Jacqueline Woodson On Africa, America And Slavery’s Fierce Undertow

Young girls, balancing large bowls on their heads, are paid to carry other people’s shopping bundles in the open-air Makola Market in Accra, Ghana. Image: Francis Kokoroko/New York Times


IN THE COASTAL TOWN of Elmina, Ghana, the Atlantic Ocean crashes against the rocks with such a ferocity, I make our kids move back away from the gray-blue water. Four hundred years have passed since captured Africans were forced across these waves on their way to bondage in the New World and now, standing at the edge of this violent water, startled by my own anxiety, I feel something deep and old and terrifying. Call it hydrophobia. Call it genetic memory. I’ve always had a fear of the ocean, the fierce pull of its undercurrent, the crest of its powerful waves and most of all, its seeming infinity — the way it moves to a place where the skyline caresses it. Then drops off into nothing at all.

As the water lashes near where I stand in this West African nation, from whose ports millions of Africans passed through on their way to the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, it is impossible to not viscerally feel this memory everywhere in my body. Not far from here, captured Africans walked onto slave ships.

I call again to my children. Tell them to be careful. What I want to do right now is pull them close, hug them hard. I think of the people chained and trembling and I know that by the luck of history and by the grace of time, I am standing here, unshackled.

Now, Ghana has invited the descendants of the enslaved to a place it wants us to call “home.” While Ghana is not the first sub-Saharan country from which Africans were forced onto ships, many black bodies, including my own ancestors, were sold and traded from here. In its efforts to bring the African diaspora together, Ghana’s leaders are also hoping to make amends for the complicity of Africans in selling their own people into what would become the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

GHANA’S INVITATION is wrapped up in a massive marketing campaign called “Year of Return.” The commemoration is described as a “landmark spiritual and birth-right journey,” urging black folks to seek out our roots, invest in this country, and to educate our children on African soil. This year, there have been festivals, concerts, workshops and other events to mark 400 years since the arrival of the first captured Africans in the English colony of Virginia. But even as I stand at this shore, at once terrified and moved, I still feel some kind of way about this invitation. Curious. And cautious.

“African-American dollars should be reinvested in Africa” reverberates through the Year of Return narrative. It makes sense that so many of us would much rather support black-owned businesses with our hard-earned money. But more than this, as I examine my unwillingness to tolerate America’s insidious racism, its violence against black and brown bodies, and the daily micro aggressions so many people of color have long experienced, I find myself drawn to Ghana’s offer.

But was Ghana drawn to me? And to my queer family? My white partner, Juliet, and our biracial children who, at 11 and 17, know half their DNA traces them to western Africa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I watched Ali crouched over his pot of rice, shyly smiling up at me then quickly lowering his eyes, it was hard not to wonder about a continuum here — a people among whom had lived Africans willing to help sell their own into slavery; a people among whom lived those willing to employ “a houseboy” and a “housegirl” in her 60s, who lived in darkened rooms, while a family lived comfortably a few feet away.

And while I am completely sober in my knowledge that it was the evil of white folks that kept my ancestors in bondage for centuries, I found myself struggling to come to terms with those who worked with white traders to move black bodies into chattel slavery.

The sad truth is that without complex business partnerships between African elites and European traders and commercial agents, the slave trade to the New World would have been impossible, at least on the scale it occurred,” the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in 2010 in The New York Times.

We decided we needed a few days before facing the brutality of enslavement and headed instead to Shai Hills Resource Reserve, a wildlife and hiking retreat.

More than an hour north of Accra, the vast reserve has 31 types of mammals, 13 different reptiles and 175 species of birds. But we’d come for the baboons, which we’d been told were engaging and friendly. For the next few hours, as my son sat in commune with baboon babies, adults and elders, we took in the sites of the hilly retreat.

Its many caves still showed signs of the Shai people of the Ga-Adangbe ethnic group, some of Ghana’s earliest inhabitants. Thrones carved from rock were nearly hidden high up inside the caves. As we hiked the steep hills, jumped across gaps that plummeted into black valleys, reached the top to gape at the undulating land below us, I had no deep feeling of belonging to this place. Not here. Not yet.

AS A BLACK CHILD of the 70s, the Africa I learned about in school, books and via television, felt irrelevant to me. Like many of my friends, I would turn on the Saturday morning cartoons to find some unfortunate character trussed inside caldrons of boiling water as drooling cannibals — supposedly African, supposedly savages — circled them. The Africa I saw, from National Geographic pictures of bare-chested African women to TV ads featuring starving children, was as unfamiliar as the Middle Passage itself.

I was born in Ohio and raised in South Carolina and Brooklyn. For a long time, all that mattered about who I was began and ended in America — home to my grandparents, great-grandparents and greats beyond that. But I am older now. And a mother who, thanks to DNA testing, understood how deeply my roots connect to West Africa.

Yet, like the push and pull of the water here, I remained both drawn to and dubious of Ghana’s beckoning.

A few weeks before our trip, I called Professor Gates and asked what he thought of Ghana’s Year of Return. He said he believed it to be a positive gesture. “Any program increasing the knowledge of Americans in general and African-Americans in particular about African history and the history of the slave trade is a good thing.”

Days after that call, I logged onto the Ghanaian website for information on visas and was startled by red letters across the top of the page:

“Families are restricted to a nuclear family which is a family group consisting of a father, mother and their children.”

Eye roll. We are not that. At the Ghana Consulate the following Monday, I waited with my family’s stack of visa applications, ready to challenge this notion of “family.” But moments later, when the woman behind the counter asked where our children’s father was and I replied, “They have two mothers,” without a pause, she responded, “Two mothers, huh? O.K.,” and cleared our applications. And there it was — the push, the pull. Where only minutes before I was ready to fight, now I wanted to hug her.

A week into our trip, we were finally ready to see “the door of no return” at Ghana’s oldest European structure, Elmina Castle. The drive from Ghana’s capital to the town of Elmina took about three hours.

The massive stone castle, built in 1482 by the Portuguese and captured by the Dutch in 1637, is among dozens of colonial slave forts that remain along the Ghanaian coast. While many forts have been turned into prisons, government offices, guesthouses, or simply left abandoned, Elmina Castle and another infamous fortress, Cape Coast Castle, see thousands of tourists annually.

As we stood in an airless dungeon with its stone walls, dirt floor, barred windows and doorways, we listened somberly while our guide broke down our ancestors’ harrowing journey — the hundreds of captured people packed into these small, still fetid spaces. The shackled women brought out into the courtyards so the Dutch governor from his balcony could choose the woman he wanted to rape that day. The chosen woman getting washed and brought to him. We heard the stories of resisters being shackled in the courtyard for days beneath a brutal sun, sent to solitary confinement or killed. Above them in the opulent quarters of the castle, which housed a sanctuary for white missionaries and a church, Dutch officers enjoyed lavish meals and ocean views.

WE TRIED NOT TO IMAGINE what it was like. But, painful as it was, we imagined it anyway.

Then, from the darkness of the haunting space, our guide stepped out into the bright cool air. With us still inside, he gently closed the gate. “This is the last place enslaved Africans ever saw in Ghana,” he said. With the click of the latch, small sobs escaped from the strangers around me. “This is the point of no return,” he said.

But we had returned. Different. Still alive.

Now, as the kids take selfies along the shore by the castle, the current has me again calling them away from the water. But the light, Mommy, my daughter calls back, reminding me, that at 17, in the age of Instagram, even this far from our home in Brooklyn, it is still a moment’s light that matters most.

Hours have passed since our tour of the castle and as my partner and I nervously watch the children near the roiling waves, we stand under the canopy of a restaurant at the luxury beach resort, Coconut Grove. Behind us, the outdoor dining room is nearly at capacity with huge groups of African-Americans, mostly women, who arrived earlier in charter buses. Ranging from their early 20s to well into their 80s, with elaborately styled hair, beautifully manicured nails and T-shirts representing their sororities or affiliations with historically black colleges, all of them are somewhere on the lovely spectrum.

Others in these groups lounge around the pool in brightly printed batakari shirts and flowing pata pata dresses. Just one week ago, the words to describe these African garments were as foreign as the land I stood on. But that easily, that quickly, all of it has become a part of my own language. As though I’ve always spoken it. I am too shy to approach these beautiful people — who have traveled here in groups and seem to know each other as they move from table to table chatting, giving hugs, drinking and laughing.

Almost two weeks into my time in Ghana, my heart remains in my throat. There is nowhere in this country where the eye can land and the body not feel, at once, both a deep pain and an immense joy.

As I watch my children, I think of our days in Accra, where smiling children ran past straggling goats toward slow-moving cars on bustling streets, their closed hands tapping their mouths then opening out toward passengers. And where, on a nearly deserted corner in the city, a lone woman fried marinated sweet plantains over an open fire then sprinkled them with fresh peanuts and with a gaptoothed smile, handed the kelewele over to me. “You are my sister, I see it in your eyes,” she said, dropping the few Ghanaian cedis I’ve paid into her apron pocket. As I lifted the salty-sweet snack to my mouth, I wondered if it was only black folks who felt as I do — as though everything around me is at once, heartbreakingly familiar and foreign.

Now, far from Accra, as my children climb onto rocks separating the restaurant at Coconut Grove from the ocean, their arms stretched out for balance, their faces a deep brown from the many days of sun, I think about what I’ve asked myself since landing on African soil. Can I belong here? Has this country truly called me home?

AS TRUE AS AN UNDERTOW, I feel the water pulling me back across it, taking me to where it took my ancestors centuries ago. To a land as foreign to them as the African chiefs who offered brown bodies over for weapons, brass and cotton. As foreign as the white captors who raped, brutalized and enslaved those same bodies. I feel the pull of the history that brought me here. And the history that took me away. A feeling as old as my body itself overcomes me — that I have never felt whole in one place. In Africa, like America, I am only halfway home. My body belonging to both and neither place.

Returning to Accra two days later, I dragged my reluctant children, now wearied by the many teachable moments of this journey, to Nima, one of the city’s most impoverished districts. Its lively outdoor Nima Market has everything from used refrigerators and fresh fish floating in buckets to antique Kente cloth. Nima is also home to a long-running program for young people, Spread Out Initiative.

Located in a cramped structure only steps from a four-foot drop into a trash-and-sewage-filled gutter, young Muslim children, mostly hijabed girls, gathered on this Saturday to recite their spoken word, read from their developing novels and engage in conversations around literature. As my family sat in circled community with the young people, I was struck by the vitality and joy on their faces, the assuredness and pride with which they shared their words. All of it was a far cry from the famished African children on the TV screens of my childhood. All of it, in my mind, was the best kind of celebration.

Later that day, we went to the Art Center, an outdoor market in Accra. In tented stalls, African craftspeople aggressively hawked their wares, everything from African drums and T-shirts to lizardhead shoes and purses. I sent my kids off on their own to wander the market and watched as a dozen merchants trailed them, their bounty held out, their lilted “I’ll give you a nice price” echoing. As the merchants came at them from all sides, my partner and I laughed as our bewildered kids picked up their pace, unsure how to deflect the kindness in the merchants’ voices, their sweet smiles, their tenacity.

And then, for the first time, it hit me. As the circle of brown men followed my children, I realized how physically safe I felt here in Accra. Like the Deep South of my childhood, where the many brown bodies of family protected me from an evil I knew was out there, here too, African men, women and children around me felt old and safe, comforting and good. And as with family, Ghana felt like complicated love.

That evening, we checked into Accra’s five-star Kempinski Hotel because it’s fancy, has a huge pool surrounded by grassy fields and because, for our last few days here, we wanted the water to actually come out of the spigot when we turned it on. In the lobby, I spotted an elegantly dressed African-American woman. When she smiled, my shyness dropped away and I asked if I could sit with her for a while.

Ayesha Hakeem owns African Connections, which operates tours and conferences and helps people relocating to Africa. She first came to West Africa in the 1970s, when she was a student at Northwestern University and returned for good after practicing law for 20 years.

“What was so phenomenal was learning how much African-American culture reflects and is a part of the African culture,” she said.

As we talked, we realized we’re both products of the Great Migration — her family settled in Chicago, mine in New York City. And we spent childhoods listening to our mothers and grandmothers make offhand remarks like “don’t let anyone sweep your feet or you’ll never marry.”

Ayesha recounts hearing these same words from African women when she arrived in Ghana.

THE NEXT MORNING, as my family climbs out of our car in Jamestown, one of Accra’s oldest districts, we are met by the stench of sewage, rotting fish, the briny smell of ocean and a seemingly endless number of brightly painted fishing boats.

Scrawny dogs scatter as we approach, as quickly as children run toward us, taking our own children’s hands and pulling them to join in their exploration of the dilapidated boats and sealife at the water’s edge.

Later, as we eat our lunch — bowls of “red red,” a Ghanaian dish of palm oil and black-eyed peas — at the JamesTown Café, where artists, intellectuals and musicians gather in the evening, I taste the history of my own family’s black-eyed peas over rice in each spicy bite.

Market day at Makola Market in Accra, one of Ghana’s busiest shopping district. Image: Francis Kokoroko

After a long hang at the cafe, we head to the Makola Market in the center of Accra. There, young girls called Kayayei from the Hausa ethnic group in the northern parts of West Africa wait to be hired. “Kaya” means, among other things, “load” in the Hausa language, and “Yei” in the Ga language means “women.”

These girls move through the market carrying people’s large shopping bundles in metal bowls propped on their heads with the hope of raising money for their own dowries. My longtime friend, Catherine McKinley, an African-American writer and curator who was in Ghana working on an art installation, waved over a small girl. “Let’s be Auntie to this child,” she said, laughing. “Get her dowry paid off in one job.”

We are two of the few foreigners at this market, but Catherine, having spent many years in Ghana, navigates it easily. We hire the puzzled child to follow behind us carrying nothing. Her back and neck straight, she eyes us suspiciously. I see parts of my own young self in her questioning, the 10-year-old side-eye waiting for the truth.

Minutes later, when we pay her what we hope is the equivalent of two dowries, we see, for the first time, the way her face expands into a disbelieving smile, her dark eyes now shining. As crowds move around us, bartering for nuts, fabrics, plastic rugs, toothbrushes, wigs and even here, for the toil of bodies, I watch the girl disappear into the chaos, her silver bowl becoming one of many silver bowls. Her brown body, one of many brown bodies.

The streets grow quieter as the day ends, and we walk them one more time before we leave the next morning. On our final night in Ghana, we are walking to remember it. An old woman in a faded pata pata dress, crouched and sweeping with a handle-less broom, uprights herself as we pass. “Akwaaba!” she said. “Welcome.” “Medaase,” I respond. “Thank you.”

“Could you guys live here,” I asked our children, as they walked ahead of us, as comfortable as if they were walking down our neighborhood streets in Brooklyn.

“Yeah, I guess,” my son said. “If we had to.”

“I couldn’t,” I tell them. “Not for always. Some of the time maybe. We can go and come back. Keep going and coming back.”

“I guess that’s what makes us African,” my son said. “And American.”

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of the National Book Award winner “Brown Girl Dreaming.” She serves as the Library of Congress’s national ambassador for young people’s literature. Her latest novel is “Red at the Bone.”