“I belong in Africa”: African-Americans going ‘home’

Sankofa. Image: Damiyr Saleem Studios
Sankofa. Image: Damiyr Saleem Studios

By Marije Maliepaard        The Ghanaian ethnic group of Akan is (among other aspects) known for their Adinkra symbols. Symbols that represent concepts and are often connected to proverbs. They are used in African fabrics, clothes and pottery and nowadays also in logo’s, advertisements and wall paintings. One of their symbols of a bird stretching back to get an egg, named Sankofa, has become an important representation for Africans in the diaspora. The combination of the symbol and the associated proverb ‘se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi’, which translates to ‘it is not wrong to go back for something you have forgotten’ embodies precisely what returned African-Americans feel: a desire to return home, to the soil of where their ancestors were taken from.

My interest in return migration led me to African-Americans who migrate to Ghana. They themselves have never physically lived in Ghana or any other country in Africa, but nonetheless they do have the feeling they belong in Africa rather than in the United States. Ghana is a popular country for returnees, because it is a relatively stable country – politically and economically, the lingua franca is English, and most enslaved Africans’ last step on African ground was at one of the slave castles located along the coast of what is now called Ghana (before 1957 called Gold Coast). The spiritual connectedness to this place is very significant, I learned throughout the fieldwork.

I planned living in a couple of different African-American communities throughout Ghana. I started off in Accra because I was in contact with a NGO that is committed to the reintegration of African-Americans in Ghanaian society on different levels, to reintegrate spiritually, economically, culturally and socially. Their office is thoughtfully located at the W.E.B. Du Bois centre, the former house of African-American, Pan-Africanist, scholar and returnee Du Bois. The first time I went to the centre, there was nobody at the office so I visited Du Bois’ former house that was turned into a museum after he died in, 1963. There I learned from a flyer that the whole month of February was called Black History Month, organized by the African-Americans in Accra. So I decided to stay in Accra for most of the time.

During Black History Month, there were a lot of different and very interesting activities that would teach me about my subject and that would give me an opportunity to meet people. Panel discussions on African lives outside Africa, politics, a black history quiz, and the famous play ‘The Raisin of the Sun’ were among the activities I attended. Throughout these observations, casual conversations and formal interviews, I learned that belonging is the main drive for return for most of them.

This sense of belonging in Africa (Ghana was more like a means to an end) was fueled by a couple of different aspects. Most returnees faced severe situations of racism, discrimination and exclusion in their country of birth – The United States in this case. Not belonging to the majority in the U.S. and getting a different treatment than white Americans made them feel they belonged somewhere else. The social construct of race has thus been an important identity marker in returnees’ lives. The feeling that they are being identified as different by the hegemonic white in turn made them more consciousness of their color and how their color influences the way they are seen and treated.

Besides racial identity, there are cultural identity markers and traditions that African ancestors have taken with them and passed down to their offspring. This includes for instance the way they practice religion – in a relatively more exuberant way than other churches in the U.S. It also includes – connected to religion and to what the African-American returnees feel as something African – spirituality. During prayers, the pouring of libations, activities and almost every conversation I noticed that ancestors are very important in my informants’ lives. The fact that their ancestors once belonged to the African continent and were forcefully taken from their homes and families and brought to the Americas is vital in this. The memories of the past have been passed down from generation to generation (for some, having enslaved family members is only two generations away).

An example of where this feeling of belonging is intensely felt by many of the African-American visitors is at the slave castles. The coastal towns of Cape Coast and Elmina have two of the biggest slave castles. They are turned into a tourist attraction in order to show this part of history of Ghana. For me, a visit to the castle would provide me with more background information on the context of my research and after the stories of my informants, I wondered how I would feel there. Beforehand I knew that this visit would be heavy but very interesting.

It was certainly very interesting, but I have to admit I didn’t actually feel that much. I couldn’t get to the core of my thoughts, or feel a tiny bit of what enslaved people should have felt there. I thought I would feel the horror, that the whole atmosphere would feel like horror, but none of that was true, for me.

For my informants, however, the experience at the castle was undeniably intense and for many the answer to their doubts of belonging in the U.S. The connectedness to their ancestors they felt at the castle was very real. The fear their ancestors must have felt, the tears they shed, the blood that flowed, was felt deep down in their hearts, and sometimes also physically, resulting in heavy tears, getting sick or fainting. Many described that these intense feelings aroused because they believe that this is what their ancestors have always wanted… for them to be able to come back to the place they were taken from. Many expressed that they were never supposed to be in the United States but were taken there forcefully. Thereby,  the combination of being identified by white Americans and (often as a result of this) identifying themselves (among other identity markers) along racial lines, the memories of the past and traditions and believes that are preserved throughout the generations makes them feel blessed to be back in Africa.

And that is why the Sankofa symbol has become an important representation: In order to move forward, we must reach back to what we have lost’ because ‘se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi’ or ‘it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten’.

Marije Maliepaard received her Master of Science in Social and Cultural Anthropoly in July 2016. Besides, she holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Tourism Management. 

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