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When You Fail at Being a Good African-American

Perhaps the greatest evidence of how traumatic the experience of living as a descendant of enslaved Africans in the very land where the dehumanization of your ancestors took place is the sadistic need many African-Americans have to buy a plane ticket to a West African country and make the pivotal point of their trip a visit to a former slave castle.  I have known quite a few of these damaged descendants who speak of this pilgrimage as some sort of life-altering moment of “healing.” A way to connect with the very tangible brutality of the largest iteration of human trafficking the planet has ever known in order to fully wrap their brains around why, we, the descendants of these stolen Africans are still living with the tangible and intangible reminders that our bodies, our lives will forever remain at the mercy of white supremacy.

I have visited Ghana three times. Each time, I have chided myself for not being one of “those” African Americans. To have no longing to stand where my great-great-gran stood as her breasts were exposed and her child ripped from them right before she would be stacked into a boat as if she were merely a log among many and raped repeatedly on the plantation where she would be worked like a mule before dropping dead and being buried (if she were lucky) in a makeshift grave behind the crops that nobody cared about. “Maybe I will take the bus up to Cape Coast and give it a shot,” I said to one of “those” African-Americans on my first visit to Ghana. She was on a one-year contract teaching at a new fashion program in East Legon. She described the experience as all the others had. “Powerful. Coming out of that Gate of No Return…I was surprised when I started crying.” Why wouldn’t I want a powerful experience, I told myself. Somehow, I managed to never schedule the trip.

Last week, I avoided the pilgrimage no more. Another African-American woman who lives in Ghana had taken the pilgrimage almost immediately into her relocation. “I only felt pissed, not empowered,” Latoya laughed as she agreed to ask her Ghanaian boyfriend for advice on how to navigate the trip with as little drama as possible.

Because If I can speak plainly, Folk…I was not committed enough to this healing moment to deal with the drama that Ghana, in all its vibrancy and excitement, can put one through. “I ain’t going to the Cape Coast castle,” I told Latoya.  “Listen, somewhere in Accra, enslaved Africans had to be sold within a 30-minute tro-tro ride.” I was about 77% certain that the bus that went to Cape Coast had to be boarded at Nkrumah Circle, a large, dusty incomplete construction site that just happened to be the meeting spot for most, if not all, tro-tros in Accra. If you google this transportation hub, you will see that it looks a hot ass mess. I am here to confirm that at certain times of the day, it also smells like hot ass. Since I have also sat on tro-tros at The Circle and waited for the mate to decide there were enough passengers on it to tell the driver to begin our route, I knew that I would be sitting on this hot ass tro-tro in this hot ass smelling bus park early in the morning for a good hour before we started our FOUR – SIX HOUR ride up to Cape Coast. I also can attest to the truth of an article I saw making its rounds on Facebook citing Ghana as the second hardest country in which to find an actual toilet. I have done things of which I will never speak when in Accra and nature called and I could not put it on hold any longer.

I watched Roots and read it, too. My commitment to connecting to my history had been proven by the time I was a teenager.

“My sweetie says there is one in Jamestown and we can catch a tro-tro at the Dansamon roundabout to get there.” I had no idea where Jamestown was, but I knew the Dansoman roundabout well. I also knew there was a fried chicken place with a toilet and air conditioner within close proximity. Jamestown seemed ideal.

I am willing to accept full culpability for my lack of thoughtful planning before we made it to Jamestown. I made no effort to figure out on which tro-tro to get or where about I should be looking for my stop or even if there would be signage alerting me that I was close to my destination. Solely because of Latoya’s pre-pilgrimage planning we ended up in Jamestown, overlooking a filthy beach that seemed to be a village for the poorest of Ghana’s poor.

My failure to actually fulfill my mission to stand where my great-great gran stood now rests on the shoulders of a charismatic Ghanaian man who went by the moniker “Nice One.”

I don’t know how we met Nice One, actually. It seems like we just hopped off the tro-tro and he was magically there. “You need a guide?,” he smiled. Then, he told us how much we had to pay him. It seemed like Nice One came with the package – tro-tro ride, slave castle, Nice One.

I made it explicitly clear that we were there just to see the slave castle. No, we did not want to go to the top of the lighthouse where we could get an aerial view of the filthy beach we were now standing on. Yes, it was fine for him to take us through the town and give us some (rather thin and possibly inaccurate) history of the area. But, essentially, we wanted to see the slave market.

I did predict some tom foolery might ensue when Nice One nonchalantly announced we would tour the fishing village and neighboring town FIRST since “the man with key to slave market…not there yet.”  We were assured that he would be back by the time we had looked around Jamestown.

Nice One showed us the pub where he takes his lady friends. “I am very popular in Jamestown,” he confessed to us. “Because I am the King of Kokro Bite, people here know me.” I was unsure why we were in a bar that seemed to have a dearth of alcohol on the shelves and an owner who looked confused when he was introduced by Nice One as “my friend…he owns this place.” Having traveled fairly often around Africa, at this point, I knew not to question the course this tour was taking. We were in someone’s living room which, in addition to a worn sofa, had a worn bar table with a bottle or two of beer on it. This was just the way it was. The way it would be.

“If you ever come back to Jamestown, you should come here. It is slow now because it is early, but at night…” Nice One made a movement with his hips that could have either meant we should come here if we really wanted to do some low down dirty dancing or if we wanted to prostitute ourselves. I did not ask for clarification.

We somehow ended up at the premier guest house of Jamestown, where if we had too much to drink at the pub around the corner and did not feel like going back home, we could rent a room for 12 USD. The owner, who also happened to be Nice One’s friend, assured us that our fee would include hot water.  As if we would not believe the marketing ploy of the owner, Nice One himself verified, “Yes, there will be hot water. This is a nice place; I take my girlfriends here sometimes…when I can not go home.”

By the time we ended up in the courtyard of the palace of the king (not Nice One, obviously) where Nice One took over the soccer game of some random school children, I decided I needed to ask: “So….uhm….Nice One…the slave castle?” I point to the fort-looking structure across the street. Nice One becomes sheepish. He begins talking to one of the school children in Twi and then looks crestfallen.

“This one here…he tells me. The man with the key…he is not here.”

Latoya and I are not terribly incredulous. She has lived in Ghana for almost three years and I have lived in Rwanda for nearly two. We know there probably is no guy. No key. This fort looks conducive to selling human beings so it may have been an actual slave market many centuries ago. It may have just been a prison then as the sign says it is now. I feel like I must make the effort, though. When so many of my counterparts have invested THOUSANDS of dollars to have this moment of healing, I have to push this tour-gone-awry back on track considering I have only invested a few hundred bucks to be in our ancestral homeland.

“Well, did you ask this child when the man might be back?”

“You know, it is Christmas. He is in the North.”

Although Christmas was at least 8 full days ago, I give this man that may or may not exist the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he wanted to extend his holiday well into the new year. I continue to press Nice One, however.

“But, is he on his way back from the north? Will he be here tomorrow?”

Nice One says something to the child who looks like all children do when adults ask too many follow up questions.

“He says…he does not know.”

“So, basically the man with the key to the gate of no return will not be returning?”

Nice One perks up and looks more victorious than he should. “Yes, yes, you understand.”

And here is when I knew I had failed. I did not mourn the absence of the quintessential moment an African American with means can experience in post-colonial times. I did not think to myself, I have a few more days here before I return to the Eastside. I can suck it up, go to The Circle tomorrow and just head up the coast. What I thought was: I am hot. I have to shit. I am also slightly hungry.

I ended the day I had planned to live out my good African-American moment of healing by engaging in a time-honored African-American stereotype. The fried chicken was mediocre at best. The air conditioner was better. I did, in fact, take an absolutely life-altering shit.


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