoped to discover a way of changing our lives. If historyattended to the dead as “a way of establishing a place for the living,” then what the teacher andI were reaching toward was a world in which we might thrive.
PLUNDERING KINGS AND WARRIOR STATES had not ceased to be victorious, at least notin memory. The history that lived on in Salaga mostly recounted the glories of the slave tradingpast and, in so doing, defeated the enslaved yet again. The drum histories, founding myths, andArabic texts about Gonja’s past concerned themselves with Ndewura Jakpa, the founder of thestate, and with the activities of rulers, the ngbanya. Slaves have no place in the myth ofempires. There were no drum histories of the captives. When they appeared in the historicalrecord, they were booty—the spoils of war. Even today the perspective of the rulers stillgoverned what could be said about the past.
I had read an oral history of Gonja in which the ngbanya recollected their former splendor.I plowed through story after story about warriors plundering their stateless neighbors, tales of afierce cavalry empire that spared no one, not even children, recitations of the great wealthaccumulated through slave raiding, and boasts about the prowess and dominance of Gonja.
The conquerors never failed to broadcast their achievements, and virtually every royalrepeated a story of a golden age when cowries were plentiful. I could recite the words of thengbanya with my eyes closed:
We used to raid slaves in the thousands and exchange them with guns and alcoholicdrinks.
If a chief needed slaves he mobilized his army and they attacked a village. If theysucceeded they came back with the slaves if they failed they themselves might be soldinto slavery.
Before the actual raid, they came together, armed themselves and attacked a village,
if they defeated the inhabitants they took everybody away leaving the old men andwomen…Some people married the beautiful slave women.
When hard times arrived, we went to war. When poverty caught [us, we] went withwar.
Exhilarated by the glories of the past, the royals spared no details, reveling in the finepoints of pillage and plunder. The elders spoke wistfully about a time when Gonja waspowerful and prosperous. As one man said, “It is today that the Gonjas are working, [then] theywere fighting.” The cowries realized from the sales of slaves were so great according to onechief, that “they could not be carried back home, the money was therefore used for buying gunsand gunpowder, drinks [alcohol] and return home.”
The Gonjas considered raiding dishonorable only when the ngbanya were its victims.When sharing tales of battling with Samori and Babatu, all insisted that no Gonjas had beentaken as slaves. As the paramount chief recalled, “It was only Samori who attempted, but he didnot take away a single Gonja soul. All he succeeded in doing was burning villages andslaughtering people.” For warriors, death was preferable to the dishonor of slavery, which was astate suitable only to their inferiors.
When the white man came, their prosperity ended. “The white man said nobody should sella slave again, so the money we made by selling slaves stopped coming and we became poor.”
I haven’t yet been able to get these voices out of my head. And there is no path from the“sumptuous memories of plundering kings” and elites to the lives of the enslaved. History is abattle royal, a contest between the powerful and the powerless in “what happened” as well as inthe stories we tell about what has happened—a fight to the death over the meaning of the past.The narrative of the defeated never triumphs; like them, it ekes out an existence in the shadowof the victors. But must the story of the defeated always be a story of defeat? Is it too late toimagine that their lives might be redeemed or to fashion an antidote to oblivion? Is it too late tobelieve their struggles cast a shadow into a future in which they might finally win?
THE PALACE OF the Salagawura, the chief of Salaga, was only a few hundred feet away fromthe central square. “Palace” was too grand a word to describe the modest concrete dwellingsthat comprised the large compound. Upon entering the anteroom of the Salagawura’s dwelling,we were assigned seats on a bench opposite Chief Suleiman. He was seated on a throne ofanimal skins and surrounded by several men of his inner circle. The Salagawura welcomed usto Salaga and invited us to think of it as our home. “You must come again many times.”
The linguist Muhammed Issah translated for the chief, as was dictated by protocol. But ithad the odd effect of separating the chief from his words, as if he were a puppet and the linguistthe true speaker. It also exaggerated the gulf between the chief and us as it was intended to do.
We nodded in mock agreement on hearing these words of welcome and mumbled thankyou, uncertain whether to address our words to the linguist or the chief. Ignorance made usawkward. We had come bearing gifts, but they were the wrong ones. In the south, one offeredschnapps to the chief; but this was not the custom in the north. They were polite and didn’t sayanything, so we didn’t find out until later.
I was tongue-tied and smiled blankly, not knowing how to proceed. Should we saysomething first or wait for them to speak? Luckily, the linguist asked, “What is the purpose of
your visit?”I paused, searching for words and suddenly self-conscious about the reason we were here.
Yaya and Lawrence looked toward me, since I was the one who had organized the trip. I was theone working on slavery. My voice wavered as I answered, “We have come to Salaga because ofits importance in the slave trade.”
“Many, like you, have visited Salaga for this reason.” Chief Suleiman’s words skirted theawkwardness of the matter as he continued, “Some people, like you, came ten years ago, theyasked us about slavery, we told them, and they cried.” To him, slavery was not the territory weshared but the story that could make someone like me weep.
“What about the slaves of Salaga? Are there people in town who are the descendants ofslaves?”
The chief visibly stiffened upon hearing my question. He spoke with pursed lips andMuhammad translated. “It is still difficult for us to speak of slavery. One cannot point a fingerand say he or she is a slave. It is prohibited to do so.”
The taboo on revealing someone’s origins extended back to the seventeenth century.Ndewura Jakpa forbade people to refer to their own or anyone else’s origins. It was said thattracing genealogy destroyed a state. Those who defied the law risked the punishment of death.Everyone who had ever mentioned the law to me had explained that it was intended to protectthose of slave origin. In practice it prevented the enslaved from speaking of a life beforeservitude and it abolished their ancestry. The slave existed in the world, but without either ahistory or an inheritance. Robbed of their kin and denied their lineage, slaves were a tabularasa. It was as if they had just appeared in the world without ever having been born, withoutever having known a mother or father. Like Topsy, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who, when askedabout the parents she had never known, replied, “I jes grew.”
“Why shame someone and say he or she is a slave?” the chief added. I wondered if thechief was shocked that I had been so tactless. “Those who were slaves have married andbecome incorporated into Salaga.”
The Salagawura says one thing, but I hear another: “We still know who they are.”My friend Gyeman told me that he could tell who was of slave origin in his village
because on the whole they were more attractive than everyone else. As a child hisunderstanding of slavery was limited to pretty girls purchased as “wives.” Most of those sold inthe internal trade were women and children. But neither beauty nor affection mitigated therelations of power and dependence. It was not uncommon, a Gonja elder recalled, for an ownerto trade a slave woman simply because he preferred another. “If you had your woman, youcould say to someone else, ‘Give her to me and I will give you mine,’ then you exchanged.”
The children born to a slave wife shared the mother’s disinheritance and belonged entirelyto the genealogy of the father. It was said that only the penis touched the child of a slavewoman, since the mother passed no birthright that she could transfer to her child. Slave womenextended the owner’s lineage without enjoying the privileges or protection entitled to wivessupported by their families. Inequality suffused the idiom of kinship. Nor did families everforget who was “of the house” (the slaves absorbed and remade in the line of the master) and“of the blood” (royals possessing legal rights of inheritance and succession). Slaves were theghosts in the machine of kinship.
There were no women in the chief’s inner circle whom I might ask about the rewards ofbeing pretty or about the trials of being a wife. The men had appointed themselves the officialcustodians of history. Besides, the women never had an afternoon to waste ruminating abouthistory. They didn’t have an hour to spare; they were selling goods in the market or laboring inthe fields or carrying pails of water or hauling a load of firewood or washing laundry, the very
chores that made the labor of slave women so highly prized. Who could stop to talk when therewere children to be tended, food to be cooked, rooms to be swept, and a husband to bemaintained? When later I asked the women in town about slavery, they joked, “The wife is thetrue slave.”
“IF EVERYONE KNOWS who is a slave, then why not discuss it?” I badgered the chief. Iwondered if in pointing a finger at the slave the trader was exposed too. And what about theraider? Who benefited from avoiding the past? Silence didn’t protect and it never had. All thatit offered was a tentative belonging in the master’s house.
“It is the law,” the chief replied. “You cannot point to someone and say he is a slave.”“But doesn’t everyone know anyway?”If the chief found my questions impertinent, he did not let on. We were at cross-purposes.
The very thing I wanted to know, he was duty bound not to tell. It was a mistake coming to thepalace, but etiquette dictated that when a stranger arrived in a town or village, she must firstintroduce herself to the chief or headman. It reproduced the very hierarchy I wanted to tumble.I knew the elites couldn’t speak for slaves.
We went on talking about it at considerable length, not really confronting the heated issuesas much as circling around them. Raging questions stormed in my head, but the ones I sharedissued from some reasonable and polite person, not at all like me. I was even-keeled. For eachword spoken, there were one hundred others stuck in the back of my throat. My smile wasstudied; my deference was a lie. I was as slippery as the chief.
All of the indirection and polite back-and-forth, the chief’s refusal to show his hand andmy attempts to best the chief by sheer doggedness were part of the contest being waged overthe past. We were careful to steer clear of open expressions of animosity and outrightdeclarations of war. I realized I should stop hammering the chief with questions, but I couldn’trein myself in. I thought he must be a kind man or a desperate one to indulge me like this. Itwas a cliché any way you looked at it: the ugly American making demands or the slave babypleading for recognition. But my awareness of the script in which we were cast didn’t make theslightest bit of difference. We played it out until its end.
Was Gonja ashamed of its past? It was the question I didn’t dare ask. The Salagawura hadspoken only of the dishonor attached to slave status. And what of the traders and raiders?Didn’t the victors ever feel ashamed? Or was shame the kind of feeling reserved only for thepowerless and the defeated? There was no answer to this kind of question. If the chief hadanswered, “Yes, we are ashamed of our past,” of what use would it have been? And if he haddenied it and said, “No, we are proud of our state,” I would have been offended. It was the kindof rhetorical question that one raised not to get an answer but to communicate indirectly to theperson who is not ashamed that he should be. Broaching it as a question softened the blow.
It was not easy to own the past, especially in a place like Gonja where the victories andconquests of previous eras hadn’t amounted to much and the prestige of the ngbanya has erodedover time. Unlike the case of Europe and the Americas, where the profits gained from slavetrading and slave labor fueled the Industrial Revolution, expanded the shipping and insuranceindustries, founded banking institutions, increased national treasuries, and provided thefoundation for even greater economic development, in Gonja the boons of slave trading wereshort-lived.
“YOU CANNOT COME to Salaga for a few hours and hope to know the whole story. You mustspend time here,” the chief said. “After spending time, maybe people will be willing to talk.”
I suspected the chief was trying to bring our visit to a close. We had been inside the palacefor at least two hours. I imagined he found the conversation tiresome and I wondered how manytimes he had gone through this ritual. I decided to ask him. “How do you feel about people likeme coming here to talk about slavery? Do you welcome it or feel it as an imposition?”
“We welcome it,” he said enthusiastically. “We want more people to come. All the touristsgo to Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, when they should be coming to Salaga because the tradewas centered here.” He was candid, even perky, about Salaga’s role in the slave trade whenconsidering the prospects of tourism. African-American visitors would mean dollars flowinginto the town, which, given the impoverishment of Salaga, was no small thing. In another tenyears, tourism would be Ghana’s number one industry.
Turning the tables, the chief asked us, “Do you talk about slavery in your country? Overthere do people know who the slaves are?” The question took us by surprise and we looked atone another, searching for the words to respond.
“Only the blacks were slaves,” Yaya responded. “If you are black and in America, peopleknow that you came to the country as a slave.” It was more complex than this, but it wasdifficult to explain what the arrival of four Africans in Jamestown set in motion, what theThirteenth Amendment hadn’t finished, and what time hadn’t healed. How could you explainthat four hundred years in a place didn’t make it home? All of us tried and failed. We talkedabout chattel slavery, a century of Jim Crow, the million plus black prisoners, poverty, deathrow, but it seemed abstract and disjointed. The lives connected with these words were hard tosee. They were as elusive as the ones tied in the square. What could they bring to mind for thechief?
He listened intently as we stumbled along trying to describe the world from which we hadcome. “Things over there were terrible,” the chief replied. America was less dangerous territoryfor him than the marketplace in Salaga. The evils of chattel slavery and Jim Crow andneosegregation had no social repercussions here. What happened in Ghana was terrible too, butthe chief refused to discuss the ugly history that had unfolded a few yards away in the square.
In West Africa, the Atlantic slave trade intensified inequality and fueled war. Public roadswere unsafe. Commoners became impoverished and endangered. The merchant princes andtraders became fat. The wealth accumulated by wars and plunder and theft created aristocraticand merchant societies in which the economy was divided between subsistence and luxury. Thepredatory state fed upon the communities within its reach, and then the British, French, andGermans took over, carved up the territory, and made themselves the new masters. Being a“native” wasn’t all that different from being a Negro. This was the terrible history with whichthe chief was already familiar. Ours was the mystery.
“What is it you want from Ghana?” he asked us. Again, we were at a loss for words. Aftersix months in Ghana I was no better able to explain it. Whenever I tried, I saw the puzzlementon the face of whomever I was speaking to and I would falter trying to convince them of what Itook for granted. I could tell from the way he looked at us that the chief too wanted to knowwhy we acted as if our lives depended on what he had to tell us.
We cobbled together an answer. Not an argument, just sentences piled on top of oneanother, Yaya’s response interrupting mine and me adding something to what Lawrence andAyanna said. In the States, nearly every day you are reminded of your losses. You keep waitingfor it to get better, but then you see another picture of a dead boy in the newspaper or someoneelse has gone missing for fifteen to life and you get really tired. You’re tired of being aproblem; you’re tired of loving a country that doesn’t love you or hating the place you call
home. It’s the kind of weariness old folks say you can feel in your bones.We didn’t mention the hardest things. No one said what it has done to us or disclosed the
terrible things we do to one another. It would be difficult to explain gangbangers, drive-byshootings, homicide tolls, and missing fathers. Nor did we share the best things, like the way asong born in the cotton and cane fields became something wondrous on the lips of a trumpetplayer in New Orleans, or something able to cut your heart in two even when the words were assilly as what a little moonlight can do, or a rant about a distant lover, or a chant to bringBabylon down in the mouth of a trench town boy; or the raw-edged beauty that grew betweenthe cracks of everything that was wrong in the urban gulag; or the miracle that we were stillhere.
We didn’t really have an answer to the chief’s question. Yaya had begun to explain, “It’snot like we’re looking for a particular place or person when we come here, but it’s just thefeeling that something is missing back home. So we come here.”
“Do you find it here?” the chief asked.“No” was on our lips, but none of us said it.Had we possessed the words, we might have said that it was not as if we expected to find
something that could make history hurt less or fill the hole inside of us, because it was not thekind of hole that could be filled and then would go away. Coming here was simply a way toacknowledge it. There was no turning back the clock. But it didn’t feel like it was movingforward, either.
AS WE WERE about to depart, the Salagawura gave each of us a handful of cowries so that wewould remember Salaga. “No one ever leaves my home,” he said. By which he meant that wemust return; we couldn’t come, take what we wanted, and then leave. But this was preciselywhat we would do. “Salaga is your home. Come and build a house here. We welcome it.”
I had been waiting a long time to be embraced, so more surprising than the chief’sinvitation was how little comfort it brought. If secretly I had been hoping that there was somecure to feeling extraneous in the world, then at that moment I knew there wasn’t a remedy formy homelessness. I was an orphan and the breach between me and my origins was irreparable.Being a stranger was an inveterate condition that a journey across the Atlantic could not cure. Icould never make Salaga my home.
Nor did the irony of the offer escape me. How could I put down roots in a slave market,which was what Salaga would always be in my eyes? I would never be able to think of the placein any other way. I would always be haunted by the lives exchanged in the square. I wouldalways stick out as the kind of person easily identified as having slave origins. So I would be astranger here too. At last someone was saying, “There is a place for you here,” and it sent merunning in the opposite direction. But I was not seeking a proxy for a relationship severedcenturies ago. Fictive kinship was too close to the heart of slavery’s violence for my comfort.Perhaps this was the bastard’s view, disloyal to both blood and house.
“WE HAVE NEVER SHOWN these sites to anyone,” Muhammed said, as we made our wayacross the central square. I knew it was a lie, because they had shown these exact sites to myfriend Mary when she was doing research several years earlier, but it didn’t bother me. It wasthe kind of lie lovers told one another, less to deceive than to create the feeling of somethingunique and exclusive. Because we all knew that walking through Salaga was neither special nor
exclusive and that they had trod this path many times before, the linguist invented somethingbetter than the truth. “For your eyes only” was what he promised as he lifted the veil from thepast. Besides the linguist, two other men from the chief’s inner circle decided to accompany uson a tour of the town’s slave sites, which for the most part were hardly noteworthy.
“The tree was over there,” said Muhammed, pointing toward an empty spot in the distance.“It occupied the center of the market. The slaves would gather around it waiting for sale. It fellin 1973. A new tree will be planted to replace the old one since so many people visiting Salagaask for the tree.” We looked in the direction indicated by his arm and tried to envision the hugebaobab tree, where private traders assembled the slaves for sale and where the paramount chiefof Gonja corralled the tribute slaves to be offered to the Asantehene.
“Only the difficult ones were held in chains,” Muhammed reassured us. Baba and Idaissuexchanged quick glances and smiled nervously. They seemed uncomfortable with this carelessremark about such a sensitive matter. Perhaps they feared we would be offended by talk ofrecalcitrant slaves.
Jitneys crossed the plaza scurrying passengers to and fro in the business of the day. A fewpressed their faces closer to the glass to get a better look at us. I stared back until the bus spedpast, making a blur of the tan, brown, and black faces. We walked to the far end of the square toinspect what we were told had been a holding pen for slaves. I went in and took a few pictures.There was nothing to record, but I kept shooting, as if the empty space would becomesomething significant by being pressed onto film. My imagination captured no more than thecamera. A year later I would look at these photographs and struggle to make out the contents.And when I showed the muddy images to friends, no one was able to discern what they werelooking at. When I explained it was a slave pen, they said, “Oh,” and passed on to the nextphotograph. But I could not bring myself to discard them. I would put one of the images on mydesk alongside the cowries from the Salagawura and next to a small blue vial that containedLangston Hughes’s ashes, as if that were enough to transform a photo of an empty shack into amemento mori.
Ruins were the only monuments to slavery in Salaga. Mounds of dirt, uprooted trees,brackish sinkholes, and decayed structures. This landscape in ruins seemed an appropriatereminder of the destruction produced by slavery, more so than a gleaming white fortress. And,as well, it was a statement about the impoverishment of the present. Our path zigzaggedthrough small clusters of homes. The signs of affluence—enclosed compounds, corrugated tinroofs, cylinder block or concrete houses, bicycles—were rare. We passed two women poundingcassava and they looked at us shyly, smiled, and then returned to work. The pupils at an open-air school rushed out to greet the strangers. We introduced ourselves to the teacher and thestudents gawked, whispered, and giggled as the adults talked. The teacher, Bismarck, who wasone of the sons of the paramount chief of Pembe, informed us that the students were withoutpencils and paper and three students were required to share the same slate chalkboard. Heinstructed a mixed-grade classroom of more than forty students. We promised to send thempencils and pads when we returned to Accra.
Baba, who was also a teacher, shared with us Salaga’s hardships as we made our way to theslave wells. There was a dire shortage of teachers and school supplies. Many children wereunable to attend school because the fees were greater than their family could afford and theirlabor was essential to the family’s survival. In years past not one student from the northqualified for entry to the University of Ghana at Legon. The town was in desperate need ofmedical services. The nearest clinic was in Tamale, and irregular hours, costly fees, and thedifficulty of transportation severely limited its usefulness. A sole Cuban doctor serviced anarea of thousands.
Muhammad gestured toward the eroded holes sunk into the ground. The slave wells lookedlike blisters that had erupted in the soil. “Water for the slaves was collected here and carriedback to the square,” he explained. The town’s residents still used them. The wells werepolluted, but there was no supply of freshwater. People were forced to drink the brackish waterfrom these wells or the water the women hauled in buckets from infested ponds nearby. Thegovernment promised to assist them in creating freshwater facilities; however, they had to raisethe equivalent of twenty thousand U.S. dollars to begin the project. In a country where theaverage wage was less than two hundred dollars per year and most people survived bysubsistence agriculture and petty trading, this was virtually impossible.
Water had always been a problem in Salaga, even when the town was thriving. Europeantravelers complained that Salaga was “a most miserable town, where even water is very scarceand can only be purchased at an exorbitant price, the merchants always manage to make theirstay here as short as possible.” The slaves in the market bore the brunt of this scarcity. Theyoften suffered from dehydration. As one visitor to the market observed, “In harmattan timedrinking water is brought to Salaga from far away, and sold there, it is understandable that theslaves who are set out without shelter in the burning sun, get little of it.” A century later, waterwas just as valuable and as scarce.
We contributed $225 to the water project. Touring the village, we made a thousandpromises, heady from being embraced and overwhelmed with all that was expected of us. Likethe other Americans who had visited Salaga before us, we would leave a trail of brokenpromises in our wake. The few we were able to make good on, the few within our means—pencils and pads and a few hundred dollars—were not capable of changing anything.
On the way to Wankan-Baye, the stream where the slaves were bathed before sale andsome say cleansed of their memories of the past, Idaissu whispered to me that his grandfatherhad been a slave. When Idaissu was a schoolboy, his father told him that his grandfather hadbeen carried away from the Niger bend when he was a child and sold as a slave. As his fatherbegan recounting the story, Idaissu shook his head sadly and his eyes filled with tears. Whenhis father noticed the tears, he reprimanded his son, “Is your grandfather’s suffering too muchfor you to hear?”
As a boy, Idaissu had been ashamed that his grandfather was a slave. His father had beenright; the tears were as much for himself as for his grandfather. Many of the children andgrandchildren of slaves felt this way, especially the children of slave women who wereidentifiable as foreigners by tattoos and facial markings. If the marks were there, as thegrandson of a slave recalled, “there was nothing to clean them. The children they felt ashamedbecause their mother had slave marks. They did not want her to come out much. And they kepther in the house, in the room when she was an old woman.” The offspring of slaves continuedto feel this shame, so some changed their names to mask their origins, lied about their families,or moved to cities and towns where their dishonor could remain a secret.
I explained, “Black skin is a slave mark in the States. But we don’t feel ashamed, at leastnot any longer.”
“Are you treated differently than others?”“Yes, but it’s not just because we were once slaves,” I replied. “Black skin made you a
slave and now it makes you expendable.” I’m not sure he understood what I was saying. “Areyou treated differently? Do others know that your family is descended from slaves?” I asked.
“Yes, most definitely,” he answered with a broad smile at my credulity. “The sons ofslaves were generally the ones who were educated. Because when the English required thechildren to attend colonial schools, the chiefs didn’t send their sons to be educated by theBritish, but the sons of slaves. They suffered that too.” He sighed.
Idaissu shared all of this in a hushed tone, not to prevent Muhammad and Baba fromhearing his story, since clearly they too knew it. But slavery was the kind of matter spoken ofonly in whispers or behind closed doors.
“The chief won’t tell it all; it’s to painful to discuss. He keeps secrets,” explained Idaissu.It was not that the chief was being duplicitous, but rather that the pact of silence could not beviolated without inflicting harm or exacerbating long-standing conflicts. For the chief, silencewas the price of peace.
“Kwame Nkrumah forbade this pointing of the finger and labeling someone a slave,” headded. Nkrumah systemically attacked forms of traditional privilege and caste. “But,” Idaissusaid with a laugh, “we all know who’s who.”
He was the first to descend the hill and cross Wankan-Baye. The Bath of Slaves—itsounded almost operatic, like the title of a dark, brooding drama in which love culminated inbetrayal. It would be the kind of story with a bad beginning and an unhappy ending and filledwith death and disappointment. What else was possible when slaves were the central players?
I followed down the hill after him. I asked Idaissu if I could photograph him by the drystreambed. He looked straight at me and smiled. I took his picture, then we traded places and hetook mine. It was a moment of fleeting intimacy. This give-and-take was not a matter of bloodor kinship, but of affiliation. We were the progeny of slaves. We were the children ofcommoners.
“WE HAVE STIRRED the dead by visiting these sites,” Muhammed told us as we walked backto the town square. “A fetish priest has been called upon to set right what has been disturbed.The priest will pour libations at all the places we have been because the spirits have beenroused.”
The hunger of the dead was the debt we had to settle. What had not been sated or assuagedwas our responsibility. Offering libations was a way of feeding the spirits and satisfying theirneed for recognition, all of which allowed the living to escape their wrath. The peace realizedby this slaking of appetites had to be gained over and over again.
We made a small donation toward the priest’s gargantuan labor. But I couldn’t bepersuaded, despite wanting to believe otherwise, that angry slaves could be put to rest. Howcould the dead be appeased? By not believing, did I consign them to a relentless state ofmisery? I would have preferred to imagine them resting in peace. Yet I didn’t have faith in theserenity of dead slaves or trust that our offering could bring an end to their sorrow. I envisionedthe dead raging and dispirited, like us, waiting for a future when all the slave marks would begone. It was this mutual longing that bound our fate with theirs.
AT FIRST GLANCE, the grassy flatland of the savanna doesn’t appear like a landscape ofrelics. The clusters of baobabs don’t seem like the signs of a history of destruction. Nor is itimmediately evident that bare mounds of earth are the debris of scattered lives and that thesunken recesses where the soil has given way are the traces of the dead and the missing. “Forthose who can read the landscape,” writes an anthropologist, “some natural features are astragic as any scene of violent destruction.” The straw and mud houses have returned to dust, thetutelary gods have vanished, and the brush has overtaken neglected shrines. Hollows and pocksscar the terrain. But who would ever have suspected that the symptoms of erosion were the textof a catastrophic history or guessed that the money yielded by centuries of slave trading layhidden beneath the earth, like a buried secret or a corpse abandoned in an unmarked grave?
Pots of money safeguarded in caskets are all that remain of the wealth created by slavery.Kings, warriors, and merchants had intended to hoard their riches for eternity. Wooden boxesand leather chests and burlap bags filled with cowrie shells had been stockpiled in undergroundvaults and hidden away in shrines, but history took a different turn. The treasure becameworthless before it could be exhumed. The underground banks of the savanna became crypts fordead issue, resting places for obsolete currency. The yield of centuries of theft had vanished asreadily as the slaves sold in the marketplace. As an economist lamented, “The skeletons wereabandoned to their permanent graves.”
Cowrie shells became the currency of West Africa in the era of the Atlantic slave trade.While North Africans had introduced them as early as the eleventh century, they becameubiquitous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Europeans began exchanging themfor slaves. Traders alleged cowrie shells were the best goods for purchasing slaves, becauseAfricans so prized them. In A Description of the Coasts of North and South Guinea, Jean Barbotwrote, “The trading nations of Europe have for this trash [cowrie shells], to carry on their
traffic at the coast of Guinea and Angola; to purchase slaves or other goods of Africa, and areonly proper for that trade; no other people in the universe putting such value on them asGuineans.”
The shells were imported from the Maldives Islands. Women and men waded waist-deepinto the sea and detached the shells from stones, wood, and palm leaves, which had been placedin shallows for easy collection. One person could gather as many as twelve thousand shells in aday. The shells were buried in sand for a few weeks until the mollusks died and the smell ofputrefaction vanished. They were then disinterred, washed, dried, and strung together for sale.The Dutch transported cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean via Ceylon to Amsterdam, the chiefEuropean entrepôt, and the English via the Bay of Bengal to London, and then shipped them toAfrica as ballast in slave ships.
The English and the Dutch acquired the shells very cheaply and considered themworthless, except for their use as bulk in giving a ship weight and in the “Negro trade.”European traders derisively called the shells “Negro money.” To their eyes, Africans’ esteem ofthese worthless pieces was yet another instance of fetishism—revering “mere trifles” as valuedobjects. In the eighteenth century alone, more than twenty-five million pounds of cowries wereimported into West Africa. Of the six-million-plus captives transported to the Americas in theeighteenth century, anywhere from one-third to one-quarter of them had been exchanged forshells. Twelve to sixteen pounds of cowries were enough to purchase a strapping young man ortwo small children. That was about one pound of cowries for every thirteen pounds of humanflesh.
Cowrie shells replaced the indigenous currencies of Africa. The advantages of cowrieshells, according to economists, were that they were “small in size, durable, readily divisible,impossible to counterfeit and augmentable.” But why or how Africans came to place so muchvalue in the shells has been the subject of much debate. The European traders simply attributedit to black stupidity and fetishism, which besides the obvious racism was ludicrous, as onehistorian noted, because such thinking was “based on the mistaken assumption that Africansand Europeans shared the same values. The existence of aspects of commodity exchange in apre-capitalist [African] society did not make it a capitalist society.” Prestige rather than utilitylargely motivated Africa’s participation in the slave trade. Money, luxury items, and fancygoods were essential to defining and maintaining the hierarchy of class and status. And the loveof extravagance was realized at the expense of human life.
Even now it is difficult to comprehend the scope of devastation wrought by the appetite fornonessential goods. This destruction of life gave birth to capitalism in the West, but what isstaggering is that the enormous losses suffered in Africa were without any lasting gains.African traders had no incentives to “maximize value,” since the plundered societies bearingthe losses were not the same societies profiting from the trade, which only serves todemonstrate the emptiness and irrelevance of an “African identity” in making sense of theAtlantic slave trade. Simply put, slaves were stolen from one group, exchanged by a secondgroup, and then shipped across the Atlantic and exploited in the Americas by a third group. Theviolence and the wreckage necessary for the acquisition and circulation of money were borneby those who were not partners in the trade but its victims. From the perspective of thecommodity, economic incentives, whether “rational” or “whimsical,” effected the samedisastrous end.
By the close of the eighteenth century, a male slave was sold on the coast for 176,000cowries and upward. Cowries were more expensive in the savanna, so more slaves had to beexchanged per unit of money. In the Salaga market, slaves sold for between 20,000 and 40,000cowries; the old and infirm sometimes sold for as little as 4,000 cowries. The literal piles and
mountains of money must have made it seem as if this plentitude was without end and that thestorehouse could never be exhausted. In the system for counting cowries, large units werereferred to as “captives” and “bags of men.”
However, the money Africans acquired by exporting people was inconvertible. The shellspassed from white hands to black, but not back again, ensuring that they remained “Negrocurrency.” Europeans would not accept the shells in payment for other imported goods andconsidered them of little more intrinsic value than stones or gravel.
The flow of cowries illuminated the unequal returns of the slave trade to its African andEuropean partners. War and predation enabled Africa to produce slaves and purchase luxurygoods, and permitted Europe to accumulate the capital necessary for economic development.As Marx wrote, the conversion of Africa into a preserve for captives was one of those idyllicmoments “which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist development” in the West. Theconsequences of this economy of theft were quite different in Africa. The money concentratedin the hands of merchants and royals created little new wealth, and the destructiveness of slaveraiding and wars of capture disrupted farming, produced famine, and devastated social andpolitical life.
THE ARISTOCRATS AND NOBLES BELIEVED that cowrie shells were God’s gift to thefortunate. So the story they told about how cowrie shells came into the world was bereft of theawful details of the slave trade. An elder in Gonja recited the story: “Before any cowry shellcame into use, God sent a heavy rain, and this rain was to bring down the living things whoseshells were to become currency for our use. The old people who had known the purpose of therain defied the rain and gathered as much of the shells as possible, and they became the firstrich men we have ever heard of. The rest of the creatures which nobody picked were washedinto the sea.” But even in the fairy tale, living things were sacrificed for the acquisition ofwealth and money was entangled with death and putrefaction.
The commoners, not surprisingly, told a different story. They offered a grisly account ofthe origins of cowrie shells and how men came to acquire them. Blood money was whatcommoners called the shells because they fed upon the flesh of men. Looking at the cowries,the truth was plain to see. The shells possessed a long, slender orifice that resembled a vagina,and teeth lined the aperture. Like the vagina dentata, the shells conjured up images ofprocreation and destruction. But everyone knew the shells didn’t bear life but instead devouredit. The teeth lining the aperture were clearly for eating. Few claimed ever to have heard thecowrie shells speak. But it would not be hard to imagine a ghoulish laugh or to discern therumble of a full belly or to catch wind of a belch ripe with human flesh.
In every place ravaged by the slave trade, stories circulated about the human cost ofmoney: cowrie shells feasted on the bodies of captives. Money multiplied if fed human blood.Rich men accrued their wealth through the labor of slaves slogging away in cities underneaththe Atlantic. Others alleged that the cowrie shells washed back into the Atlantic were hoardedby witches or controlled by water spirits like Mami Wata, Mother of the Waters.
Popular lore held that the best places to harvest cowries were along the coast where slaveshad been murdered or drowned. Nets were cast into the sea to dredge for treasure. The corpse ofa slave would emerge from the water encased by thousands of shells, which covered the figurefrom head to toe. The fisherman who retrieved the bloated body of the human-mollusk pluckedoff the money and returned home a wealthy man. Rich men fished for cowries using theamputated limbs of slaves as bait. The kind master waited for the slave to die a natural death
before tossing the body parts into a lagoon or river. Hovering at the edge of the water, guiltlessand avaricious, the big men lingered until the money began to sprout and welcomed it as a giftfrom God.
IT IS ALL DEAD MONEY now. The coffers of wealth accumulated by the capture and sale ofslaves had turned into rubbish. After the French and British forces defeated Babatu and Samori,they took possession of the savanna on a greater scale than the freebooters and warrior-princesever could have dreamed. Cowrie shells were demonetized and eventually outlawed altogetherby colonial governments, which had divided and conquered Africa in the guise of emancipatingit. The mortal anguish of slaves had become apparent belatedly to European nations, and thisnascent abolitionist zeal provided the rationale for the conquest of Africa. In the nineteenthcentury, the same nations responsible for the shipment of millions of captives to the Americasdeclared themselves the antagonists of slavery. Soon after colonial governments abolishedAfrica’s internal slave trade, the currency of the slave trade, at least what Africans hadaccumulated, was destroyed too. No similar effort to erase the past and start anew was enactedin the West. The pounds and francs and marks that replaced cowrie shells were blood moneytoo.
ON THE ROAD to Gwolu, the bus rippled with laughter. Our voices rushed from the windowsand filled the vast expanse of unpopulated territory. Fomin, a historian from Cameroon, jokedthat he was going to sell the Kenyans at the next stop on the slave route. He was sure he couldbuy enough guinea fowls to feed the entire bus if he sold Hannington, M’Shai, Mumbi, andRichard. Richard shouted from the back of the bus, “I’m from Uganda, remember.” Fomin’sjoke led to a spate of others about the vices of slaves from particular countries. With Jenks, thebus reached a consensus, we couldn’t expect much for him. What could you do with aNigerian? Who would have ever wanted to buy such a troublesome property? Jenks retorted, “aking of nothing, but a king all the same.”
No one made any jokes about selling Sandra and me, the only African Americans in theresearch group, because it would have been in bad taste, like pointing out a missing limb orpoking fun at a deformity or ridiculing the indigent, or about Jeffrey from South Africa, whoevoked even more pity than we did. He had been made a slave in his own country. At least wehad the excuse of having been abducted. When we crossed the border into Togo, the guys teasedme, saying, “Saidiya, maybe this is where you’re from.” In Benin, they taunted, “Shouldn’t youget off the bus and try to find your roots? We will conduct the interviews, while you try tofigure out who you are.”
Richard was the worst of the bunch because he knew I was fond of him. It was thecombination of his sharp wit and easy manner that I liked. He loved to mock my Swahili name.The first day in the research seminar he had asked me if I knew what my name meant. I replied,“Of course, it means one who helps.”
“But what you don’t know,” he said, “is that if you stand in the central market in Nairobiwith your palms extended and say your name softly, Saidiya, Saidiya, people will think you arepleading for help and begging for alms.” Hannington, who was the unrepentant Pan-Africanistof the group, looked at me with sympathy at such moments.
“His name was Karim Farrakhan Jones,” Richard started out and the bus instantly eruptedin laughter. “Now, Karim Jones,” a few more chuckles, “was a slave in America who swamacross the Atlantic because he wanted so badly to return home to Africa. As soon as he draggedhimself onto the shore of Nigeria, he kissed the soil, but his homecoming was short-lived. Hehad only walked a few meters when he was captured by two bandits who, recognizing him as astranger—the kiss had given him away—sold him into slavery. Karim Jones was sold so manytimes and passed through so many hands that eventually he landed on a clove plantation inZanzibar. When he realized he would only ever be a slave in Africa, toiling away for a masterwho didn’t call him a nigger but who treated him like one, he jumped into the Indian Ocean andtried to swim back to the States, but unfortunately he went down somewhere off the coast ofSouth Africa.”
I didn’t want to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.
Ibrahim, a graduate student from Senegal, readied to initiate the next round. He was a tall,lanky Wolof who had told me repeatedly that his family would never allow him to marryanyone of slave origins, although he would be permitted to have sex with me. He got as far as“there was once,” when I piped up, “Enough already with the jokes about slaves.” And to mysurprise, the guys stopped.
THIS WAS MY SECOND TRIP north, and it couldn’t have been more unlike my first. If thefirst trip with Yaya, Lawrence, and Ayanna had been the tragedy of the slave route, then thiswas the burlesque version. Jokes and raucous laughter were a constant. My colleagues hadturned into pranksters, leaving behind the sober academics they were at the university. Roadtrips have a way of doing that to people. Venturing out from the known world, wandering fordays on end, and arriving at unheard-of places fueled the desire to leave our old selves behindand tricked us into believing it was possible. The more ground covered, the more liberated youbecame. All the moorings fell away.
The men got frisky and aroused, as wives and respectability fell behind in the distance.Fomin pinched my thigh and pressed his leg firmly against mine. After I tired of pushing hishand and leg away, I changed my seat and joined M’Shai. The women had become loquacious,building a wall of chatter between our randy male colleagues and us. Only Kofi Anyidoho, thedirector of the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana-Legon and the head ofour research team, maintained his usual somber demeanor. Secretly I thought of him as thePatriarch, but I called him Prof as everyone else did.
The first day of the trip was uneventful. We made our way from Accra to Kumasi, the seatof the Asante Empire. Visiting the Asantehene’s palace, I was reminded of the grandeur andbarbarism of the great slave-trading civilization. “There is no document of civilization which isnot at the same time a document of barbarism,” writes Walter Benjamin. The spoils andcultural treasures of the victors could not be separated from the lives of the vanquished whowere still lying prostrate. This was no less true of Asante than it was of Rome. In the nineteenthcentury, Asante was so rich that even the commoners owned slaves. It possessed one of themost developed and bureaucratic states in West Africa, and the wealth of the kingdom, whichwas exhibited in spectacular displays of gold and in royal pageantry, impressed all those whobeheld it. The original stone palace of the king, which had been modeled after the Europeanforts along the coast, was destroyed in the 1874 war with the British; the new palace wasluxurious, but modest by comparison with the sprawling stone edifice. The gilded elegance ofthe court and the peacocks burdened by their beautiful plumage as they strutted on the palacegrounds brought to mind an image of the Asantehene saddled with the heavy gold regalia thatadorned his head, neck, forearms, wrists, ankles, and feet, which required him to navigate thecourtyard with well-placed and careful steps so that he wouldn’t be toppled by the weight of hisgold. The ostentation also made me think of all of the lives sacrificed to produce suchstateliness. The stool of the Asantehene, unlike that of the king of Dahomey, wasn’t elevated onhuman skulls, but I could see them anyway.
As we made our way north, I entered a dark zone of private grief. Advancing slowly alongthe slave route, I began to feel increasingly alone in the group, which surprised me because Ididn’t think it was possible to feel any lonelier than I did already. Almost from the very firstweek of the research seminar, which had been assembled to investigate issues of slavery andmemory in West Africa, I had felt my distance from the others. This wasn’t an uncommonexperience for me; I had been alienated from my peers as far back as I could remember. Even
in first grade, I had played alone in the schoolyard, wrapping my head in my red sweater,pretending it was a nun’s habit and that I was Sister Madonna. In whatever group I foundmyself, I usually felt like an outsider. What was different this time was that everyone elsemade it apparent that they considered me an outsider too.
The research group, which began meeting at the end of January and was scheduled toconvene for eleven weeks, was composed of professors, lecturers, and graduate students fromBenin, Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda. A pattern ofcollegial joking and teasing had developed over the course of our first weeks together. Ninetypercent of the remarks began, “You South Africans,” “You Nigerians,” “You Ghanaians.” Butwhenever I entered the circle I was greeted by an awkward silence, either because mycolleagues didn’t know what to say or because they feared that I would be insulted if theycalled attention to my difference, which was charged for all of us, especially in the context ofour collective investigation of slavery. My presence tainted the glory of precolonial Africa. Iwas the disposable offspring of the “African family,” the flesh-and-blood reminder of its shameand tragic mistakes. When behind my back my colleagues grumbled “those Americans,” Ididn’t discern any tenderness or affection, only ridicule and envy.
“My friend from the diaspora,” was how Akam addressed me, in contrast to the rest of thegroup whom he called his brothers and sisters from the continent. Diaspora was really just aeuphemism for stranger, since for the most part none of my colleagues, with the exceptions ofProf and Hannington, gave much thought to the way their history was enmeshed with mine, nordid they entertain the idea that the Africa in my hyphenated African-American identity hadanything to do with their Africa. They made it clear: Africa ended at the borders of thecontinent.
When I pressed my colleagues on this, they countered, “So will you stay in Ghana after theseminar?” They all knew that the answer was no. If I had decided to be a visitor, then whyshould they treat me as anything other than a stranger? And on this sour note our conversationsmost often ended.
I didn’t ask Sandra if she felt the same loneliness I did. She had joined us at the end of theseminar for the two-week field trip. She and Anyidoho were the conveners of the two-partresearch seminar sponsored by CODESRIA, a social science research group based in Dakar,Senegal, and funded by the Ford Foundation. The first half of the seminar was on memory andslavery, which Prof directed at the University of Ghana, and the second half was onconstructions of Africa in the Americas, which Sandra would convene at NorthwesternUniversity in the late spring. Sandra usually sat in the front of the bus with Anyidoho. Hersenior status protected her from the group scuffles, which happened among the lower ranks atthe back of the bus.
On the really bad days, I felt like a monster in a cage with a sign warning, “DANGER,SNARLING NEGRO. KEEP AWAY.” And my colleagues did. The deeper into the heartland ofslavery we entered, the greater the isolation I experienced. Most of my colleagues didn’texperience slavery as a wound, at least they feigned that they didn’t. A terrible history had notbegun for them in 1492 that had yet to end. And if they believed this was the case, they refusedto admit it.
For Baba, slavery was a scheme for generating revenue for his country. He had organizedthe International Roots Homecoming Festival to draw African-American tourists to Gambia.For Jeffery, it was a way of getting a fellowship to the States. He was an aspiring filmmakereager to get to Hollywood and meet Denzel Washington. For Jenks, it was what Europe haddone to Africa. And for me, slavery was the image of my great-great-grandmother on a dirtroad in Alabama or marooned on a tiny island in the Caribbean Sea.
When we had started out on our journey, Anyidoho said he expected me to be the witnessfor the group, because I was the descendant of slaves. But I didn’t believe I could act as witnessfor the collective. The witness required a listener, and everyone had grown weary of me.
AS THE BUS INCHED its way across Ghana toward the border of Burkina Faso, all the smalldisagreements kept piling up until we could barely see eye to eye about anything. Why had Iexpected anything different after weeks of arguing with my colleagues? Jenks and I werealways in a deadlock. He was famous for saying things like, “Slavery was a benign institutionin Africa.” He drew an absolute line of division between African slavery and the Atlantic slavetrade, as if one had nothing to do with the other. To my ears, his characterizations of slavery asa benign and paternal institution sounded too much like the justifications of Southern planters.Once he actually said that the taboo against mentioning a person’s origin was equivalent to anact of abolition.
Richard believed it was incorrect to refer to involuntary servitude in Africa as slavery atall. For him, it was yet another example of the West defining African institutions, andinaccurately, at that. When I asked, “How then can we talk about exploitation in an Africancontext?” he replied, “There are more pressing problems in Africa than that one.”
Before leaving for the field trip, I had complained to John and Mary Ellen that I felt like aMartian in the group. I had given them a blow-by-blow account of the frequent clashes I hadwith my colleagues. I had expected sympathy, but instead Mary Ellen and John advised me tokeep my mouth shut. “No one will listen to you,” cautioned Mary Ellen, “and even if they didlearn from what you said, the culture of saving face wouldn’t allow them to admit it. There isno reason that you should be the voice of opposition. You will learn even more by simplytaking it in and writing than by trying to do battle with what it is that they believe.”
John nodded in agreement and added, “Certain things don’t catch here. It doesn’t matterwhether it’s a good idea or a bad one, but certain things won’t catch.” My way of thinking wasclearly one of those things that wouldn’t catch. I tried to heed their advice, but it had alwaysbeen difficult for me to hold my tongue.
IN SALAGA, the rift began. Baba, the teacher whom I had met on my first visit there, hadarranged for our group to meet Mama Demata. Her grandfather had been a slave trader, so shepossessed a pair of shackles that her grandfather had used to transport slaves from BurkinaFaso to Ghana. When Mama Demata showed us the shackles, Mumbi asked to try them on.After Mama Demata fastened them around Mumbi’s sweatpants, the townspeople crowdingaround us burst out laughing. They pointed at her shackles and called her a slave. Was it theincongruity of her Nike baseball cap, auburn hair weave, athletic pants, and shackles? She wasKenyan, but she dressed like an American. Pretending to be a slave, Mumbi hobbled back andforth with tiny constricted steps in Mama Demata’s front yard. The effort required to move herlegs caused the rusty cuffs to scrape her ankles. After a few minutes she decided that she’d hadenough and asked that they be removed. The shackles were cast off as easily as they had beenlocked in place. The crowd applauded when Mumbi became a free woman again. But I wasseething.
The thicket of misunderstanding grew denser and more impassable as our journeycontinued. What had I expected of our little African union? I suppose I had wanted us to build abridge across our differences. But nearly two months of working daily together had only made
it more difficult for us to find a common vocabulary about slavery, or anything else for thatmatter. No matter how expansive the category “sister,” I always fell outside its embrace.Whatever remained of Pan-Africanism, which had espoused solidarity among all Africanpeople, promoted the ideal of continental fraternity and sorority, and encouraged each andevery one of us in the diaspora to dream of the continent as our home, no longer included thelikes of me. For my colleagues, my self-proclaimed African identity, albeit hyphenated, wasfanciful and my Swahili name an amusement. They could hardly manage to say it withoutsnickering.
If there was any hope for Pan-Africanism, an essay by Anthony Appiah had concluded, “Itis crucial that we recognize the independence of the Pan-Africanism of the diaspora and thePan-Africanism of the continent.” In the group, I constantly experienced this “independence,”but it just felt like loneliness to me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t surmount thebarricade that separated me from the others. Awkward interactions, strained conversations, andunspoken recriminations accompanied us along the slave route. And I was reluctant to admitthat I was as much at fault as the others.
ON THE ROAD to Navrongo, Jeffrey and M’shai accused me of being self-centered. “Youthink that the story of those in the Americas is the most important,” Jeffrey told me. “You’rejust another Alex Haley.”
Jenks, siding with them, exclaimed, “My great-uncle disappeared. Everyone believedtraders had kidnapped him. My grandfather traveled as far as Ghana trying to find him.”
“I am not saying that my experience—”Akam interrupted me, “My friend from the diaspora, you think you are the only one to
suffer.”I made the countercharge, “You think Africa should get reparations for the slave trade, but
not the descendants of the people actually stolen. So the elites who sold us the first time shouldnow benefit by selling us out a second time.”
“But we were coerced into the trade,” Jenks shouted at me. “We were the losers, wereceived trinkets.”
Prof intervened, “There are negative aspects of the trade we must own up to. We knew wewere giving away our people, we were giving them away for things.”
We returned to our separate corners and came out slugging again. It was a schoolyardbrawl, so I was blind to my opponents’ distress and humiliation but all too aware of my own.What I knew was that I hurt and I wanted them to hurt too. We each went for blood, increasingthe distrust, deepening the silence, and widening a rift we couldn’t hope to overcome.
My colleagues had pegged me as an arrogant, quick-to-get-angry, always having a badattitude, acting like the world owes you something, well-heeled, pain-in-the-ass blackAmerican, the favorite target of everyone’s disdain. Six months in Ghana had taught me I wasin a lose-lose situation. So I settled for watching the countryside and looking out for the buriedtowns of the disappeared.
IT IS SAID that when you spot a cluster of baobab trees it’s the sign a village once existed inthat spot. I counted at least thirteen clusters on the way to Gwolu, but all the other signs of lifehad perished. These islands of baobab, shea butter, locust bean, and fig trees preserved thehistory of the stateless; they were the archive of the defeated.
Crossing the savanna, one came face-to-face with the violence of the slave trade. The vaststretches of empty space and the far-flung settlements testified to the long history of war andraiding. The desolate landscape and the great plain of uninhabited territory told the story ofrout and pillage, and also the story of people running for safety. The deserted villages andghostly towns were the traces of people in flight. And Gwolu was one of the places to whichthey fled, hoping to be safe.
In Gwolu, the first thing you noticed was the wall. It was the contrast between the wide-open spaces of the savanna and the piddling thing trying to contain it that solicited yourattention. The defense wall looked stunted and ridiculous against the panoramic backdrop: rust,ocher, and cocoa-colored grasses covered the open field; granite outcrops punctuated thehorizon; the spires of anthills reached toward the sky; and baobab trees loomed in the distance.Laterite dwellings the color of pumpkin and dung fanned out on either side of what remained ofthe wall. The austere beauty of the savanna was thrown into relief by the crumbling bulwark.
The wall was no longer the formidable barricade that had once protected the town againstslave raiders. Time and weather had eroded it. The embankment extended anywhere fromtwelve to fifteen feet in length and dipped precipitously from twelve to four feet in height. Itwas about two or three feet wide. More exceeded its embrace than was contained by it, so it wasdifficult to believe that it once had encircled the entire town. The wall was no longer able toshut out anyone. When it had been built, the world beyond the village was a very dangerousplace and the wall staved off the menace.
The rampart divided the world between friend and foe, ally and enemy. It separated thehomestead and the bush and demarcated the zones of tenuous safety and great peril. Strangers,bandits, and raiders emerged from the bush. The ghosts, predatory spirits, and malevolentforces unleashed by the slave trade also occupied the terrain and threatened to transform everyinch of the earth into a wild, uninhabitable realm. There was so much to fear: the bush, thenight, the angry dead, the men on horses, the slavers’ nets.
Like people elsewhere threatened by slave raiders, those in Gwolu defended themselves bybuilding a wall. By the nineteenth century, fortified towns were commonplace throughout WestAfrica. High walls, sometimes as many as seven, protected the core of a city, and narrowpassageways thwarted the entry of small armies and bands of raiders.
In response to the imminent dangers of threat and captivity, villages became increasinglycomplex and elaborate in design and architecture endowed with military purpose. Town gateswere built so low that adults had to crawl to cross the threshold, dwellings were designed withseveral exits that provided needed avenues of escape, and houses were arrayed along
constricted and winding alleyways that obstructed the easy movement of enemies. Shelterswere built under rocks, hidden in caves and caverns that were large enough to store food andcattle, nestled in impassable mountain ranges, or floated in lakes on stilts. Fences made ofthorny trees and poisonous plants provided another level of defense. Centuries of war andraiding left their mark in walls and palisades throughout the savanna. Dwelling peacefullycould no longer be taken for granted.
A DRUMMER PLAYED in the center of the square announcing our arrival and assembling thevillagers. The whole town had gathered to meet us. The village regent and the elders werecongregated under the thatched roof of the town’s open-air hall. They had been waiting for ussince eight o’clock in the morning. We arrived at nearly two o’clock in the afternoon. Since wewere “important people from the south,” they had swallowed their irritation and patientlywaited for their audience.
Once we were settled properly on the benches before the elders, they offered usrefreshment, and we accepted, pretending to drink the brackish water. The townspeople, whowere packed behind the honored guests, laughed at those like me who brought the calabash totheir mouths but were unwilling to drink. Anyidoho introduced himself, apologized for ourtardiness, introduced each member of the group by name and country, and explained thepurpose of our mission.
The elders seemed inattentive and disgruntled, probably because they had been waiting solong for us to arrive. They graciously accepted our apology, stating, “When you have a brother,you don’t mind waiting for him because he is your brother. This is why we have waited sopatiently. We have been waiting for you since morning.” Each elder in the circle of mengreeted us. None failed to mention that they had been waiting since morning, signifying on ourlateness and lack of consideration. The regent said that we need not worry; they would give usthe information for which we had come, stressing the mercenary character of our engagementand interest in Gwolu. They had grown accustomed to strangers coming, taking what theyneeded, and leaving without an afterthought.
The women stood outside the circle of elders, excluded from the precinct of historicalknowledge. They were not represented in village or family councils, and, like us strangers, theylistened to what they too should have rightfully claimed.
The grandparents of the men who were seated before us had built the wall to defendthemselves against the raids of Babatu and his troops. Babatu, the infamous Zabarima warrior,ravaged the northern regions of Ghana in the last decades of the nineteenth century, pillagingsettlements and cities, capturing women and children, slaughtering men, and seizing cattle andcowries. A few mentioned Samory Touré, the Malinke leader who battled French colonialforces and attempted to establish an independent state. To the communities raided by Babatuand Samory, the difference between a freebooter and an anticolonial hero made very littledifference.
During the slave trade, “Every free man or woman was a captive on reprieve since at anymoment he or she could end up in the slaver’s nets.” As the elders explained why they had builtthe wall, it was no longer just a blockade but a window onto the struggle between despots andcommoners, and predatory states and small-scale societies. While the embankment hadrepelled raiders and protected the settlement, as well as the outlying farmlands and watersources, its importance exceeded these facts. The wall was a reminder that the relation betweenwould-be masters and would-be slaves was achieved only at the cost of great violence.
“People didn’t submit passively to raiders,” one man said. “No one wanted to be made a
slave.” They had migrated to this remote area of the savanna to escape captivity. Flight was thelanguage of freedom.
ON FOOT THEY HAD FLED from the slave raiders and traders from Asante, Gonja, Dagomba,and Mossi. The fugitives traveled for weeks not knowing where they were headed or whatthey’d find or how far away was safe. What they knew for sure was that they weren’t safewhere they were. On the journey, they dreamed of farms and watching their children grow uprather than disappear, they dreamed of toiling for themselves, and they dreamed of a placewithout royals and where they would never again hear the word “barbarian,” “savage,” or“slave.” The pregnant women rubbed their bellies and comforted the unborn with stories abouta land they had yet to see. And the elders overhearing these tales started to believe them alsoand to envision the clearing and to hear the rustle of trees. The place was still weeks away, buttheir hearts told them it was home. The men surveyed the landscape and anticipated the seedsto be planted in the new ground.
The unknown territory to which they were heading, as if freedom were a city waiting forthem in the distance, acquired texture and detail in their imaginations, so a place they had neverset their eyes on became tangible and then their own. At the end of one of these roads, thehaven would be waiting. With each step taken it became more vivid. The crumbling blow-awaysoil cushioned the soles of their feet, their eyes traveled the length of the horizon, and all thatvastness made them feel anchored in the world. They envisioned the houses they would buildand tried to decide whether a dome or flat roof would be better, earth or straw.
As they walked, they thought of the stories about this journey they would tell the sons anddaughters not yet born. Why they had made it and what it had cost them. They had consultedwith the gods and trusted they had done the right thing. They believed there would be benefitsto show and that no child with a blank face would ever need to ask why and put in doubt thewhole adventure.
But what to say to the ones stumbling on the road with bruised feet and lips split fromthirst and bodies caked in dirt was more difficult. No, they weren’t lost, but they couldn’t sayexactly where they were going. It didn’t keep the children from asking. The parents gave vagueanswers like a place near the bush, someplace nice, a great place alongside a spring, a safeplace where anything can grow; if they were tired or feeling impatient, they’d just push thechildren forward with a shove and say keep walking. Don’t dawdle. Don’t stray from the path.Hold your brother’s hand. And at night they didn’t tell the children they were afraid and theydidn’t explain why they were hiding, just that they needed to be very quiet, and if the childrenwere frightened too they’d hum a song with their lips pressed close to a son or daughter’s ear,and the children would grow less anxious about sleeping in a cave and forget to ask why thereweren’t any stars.
The belongings they had dragged with them—calabashes and pots and mats and cloth andscythes and lances—were balanced on their heads or tied against their backs. There wasn’t adonkey or a horse among them, so even the little ones had to carry things. The few objects theypossessed were enough to make a start, but little more than that. They worried about the deadleft behind and about who would attend them and they prayed they would be forgiven.
The spirits had directed them this far, and each day they looked for the signs of thatguidance. But too many weeks spent heading toward nowhere in particular made them growdoubtful, and rather than live a day longer in uncertainty, every rock, bush, or stranger was thesign for which they had been looking. They trusted to the gods that they would know the placewhen they found it. Any place that put them out of reach of slave hunters was sacred to them.
The new place would shelter their gods too. They had staked their lives on finding it.On the journey, they cut new paths, fearing that the old ones might lead to capture and
shackles and death. Even when they were faltering and clueless, they told themselves that anyplace was better than Gonja, the place from which they had come. It was something theyrepeated when they were afraid or hungry or thirsty or doubting why they had started out at all.They kept heading north, and when they had traveled so far they couldn’t hope to find their wayback and it seemed too far for anyone to come chasing after them, they said, We’re almostthere.
Finally, when the distance between them and the old world seemed unbridgeable, theybegan to feel safe. And even though the soil wasn’t any good, it was more clay than dirt, andwater would be a challenge, and they weren’t used to living in such close proximity with otherpeople, or acting as one large collective rather than as families, it would be worth it if theycould survive.
When they saw a few houses huddled in the distance, after days of seeing none at all, theywondered whether they’d be welcomed, speculated about who these people were and if theycould make a life among them. The people already living in the place permitted them to shareit, to build houses and to bury their dead as long as all agreed there would be no masters. Sothey put down their children, dropped their belongings, set up their ancestral shrines, and said,We’re here.
If in exhaustion they had mistaken other places for the haven before realizing they weresimply tired and said, “No, this wasn’t it,” or if others had turned them away before theyarrived at “the place under the bush,” it was soon forgotten. All they shared was the rift and thedanger that had driven them. To remember what they had lost and what they became, what hadbeen torn apart and what had come together, the fugitives and refugees and multitudes in flightwere called the Sisala, which means “to come together, to become together, to weave together.”
They had fled slave raiders, predatory states, drought, and exhausted land, and they desirednever to know any of it again in this sequestered niche of the savanna. Each one had a differentdream of what might be possible when you didn’t have to look over your shoulder, or answer tothe name “barbarian,” or hand over your daughter or nephew as tribute, or forget yourancestors, or abandon your gods, and when you didn’t have to wake each day worrying that youor someone you loved might disappear by dusk. For all this, they were willing to begin anew.Knowing that you don’t ever regain what you’ve lost, they embraced becoming something otherthan who they had been and naming themselves again.
Newcomers were welcome. It didn’t matter that they weren’t kin or that they spoke adifferent language, because genealogy didn’t matter (most of them couldn’t go back more thanthree or four generations, anyway), building a community did. If the willingness to receive newarrivals and foreigners was what it took to make a world different from the one they had left,then so be it. So they put down their roots in foreign soil and adopted strangers as their kin andintermarried with other migrants and runaways, and shared their gods and totems, and blendedtheir histories. “We” was the collectivity they built from the ground up, not one they hadinherited, not one that others had imposed.
And the dreams of what might be possible were enshrined in the names of these towns andvillages founded by fugitives: safe at last, we have come together, here where no one can reachus anymore, the village of free people, here we speak of peace, a place of abundance, haven.Like communities of maroons and fugitives and outliers elsewhere, their identity was definedas much by what they were running from as by what they were running toward.
Like other so-called tribes living in isolated and far-flung areas, their settlement was theresult of the clash between military aristocracies and small societies, royals and commoners,
owners and producers, and Muslims and animists. Flight was the most common response ofthreatened communities everywhere. Predatory states produced migrants and fugitives as wellas slaves. Those on the run sought asylum in out-of-the-way places that offered suitabledefense like rocky hillsides or they built walled towns or they hid in caves or they relocated tolagoons or mountainous terrain or anywhere else that appeared to be impervious to horsemenand raiding armies.
Refugees, fugitives, and wanderers flooded the savanna. New people were created and newsocieties constructed under the pressure of flight and rebellion. Defense was a priority, so theylived together in compact villages. Homesteads were clustered together for safety. Familieswere densely packed because greater numbers increased the chances for survival. Farms weresituated close to the village rather than at great distances so that no one ever had to venture toofar from home and shelter.
But the northwestern corner of Ghana was neither remote nor isolated enough to escape thepursuit of raiders. Aggressive and powerful states as well as freebooters, mercenaries, andwould-be sovereigns followed on their trail, raiding, enslaving, and butchering the stateless.Staying free was difficult. The ones who came together were still the prey of the powerful, theraw material of the ruling groups, and harvested at will. The slave trade engulfed the northernsavanna. The new terrors to be faced were part and parcel of the global trade in black cargo. Aneconomy of theft joined this supposedly remote territory to the world at large. There was noplace to run that was far enough away.
BY THE TIME they decided to build the wall, the dream of a safe place had vanished. Theintruders had already entered the settlement, walked through its paths, memorized the lay of theland, counted the heads of cattle, targeted the women and children to be taken, decided whichhouses to burn and which of the men were to be killed. The enemy threatened the town, andthen the town reacted. The worst enemies were those who had been friends.
Babatu first came to Gwolu as a friend, the kind you paid to enlist his help. He had beenhired as a warrior of fortune to assist the Sisala in routing their enemies, the Pana, and hereceived cowries and slaves as payment for his services. An invitation extended to a freebooterhad opened their house to the danger. Babatu resided in Gwolu, whether for a few weeks or aseason no one recollected. But soon after his departure, Gwolu decided to construct the defensewall. Fearing the price of friendship or presaging the likelihood of Babatu’s treachery, givenhis infamous reputation, they began building the fortification. Once they decided to build thewall, everyone understood they were involved in a struggle to survive. They learned thatsettlement in an outlying territory was not the guarantee of sovereignty and that flight was asnear to freedom as they would come. And that the gap between what they had dreamed of andwhat they could have would never be bridged.
As soon as the shock had thawed and the breach had occurred, they waited for the intrudersto approach the gate and they prepared to face Babatu. If they didn’t act, they would disappear.To hand over enemies or unsuspecting strangers captured along the road as tribute to apowerful state or a freebooter was one thing, but delivering your brother, wife, and childrenwas another matter altogether. Other pillaged and vulnerable societies had become raiders inorder to survive. The Sisala hoped they wouldn’t have to, but abducting strangers was the uglytruth of survival in the era of the slave trade. Powerful men as far away as Britain, France, theNetherlands, and Brazil and as close as Asante, Gonja, Dagomba, and Mossi had forced theirhand, decided the rules of the game, and dictated the terms of continued existence. Out therebeyond the wall were hostile states, a constant stream of raiders, and breakaway princes
seeking to establish dominion in new lands. The bloodletting of the modern world allowed forno havens or safe places. The state of emergency was not the exception but the rule. The refugebecame the hunting grounds for soldiers of fortune whose prizes were people.
Gwolu was not unique. It was a town like many others. It was “a common sample ofhumanity.” It was filled with people who were passive and cowardly, kind and courageous,trustworthy and treacherous; mostly they were people trying to survive. They built the wallbecause they were required to do so; circumstance dictated their hand and they were desperateto live at all costs except being slaves. Like most people, they would have preferred a differentset of circumstances, or the luxury of not having to act at all. They no doubt dreaded thethought of battling Babatu and his troops but had no choice in the matter. The thought ofabandoning the settlement and taking flight again crossed their minds. Some did, but the others,perhaps tired of pulling up stakes, started digging the trenches. The wall might be enough of adeterrent to direct the marauder elsewhere; if not, they would have to take up arms. Theycouldn’t contain the danger out there, so they contained themselves.
While they built the wall they preferred not to think of all the terrible things that mighthappen, only about keeping the danger on the outside. Neighboring clans assisted those inGwolu in hollowing out the ditches, moving great barrows full of earth, hauling pails of water,mixing the clay with straw and dung, erecting sections of the walls, building the gates,designing the slots for arms, sharpening wood spikes and sinking them in the embankment, andthen starting the process over again for the second wall. Other towns contributed their labor,knowing that if necessary, they too could find shelter behind the rampart. After four months ofintensive labor, the wall was completed.
They hoped they were safe, but the wall’s very presence reminded them that they were not.And even if they knew next to nothing about the world out there, and hadn’t ever traveledbeyond the settlements of neighboring clans, they knew in their gut that a wall wasn’t enoughto protect them. They suspected that the wall, like the ramparts and barricades erected in otherbeleaguered towns, could be mounted or toppled by a mighty enemy. When the news traveledthat Sati, the fortified town on which they had modeled their wall, had fallen to Babatu, theyknew they’d just have to wait and see. The town was here today but could be gone tomorrowlike the thousand other towns that no one remembers ever existed. So all this hope and fearbecame a part of the wall, just like the water and straw and mud upon which they staked theirlives. When the enemy arrived, they would find out if it had all been folly or if they hadgambled correctly.
THE ELDERS BOASTED, “We trounced Babatu, the ruler of the world.” The council of menguided us to the wall where the fighting battalions repelled Babatu. The fetish priest recountedthe story. He wore a tattered and dirty trench coat that gave him the appearance of someoneurbane and destitute. As he spoke, he extended his soiled beige arms and pointed toward thebulwark.
“We defended our village against raiders,” said the priest. “If someone breached the outerwall, the inner fortification and the poisoned arrows of the warriors prevented furtherpenetration.” The enemy died in the trenches. In the heat of war, the besieged were unable totend properly to their own dead, let alone that of the enemy, whose corpses were dragged to thebush and left for vultures to feed on.
The priest spread his arms to indicate the massive girth of the rampart, but with his armsspread wide he appeared frail and emaciated, not at all substantial like the immense wall hewanted us to imagine. There were two circular barricades, one enclosed by another at three
hundred yards’ distance. The inner wall surrounded the entirety of the town, and the outer wallprotected the fields and crops as well as the water supply. The gates pointed toward the fourcorners of the earth, controlled the movement in and out of town, and allowed for multipleavenues of escape if all else failed. The trench increased the defensive capacity of the barricadeand felled the combatants able to overcome the outer wall.
Another man, outfitted with the bow and arrow of his grandfather, joined the priest andassumed the position of the warrior. “Men would lie in the holes in the outer walls and shootarrows,” the priest continued. “The front of the hole was narrow and the back was wide. Thisway the men could enter the holes and not be seen from the outside.”
The warriors positioned their bows through the narrow slots of the wall. Other men,waiting behind them, prepared to take their places when they became exhausted or if they fell.The fighters were ensconced in the triangular apertures of the barricade, so they were protectedfrom the enemy’s fire but were able to unleash their own. The aperture resembled a pyramidturned on its side, the opening successively narrowed to a thin strip at the exterior of the wall;the slit was large enough to allow for only the passage of arrows or the barrel of a musket.Cloistered within these burrows, they discharged lances and poisoned arrows. The men wereout-fitted in war clothes fashioned after those of their enemies, the soldiers of powerful stateslike Gonja, Dagomba, and the Mossi who enslaved them. By mimicking the victors, theyintended to seize hold of their power. The war smocks were covered with leather and metalamulets to repel arrows and herbal sachets to offer spiritual protection.
Rigged and ready, the men of Gwolu established the line of defense. If women played arole in protecting the town, the elders failed to mention it. But a woman was the symbol ofBabatu’s defeat. When Kantanfugu, a Sisala warrior renowned for his bravery and militaryprowess, killed one of Babatu’s warriors, he discovered to his surprise upon removing the wargarments of his slain opponent that the brave man lying on the ground was a womanmasquerading as a man. Adorned in trousers and a man’s robe with a turban covering her head,she had waged war undiscovered. Although it was believed she was originally from Salaga, shewas known only by the name she called herself, Mallam Muhamman. The news of thistransvestite warrior who was nicknamed Ka Boye, which means “conceal yourself” in Hausa,spread quickly. The story passed from town to town and people began saying, “Look, Babatu’ssoldiers are women who mount horses and make war on us.” Realizing that their enemies wereonly women, the Sisala rose in revolt.
“AFRICAN PEOPLE DIDN’T passively accept slavery,” the priest told us in a voice resonantwith pride. “We fought back.”
I wondered why the priest had chosen the words “African people” to explain theirresistance, since the Sisala had battled with other Africans who had intended to make themslaves. African people represented no unanimity of sentiment or common purpose orrecognizable collectivity but rather heterogeneous and embattled social groups. The identityunraveled as it was projected back in time. What did Babatu or the warriors of Gonja andAsante know about the dreams of fugitives? How could they have envisioned the sacrificerequired to name yourself anew?
Unlike we come together or we who fled or we who were liberated, African people crossedthe lines of raider and captive, broker and commodity, master and slave, kin and stranger. Thecapaciousness of these words—African people—was as dangerous as it was promising. Nodoubt, for the priest, the longing that resided within them concerned what we might becometogether or the possibility of solidarity, which would enable us to defeat the enemy again,
except that they described the enemy too.In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, few people in West Africa had imagined
themselves as African people or conceived of their histories as intertwined with a largerstruggle against slavery being waged on the continent and in the Americas, or experienced themagnitude of the millions dead and exiled. Representing the fight against slavery waged bycommoners and stateless societies did not engender a grand heroic narrative of Africansresisting slavery or the tragic one of betraying “their own people.” It was a history thatconsisted of anecdotes, recollections, oral tales, rumors, folklore, and bits and fragments ofnarrative, which cohered not into one grand story but rather an assemblage of overlapping,disparate, and broken histories. Africa was never one identity, but plural and contested ones.
Listening to the priest, I came to realize that it mattered whether the “we” was called wewho become together or African people or slaves, because these identities were tethered toconflicting narratives of our past, and, as well, these names conjured different futures.
GWOLU WAS MY LAST STOP on the slave route. There I had hoped to discover the signpostthat pointed the way to those on the opposite shore of the Atlantic. While their ancestors werethe grunshi sold in the market at Salaga and the captives on reprieve, the story theyremembered best was the one in which they had eluded the net. I must admit I was disappointednot to have found any stories or songs or tales about the millions who had been unable toexperience flight, evade terror, and taste victory. I had come to the end of my journey, so if Ididn’t recover any traces of the captives here, in the heartland of slavery, then it was unlikelythat I would ever find any. Theirs was an impossible chronicle, which no one had been willingor able to tell. Excepting for the baobabs, the enslaved had disappeared without leaving behindany witnesses.
I hadn’t met anyone who spoke of the persons who were trampled by horses as they fledconquering armies, the towns that vanished overnight, the soldiers of the defeated army sold inthe aftermath of a civil war, the nephew sold by his uncle for failing to present him with afemale slave and three cows when his father died, the junior brother sold by his elder becauseof a squabble regarding their father’s property, the girl sold by her guardian after her parentsdied, the niece seized when her uncle was away traveling, the fifteen-year-old boy sentenced toslavery because he had committed adultery with an important man’s wife, the girls offered asgifts to mercenary soldiers, the young man kidnapped at the instigation of his brother-in-law,the two girls who, running away from freebooters, lost their way and ran into the territory of ahostile country where they were caught and made slaves, the prosperous trader seized trying tobuy guinea corn in a faraway town, the band of children kidnapped while playing in the woods,the starving and impoverished who offered themselves as slaves, the migrants who fled to astrange country to escape raiders but were sold rather than sheltered, the sisters accused ofwitchcraft by the chief, the boy pawned by his uncle and sold to the Portuguese before hismother could redeem him, the infants abandoned along the trail, the father who offered himselfas slave rather than allow his son to lose his liberty, the slaves sacrificed on the graves of kings,the infidels who resisted conversion to Islam, and all the millions and millions driven to the seaand carried away.
In Gwolu, it finally dawned on me that those who stayed behind told different stories thanthe children of the captives dragged across the sea. Theirs wasn’t a memory of loss or ofcapitivity, but of survival and good fortune. After all, they had eluded the barracoon, unlike myancestors. They had been able to reconstruct shattered communities. Despite their presentdestitution, they had fashioned a narrative of liberation in which the glory of the past was the
entry to a redeemed future. My narrative was a history of defeat, which at best was theprecondition for a victory, longawaited, but that hadn’t yet arrived. This was the story I hadbeen trying to find. And in listening for my story I had almost missed theirs.
I had been waiting to hear a story with which I was already familiar. But things weredifferent here; everyone spoke of fighting slavery, but no one spoke of slaves. Their story ofslavery was a narrative of victory, a tale of resistance and overcoming, in which the captiveshad been banished. Even its sounds were strange to my ear, war chants and military songsrather than dirges, field hollers, and sorrow songs. I couldn’t penetrate its idiom. In Gwolu, thehistory of slavery was a tale of fugitives and warriors, not of masters and slaves.
The language of the triumphant was as different from the language of the conquered, asthat of the living from the dead. Although, like me, the Sisala were also the descendants ofpeople who had been scattered, this event was not a source of pain but rather a source of pride.The past for them was a cause for hope, whereas I longed for a future that could be wrestedfrom an irredeemable past. My present was the future that had been created by men and womenin chains, by human commodities, by chattel persons. I tried hard to envision a future in whichthis past had ended, and most often I failed.
I DIDN’T FIND WHAT I had hoped to in Gwolu. And I wasn’t sure how to make use of what Ihad learned. At the end of the journey, I knew that Africa wasn’t dead to me, nor was it just agrave. My future was entangled with it, just as it was entangled with every other place on theglobe where people were struggling to live and hoping to thrive.
The fugitive’s dream exceeded the borders of the continent; it was a dream of the worldhouse. If I learned anything in Gwolu, it was that old identities sometimes had to be jettisonedin order to invent new ones. Your life just might depend on this capacity for self-fashioning.Naming oneself anew was sometimes the price exacted by the practice of freedom. Maybe thiswas what the priest had intended to suggest by the words “African people,” that is, they referrednot to the past or to an extant collectivity but to a potential unleashed by struggles forautonomy and democracy. The priest as easily might have said fugitives or migrants orcommoners or dreamers. As circumstances changed, so too did the ways we imaginedourselves.
The bridge between the people of Gwolu and me wasn’t what we had suffered or what wehad endured but the aspirations that fueled flight and the yearning for freedom. It was theseshared dreams that might open a common road to a future in which the longings anddisappointed hopes of captives, slaves, and fugitives might be realized. If an African identitywas to be meaningful at all, at least to me, then what it meant or was to mean could beelaborated only in the fight against slavery, which, as John reminded me, was not about deadpeople or old forts built by white men but the power of others to determine whether you livedor died. A name was just a call for freedom, a rallying cry against the imperial states and theirsoldiers, an admonition to steer clear of the merchants of death and the rich men cannibals, alament for your dead. And this loss and desire gave meaning to the words we who becometogether.
If after a year in Ghana I could still call myself an African American, it was because myAfrica had its source in the commons created by fugitives and rebels, in the courage of suicidalgirls aboard slave ships, and in the efforts, thwarted and realized, of revolutionaries intent uponstopping the clock and instituting a new order, even if it cost them their lives. For me, returningto the source didn’t lead to the great courts and to the regalia of kings and queens. The legacythat I chose to claim was articulated in the ongoing struggle to escape, stand down, and defeat
slavery in all of its myriad forms. It was the fugitive’s legacy. It didn’t require me to wait onbended knee for a great emancipator. It wasn’t the dream of a White House, even if it was inHarlem, but of a free territory. It was a dream of autonomy rather than nationhood. It was thedream of an elsewhere, with all its promises and dangers, where the stateless might, at last,thrive.
IN THE SMALL CLEARING made by the ring of houses, four girls were playing a game ofjump rope. Their mothers and grandmothers had been unable to speak about Gwolu’s past, sothe girls spoke for them. Two girls were at the center of the circle and the others surroundedthem singing and clapping. Mumbi waited her turn and then jumped into the circle to the girls’delight, singing as she twirled round and round in the center. I stood at the outskirts of thecircle, watching. My feet were not moving, but I felt as if I were dancing too. When Mumbiexited the circle, the girls resumed their song:
Gwolu is a town of goldWhen you enter the circleYou will be protectedYou will be safe
The young man standing next to me offered to translate. “Sister” was the first word out ofhis mouth. As soon as I heard it, I readied myself for what I was sure would follow. It was thelure, and I waited for him to reel me in. He said something that I couldn’t hear because of thegirls’ song. I shook my head to indicate that I didn’t understand what he had said. He moved afew inches closer to me and then shouted in my ear. The girls are singing about those takenfrom Gwolu and sold into slavery in the Americas. They are singing about the diaspora.
Here it was—my song, the song of the lost tribe. I closed my eyes and I listened.
Prologue: The Path of Strangers
“white” slaves David Eltis, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas (New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2000), 57.Iberians can be credited David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1984), 30.seven hundred thousand captives In the eighteenth century, nearly 700,000 captives weretransported from the Gold Coast. We need to remember that the volume of trade was at least 20percent higher than the export figures. Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A Historyof Slavery in Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 56, 61.the sprawling clans of Juffure Alex Haley, Roots (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976). HenryLouis Gates, Jr., Wonders of the African World (New York: Knopf, 1999).a stranger is like water running R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1916), 143.scar between native and citizen Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press, 1991), 98.no record of their lives Michel Foucault describes these lives as “infamous in the strict sense:they no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them foreverunworthy of the memory of men.” “Lives of Infamous Men,” in The Essential Foucault, editedby Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: New Press, 2003), 284.
One • Afrotopia
Christiansborg Castle At the end of the seventeenth century, the majority of slaves deportedfrom the Gold Coast were shipped from Accra. Ludewig Ferdinand Roemer, A Reliable Accountof the Coast of Guinea, trans. Selena Axelrod Winsnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2000), 225-28; Per O. Hernaes, Slaves, Danes and African Coast Society: The Danish SlaveTrade from West Africa and Afro-Danish Relations on the Eighteenth-Century Gold Coast(Trondheim: Trondheim Studies in History, 1995); Paul Erdmann Isert, Letters on West Africaand the Slave Trade: Paul Erdmann Isert’s Journey to Guinea and the Caribbean Islands inColumbia, 1788, trans. and ed. Selena Axelrod Winsnes (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1992); The Writings of Jean Barbot on West Africa, Vols. 1 and 2, edited by P.E.H. Hair, AdamJones, and Robin Law (London: Hakluyt Society, 1992): Vol. 2, 435.a fortress and a foreign entity Baffour Agyeman-Duah writes, “The government is stillconsidered to be a foreign entity, and too many people feel no compunction or obligation toprotect its property or services.” “Ghana, 1982-6: The Politics of the P.N.D.C.,” Journal ofModern African Studies 25, no. 4 (1987): 613-42.“The old slave castle” Ayi Kwei Armah, Fragments (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 44.another path to Utopia had been blocked Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans.Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 164.“There was in existence a fundamental class contradiction” Walter Rodney, “African Slaveryand Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the AtlanticSlave Trade,” in Forced Migration: The Import of the Export Slave Trade on African Societies,
edited by Joseph E. Inikori (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 64.“We shall live among our equals” Charles H. Wesley, Prince Hall: Life and Legacy(Philadelphia: Afro-American Cultural and Historical Museum, 1977), 66-68.the race would be redeemed Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American
the race would be redeemed Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African AmericanPopular History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 55, 68. Moses notes thatAfricans in the diaspora “hoped to find within history some explanation of the contemporaryAfrican’s ‘barbarian’ status (arrested development) and a vindication of their race from thecharge of perpetual inferiority.” What developed in response to this challenge was “ahistoriography of decline or narratives of defeat that could account for captivity of Africa’sfallen-ness and at the same time proffer a vision of progress.”“not only unprotected” William L. Patterson, ed., We Charge Genocide (1951; repr., New York:International Publishers, 1971).“The independence of Ghana” “Ghana Independence, Africa’s Biggest Event,” ChicagoDefender, February 16, 1957; “Hail Ghana,” New York Amsterdam News, March 9, 1957. Citedin Roger A. Davidson, “A Question of Freedom: African Americans and GhanaianIndependence,” Negro History Bulletin 60, no. 3 (July–September 1997).“I’ll see Ghana yet” Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (1970; repr.,Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994), letters of April 18, 1965, and March 3, 1966.had traveled to Ghana Penny M. Von Eschen, Race Against Empire: Black Americans andAnticolonialism, 1937-1957 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 167-68. Norman Manley,the chief minister of Jamaica; Grantley Adams, the prime minister of Barbados; and EricWilliams, the chief minister of Trinidad, also attended.began to weep The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson (NewYork: Warner Books, 1998), 112.An apocryphal story Kevin K. Gaines, American Africans in Ghana (Chapel Hill: Univeristy ofNorth Carolina Press, 2006), 5.Sylvia Boone acted as a cutltural ambassador Sylvia Ardyn Boone, West African Travels (NewYork: Random House, 1974), 236.the Revolutionist Returnees Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (NewYork: Vintage, 1991), 18.Independence was a short century Okwui Enwezor, ed., The Short Century: Independence andLiberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994 (Munich: Prestel, 2001).As Nkrumah tried to embrace the world Ali Mazrui, Nkrumah’s Legacy (Accra: GhanaUniversities Press, 2004). C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Westport, CT:Lawrence Hill & Co., 1977), 182-84.“We were tolerated” Leslie Alexander Lacy, The Rise and Fall of a Proper Negro (New York:Macmillan, 1970), 210.“horizon of hope” David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); Conscripts of Modernity (Durham, NC: DukeUniveristy Press, 2004); and David Scott, “The Dialectic of Defeat: An Interview with RupertLewis,” Small Axe, 10 (September 2001) 86.freedom dreams Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003).Terror was “captivity without the possibility of flight” Louis Althusser, “The International ofDecent Feelings,” cited in Fred Moten, The New International of Decent Feeling, Social Text,20.3 (Fall 2002), 194.“conjured up the image of a New Jerusalem” B. Jewsiewicki and V. Y. Mudimbe, “Africans’Memories and Contemporary History of Africa,” History and Theory 32, no. 4 (December1993): 7; Ali Mazrui, “Nkrumah: The Leninist Czar,” Transition 75 / 76 (1997): 106-26.Whatever bridges I might build Brent Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora (Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 2003), 15. Edwards employs the French word décalage to describethe gaps, discrepancy, and misunderstanding constitutive of diaspora. The joint, for him, bestconveys the nature of this connection: “The joint is a curious place, as it is both the point of
conveys the nature of this connection: “The joint is a curious place, as it is both the point ofseparation and the point of linkage.”“I didn’t want to remember” Maya Angelou, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (NewYork: Vintage, 1991), 102-105.Ghanaian citizenship In 2005, a measure had been passed to grant African Americans speciallife-long visas, which would enable them to have Ghanaian passports.“it’s the lonelist moment of your life” David Jenkins, Black Zion (London: Wildwood House,1975), 165.“the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human” Hannah Arendt, The Origins ofTotalitarianism (San Diego: Harcourt, 1968), 299-300. Arendt provides a powerful descriptionof the dangers of being “outside the pale of law,” denied the protection of citizenship, andstripped of rights of equality.disease of royalty Ayi Kwei Armah, The Healers (London: Heinemann, 1978).“From gold and silver” Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Clarence H. Miller (New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 2001), 61, 75-76, 87. More turned the world of value on its head bydenigrating the precious metal that was the ideal of the universal equivalent of money. But hedid so by creating a set of dishonored persons who embodied the degrading effects of exchange.In the topsy-turvy world he depicted, some things remained the same.We buy a slave Akosua Adoma Perbi, “A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana from the 15thto the 19th Centuries” (PhD diss., University of Ghana, Legon, 1997), 156.mutability T. C. McCaskie speculates that the association between excrement and wealth has todo with their volatility as substances and “their capacity to transgress and to rupture categoricalboundaries by conversion.” “Accumulation, Wealth and Belief in Asante History,” Africa 53,no. 1 (1983): 31.The eye that sees gold O. Rytz, ed., Gonja Proverbs (Legon: Institute of African Studies,University of Ghana, 1966), 179.
Two • Markets and Martyrs
European sailors and merchants The people “came to them naked and with many pieces of goldin their hands to exchange them for old clothes and for other things of little value, which thecrew carried in the ship.” Hernando del Pulgar, Crónica de los señores reyes católicos donFernando y doña Isabel de Castilla y de Aragon escrita por su cronista Hernando del Pulgarcotexada con antiguos manuscritos y aumentado de varias illustraciones ye enmendas (1565;repr., Valencia: Imprenta de Benito Monfort, 1780); John W. Blake, Europeans in West Africa,1450-1560 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1942), 205.“Mina de Ouro” “The origin of the modern English name Elmina is uncertain. The native nameis Ednaa or Edinaa, but it would have been exceptional for the Portuguese to use a native name,and it seems more likely that Edinaa is a corruption of Elmina than vice versa.” W.E.F. Ward,A History of Ghana (London: Allen & Unwin, 1958), 66.The gold obtained The gold trade flourished at least until the 1530s. John Vogt, PortugueseRule on the Gold Coast 1469-1682 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979), 201.“there was no servile class” Walter Rodney notes: “There was in existence a fundamental classcontradiction between the ruling nobility and the commoners; and the ruling class joined hands
with the Europeans in exploiting the African masses. “African Slavery and Other Forms ofSocial Oppression,” 64.They kidnapped and purchased slaves Joseph Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism andthe Angolan Slave Trade (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 115.
the Angolan Slave Trade (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 115.For each slave sold For the period 1500-1535, it has been estimated that the Portugueseimported 10,000-12,000 slaves to Elmina. This figure doesn’t take into account the numberslanded by smugglers. According to John Vogt in Portuguese Rule, “An adequate and continuoussupply of slaves was indispensable for the success of the Portuguese trade at São Jorge daMina…without such slaves much of the remainder of the trade goods would not have beensold.” Slaves were sold for three to six ounces of gold. Also see Chronicles of Gonja, 10.Slaves fetched better prices on the Gold Coast Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of theAtlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 106; Robert Garfield,A History of São Tome Island 1470-1655 (San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press,1992), 45-61.In the first century and a half Until 1650, the Portuguese transported virtually all of the slavesshipped from West Africa. John K. Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the AtlanticWorld, 1400-1680 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 155. The English surpassedthem in the middle of the seventeenth century.two million Africans Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, 38, 47.sixty slave markets Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade (New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1999), 208-209; Perbi, “History of the Indigenous Slavery in Ghana,” 70-76.Elmina was a boomtown Harvey M. Feinberg, Africans and Europeans in West Africa:Elminans and Dutchmen on the Gold Coast During the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: TheAmerican Philosophical Association, 1989), 84-85. Christopher R. DeCorse, An Archeology ofElmina (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 31-32. Ray Kea argues that shift from thetrade in goods to the trade in captives resulted in a shift of settlement patterns and a“movement away from urbanization and town growth toward relatively widespread de-urbanization. This shift constituted a major economic and demographic upheaval.” See Kea,Settlement, Trade, and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast (Baltimore: JohnsHopkins University Press, 1982), 11.The Portuguese built Elmina Castle P.E.H. Hair, The Founding of the Castelo de São Jorge daMina: An Analysis of the Sources (Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison African StudiesProgram, 1994), 15. According to Hair, in 1471, a respected citizen of Lisbon and agent of thePortuguese king Dom Afonso V “discovered gold at the place we now call the Mina.” FernaoGomes established the first trading post at Elmina in 1472. He held the contract for theexploration of the Guinea Coast. For the riches extracted from Mina, he was ennobled andgiven a coat of arms—a shield with a crest and three heads of Negroes on a field of silver, eachwith golden rings in ears and nose, and a collar of gold around the neck, and “da Mina” as asurname in memory of its discovery (109-10).Portuguese to become the masters The Portuguese transported 150,000 slaves to the Atlanticislands and Portugal in little over a decade and virtually all of the enslaved Africans whoreached the Americas by 1620. See Blackburn, Making of New World Slavery, 112; Thornton,Africa and Africans, 155.the encounter between Europe and Africa Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness: AfricanistDiscourse in French (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); V. Y. Mudimbe, TheInvention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 1988).“land of the negroes” Gomes Eanes de Zurara, The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest ofGuinea, ed. and trans. Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage (London: Hakluyt Society,1896-99), I: xxx.Cartographers drew the imaginary places Robert W. Harms observes that Guinea was “one ofthose imaginary geographical constructions of European cartographers that kept showing up in
those imaginary geographical constructions of European cartographers that kept showing up indifferent places on different maps.” The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the SlaveTrade (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 114. V. Y. Mudimbe tracks its first appearance to afifteenth-century papal document. The Idea of Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1994), 32. According to the OED, Guinea’s exact origins are unknown.symbols of their sovereign and God A.C. de C.M. Saunders, A Social History of Black Slavesand Freedmen in Portugal, 1441-1555 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 13;Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 1997), 112; Thornton, Africa and Africans, 155.terra nullius The Romanus Pontifex (1454) established the political and theological authorityfor Europeans to seize the lands of non-Christian people, who were required to pledge theirsubmission to the king of Portugal and to convert to Christianity. Submission or subjugationwas the outcome of this military philosophy of conversion. Mudimbe, Idea of Africa, 30-37.Fala de preto Portuguese seamen and traders employed a simple trade pidgin to attend tomatters sexual and alimentary, but diplomatic relations relied on black interpreters. Slaveinterpreters were essential to Portuguese expansion in Africa and, for this reason, all voyages toGuinea included black translators. The royal ordinances or regimentos issued by the Crown toships on exploratory voyages to Guinea included a routine instruction directing seamen tokidnap natives, male and female alike, so that they could be trained as translators. P. E. Russell,“Some Socio-Linguistic Problems Concerning the Fifteenth-Century Portuguese Discoveries inthe African Atlantic,” in P. E. Russell, comp., Portugal, Spain and the African Atlantic, 1343-1490: Chivalry and Crusade from John of Gaunt to Henry the Navigator (Brookfield, VT:Variorum, 1995), 4.“repay them with love” “E que por esas cousas de amor, el-Rei lhas queria pagar com amor.”João de Barros, “Décadas da Ásia (excerptos das quarto décadas) Ensaio biográfico e histórico-crítico, selecção, notas e indices remissivos, por Mário Gonçalves Viana” (Pôrto: EditôraEducação Nacional, 1944), 118, excerpted in Hair, Founding of the Castelo, 105; DuartePacheco Pereira, Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, trans. George H. T. Kimble (London: HakluytSociety, 1937).Portugal’s rights of occupation Herman Bennett, “Sons of Adam,” Representations 92 (Winter2006).Even the king’s scribes disagreed J. D. Fage, “A Comment on Duarte Pacheco Pereira’sAccount of the Lower Guinea Coastlands in his Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis and Some Other EarlyAccounts,” History in Africa 7 (1980): 47-80. Hair concludes, “It is unlikely that any furtherevidence will ever be found to clarify this aspect of the history, hence varying interpretationswill flourish and varying significances be consequently given to the whole event of thefounding of the fort.” Ballong-Wen-Mewuda contends that the Akan did not give permission tobuild the castle; if so, traditional ceremonies of libation would have been conducted. Foundingof the Castelo, 38, 87n172.love had many expressions José Rabasa, Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and theFormation of Eurocentrism (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 6. Love was thelanguage of dominion; it required nothing less than Caramansa’s submission to the ChristianGod and his earthly representatives; it demanded the viceroy’s self-abnegation.ferried the captives from the Slave Rivers The Portuguese established trade relations in Beninin the 1470s and settled the islands of São Tomé and Fernando Po in the 1470s and ’80s.Blackburn, Making of New World Slavery, 106; A.F.C. Ryder, Benin and the Europeans, 1485-1897 (New York: Humanities Press, 1969), 26.seared with the cross Ryder, Benin and the Europeans, 26, 55-57.the royal converts Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1961),
the royal converts Basil Davidson, The African Slave Trade (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1961),142; Harms, The Diligent; Michael A. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: AfricanIdentity in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,1998), 142.ad propagandam fidem Vogt, Portuguese Rule, 52. The Romanus Pontifex was one in a seriesof papal bulls issued by Nicholas V granting and ensuring the Portuguese monopoly over theslave trade, as well as granting them dominion over Guinea and its inhabitants. The first slaveswere kidnapped in 1441. See Mudimbe, Invention of Africa, 30-37; Blackburn, Making of NewWorld Slavery, 107; Thornton, Africa and Africans, 45, 51; Anselm Guezo, “The Other Side ofthe Story: Essays on the Atlantic Slave Trade” (manuscript), 26.The Portuguese attacked the villagers Blackburn, Making of New World Slavery, 104; GomesEanes de Zurara, Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, 63-83.Saint George had many faces Samantha Riches, St. George: Hero, Martyr, and Myth (Stroud:Sutton, 2000).an emblem for the suffering of slaves This description of Saint George’s trials is culled fromEduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire, trans. Cedric Belfrage, 3 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 1985-1988), Vol. 2.In the horrible trials endured by saints Carole Walker Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body(New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).“commodities in the hands of merchants” Claude Meillassoux, The Anthropology of Slavery:The Womb of Iron and Gold (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 109.The dead were reborn Ibid., 106, 107-108, 138-40.“neither death nor rebirth was glorious” Aharon Applefeld, The Iron Tracks, trans. Jeffrey M.Green (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 13. On reincarnation, see J. B. Danquah, The AkanDoctrine of God (London: Lutterworth Press, 1944), 158-61.toiling away in Lisbon See Saunders, Social History of Black Slaves and Freedmen in Portugal,59. By the mid-sixteenth century, 10 percent of the population of Lisbon was black. By 1551,there were 9,950 slaves within the city’s population.The Portuguese referred to them as braços Stephan Palmié, “A Taste for HumanCommodities,” in Slave Cultures and the Cultures of Slavery, edited by Stephan Palmié(Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995), 46.The Spanish called them pieza de India Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of theAtlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 212fn; A HistoricalGuide to World Slavery, edited by Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman (New York:Oxford University Press, 1998), 88.“whitewashed the black man’s history” Imahkhus Vienna Robinson, “Is the Black Man’sHistory Being Whitewashed?” Uburu, 9: 48-50.The family loves the corpse Kwame Arhin, “The Economic Implications of Transformations inAkan Funeral Rites,” Africa: Journal of International African Institute 64.3 (1994) 307-22.Sjaak van der Geest, “Funerals for the Living Conversations with Elderly People in Kwahu,Ghana,” African Studies Review, 43.3 (December 2000): 103-29.“Africa was a land of graves without bodies” Kwadwo Opoku-Agyeman, Cape Coast Castle(Ghana: Afram Publications, 1996).“People pride themselves” Emmanuel Akyeampong, “History, Memory, Slave-Trade andSlavery in Anlo (Ghana),” Slavery and Abolition, 22.3 (December 2001), 19.“but now we’re poor” Bayo Holsey, “Routes of Remembrance: The Transatlantic Slave Tradein the Ghanian Imagination” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2003), 105.shattered any illusions of a unanimity of sentiment David Scott and Brent Edwards suggest thatthese forms of misunderstanding, bad faith, unhappy translation, and extended disputes define
these forms of misunderstanding, bad faith, unhappy translation, and extended disputes definethe character of diaspora. See David Scott, Refashioning Futures: Criticism AfterPostcolonialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 123-24; Brent Hayes Edwards,The Practice of Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 14.
Three • The Family Romance
“rope of captivity” Paul Riesman, First Find Your Child a Good Mother: The Construction ofSelf in Two African Communities (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 205.“lays herself low to his lust” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; New York:Penguin Classics, 1989).the Dutch slave trade The Dutch exported only a few hundred slaves from the Gold Coast in theseventeenth century. This number would increase exponentially by the first decade of theeighteenth century. Johannes Postma estimates that 136 slaves were exported from the GoldCoast in the years 1675-1699, but the volume of trade increased to almost 3,000 in the years1700-1709. See “The Origin of African Slaves: The Dutch Activities on the Guinea Coast,1675-1795,” in Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, edited byStanley L. Engerman and Eugene B. Genovese (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975);Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815 (New York: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1990), 299.For tracking purposes Postma, The Dutch in the Atlantic Trade, 52.Curaçao, which was the way station Sometime after 1648, Curaçao emerged as a slave port. SeeJ. Hartog, Curaçao, from Colonial Dependence to Autonomy (Aruba: De Wit, 1968).The numbers identified Ibid., 37.officers traveled with instructions for branding Ibid., Appendix 8, 368.picture of the purchase and branding of property William Bosman, A New and AccurateDescription of the Coast of Guinea, Divided into the Gold, the Slave and the Ivory Coasts(London: Cass, 1967), 363-64.The mother’s mark See Fred Moten, In the Break (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,2003), 17. Racism is another way of describing the marks passed from one generation to thenext.“a blank parody” Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” and “The PermanentObliquity of an In(pha)llibly Straight: In the Time of the Daughters and the Fathers,” in Black,White, and in Color (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
Four • Come, Go Back, Child
The comings and goings of the spirit child Ben Okri writes that the spirit child “enters theworld weighted with strange gifts of the soul” and “inextinguishable sense of exile.” See TheFamished Road (New York: Doubleday, 1993). His description of the spirit child echoesDuBois’s description of the Negro as “gifted with a second sight” and a “stranger in his home.”See Souls of Black Folk.The origins of the word odonkor This etymology of odonkor is indebted to Mrs. Kofi Anyidoho.The word for “poor” shares the same root. Odofu means “loved one.” See Wilhelm Muller,
“Description of the Fetu Country,” in Adam Jones, ed., German Sources for West AfricanHistory (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1983), 325.the words of the master R. S. Rattray, Ashanti Law and Constitution (1929; repr., New York:Negro Universities Press, 1969), 46; Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs, 123.
Negro Universities Press, 1969), 46; Rattray, Ashanti Proverbs, 123.Being an outsider Moses Finley, “Slavery,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences(New York: Macmillan, 1967).“The insistent, maddening, claustrophic pounding” James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son(1955; repr., Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), 57, 111.the need to “destroy tirelessly” C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture andthe San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 88.DNA tests And who were you after having discovered that your ancestors were Konkomba orDagarti or Yoruba? Many of these identities were little more than the inventions of colonialadministrators imposing their own fanciful taxonomies onto Africa. Could the fiction of originsresolve the stranger’s dilemma? “Blacks Pin Hope on DNA to Fill in Slavery’s Gaps in FamilyTrees,” New York Times, July 25, 2005, A1, A17.the word “revolution” Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (1963; repr., New York: Penguin Books,1990), 47, 45.Amina or Elmina slaves The identity assigned to the captives by Europeans was often the portor region from which they had been exported.Akwamu was one of the principal states The majority of the slaves taken from the Gold Coastduring this period had been shipped from Akwamu and the Fanti coast. Lovejoy,Transformations in Slavery, 95-97.“donkor work” C.G.A. Oldendorp, C.G.A. Oldendorp’s History of the Mission of theEvangelical Brethren on the Caribbean Islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, ed.Johann Jakob Bossard; ed. and trans. Arnold R. Highfield and Vladimir Barac (Ann Arbor:Karoma, 1987), 226. Oldendorp interpreted donkor work as night work because the chores wereperformed after laboring in the field. I believe it was called donkor work because the choreswere considered especially onerous and degrading.The rebels decided Pierre Pannet, Report on the Execrable Conspiracy Carried Out by AminaNegroes on the Danish Island of St. Jan in America 1733, trans. Aimery Caron and Arnold R.Highfield (St. Croix: Antilles Press, 1984); Oldendorp, History of the Evangelical Brethren,220; Aimery P. Caron and Arnold R. Highfield, The French Intervention in the St. John SlaveRevolt of 1733-1734 (Virgin Islands: Bureau of Libraries, Museums and ArchaeologicalServices, Department of Conservation and Cultural Affairs, 1981), 10.An Akan-style polity Michael Craton, Testing the Chains (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,1982), 99.the gun-slave cycle The commodification of life in the context of the slave trade, according toPatrick Manning, resulted in a zero-sum game in which “one could gain only at the expense ofone’s neighbors.” Patrick Manning, Slavery and African Life (New York: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1990), 124.the idea of revolving back to former times Arendt, On Revolution, 47, 45.“murder the memory” Caryl Phillips, Higher Ground (New York: Vintage, 1995).shattered a mother’s image Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; repr.,New York: Dover, 1969), 42; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845; repr., New York: New American Library, 1968).“Possessing nothing” Wilson Harris, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” in Selected Essays ofWilson Harris: The Unfinished Genesis of the Imagination, edited by A. J. M. Bundy (NewYork: Routledge, 1999), 179.Cleavage The journey from the Old World to the Americas, as Wilson Harris observes, was a“limbo gateway between Africa and the Caribbean.” The dislocation that began as slaverscrossed the miles of the Atlantic, he reminds us, entailed not only dispossession but also thepromise of a new architecture of cultures and the remaking of dismembered men and gods. See
promise of a new architecture of cultures and the remaking of dismembered men and gods. See“History, Fable and Myth in the Caribbean and Guianas,” Selected Essays, 157-58. Paul Gilroywrites, “The modern world represents a break with the past, not in the sense that premodern,‘traditional’ Africanisms don’t survive its institution, but because the significance and meaningof these survivals get irrevocably sundered from their origins. The history of slavery and thehistory of its imaginative recovery through expressive, vernacular cultures challenge us todelve into the specific dynamics of this severance.” The Black Atlantic: Modernity and DoubleConsciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 222-23.“summon filial love” Derek Walcott, What the Twilight Says (New York: Farrar, Straus andGiroux, 1998), 64.Strivings and failures David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke UniversityPress, 2005).an overture Was the rebirth of Toussaint Breda as Toussaint L’Ouverture the symptom oftransformation as much as its precondition? At the news of another victory against the French,the word spread that Toussaint made an opening everywhere. As C.L.R. James notes,“L’Ouverture means the opening.” Black Jacobins, 126.to see beyond the end of the world James describes this process of resurrection by which thewild hordes and debased men become revolutionary masses. Ibid.Loss remakes you Judith Butler, Subjection: The Psychic Life of Power (Palo Alto, CA:Stanford University Press, 1997); Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2003). This “ongoing loss or impossible recovery of the maternal,” accordingto Fred Moten, animates the practices of freedom. In the Break, 228. Eduoard Glissant,Caribbean Discourse (Charlotteville: University of Virginia, 1989).
Five • The Tribe of the Middle Passage
The slave was as an orphan Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom.The Middle Passage was the birth canal Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks.“time had faded nothing” George Jackson wrote from his prison cell in Soledad: “My recall isnearly perfect, time has faded nothing. I recall the very first kidnap. I’ve lived through thepassage, died on the passage, lain in the unmarked, shallow graves of the millions whofertilized the Amerikan soil with their corpses; cotton and corn growing out of my chest ‘untilthe third and fourth generation,’ the tenth, the hundredth.” Soledad Brother, 233.
Six • So Many Dungeons
Adam and Eve Board of Trade: Report of the Lords of the Committee of Council Appointed forthe Consideration of All Matters Relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations (1789), Part I,James Arnold’s testimony.the Royal Africa Company From its incorporation in 1672 to its dissolution in 1752, the RoyalAfrica Company owned those who were held here. James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic SlaveTrade: A History (New York: Norton, 1981), 161.“The castle looks very fine from the sea” Writings of Jean Barbot, 392, 404n11.they called it a factory Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra:
Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston:Beacon Press, 2000), 150. The word has its origins in the Portuguese feitoria, a merchantcompany’s trade outpost. Joseph E. Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).“the refuse and offscourings” Board of Trade Reports, Part I, 80; George Francis Dow, SlaveShips and Slaving (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2002), 83.Nana Taabiri watched over all the creatures When the British built the fort, the shrine wasmoved outside the castle, but it was returned in 1977.Olaudah Equiano believed Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative (1789; repr., New York:Penguin, 1995), 55.On the slaving voyage of the Albion Frigate See Churchill’s Collection of Voyages (London,1746), Vol. 5; Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving, 83.Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the slave revolt Matthew Christensen, “Cannibals in colony,”Research in African Literatures 36, no. 1 (2005).“In their own country” Isert, Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade, eleventh letter, 175.Excrement was the material residue Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 211.a team of archaeologists Doig Simmonds, “A Note on the Excavations in Cape Coast Castle,”Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 14, no. 2 (1973): 267-69. Also see BayoHolsey, “Routes of Remembrance: The Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Ghanaian Imagination”(PhD diss., Columbia University, 2003).Waste is the interface of life and death My own line of argument is much informed by MarcelHénaff’s reading of waste in Sade. “Bodily wastes remain truly irredeemable, unspeakable…They evoke dull, ordinary horror of what is vile, worthless and contemptible—a pile of shit, inthe vulgar phrase that indicates an act of foreclosure. Of all the foreclosures on which culture isfounded, this one is the most violent, and therefore the most necessary. It must leave behind notraces and of memory. It is outside history, dissolved in utter amnesia.” Sade, The Invention ofthe Libertine Body, trans. Xavier Callahan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999),196.a thousand or more men and boys This is based on a 15.5 percent mortality rate in the firstdecades of the eighteenth century; prior to the eighteenth century, the mortality rate was 21.6percent. A. W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London: Jonathan Cape,1969), 189; David Eltis and David Richardson, eds., Routes to Slavery: Direction, Ethnicity,and Mortality in the Transatlantic Slave Trade (London: Cass, 1997), 45; Lovejoy,Transformations in Slavery, 61. The mortality rate in the dungeon sometimes exceeded that ofthe Middle Passage. Most of the captives died from dysentery.arrived at the castle in small lots For the most part, the trade was characterized by exchanges ofsmall groups of slaves. For example, between 1772 and 1780, Richard Miles, the governor ofCape Coast, made 1,308 purchases in order to obtain 2,218 slaves. Herbert S. Klein, TheAtlantic Slave Trade (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 122-23.The coffles traveled hundreds of miles By the eighteenth century, the journey averaged twohundred miles. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 155; Manning, Slavery and AfricanLife, 58, 62, 64-72; Van Dantzig, Records of Dutch West India Company.women and children usually were not chained Governor Robert Miles noted that in the years1765 to 1784, “they have generally sores from travelling through the woods, by paths whichadmit but one at a time, and are much emaciated. The men are brought down with a sort of logon their arms; the women and children are at liberty.” Board of Trade Reports, Part I, 41.irons were attached Minutes of the Evidence taken before a committee of the Whole House towhom it was referred to consider of the Slave Trade, Part I, 58, 1789.The double irons Colin Palmer, Human Cargoes: The British Slave Trade to Spanish America,1700-1739 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 43; PRO, T70/5, p. 40. When the fortswere poorly supplied and lacking the necessary irons, captives were unfettered. See Stephanie
were poorly supplied and lacking the necessary irons, captives were unfettered. See StephanieSmallwood, “Salt-Water Slaves: African Enslavement, Forced Migration, and Settlement in theAnglo-Atlantic World” (PhD diss., Duke University, 1999).The number of prisoners fluctuated Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts, 189. A decade after itlost its monopoly in the trade, the Royal Africa Company delivered as few as 395 slaves in1711. Rawley, Transatlantic Slave Trade, 161.Each slave was confined to his own place Simmonds, “Note on the Excavations,” 267; Palmer,Human Cargoes, 43.made dysentery commonplace These subterranean conditions proved fatal for many slaves,although the trading company considered it “a good security to the garrison against anyinsurrection.” Writings of Jean Barbot, 404n11. Richard B. Sheridan, Doctors and Slaves: AMedical and Demographic History of Slavery in the British West Indies, 1680-1834 (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1985), 116; Wendell Leon Hicks, The Bloody Flux (Pittsburgh:Azaka Publications, 1982), x.the bloody flux Sheridan, Doctors and Slavery, 116.None of these recommendations There was no archaeological evidence of bunks arranged alongthe walls for slaves to sleep on. Simmonds, “Notes on the Excavations.”His name was Kwabena This account is based upon Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on theEvil of Slavery.too awful to describe? In a letter written to Reverend E. Bass of Massachusetts in July 1775,Quaque described slavery as an “iniquitous practice methinks seems to set Religion aside andonly making Room for the height of Ambition and Grandeur, the pride of Monarchs &c. toenter.” Paul Edwards and David Dabydeen, eds., Black Writers in Britain 1760–1890(Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), 110.the black chaplain at Elmina F. L. Bartels, “Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein,” Transactions ofthe Historical Society of Ghana 4, part 1 (1959): 3-13.each generation felt anew Fred Moten, “Uplift and Criminality” (manuscript, 2004); CedricRobinson, Black Marxism (London: Zed Press, 1995).“no human involved” Sylvia Wynter observes that the Western discourse of Man created anOther, the deselected “Nigger,” with the latter being made to function as the signifier of thesymbolic death to our present conception of the human being. This other, called an alien, astranger, if not entirely of a different species, was “plac[ed] outside the ‘sanctified universe ofobligation,’” and thus deemed disposable. “Forum N.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century,”Knowledge on Trial, 1.1 (Fall 1994) 5-6, 45. See also “Unsettling the Coloniality ofBeing/Power/Truth/Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review, 3.3 (2003), 257-337.“the sublime ideal of freedom” Petition of Boston Committee of Slaves 1773, in DorothyPorter, ed., Early Negro Writing, 1760-1837 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971).“without providence or final cause” Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History,” inLanguage, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon (Ithaca,NY: Cornell University Press, 1977), 155.I wondered how the children Manning, Slavery and African Life, 99.
Seven • The Dead Book
if you look at the sea long enough Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean, trans. SiânReynolds (New York: Vintage, 2001).“the sea is history” Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,” Collected Poems (New York: Farrar,Straus and Giroux, 1986), 364–67.
Straus and Giroux, 1986), 364–67.“well excavated grave” Marianne Moore, “The Grave,” The Collected Poems of MarianneMoore (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 49.“the precarious domicile of words” Michel Foucault describes these lives as “infamous in thestrict sense: they no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to renderthem forever unworthy of the memory of men.” “Lives of Infamous Men,” in The EssentialFoucault, edited by Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: New Press, 2003), 284.a musty trial transcript Trial of Captain John Kimber for the Murder of a Negro Girl on Boardthe Ship Recovery (London: H. D. Symonds, 1792), 8. The other versions of the trial I haveconsulted are The Supposed Murder of an African Girl at the Admiralty Sessions (London,1792); The Whole of the Proceedings and Trial of Captain John Kimber for the Willful Murderof a Negro Girl (London, 1792); The Trial of Captain Kimber for the Murder of Two FemaleNegro Slaves, on Board the Recovery, African Slave Ship (London, 1792).The girl was sick It is possible that the girl was infected with a sexually transmitted disease—such diseases spread in Africa, Europe, and the Americas as a result of the transatlantic trade—or that her yaws was mistaken for a venereal disease. Gonorrhea and syphilis too formed abridge connecting the worlds of the Atlantic—diseased emissions, fluxes, and discharges. SeePhilip Curtin, “Epidemiology and the Slave Trade,” Political Science Quarterly 83 (1968). Atthis point, Europeans believed yaws was a venereal disease, which it is not; it is an infectioustropical disease caused by dermal contact. This would also explain why the other womenisolated the girl. Because of racist notions about the “sexual proclivity of Africans,” venerealdisease was believed to be common among them. John Hippisley, Essays on the Populousnessof Africa (London, 1764); Thomas Phillips, A Journal of a Voyage Made in the Hannibal ofLondon, ann. 1693, 1694, from England, to Cape Monseradoe in Africa; and Thence Along theCoast of Guiney to Whidaw, the island of St. Thomas, and So Forward to Barbadoes. With aCursory Account of the Country, the People, their Manners, Forts, Trade, &c. (London, 1752).resembled a slaughterhouse Alexander Falconbridge, An Account of the Slave Trade on theCoast of Africa (London, 1788), 25.The venereal distempter was common among the blacks James Barbot, the captain of theAlbion Frigate, advised: “The venereal distemper is very common, the blacks seeming to belittle concerned at it as they have a way to cure with mercury; but few Europeans who get itescape dying miserably. I cannot therefore but seriously recommend to all such as happen to gothither, to forebear having to do with any black women as they value their own lives.” Despitethis warning, he remarked on the difficulty of restraint, because of the “young sprightlymaidens, full of jollity and good humor, afforded us abundance of recreation.” An Abstract of aVoyage in the Albion Frigate,” in Churchill’s Voyages, Vol. 5, reprinted in Dow, Slavers andSlave Trading, 81.murder was part of “work at sea” Marcus Rediker writes, “Calculated viciousness was often afoundation of authority, a stellar part of a large economy of discipline…Murder was clearly apart of the social relations of work at sea.” Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: MerchantSeamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (New York: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987), 219.“Outrages of that nature” Trial of Captain Kimber for the Murder of Two Female Negro Slaves,18.“The prey was divided” John Newton, The Journal of a Slave Trader (London: Epworth Press,1962), 104.“A young girl of fifteen” Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) (1792), 30: 1070.132 live slaves dumped into the sea When the captain of the Zong jettisoned 132 slaves into theAtlantic to minimize his losses and collect the insurance, (£30 for each slave lost to the “perils
Atlantic to minimize his losses and collect the insurance, (£30 for each slave lost to the “perilsof the sea”), the court of King’s Bench decided in his favor. The response to this atrocity wasnew laws restricting the kinds of losses insured at sea. Mr. Piggot, counsel for the insurers inthe Zong trial, also defended Captain Kimber. An act of 1788 “rendered void all insurances onslaves against any risk other than ‘the perils of the sea, piracy, insurrection, or capture by theking’s enemies, barratry of the master and crew and destruction by fire.’” An act of 1799provided that “no loss or damage shall be recoverable on account of the mortality of slaves bynatural death or ill treatment, or against loss by throwing overboard of slaves on any accountwhatsoever.” J. P. Van Niekerk, The Development of the Principles of Insurance Law in theNetherlands from 1500-1800 (Cape Town: Juta & Co., 1998), 433n88. See also Rawley,Transatlantic Slave Trade, 299; Prince Hoare, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. Composedfrom His Own Manuscripts, and Other Authentic Documents in the Possession of His Familyand of the African Institution (London: H. Colburn, 1828), viii, xvii–xviii; Henry Roscoe,Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King’s Bench (1782-1785), III: 232-35.none of the surgeon’s rememdies improved her lethargy or sulkiness Extracts of such journalsof the surgeons employed in ships trading to the coast of Africa…18th June 1789, the Sheffieldcopy, 3. Vague disorders like sulkiness and decline transformed grief into an illness orcomplaint to be treated and eliminated. In the extracts of the journals he presented to theCustoms House of London, Joseph Buckhman, a surgeon, recorded sulkiness as the cause ofdeath of a woman who died on board the ship James. Two slaves on board the Lively died ofdecline. These were common forms of curing melancholy according to AlexanderFalconbridge, “Upon the negroes refusing to take sustenance, I have seen coals of fire, glowinghot, put on a shovel, and placed so near their lips as to scorch and burn them. And this has beenaccompanied with threats, of forcing them to swallow the coals, if they any longer persisted inrefusing to eat. These means have generally had the desired effect. I have also been crediblyinformed, that a certain captain in the slave trade, poured melted lead on such of the negroes asobstinately refused their food.” Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa.“No one who had the melancholy was ever cured” Dr. Thomas Trotter of the Brookes adviseddancing as a therapeutic measure against suicidal melancholy. However, he admitted thatdespite such efforts to exercise the body and improve the spirits, melancholy still prevailed.“Minutes of the Evidence (1790) Part II,” House of Commons Sessional Papers, 86. Thesurgeon on board the Elizabeth estimated that the death of at least two-thirds of those lost inAtlantic passage was due to melancholy: “He heard them say in their language that they wishedto die…The symptoms are lowness of spirits and despondency. Hence they refuse food. Thisonly increases the symptoms. The stomach afterwards got weak. Hence the belly ached, fluxesensued and they were carried off.” “Minutes of the Evidence, Volume II, Part II,” House ofCommons Sessional Papers 562 (219).a reputation for destroying themselves Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture inthe Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North CarolinaPress, 1998); Postma, Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Henry Coor noted that when driven todespair, Gold Coast Negroes cut their throats, while those from the interior hung themselves.“Minutes of the Evidence IV,” House of Commons Sessional Papers, 71. Slaves shipped fromElmina had a propensity for suicide by hanging. See William Piersen, “White Cannibals, BlackMartyrs,” Journal of Negro History 62 (April 1979): 153.Mild means were used “Part II, Minutes of the Evidence,” House of Commons Sessional Papers569 (222).the relation between the loins and the buttocks Abbé Boileau, Historia Flagellantium, de rectoet perverso flagrorum usu apud Christianos (Paris, 1700), 294-95, cited in Ian Gibson, The
et perverso flagrorum usu apud Christianos (Paris, 1700), 294-95, cited in Ian Gibson, TheEnglish Vice: Beating, Sex, and Shame in Victorian England and After (London: Duckworth,1978), 7. Sex and punishment were linked inextricably in the economy of slavery and, as well,because the story of a naked fourteen-year-old being flogged was all too easily confused withthe erotic articles of Gentleman’s Magazine. SeeG. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds., SexualUnderworlds of the Enlightenment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 52.similarly attired sailors The sailors probably were outfitted in overcoats and vests and hats andsilver buckled shoes rather than attired in the standard baggy, wide breeches of heavy nap,which were tar-smeared to protect from cold and dampness, checkered shirts of coarse linen,and Monmouth caps. Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 11.the picaresque proletarian Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in theEighteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).“No difference, no-one at night” “The Sable Venus, An Ode,” 1781.“death from natural causes” Van Niekerk, Development of the Principles of Insurance Law,433-34.The London Assurance Company Policy on slaves Ibid., 434. Also see H.A.L. Cockerell andEdwin Green, The British Insurance Business 1547–1970: An Introduction and Guide toHistorical Records in the United Kingdom (London: Heinemann, 1976), 14; Bernard Drew, TheLondon Assurance: A Second Chronicle (London: London Assurance, 1949), 36-38; A. H. John,“The London Assurance and the Marine Insurance Market of the Eighteenth Century,”Economica 25 (1958): 126-41; Frederic R. Sanborn, Origins of the Early English Maritime andCommercial Law (New York: Century Company, 1930).“The insurer takes upon him the risk John Weskett, A Complete Digest of the Theory, Laws andPractice of Insurance (London, 1781), 525.“where all life is violence” The Whole of the Proceedings and Trial of Captain John Kimber,for the Wilful Murder of a Negro Girl.“Before men can benefit” Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 29: 1061.it afforded a salutary lesson Trial of Captain Kimber for the Murder of Two Female NegroSlaves, vi.“I am going to meet my friends” A woman on board the Pegase refused all sustenance anddeclined even to speak. As a consequence, “she was then ordered the thumb screws andsuspended in the mizzen rigging, and every attempt made with the cat [o’ nine-tails] and thoseinstruments they have generally on board; but all to no purpose. She died three or four daysafterwards.” The night before she died, she confided to the other women that “she was going toher friends.” “Part III, Minutes of the Evidence,” House Sessional Papers, 887.
Eight • Lose Your Mother
European traders, too, employed occultists Sylviane A. Diouf, ed., Fighting the Slave Trade(Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), xviii.A famous slave trader on the Rio Pongo Djibril Tamsir Niane, “Africa’s Understanding of theSlave Trade, Oral Accounts,” Diogenes 179, 45.3 (Autumn 1997): 75-89.In Ewe country Anne Bailey, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Boston: Beacon Press,2005), 160.
in the household of the owner Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 52.soulless men, and walking corpses Joan Dayan, Haiti, History, and the Gods (Berkeley:University of California Press, 1995), 36-37.“they soon forgot” Zurara, Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, I: 85.
“they soon forgot” Zurara, Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, I: 85.Like the term “nigger” Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and theFoundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 198-99; WinthropD. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill:University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 74, 95-96. Cedric Robinson writes, “The ‘Negro,’that is the color black, was both a negation of Africa and a unity of opposition to white. Theconstruct of Negro, unlike the terms ‘African,’ ‘Moor,’ or ‘Ethiope,’ suggested no situatednessin time, that is history, or space, that is ethno-or politico-geography. The Negro had nocivilization, no cultures, no religions, no history, no place, and finally no humanity that mightcommand consideration.” Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (ChapelHill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 81.“the human pulse stops at the gate of the barracoon” Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to theNative Land, trans. and ed. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Middletown, CT: WesleyanUniversity Press, 2001), 28.“applied strictly to any man or woman” Rattray, Asante Law, 35; T. Edward Bowditch, Missionfrom Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, with a Statistical Account of the Kingdom, andGeographical Notices of Other Parts of the Interior of Africa (1819; repr., London: Cass,1966), 182-83. Donkor referred to a captive from the northern regions of Guinea, whichincluded areas of Mossi and Hausaland and Dagomba and Gonja.“they were middle size” Captain John Adams, Sketches Taken During Ten Voyages to AfricaBetween the Years 1786 and 1800 (1822; repr., New York: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1970), 9.“One could hardly call them human” Roemer, A Reliable Account of the Coast of Guinea, 28,182.“‘It is you, Whites’” Ibid., 35.population decline Manning, Slavery and African Life, 55, 58, 82.Lemba Miller, Way of Death, 201-202; John M. Janzen, Lemba 1650–1930: A Drum ofAffliction in Africa and the New World (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982).the Diola built altars to their captives Robert M. Baum, Shrines of the Slave Trade: DiolaReligion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999),116-18.By honoring slave spirits Judy Rosenthal, Possession, Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo(Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998), 48, 95, 153.King Buzzard Edward C. L. Adams, Tales of the Congaree, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (ChapelHill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 120-21. The tale Adams recorded was in hisversion of Negro dialect: “An’ when he dead, dere were no place in heaven for him an’ he werenot desired in hell. An’ de Great Master decide dat he were lower dan all other men or beasts;he punishment were to wander for eternal time over de face er de earth. Dat as he had kiltsperrits of mens an’ womens as well as dere bodies, he must wander on an’ on. Dat his sperritshould always travel in de form of a great buzzad, an dat’ carrion must be he food.”old-style blackface performance Catherine Cole, “Reading Blackface in West Africa,” CriticalInquiry, v. 23.1 (Autumn 1996).the Ministry of Tourism launched an advertising campaign “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace ofSlavery’s Diaspora,” New York Times, December 27, 2005, A1, A8.“the abuse of human beings and things” Armah, The Healers, 94.“a privilege so dangerous” Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom. See Stephen Best andSaidiya Hartman, “Fugitive Justice,” Representations 92 (Winter 2006).“Am I not a man and a brother?” “The apologetic density of the assertion ‘we are human beingslike any others,’” writes Achille Mbembe, “can be gauged only with respect to the violence thatprecedes it and makes it not only possible but necessary.” “African Modes of Self-Writing,”
precedes it and makes it not only possible but necessary.” “African Modes of Self-Writing,”Public Culture 14, no. 1 (Winter 2002).two Ghanaian boys were found dead Guardian, December 6, 2002.better than that of brothers Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by AmikarCabral (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 76.
Nine • The Dark Days
The mind has been described as an inner eye Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror ofNature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).“Electricity in abundance” Kwame Nkrumah, The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (London:Panaf, 1973); Kwame Nkrumah, “African Prospect,” Foreign Affairs 37, no. 1 (October 1958):45.most of Ghana was still in darkness Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 311.
Ten • The Famished Road
A woman named Thiamba Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, ed., Databases for the Study of Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy 1699-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press,2000). The information about Thiamba was found in the inventory of belongings of AlexandreBaure, dated 1790, in the courthouse of St. Charles Parish.The largest caravans R. la T. Lonsdale, Blue Book 1882, in Marion Johnson, ed., Salaga Papers(Legon: Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, 1965); Paul E. Lovejoy, Caravans ofKola: The Hausa Kola Trade, 1700-1900 (Zaria, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press,1980), 124-25, 103.a road of torment and devastation My description of the road is borrowed from Ben Okri’s TheFamished Road (New York: Anchor Books, 2001), 114-15, 326-27.“Zaa ni gun ja goro” See Hahdi Adamu, The Hausa Factor in West African History (Zaria,Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1978). At least 70 to 140 metric tons of kola passedthrough the market. Lovejoy, Caravans of Kola, 114-15.the Islamic reform movement “The extension of Islam into the savanna and the sahel wasclosely related to the export of slaves in this region.” Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn,eds., The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History of the Atlantic Slave Trade (NewYork: Academic Press, 1979), 201, 205. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, 155.ten thousand people entered the market This figure is from M. J. Bonnat, Liverpool Mercury,June 12, 1876, in Johnson, Salaga Papers. Gouldsbury cites the same figure in his report.And then there were the slaves Marion Johnson, “The Slaves of Salaga,” Journal of AfricanHistory 27 (1986): 343. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, a slave cost onebasket of kola or 5,000 cowries; by the 1870s and 1880s, a slave sold for anywhere between36,000 and 70,000 cowries, or four baskets of kola. Friedrich August Ramseyer, Four Years inAshantee (New York: R. Carter & Brothers, 1875); UNESCO Research into Oral Traditions:Oral Traditions of Gonja (Legon: Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, 1969), 34.the Reverend Theophil Opoku Johnson, Salaga Papers (Legon: Institute of African Studies,University of Ghana, 1965).
the volume of slave trading increased According to David Eltis, about 310,000 slaves wereexported each decade in the period from 1821 to 1830 and 1831 to 1840. Eltis cited in Jan S.Hogendorn and Henry A. Gemery, “Abolition and Its Impact on Monies Imported to WestAfrica,” in The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa,
Africa,” in The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa,and the Americas, edited by David Eltis and James Walvin (Madison: University of WisconsinPress, 1981), 108. See also Frederick Cooper, Thomas C. Holt, and Rebecca J. Scott, eds.,Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Post-emancipation Societies(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 113. On The Spade, see Thomas, SlaveTrade; Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery, 19.The greater demand for slaves Meillassoux, Anthropology of Slavery, 62-63.more slaves in Africa Martin Klein and Paul Lovejoy, “Slavery in West Africa,” in TheUncommon Market, edited by Henry A. Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn (New York: AcademicPress, 1979).No chain of common ancestors The Gonjas attacked only strangers and their enemies. UNESCOResearch into Oral Traditions, 137.“a way of establishing a place for the living” Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans.Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).the words of the ngbanya UNESCO Research into Oral Traditions.“sumptuous memories of plundering kings” Martin Klein, “Studying the History of Those WhoWould Rather Forget,” History in Africa 16 (1989): 209-17.without either a history or an inheritance Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 5.“‘Give her to me and I will give you mine’” UNESCO Research into Oral Traditions, 95.Ruins were the only monuments to slavery in Salaga This line of thinking is indebted to DavidLloyd’s essay “Ruins/Runes,” in Cities Without Citizens, edited by Eduardo Cadava and AaronLevy (Philadelphia: Slought Books/Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2005).
Eleven • Blood Cowries
“For those who can read the landscape” Mariane C. Ferme, The Underneath of Things(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 25.Cowrie shells Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, eds., The Shell Money of the Slave Trade(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 104.shipped them to Africa as ballast Hogendorn and Johnson, Shell Money, 46.more than twenty-five million pounds of cowries Ibid., 62.“based on the mistaken assumption” Anselm Guezo, “The Other Side of the Story: Essays onthe Atlantic Slave Trade” (manuscript), 19, 26; Thornton, Africa and Africans, 45, 51.“Negro currency” Bosman, New and Accurate Description, 362-64. Europeans did believe thatbetter care was taken of the slaves exchanged for cowries than for other goods.
Twelve • Fugitive Dreams
they were the archive of the defeated Carola Lentz and Hans-Jürgen Sturm, “Of Trees and EarthShrines: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Settlement Histories in the West African Savanna,”History in Africa 28 (2001): 139-68.Laterite dwellings This relation between earth and dwelling, between land and house, is at theheart of the Sisala cosmology. The land is revered and “conceived as a personal being, capableof feelings and also able to enter into relationship.” Edward Tengan, The Land as Being and
Cosmos (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991), 38.There was so much to fear Ibid., 57; Rosalind Shaw, Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual andthe Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 50-68.
68.The women stood outside the circle of elders Tengan, Land as Being and Cosmos, 66.“a captive on reprieve” Adama Guèye, “The Impact of the Slave Trade on Cayor and Baol:Mutations in Habitat and Land Occupancy,” in Fighting the Slave Trade: West AfricanStrategies, edited by Sylviane A. Diouf (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2003), 53.the Sisala The migration stories of stateless groups are dense poetic constructions rather thanliteral accounts of migration routes and dates. I have replicated the poetics of the historicalimagination of the stateless in my own telling. See Carola Lentz, “Of Hunters, Goats and EarthShrines: Settlement Histories and the Politics of the Oral Tradition in Northern Ghana,” Historyin Africa 27 (2000): 193-214; Tengan, Land as Being and Cosmos, 21.blended their histories R. S. Rattray writes: “The only traces of the former origin, in some casesbeing clan totems and sometimes the retention of certain distinctive customs which mark themout as different from the tribes in which they have been absorbed.”tribes See Morton H. Fried, The Notion of the Tribe (Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin Cummings,1975); Eugene L. Mendonsa, Continuity and Change in a West African Society: Globalization’sImpact on the Sisala of Ghana (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001), 25; Charles Piot,Remotely Global: Village Modernity in West Africa (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1999); Emmanuel Forster Tamakloe, A Brief History of the Dagbamba People (Gold Coast:Government Printing Office, 1931).Refugees, fugitives, and wanderers These new migrants “greatly increas[ed] the populationover the autochthons who dotted the area.” However, “immigrants and original inhabitantsalike continued to be pursued and raided even after taking refuge in this relatively isolatedarea.” Aggressive and powerful states like Gonja, Mamprusi, Dagomba, Wala, and Mossi, aswell as raiders and mercenaries continued to follow them, raiding, enslaving, and butcheringthem. Mendonsa, Continuity and Change, 27.ones who came together Eugene Mendonsa has described the grunshi as the raw material of theruling groups, “not unlike a field of grain, to be harvested at will.” Ibid.corpses were dragged to the bush In Ulu, so many died combating the Zabarimas that they wereunable to maintain their customary funeral practice that entailed a second ceremony monthsafter interment in which beer was brewed, “and the bow, quiver, mats and stool of the deceasedwas taken to the cross-roads and burned and the fire quenched with beer and the widowsshaved.” When a belated funeral was finally held for all those killed by Babatu, not all thenames of the dead were called, and the neglected dead became angry. Rather than risk theopprobrium of the dead, the practice of the second funeral ceased. Rattray, 536. In neighboringtowns, Babatu slaughtered so many people that funeral practices were transformed. The tindana(earth priest) could no longer call all the names of those who died.the Sisala rose in revolt Stanislaw Pilaszewicz, Hausa Prose Writings in Ajami (Berlin:Dietrich Reimer, 2000), 289-90.persons who were trampled The raiding armies that blazed through towns and villages acrossthe savanna kidnapping people, destroying crops, burying men in anthills, slaughtering theelderly, abandoning infants to die, raping women, and branding and selling slaves were Africantoo. See S. W. Koelle, Polyglotta Africana, or a Comparative Vocabulary of Nearly 300 Wordsand Phrases in More Than 100 Distinct African Languages (London, 1854), 13.no one spoke of slaves The word for “slave” is yomo. Slaves in Sisalaland like those elsewherewere defined as people without kin or ancestors. For this reason slaves could not own ancestralshrines or perform the ritual duties connected with them. According to Eugene Mendosa, “Theslave child (yomobie) remained a jural minor all of his life and passed this inferior position onto his children, much like a bastard (mengmouribie).”
On this journey, I have accrued many debts to persons known and unknown. The easiestobligations to acknowledge are to those I can name and the greatest to those I cannot. MaryEllen and John Ray opened their house and made a place for me. They taught me far more thanis reflected in these pages and for that I will be ever grateful. Anna Bannerman-Richter, MaryDillard, Geneva Moore, Margaret Musgrove, and Doris Awunor offered friendship andattenuated the loneliness. Kofi Anyidoho encouraged me to write a history of slavery that was apersonal story. Joseph Nkrumah supported this project in its infancy. Laura Hartman and MariaVargas-Pile shared family stories that they told far better than I ever have. Zonya Johnson andJulia Lowe provided wise counsel. Lindon Barrett, Stephen Best, Judith Butler, EduardoCadava, Joan Dayan, Tina Campt, Hazel Carby, Anne Cheng, Donna Daniels, Farah Griffin,Tera Hunter, Anthony and Maria Grahn-Farley, Judith Jackson Fossett, Oliver Jackson, AbdulJanMohamed, Donna Jones, David Lloyd, Sharon Marcus, June Miller, Fred Moten, KajaSilverman, Ula Taylor, Robyn Wiegman, and Frank Wilderson read the manuscript and mademany helpful suggestions for revisions. Marina Benjamin, Tobe Correal, Greg Klerx, TomJenks, Vijaya Nagarajan, Paul Rogers, and Ethel Smith have guided me along the way. MarisaFuentes has been my devoted research assistant. Her labor has made my own so much easier.Lisa Ze provided much assistance in the last stages of the project. This book has benefitedgreatly from the comments of my editors, John Glusman and Paul Elie. My agent, Joe Spieler,has believed in this project from the very beginning and supported it with rigorous criticismand generous praise.
I owe everything to Samuel, who has been unstinting in his love and support. He has readthese pages again and again and his enthusiasm has been constant during the long life of thisproject. Kasia never fails to remind me of beauty, especially during those moments when it ishardest for me to see.
The enduring debt is to strangers.
The index that appeared in the print version of this title does not match the pages in youreBook. Please use the search function on your eReading device to search for terms of interest.For your reference, the terms that appear in the print index are listed below.
Page numbers in italics refer to illustrations.
Abidjanabolition; of Atlantic slave trade; domestic trade continued after; U.S. movementAccraAdam and EveAdams, E. C. L., Nigger to NiggerAdams, Captain JohnAffonso, DomAfrica CorpsAfrican slavery; continued after end of Atlantic slave tradeAfrifa, Lieutenant GeneralAfrosafterlife of slaveryAgimaqueAIDSAkanAkosombo DamAkuapemAkwamuAlabamaAlbion FrigatealcoholAli, MuhammadAll African Peoples CongressAllston, CarlosAm I Not a Man and a Brother?AmistadamnesiaAmsterdamAmsterdam NewsAndalusiaAngelou, MayaAngolaAnnette Johnson House Porch, Clay-Ashland, LiberiaAnomabuanthropophagyanticolonialismAnyidoho, KofiapartheidAppiah, Anthony
Appiah, AnthonyArabsarchiveArendt, HannahArmah, Ayi Kwei; The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born; Two Thousand SeasonsAsanteAsanteheneAshantisAtlantaAtlantic slave trade; abolition of; brands and markings; British; currency; death; defense wall;
deposed royals and revolts; domestic trade continued after end of; dungeons; Dutch;estimated rates of cargo productivity; French; gold and; health of slaves; memory of;population decline due to; Portuguese; resistance of fugitives; role of African merchantsand royals in; Salaga; ships; smuggling; “tight packing,”; violence; volume of; worth ofslaves in
Azambuja, Diego de
BabatuBaldwin, JamesBarbadosBarbot, Jean; A Description of the Coasts of North and South GuineaBarbot, JohnBay of BengalbeadsBelovedBeninBenjamin, WalterBeyinBinger, Louis-Gustave, Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée par le pays du Kong et de MossiBirmingham, AlabamaBlack InternationalBlack PowerBlessedbloody flux, see dysenteryBoone, SylviaBosman, Williambrands and markings, slaveBrazil; slave tradeBricks, Brattonsville, York County, South CarolinaBunche, RalphBurkina Faso
cannibalismCape CoastCape Coast Castle; dungeonsCape Towncapitalism; cowrie currency andCapitein, JacobusCaramasa, “King,”caravansCaribbeancastles; Cape Coast; Christiansborg; dungeons; Elmina (St. George’s)Catholicismcells, see dungeons, slaveCésaire, AiméCeylonchainsChicago Defenderchildren; capture of; in dungeons; fugitive; mixed-race; mother’s brand and; orphans; on
Salaga road; in slave market; of slaves; spiritchinaChinn, WilsoncholeraChristiansborg CastleChristianity; black priests; spread ofChrist the RedeemerCIACivil Rights ActCivil Rights Congresscivil rights movementCivil War, U.S.Clark, MarkClotildeCoboro, ThomasCODESRIAcoffeeCold Warcolonialism; end ofColumbus, ChristopherComme les Portuguais fouettent leurs Esclaves lorsquils ont desertéCommittee for the Abolition of the Slave TradeCompany of Merchants Trading to AfricaCondé, MaryseCongoConstitution, U.S.,Convention of Former Slaves, Washington, D.C.Corderia, Anna LiviaCormantinCosway, Richard, Mr and Mrs Cosway with a Black Slavecowrie shells; as blood money; as currency; harvestingCreoles
CreolesCruikshank, Isaac, The Abolition of the Slave Trade; or, The Inhumanity of Dealers in Human
Flesh Exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s Treatment of a Young Negro Girl of 15 for HerVirjen Modesty
CubaCudjo, WilliamCugoano, Ottobah; Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of SlaveryCuraçaocurrency; cowrie shells; “Negro,”
DabojaDagombaDahomeyDaily GraphicdancesdarknessDavis, Angeladead bookdeath; in dungeons; dysentery and; mourning; revenge of slave spirits; on slave ships;
statistics; suicidedefense walldehydrationDenmark; slave tradedeposed royals, as slavesDias, BartolomeuDioladisease; dungeons and; dysentery; hupila; on slave ships; venerealdispossessionDNA testsdomestic slave trade, see African slaverydonkeysdonkorDoor of No Return Ceremony, TheDouglass, FrederickDu Bois, Shirley GrahamDuBois, W.E.B.; Encyclopedia AfricanaDugdale, William, Book of Monumentsdungeons, slave; black priests in; children in; conditions of; death in; human waste in; irons;
slave testimony aboutDunkwaDutch slave tradeDutch West India Companydysentery
EdeneducationEdwards, Bryan, The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies,elderselectricity, shortages ofElizabeth II, Queen of EnglandEllison, RalphElmina; black elite, of; merchants and royals; slave tradeElmina Castle; branding; building of; dungeons; Elmina slave revoltsEmancipation ProclamationEquiano, OlaudaheunuchsEurope; race and; slavery; see also specific countriesEweexcrement
fala de pretofamineFanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the EarthFanteesfarming; see also specific cropsFeelings, Tomfemale slaves; beauty of; brands and markings; as concubines and “wives,”; in dungeons;
maternal inheritance; on Salaga road; sexual relations with white men; in slave market;tortured on slave ships; worth of
forgetting; occult practices to induceforts, see castlesFort St. JagoFoucault, MichelFrance; slave tradefreedom dreamsFreud, Sigmundfugitives; defense wall; resistance of
GambiaGarnet, Henry Highland, Address to the Slaves of the United States of AmericaGarvey, MarcusGasaregenealogy; branding and; DNA tests; forgetting; maternal inheritance; paternal inheritance;
white paternitygenitalsGeorge, SaintGeorgiaGermanyGhana; anticolonialism; black Americans in; black elite of; colonial rule; coups; darkness of;
economy; energy crisis; independence; modern black emigration from; Nkrumahgovernment; slave trade and routes; tourism
government; slave trade and routes; tourismGhana Evening NewsGhanaian Ministry of TourismGhanaian TimesGhana Televisiongold; panning; slave trade andGold Coast; name changed to Ghana; slave trade and routes; see also GhanaGonjagonorrheaGorovodu religious practiceGreat Britain; colonialism; industrial revolution; Parliament; slave tradeGreeceGrenadaGrimm, Ludwig Emil, Die MohrentaufegrunshiGuineaGulf of Guineaguns and gunpowderGwolu; defense wall
HaarlemHaley, Alex; RootsHall, PrinceHampton, FredHarris, WilsonHartman, Frederick; birth certificateHausahealth, slaveherbs and tonics; for forgetting the pastHispañolaHouse of CommonsHughes, LangstonhupilaHurricane Katrina
IberiaIndependent Africa’s Heads of StateIndustrial RevolutionInstitute for Ideological TrainingInternational Monetary FundInternational Roots Homecoming Festivalirons
Isaac’s letterIsert, PaulIslamIssah, Muhammed
Jackson, GeorgeJakpa, NdewuraJamaicaJames, C. L. R.JamestownJennéjewelryJim CrowJohn EvangelistJolson, AlJones, Narimjournals; dead bookJune, King
KafabaKantanfuguKenyaKenyattaKetaKimber, CaptainKing, Martin Luther, Jr.; assassination of; March on Washingtonkinship; forgetting; see also genealogyKohainkolaKongokosanbaKotoka, ColonelKotoka Airport, AccraKroboKumasiKunta KinteKwabenaKwame Nkrumah, March 7, 1957Kwame Nkrumah and Elizabeth IIKwame Nkrumah and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Labat, Voyages and Travels Along the Western Coast of AfricaLacey, FrankLacy, Leslieland ownershiplanguagesleatherledger books
ledger booksLee, RobertLee, SaraLeidenLembaLiberiaLimaLincoln, Abraham, and slavesLincoln UniversityLisbonliteracyLondonLondon Assurance Company PolicyLord Our Savior, TheLouisianalove
Malcolm XMaldives Islandsmale slaves; in dungeons; on Salaga road; in slave market; worth ofMalinkeMann, Horacemanta uwaMarcus Garvey Guest House, Accramarkets, slave; conditionsmarks, see brands and markings, slaveMarley, BobMartiniqueMarx, KarlMarylandMassachusettsmaternal inheritanceMcDonald’smemory of slavery; black loss of; public; in United Statesmerchants; revenge of slave spirits on; role in Atlantic slave tradeMexicoMiddle Passage; descendants of survivors of; see also ships, slaveMiller, Samuel, Untitled DrawingMina; see also ElminaMississippimixed-race sexual relationsMontgomery, AlabamaMore, ThomasMossimourningMr and Mrs Cosway with a Black Slave
namesNational Museum of Ghananatronnegro (term)Netherlands, see Dutch slave tradeNew OrleansNewton, JohnNew YorkNew York Times, ThengbanyaNigerianigger (term)Nixon, RichardNkrumah, Kwame; overthrow ofNorth AfricaNorth CarolinaNorthwestern UniversitynostalgiaNubia
obrunioccult practices, to induce forgettingodonkorOkeke, Uche, Adam and EveOkri, BenOne Africa ProductionsOpoku, Reverend TheophilOpoku-Agyeman, KwadwoOrganization of Afro-American UnityOsuOuidah
Padmore, GeorgePalestinepalm oilPanaPanafest Historical Theatre FestivalPan-AfricanismPan-Africanist Congress (1945)PanamaParamariboParliamentpaternal inheritancePatterson, WilliamPersia
Persiapieza de Indiaplantation societyPointiflet, Tedpoisoned arrowspopulation declinePortuguese slave tradePowell, Adam Clayton, Jr.pregnancyPrince, Maryprisons, see dungeons, slaveProspect of St. George’s Castle at El MinaProspect of the Coast from El Mina to Mowri
race; slavery andracismRandolph, A. Philiprape; of black women by white menRawlings, JerryRay, JohnRay, Mary EllenRecovery; female slaves tortured onreligion, slave; revenge of slave spiritsreturnrevolts, slaveRevolutionist ReturneesRobeson, PaulRobinson, ImakhusRobinson, NanaRodney, WalterRoemer, LudewigRootsRoyal Africa Companyruling class; cowrie currency and; ngbanya; revenge of slave spirits on; role in Atlantic slave
SaharaSahelSalaga; ngbanya; nineteenth-century life in; role in slave trade; schools; slave market; waterSalaga-TownSalagawurasaltSamori Touré
Samori TouréSankara, ThomasSankofa (film)Santo DomingoSão ToméSatisavanna; fugitives inScalia, AntoninschoolssegregationSenegalSenegambiasewagesexual relations, mixed-raceshacklesShell Oilshells, see cowrie shellsships, slave; branding; disease on; last; names of; torture and death on; voyage conditionsSisalaslavery; afterlife of; death; definition of; memory of; race and; revolts; terminology;
testimony; violence of; worth of slaves; see also Atlantic slave trade; children; femaleslaves; male slaves
Slaves Exposed for Saleslave trade, see African slavery; Atlantic slave tradesmallpoxSmith, VenturesmugglingsocialismSociety for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG)Soledad PrisonsorcerySouth AfricaSouth CarolinaSpade, TheSpainspicesspirits, slave; child; revenge ofstenchSt. George’s Castle, see Elmina Castle St. George ScourgedSt. John; slave revoltStowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom’s CabinsugarsuicideSuleiman, ChiefSurinamSwahiliSweden
Taabiri, NanaTamaleteeth, slaveTennesseetestimony, slaveTexastextiles“tight packing,”Timbuktutobaccotourism; public memory of slavery andtreesTrinidadTrinity
UgandaUnited NationsUnited States; black Americans in Ghana; civil rights movement; Jim Crow; memory of slaves;
plantation economy; racism in; slave markets; slave revoltsUniversity of GhanaUSAIDUtopia
Van Eiker, ElisabethVan Eiker, LeonoraVan Eiker, Maria JuliaVaticanvenereal diseaseviolenceVirginiaVolta LakeVolta River
Waiting to Exhale (film)warWashington, D.C.water; spiritsWedderburn, RobertWedgwood, Josiah, antislavery medallion bywellsWeskett, John; A Complete Digest of the Theory, Laws, and Practice of InsuranceWheatley, PhylliswhippingWilberforce, William
Wilberforce, WilliamWilson Chinn, a Branded Slave from LouisianawitchcraftWorld BankWright, Richard
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX19 Union Square West, New York 10003
Copyright © 2007 by Saidiya HartmanAll rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hartman, Saidiya V.Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave route / Saidiya Hartman.—1st ed.
p. cm.ISBN: 978-1-4299-6690-01. Ghana—Description and travel. 2. Hartman, Saidiya V.—Travel—Ghana. 3. Slave trade
—Ghana—History. 4. Historic sites—Ghana. 5. Ghana—History, Local. I. Title.
List of Illustrations
Prologue: The Path of Strangers
Two: Markets and Martyrs
Three: The Family Romance
Four: Come, Go Back, Child
Five: The Tribe of the Middle Passage
Six: So Many Dungeons
Seven: The Dead Book
Eight: Lose Your Mother
Nine: The Dark Days
Ten: The Famished Road
Eleven: Blood Cowries
Twelve: Fugitive Dreams
QUALITY: 100% ORIGINAL – NO PLAGIARISM
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