Sure, Return. But 2019 Really Ought Be the Year Of Reconciliation

I’m in Ghana right now. I haven’t been back “home” since 2013. Some people are delighted by my presence, others puzzled. Their reactions to my hobo patterns are immaterial. What’s important is that I find myself in the country in 2019, during the government’s much-trumpeted year-long social event, dubbed The Year of Return. I’ll tell you about it briefly so that we can get to the issue.

According to the Ghana Tourism Board’s website and mission statement:

“The ‘Year of Return, Ghana 2019’ is a major landmark marketing campaign targeting the African – American and Diaspora Market to mark 400 years of the first enslaved African arriving in Jamestown Virginia.”

It goes on to present a litany of annual events for visitors to choose from to attend.

So if you have a sneaking suspicion or your gut is screaming that my country of birth is monetizing the horrors and consequences of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST) in order to make a quick buck, I’d say you’re spot on. That’s it. That’s the tweet. That’s the issue I wanted to get to. Part B to this misfortune is that there is a real missed opportunity to have an important conversation in a unique space in time, and it’s one that we as a nation will never be able to get back. Last night I was invited to participate in a live audience recording of the BBC’s Arts Hour, where the topic was the Year of Return and what role the arts plays in its commemoration.

The panel was exceptional in general. Of course in such a group there is one outlier, and Individual One did his upmost best to play the buffoon, display an astonishing propensity for ignorance and do what all coons do: play into tired stereotypes for tepid applause, cringey nods of approval and the hope of being tossed a coin or a commemorative t-shirt. Nevertheless, this individual’s participation as a panelist and as an archetype of the moderately achieving, think-they-know-it-all Ghanaian was essential for what most in attendance considered a highly successful show; that is, the Big Reveal. The Ah Ha Moment.

To the average (wo)man on the street, the Year of Return is nothing more than a joke – at best – and a conduit for resentment and xenophobia to be played out at worst.

The truth is, Ghanaians in generally are woefully ignorant about the TAST and more importantly, their role in its success…a success that has led to a cascade of failures for the country’s people. It just so happened that I visited my history professor, Chriss Tay, on the morning of the event. He informed me (with an appropriate dose of chagrin) of his great-grandfather’s role in the slave trade on the Anlo coast. A former slave himself, he assumed the role and identity of his deceased master and not only continued capturing and selling fellow Africans, but expanded his “business” beyond his hometown. He built a fort to hold his cargo, and in areas where he chose not to invest in permanent structures, he constructed stockades where his “merchandise” would stay for 2-3 weeks before being shipped to Brazil. The slave ships came with that much regularity.

Before his tragic passing, Professor Awoonor described a naming ceremony to which he was invited while visiting in Columbia. The song being sung was in Ewe, and he joined in immediately. The family and guests marveled, wondering how an African could come to know this song. He explained that the song was from his ethnic group and asked the attendees if they knew its meaning. They replied that they did not, that the translation had been lost to time years ago. It’s just a song they sang at important ceremonies. He was able to translate it for them and serve as a bridge in that hour.

These are the conversations and opportunities that we are missing during this Year of Return. This is the type of education that is not just important for those who have ferried into the Diaspora, but for we Ghanaians as well.

A young man in the audience illustrated the point quietly acutely during the event. The host asked if the Year of Return was a good thing and asked those who chose to respond to say why or why not. His paraphrased reply was:

I don’t think this year of return thing is good at all. It seems like more focus is being put on the Ghanaians come from abroad, and we who are here are being left out. Like that guy – the (Steve) Harvey guy came here and went to the dungeons and was so upset. Me, I can tell you I’ve been to Cape Coast (Castle), Elmina…when I enter those dungeons I don’t feel anything.

Now, as callous and appalling as that admission is, it was necessary. It is relevant. It is the genesis of why this government and all those who serve as accessories to this charade have failed to invest in effectual education and cross-cultural comprehension, and are instead peddling what they feel will provide the quickest cash turn around. Make no mistake: the idea of the year of return is catchy, but it’s temporary. What we as a people, collectively, need is repentance, acceptance, and reconciliation. As a body, scattered and wounded, we need healing. The young man’s admittance that he could enter a dungeon, feel and smell death all around him and feel nothing is how some of our ancestors could sell children away from their mothers with such ease. To them, these were not people: they were nothing…or at least nothing more a object whose value could be calculated in muskets, mirrors or muslin.

Depiction of a European arms manufacturer selling a gun to an eager purchaser in an exotic setting. Image source: OSU

Maybe if that young man and others like him had access to these stories like this, his thinking might be changed about this commemoration; to see it not as a nuisance, but as an opportunity. Maybe not. A stony heart is not easily made flesh.

I know it would be too much to ask of our government and institution to re-think or re-tool this idea for the future. The reasons are obvious. The work of reconciliation requires pure intentions. It also demands that each party allow the other to work out their healing in ways that are messy and disquieting. It’s much easier to throw a national party, charge admission and convince the guests that they are honored.