“Is she a slave?”
That’s what a young boy asked a mutual friend of ours in Cape Coast, Ghana, Sunday afternoon. I had met him once before, when I had volunteered to photograph a party for orphans in a popular restaurant near the Castle.
This time, I was one of a small group of African Diasporans who had gathered in the seaside town to commemorate Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the British government’s decision to outlaw the slave trade in 1833.
The Slavery Abolition Act took effect in most British-controlled territories on August 1, 1834.
In Ghana, Emancipation Day is not just one day; instead, it is a series of events that stretch over an entire weekend. I like to think of it as a traditional Ghanaian funeral of sorts – a rite performed for our ancestors who were snatched away from home.
Even the colors associated with the different events mirror the funeral ritual. Attendees were asked to wear the traditional funeral colors of red and black during Thursday morning’s wreath-laying at the graves of prominent American, West Indian, and Ghanaian Pan-Africanists W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore, and Osageyefo Kwame Nkrumah, respectively, and then again on Saturday at Assin Praso in Ghana’s central region.
White was the color for Reverential Night on Sunday evening and also one of the colors for the last day of a funeral, the celebration of life.
And this was the source of my young friend’s confusion: I was wearing all white as were the other brown-skinned, different-talking people who had suddenly showed up, en masse, in his hometown.
As I explained my relationship to the slave trade to him, he and his friend hurried to show me the Emancipation Day poster that was circulating all over town. There at the bottom, next to the chains, they pointed out a group of men and women dressed in white, representing the Africans who had been enslaved and sold from Cape Coast, Elmina, and many other ports along the West and Central African Coast.
“Those are my long-lost great grandparents,” I told him. “They had to wait in the bottom of the castle until the ships came to take them away to America. They didn’t know the way back, so they had to stay. And they had babies, who had babies, who had babies, and one of those babies is me.”
There are so many teaching moments — and an equal if not greater amount of learning moments — if we humble ourselves like that little boy, unafraid to ask a question, even if someone thinks it is silly or takes offense.
Things would be better if we recognize the little kid inside each person who doesn’t know something about our history or our culture – on both sides – and respect their curiosity instead of ridiculing them for not knowing, or worse, for being misinformed and believing they already know.
A few hours after sundown on Sunday evening, a small band of marchers stepped off from Mfantsepim School, with a few drums accompanying the voices singing, “Oh Freedom,” through the streets en route to the infamous Cape Coast Castle as local residents lined the sides of the road to see this annual curiosity.
Even though I wore the same white dress, this march in reverence to our ancestors was a lot smaller and seemed more somber than the Maafa commemorations I had attended in New Orleans, Louisiana, over the past couple of years.
Maafa is a Kiswahili word that means “great calamity.” It was adopted by scholar Marimba Ani to describe the holocaust of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow segregation, and an openly virulent racism that lasted in America up until the end of the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to the epidemic rates of addiction, incarceration, and murder that have characterized much of the African-American experience.
The rain started to fall within moments of our arrival in the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle. As attendees carried their chairs up the steep staircases and began the musical performances, we drifted away from the emancipation activities and went to find food at London Bridge, a busy town square in Cape Coast.
We rode into a full-on street party, like somebody mixed up a New Orleans secondline mixed with Carnival Monday and Tuesday in Trinidad – all our musical roots twisted and tangled like the arms and legs grooving behind the sound trucks on Ashanti Road.
It was the emancipation party I had been looking for – I mean, we are happy to be free, right? – only, no one here seemed to be thinking about the emancipation holiday at all. It was like all the little boys and girls of Cape Coast who never knew if we were slaves or not – who saw us but without much understanding – had grown up.
Or maybe they had some information but just didn’t care, like all the people who come to the Essence Festival in New Orleans but never think of waking up at dawn on a Saturday morning to pay homage to their ancestors.
It is what it is – a lot of people don’t know and a lot of people don’t care about African-American history and heritage, including those who “look like us.” That should come as a surprise to no one after all this time. But we can’t let that discourage us from the work we have to do.
This year’s sub-theme was “Empowering Youth through Pan-African Culture.” That should keep all of us who are serious about African unity and human development too busy to spend time pointing fingers and criticizing those who have been kept in the dark about the African Diaspora by accident or by design.
Monday was the culmination of Emancipation Day, when people assembled at Assin Manso for a grand durbar with the chiefs of the area. Assin Manso is known for the river Nnonko Nsuo, also known as “Slave River,” which runs through the village. Enslaved men, women, and children being marched to the coast from inland took their last baths there before being chained in the dungeons at Cape Coast and Elmina.
Bridging the gap between the past and the present, my plans for attending the durbar were derailed by some typical modern Ghana frustrations: an empty pre-paid electricity card followed by a broken-down motorbike. But I had gotten my blessings and given them the day before. So maybe that was enough, for now.