Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. He becomes the 100th Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the first Ethiopian to receive the accolade.
Abiy is the 12th winner from Africa to be awarded the prize. Last year it was won by medical doctor Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other African winners have included Albert Luthuli, Anwar al-Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Kofi Annan, Wangari Maathai, Mohamed ElBaradei, Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet won it in 2015.
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the five Nobel Prizes established in 1895 under the instructions of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel in his will. The Peace Prize is awarded to the person who, in the preceding year, has:
done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.
his important work to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice. The prize is also meant to recognise all the stakeholders working for peace and reconciliation in Ethiopia and in the East and Northeast African regions…efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.
But who is Abiy Ahmed? Does he deserve an international accolade? And what of the challenges still facing the country he leads?
Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, commented in her announcement speech that:
… many challenges remain unresolved. Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months.
Unexpected rise to power
Barely two years ago Abiy Ahmed was largely an unknown figure. In early 2017 a couple of YouTube clips started to circulate on social media that showed him gathered with veteran leaders at a party meeting. He came onto the scene with a simple, but powerful, message of togetherness.
At the time he was a political leader at regional and cabinet levels. But he didn’t sound like one. He comes across as remarkably authentic and his approach was distinct. At a time of elevated fear that the nation might head into disintegration, his message soared above the popular anxiety of possible conflict.
Unlike Ethiopian politicians of the past four decades his rhetoric mimicked neither Albanian Marxism nor Maoism. He has anchored his story on local cultural and religious sensibilities.
Abiy’s extraordinary rise to power, as well as his ability to steer a more peaceful political course in Ethiopia, is remarkable given the tensions and complexities of the country’s politics.
He has distanced himself, at least in his political outlook, from his party’s maligned old guard. He has had to steer a delicate course to keep various factions of the political coalition that has ruled Ethiopia for almost three decades – the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – on board. The ruling elites from this party have never tolerated dissent. There have been numerous accusations levelled against them of human rights abuses and the imprisonment of journalists who criticised the regime.
Instead of dismantling the existing system, Abiy opted for internal transformation.
It has taken tremendous courage to break away from a powerful political machine while remaining within the system. But he has stuck to his beliefs, even promoting the notion of “Medemer” – synergy and togetherness – while remaining within the party.
Abiy inherited a nation that was in political disarray. Hundreds of people had died in three years of anti-government protests.
But shortly after taking office from Hailemariam Desalegn in April 2018, Abiy began to move ahead rapidly with political reforms. He released political prisoners, unfairly incarcerated journalists and activists. He opened the door for political dissidents.
His message was that the country needed to win through bold ideas, not through the barrel of a gun.
He also showed his intention to build institutions. One example was the appointment of the well-known political dissident Birtukan Mideksa as the head the electoral board.
He has also championed the role of women, including in politics. He appointed women in the positions of president, chief justice and press secretary. He also brought their share in his cabinet to 50%.
But arguably his biggest achievements have been in international diplomacy. Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea share a common culture, language and ways of life. But a decades-long conflict between the two nations has brought immense misery to people who live on the border, and to families split by the fighting.
Abiy brought the conflict with Eritrea to an end. A treaty ended the state of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia and declared a new era of peace, friendship and comprehensive cooperation. A lot remains to be done, though.
He also played a crucial role in regional politics. He was key to bringing leaders of Sudan and South Sudan to the negotiating table and helped mediate between Kenya and Somalia in a maritime territory dispute.
His popularity in the region and further abroad is evident when he’s traveling. He’s often greeted more like a rock star than a head of state. But maintaining the same image at home has been more complicated.
The Nobel Prize is an acknowledgment of Abiy’s achievements over the past two years. But it doesn’t guarantee his future success.
A case in point is Myanmar’s Aung San Suu kyi. After surviving house arrest, and attacks on her life by the ruling junta, she won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991. But her fortunes turned after her party won a national election. It now stands accused of carrying out what the United Nations high commissioner for human rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” against the Rohingya Muslims.
There are a great many troubling issues still unresolved in Ethiopia and tense times ahead with an election due next year. Abiy also has many enemies. These include agitators who try to use ethnic fault-lines for their own political ends, powerful ethno-nationalist activists who thrive on division and political entrepreneurs who only see politics as a means of personal enrichment. All are relentlessly working to exploit a fragile situation. Securing the safety of the citizens is the bare minimum he needs to do.
In my view he needs to accept the Nobel Peace Prize as an acknowledgement of what he’s achieved, as well as a mandate to champion equality, justice and lasting unity in Ethiopia.
The Supreme Court of Iowa issued that court order when it made its historic ruling in a school desegregation case brought by Susan’s father, Alexander Clark. This was 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which ordered the desegregation of the nation’s public schools.
In the Iowa case, a judge named Chester Cole ruled that the Muscatine School Board’s racial segregation policy was illegal. The Iowa Supreme Court was the first court in the nation to say that segregation was unlawful.
Up from slavery
Susan Clark’s parents were Alexander Clark and Catherine Griffin Clark. Alexander’s father, John – this would be Susan’s grandfather – was born to a slave owner and an enslaved woman. Both John and his mother were freed after John’s birth. Alexander’s mother, Rebecca Darnes, was the daughter of emancipated slaves, George and Leticie Darnes. Alexander was born free in Pennsylvania in 1826. Catherine Griffin was born a slave in Virginia in 1829, and was freed at the age of three and taken to Ohio.
Alexander and Catherine married in 1848, and set up their home in Muscatine, a small, prosperous town on the Mississippi River. Alexander was a barber and a successful businessman. He was an outstanding speaker and was so active in the Underground Railroad – a secret network that helped slaves escape to freedom – and other civil rights causes that he has been recognized as “one of the greatest civil rights leaders of the 19th century.”
School board wanted segregation
The Muscatine School Board didn’t try to hide the reason it rejected Susan’s application to attend Grammar School No. 2, which was the school closest to where she lived. The school said its decision to keep black and white students segregated was in line with “public sentiment that is opposed to the intermingling of white and colored children in the same schools.” The school board argued that its schools were “separate but equal.” This argument worked in a lot of other courts at the time, including the highest courts in Massachusetts, New York and California. But the argument didn’t work in the Supreme Court of Iowa.
Justice Cole pointed out that the very first words in the Iowa Constitution say “equal rights to all.”
First black graduate
Susan Clark didn’t experience threats and taunts like black children did when they integrated schools in the 1960s. There were only 35 black children in Muscatine at the time.
Susan Clark went on to become the first black graduate of a public school in Iowa – Muscatine High School – in 1871 and served as commencement speaker.
The Muscatine Journal praised Susan’s commencement address, “Nothing But Leaves,” for its “originality,” observing it was “unpretending in style” and had “many excellent thoughts.”
Susan married the Rev. Richard Holley, an African Methodist Episcopalian minister, and their ministry took them to Cedar Rapids and Davenport, Iowa, and Champaign, Illinois. Susan lived a long life, passing in 1925 at age 70, and was buried in Muscatine’s Greenwood Cemetery.
Iowa led the nation
You might wonder why and how the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against segregation at a time when other courts were not doing so.
Each of the four justices on the Iowa Supreme Court was a Republican – the party of Abraham Lincoln – and each had been a strong supporter of the Union cause. Chester Cole was an early advocate for giving black men the right to vote because of their service in the Union Army during the Civil War.
It is important to note that the Iowa Supreme Court never overturned the Clark v. Board of School Directors decision, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that segregation was legal under the U.S. Constitution.
Fifty-eight years after ruling that segregation was legal, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the 1954 Brown v. Board decision that desegregated the nation’s public schools. The Brown decision showed how far ahead the Iowa Supreme Court was when it said segregation was illegal nearly a century earlier.
The Winans group in 1995 included Ronald, from left, Michael, Carvin and Marvin. Photo by Jeffrey Mayer
Thirty years ago, Pastor Marvin Winans was singing with three of his brothers in the gospel group The Winans and touring with his musical play, “Don’t Get God Started,” after its Broadway run.
He also started a church. Beginning with just eight members meeting in the basement of his house in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, Winans became the pastor of Perfecting Church, a Pentecostal congregation that soon became a place where young adults could develop their spiritual lives.
“The church just begin to grow because we would go into the Dairy Queen, wherever we could find young people, and tell them they need to come to church,” he recalled in an interview Tuesday (Oct. 1) with Religion News Service. “And when they came, they stayed and we grew very fast.”
Pastor Marvin Winans. Photo courtesy of GBP Studio 2
Fast forward three decades and Winans is marking the anniversary of his church, now with 1,800 members in the Motor City, while remaining committed to helping his community through the schools and ministries he has started to help train youth and give women a safe place to live.
For Perfecting Church’s Oct. 11 anniversary gala, Winans, 61, has invited social justice activist Bryan Stevenson to speak. BeBe and CeCe Winans, his singing siblings, also are slated to perform.
To be a Grammy-winning pastor, however, is to live a double life: Though officially retired from singing, Winans still agrees to some requests. Earlier this year, he was featured at the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration and with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s “Gospel Goes Classical” concert.
“What stands out to me about Marvin Winans musically is just the beauty and seemingly effortless vocal technique,” said Bil Carpenter, author of “Uncloudy Days: The Gospel Music Encyclopedia,” who said the Detroit senior pastor was the “backbone” of The Winans.
“I have been in events or services where he wasn’t on the program. He was just there. Someone handed him the mic. It was as if he had rehearsed. He picks up on other people’s songs and sings them better than they sing them.”
Winans’ skills as an arranger and conductor have also been on display recently: At the start of the July Democratic presidential candidate debate at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, he directed Perfecting Church singers in his new rendition that combined women singing “America the Beautiful” and men singing “Amazing Grace.”
The choir from Detroit’s Perfecting Church performs a rendition of “America the Beautiful” ahead of the #DemDebate. Watch CNN: http://CNN.it/go
“All I can tell you is, music is what I do,” he said, describing how, while sitting at the piano and going over the voice parts during a rehearsal, a thought came to him: “Wow, this sounds similarly like ‘Amazing Grace’ and we just split it and had that happen.”
Renee Compton, a choir director at Perfecting Church, was among the singers who watched Winans’ creative process in person and rehearsed several times for the two-and-half-minute performance.
“It’s very intense, but it’s also very good ’cause you actually sit there and you learn and you just see the creative genius of it,” said Compton, who helped found Perfecting Church while in her 20s. “The gift that he has to do that is just absolutely incredible, that he’s able to just put all of that together.”
One of 10 children of Delores “Mom” Winans and David “Pop” Winans, Marvin Winans grew up in a household where gospel music was the only genre allowed to be sung or played. Attendance at his great-grandfather’s Church of God in Christ was a regular practice. He served as a young minister at Shalom Temple, a Holiness church in Detroit and continued his connection with the Pentecostal/Holiness tradition when he started his predominantly black congregation.
Cindy Flowers, the general manager of Perfecting Church, said she became the church’s first employee in July 1989.
“We probably had about 13, 15 members, and I’m thinking, ‘Why do we need staff?’” said Flowers, who also was one of the eight founding members. “But Pastor Winans just has always had a much, much, much bigger vision.”
As the church developed, it moved from Winans’ basement to a hotel to rented church buildings, often meeting in the afternoons after their landlords’ services. Meanwhile, Winans expanded the scope of his work in Detroit. He founded the Winans Academy of Performing Arts in 1997 and developed the Rutherford Winans Academy in 2012. The two public charter schools currently have a total enrollment of more than 600 students, Winans said.
Pastor Marvin Winans. Photo courtesy of GBP Studio 2
He also started the Amelia Agnes Transitional Home for Women in an upscale Detroit suburb after a woman in his church told Winans she was living with a man who was not her husband but was helping care for her children.
“We don’t believe in folk shacking and living with folk that are not their husband legally or wife legally,” said Winans. “And that struck me, and the Holy Spirit said, ‘You cannot only tell them what to do. You have to offer an alternative.’”
Since the transitional home opened in 2001, it has housed about 50 single women and mothers, some who have been referred from homeless shelters and some who have been in abusive situations. It is named after Winans’ mother and the mother of his ex-wife, Vickie Winans, who had a total of 22 children.
The home’s clients occupy one of five family suites while they pursue employment and education opportunities and gain parenting and financial tips, said VeronCia Compton, executive director of the Perfecting Community Development Corporation, which includes the home among its programs. Some have completed nursing programs and master’s degrees.
In 2017, Winans opened Perfecting Church Toledo, which has more than 150 members at its Ohio location. On Sundays and some weekdays, he travels the hour-and-a-half drive between Toledo and Detroit to preach and meet with members.
Though the Detroit church listed 4,500 members on its website as of this week, Flowers said a recent “reregistration” of its members indicated about 1,800.
“Church is a little different during these times: People say, ‘You’re still my pastor’ but they’re inactive, they’ve moved. They’re out of town,” Winans said, when asked about the recount. “What we want to do is make sure we’re ministering to those who are not just in word saying, ‘I’m a member of the church,’ but are active in the church.”
One former member sued Winans in 2018 after accusing him of unfair labor practices.
Lakaiya Harris, a former housekeeping employee, claimed, among other things, that Winans required her as a member of the church to tithe on her gross earnings. Her suit alleges that when she refused, Winans fired her.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Winans said when asked about Harris’ claims. “That’s being taken up in the court. I’ll leave it at that.”
Winans said the anniversary gala will help raise money for the transitional home as well as for a new edifice that has long been under construction on a 20-acre campus in Detroit. After it opens, he hopes to be consecrated as bishop of Perfecting Fellowship International, a network including more than a dozen churches in the U.S., the U.K. and South Africa.
He said it’s fitting to have Stevenson, a lawyer who works to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners, as the speaker for his church’s anniversary. Winans said he has visited the museum and lynching memorial Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative opened in Montgomery, Alabama, last year.
“We want to stand on the side of justice equality,” Winans said. “We want to stand against the inequalities of our people. And that doesn’t make me a civil rights preacher. It just makes me a preacher that understands the importance of civil rights.”
Months before the annual observance of the bombing that rocked a congregation, a community and the nation, 16th Street Baptist Church has been getting ready.
Renovations were taking place in June: fresh paint and new technology for the classroom spaces in the basement. Just as at worship services, Sunday school attendance ebbs and flows each week, depending on the number of longtime members and curious tourists. This Sunday (Sept. 15), which marks the 56th anniversary of the attack that killed four young girls, the church hopes to unveil the refurbished space where visitors can watch videos about kindness, caring for all humans no matter their race, and the civil rights history of the church and its community.
“After you leave this place, we don’t just want you to experience history,” the Rev. Arthur Price Jr. said in a June interview at his church. “We call the four girls ‘angels of change’ and our hope is that people will leave inspired, become agents of change as a result of what happened here.”
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sanctuary, which features images of the four girls who were killed in 1963, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“We’re adding more content about not just what happened in 1963 but how the church was organized and the tension that was going on in the city during that time,” Price said in a subsequent interview about the church that was at the forefront of the civil rights movement before and after the bombing.
The pastor was busy this week preparing for his church’s “memorial observance” that is expected to feature special guests including a prominent U.S. chaplain, the pastor of another church that was attacked and a presidential candidate.
Lt. Col. Ruth Segres, an Air Force chaplain at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph in Texas, will be leading the Sunday school lesson.
“That Sunday school lesson that was taught that Sunday (of the bombing) was ‘The love that forgives’ and she will teach a lesson surrounding that theme,” Price said of Segres, who is in charge of recruiting Air Force chaplains.
Just before the church bells are set to toll at 10:22 a.m. — the moment on Sept. 15, 1963, that the dynamite set by members of the Ku Klux Klan went off — former Vice President Joe Biden “will give a reflection about the day,” the pastor said.
“I think we have a symbiotic relationship, considering the two churches experienced acts of violence within their place of worship,” said Price of the AME church where nine worshippers were killed by a white supremacist during a 2015 weekday Bible study.
“This is a way that we can come together in solidarity and preach the message of Jesus Christ and how he teaches us to stand tall and not to fear in the face of adversity.”
Flowers are placed on a marker remembering the four girls who were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in June 2019. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The observance recalls the deaths of Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Morris, who is also known as Cynthia Wesley. They were preparing for the church’s Youth Day when they died. As a poem by Camille T. Dungy in a recent special edition of The New York Times Magazine noted, had they lived, one of the girls would have been 67 and the other three 70 this year.
“We’ll toll the bells for the four girls and two more times for the two boys who lost their lives that day,” Price said, referring to two black male teenagers who were shot to death in Birmingham in the hours after the bombing.
The church, which dates to 1873, reopened in June 1964. Price said the basement was renovated the following year and has since featured fellowship gatherings, men’s breakfasts and Bible studies.
Convictions in the killings did not occur for decades.
A memorial at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four girls were killed in a bombing on Sept. 15, 1963. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
A “Justice Delayed” exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street from the church noted that Robert Chambliss, Thomas “Tommy” Blanton Jr. and Bobby Frank Cherry were identified as potential suspects as the FBI initially investigated the blast. But it wasn’t until much later, after subsequent probes, that they were tried and received sentences of life imprisonment. Cherry was the last to be convicted, in 2002.
Beyond the annual Sept. 15 observance, at other times there are reminders of the tragedy, some marked with grief, others with hope.
In May, Price officiated at the funeral of Chris McNair, father of one of the four girls killed in 1963, and a former Alabama state legislator. And just last week, Price welcomed to the church a government delegation from Wales, including its minister for education, Kirsty Williams.
“She was proud to see the Wales window that was given by the people of Wales in 1965 to the church because the people of Wales wanted to make a statement of solidarity with the movement,” he said of the Sept. 5 visit.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, right, is across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, left. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Price said the visitors from Wales were heeding the message he hopes his church inspires even before the church launches the new videos about kindness across racial lines.
“That’s one of the things that the Welsh government did,” he said. “They presented us with a plate with a black hand and a white hand extended to each other, dealing with even though we’re different, we’re not deficient, and that we ought to be working together so that we make sure that what happened here 56 years ago never happens again.”
There are African words on the wall. Books by African-American authors in the cabinet. Posters of notable African-American scholars on the walls. But much of what makes this an African-centered classroom is what happens when teacher Welia Dawson and her students are breaking down a poem by the English poet Rudyard Kipling.
This poem called “If” — written in the form of advice from a parent to a son — is part of the required school district curriculum. But as her students are talking about how perseverance is a theme in the poem, Dawson relates it back to another poem — this one written by the African American poet Langston Hughes.
“In ‘Mother to Son,’ isn’t she saying the same thing to her son?” Dawson asks the students in her all-male English language arts class at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, before taking the conversation to a deeper and more personal level.
“That’s something that as African American males, you need to realize,” she tells the sixth-graders. “Life for you is not going to be easy. That’s why you have to strive or work even harder to prove to the world what you’re made of. You don’t give up when times get hard.”
Schools like Paul Robeson Malcolm X, with its African-centered approach to education that is built around the notion that black children need to understand their history and culture to succeed academically, made a Detroit a leader and spurred districts in other parts of the country to replicate the approach. The school’s principal, Jeffery Robinson, is among those hoping to see a resurgence of African-centered education in the Detroit school district, something he believes could boost achievement in the struggling district.
“This is an opportunity for Detroit to return to some innovation and some pioneering that it once embarked upon at the onset of African-centered education,” Robinson said earlier this month during the first of a series of six professional development sessions that he hopes will be the start of that resurgence. Robinson has spent much of his 28-year career in African-centered schools — both as a teacher and as a principal.
“African-centered education is part of the positive legacy of DPS,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said. “It’s important to our reform to preserve and expand the principles of the philosophy because it empowers our students to better understand who they and who they aren’t.”
The professional development sessions are attracting veteran African-centered teachers like Dawson, as well as those who teach in traditional school settings.
Catena Alexander is one of them. Alexander, a special education teacher at Fisher Magnet Lower Academy, came to the first session hoping to learn ways to incorporate some of the practices with her kindergarten students.
She already has a long history with African-centered education. Her youngest daughter attended a charter school that used that approach, before Alexander even became a teacher.
“Their entire approach to education is entirely different,” Alexander said. “It gave my daughter a different sense of pride. It gave her a different sense of self.”
Back when her daughter was attending Nsoroma Institute, a charter school that has since closed, the city of Detroit had well over 20 African-centered schools. The school district alone had 13, but only two remain — Paul Robeson Malcolm X and Garvey Academy.
Robinson said he’s hoping that attendance at the training sessions will demonstrate interest among teachers.
“What we’re trying to do is work with [Vitti] to train teachers in what I truly feel has been missing and is key to turning around our test scores,” Robinson said. “By and large, our children have not seen themselves in the curriculum. The curriculum doesn’t reflect their lived experiences.”
At the district level, Vitti said there’s a need to strengthen the African-centered focus at Garvey “so it can offer another model for school reform as” Paul Robeson Malcolm X does. Vitti said he hopes that effort will increase enrollment at Garvey.
And the expansion of professional development, he said, is being done “to improve instruction and relationships with students in non African-centered schools throughout the district.”
PHOTO: Lori Higgins
A cabinet in Welia Dawson’s classroom at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy is decorated with African words.
During the first of the six trainings sessions, held earlier this month at Robinson’s school, several dozen attendees heard from Chike Akua of the Teacher Transformation Institute. Akua has been working with Paul Robeson Malcolm X staff for years already.
“Our children are brilliant,” Akua told the audience. “But many of them are in schools or school systems where they’re seen as a problem, rather than as people.”
Meanwhile, he said, black youth grow up in a society that has “gangsterized and criminalized young black males,” and “objectified and sexualized young black females.”
“Most of our children have not been exposed to the best of our culture. They’ve been exposed to the worst of our culture.”
He defined African-centered education this way:
“The process of using the best of African culture to examine and analyze information, meet needs and solve problems in African communities.”
And he outlined 13 essential elements of African-centered education, including placing Africa, African people, and African points of view “at the center of all things studied. In other words, it makes what we learn relevant and responsive to our needs.”
Akua said putting African points of view at the center is important because “most of what we learn in standard American curriculum … places us at the margins or in the periphery.”
Dawson, the teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X, has taught in traditional school programs and African-centered programs. She prefers the latter because the approach promotes close connections between students and teachers.
PHOTO: Lori Higgins
Teacher Welia Dawson gets a hug from a student near the end of a recent class lesson. Dawson said the African-centered approach at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy helps build better connections with students.
Teachers are referred to as “Mama” or “Baba” — African terms for mother and father. And like some mothers, Dawson is a tough disciplinarian in the classroom. But it’s also clear she knows her students well. As she was providing directions for an upcoming assignment with the girls in her English language arts class, she noticed one girl looked upset.
“The look on her face, her eyes, I knew something wasn’t quite right,” Dawson said. So she stopped in her tracks, and addressed the issue. The girl eventually left the classroom to see a counselor, but came back minutes later with a different attitude — beaming brightly later in the class when she was the first student to figure out the answer to a question that had stumped the rest of the girls in her class.
“You are given an opportunity to be more than a teacher,” Dawson said. “You are given the opportunity to let children see you as a person. You get to know them, you get to know their family. Any teacher can do that. But that’s what’s practiced at our school. That’s what’s expected at our school.”
When Dawson was talking to the boys about perseverance, she kept hammering home the importance of perseverance. She then related it back to a speech they had recently read in class, in which the speaker urged them to question how they would be remembered, to be the best they can be, and to not accept being average.
“For African American males, that’s a motto you need to get up in the morning saying to yourself,” Dawson said.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
“We may call ourselves African Americans but we are truly disconnected from Africa. I say WE because I’m not excluded! I thought ‘my people’ came from South Carolina … but this heritage was only a small part of my people’s journey that began in Ghana, a place that had kings well before Europe had theirs.”
These were the words of American actor and director Michael Jai White, who visited Ghana towards the end of 2018.
He and over 40 African diasporan celebrities took part in “The Full Circle Festival”, designed to attract visitors to Ghana. The list included Idris Elba, Boris Kodjoe, Naomi Campbell, Anthony Anderson, and Adrienne-Joi Johnson. During the visit, Akwamuhene Odeneho Kwafo Akoto III, the Akwamu Paramount Chief, enstooled White as Chief “Oduapong” meaning “Tree with strong roots that does not fear the storm”.
The Ghana government invited the celebrities as part of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019”. The initiative involves a year-long series of activities. These include visits to heritage sites, healing ceremonies, theatre, and musical performances, lectures, investment forums, and relocation conferences. The aim is to promote Ghana as a tourist destination and investment opportunity.
This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown in the US. The Year of Return represents an effort to “unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora”.
In support, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said:
We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions (Africans in the diaspora) made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.
In commemoration, numerous visitors are traveling to Ghana. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will also conduct the Jamestown (Virginia, US) to Jamestown (Accra, Ghana) Memorial Trip.
Ghana is number 4 on CNN Travel’s 19 best places to visit in 2019.
African diasporans as “returnees” dates back to Ghana’s immediate post-independence period. Shortly after independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah invited many well-known African diasporans to assist with nation-building. These included Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., George Padmore, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Leslie Lacy, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In the 1990s, President Jerry Rawlings initiated heritage tourism based on the transatlantic slave trade and Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s coastal forts and castles became integral to heritage, tourism and development strategies. Events included the Pan African Festival of Theatre and Arts (PANAFEST) and Emancipation Day. All were dedicated to the promotion of Pan-Africanism and attracted African diasporans, notably African Americans.
As part of the nation’s 50th independence in 2007, President John Kufour partnered with the Discovery Channel and launched “Ghana – The Presidential Tour”. He introduced “The Joseph Project” that targeted middle-class, Christian African-Americans.
The forts and castles remained center stage. Additional plans included the development of commemoration gardens, DNA projects, and sponsored tours. It also involved developing an interfaith center at Assin Manso, where captive Africans had their last bath before being transported onto the slave ships.
President John Atta Mills continued with heritage tourism as a means of development. In 2009, the most high-profile African diasporan tourist and pilgrim, US President Barack Obama, visited Cape Coast Castle.
In 2015, President John Mahama sought assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the forts and castles, and further development of heritage tourism.
Over the years, successive governments have also offered opportunities such as granting citizenship, dual nationality status, tax exemptions, and land grants to diasporans to encourage returnees.
Since Alex Haley’s 1980s popular novel and television series, Roots, African diasporans engaging in “heritage tourism”, “roots tourism” or “pilgrimage”, travel to Africa as tourists and pilgrims. This blurs the distinctions between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage.
African diasporans visit the forts and castles as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the transatlantic slave trade. They are the sites where captive Africans forcibly departed the continent to be trafficked through the Middle Passage and enslaved in the New World. Interpretations over the histories told at these sites are frequently contested.
Diasporans also visit other sites such as Manyhia Palace in Asante that represent the glorification of an African regal past.
In 2018, Ghana secured $40 million from the World Bank to develop heritage tourism. It is hoped this will stimulate economic development.
Yet, ongoing debates view heritage, tourism, and development in various ways. Some view it as exploitative and destructive, replicating and perpetuating colonial forms of domination and structural underdevelopment. Others view it positively. A few remain ambivalent.
An act of reclamation
The Year of Return 2019 remains deeply embedded within a capitalist culture that engages with a complex set of practices, discourses, and meanings.
Commercialization of the “return” requires the saleability of the history of the transatlantic slave trade for African diasporan consumption.
Herein lies a painful irony: the commodification of heritage directed at African diasporans is based on a system that was once the commodification of people, through the transatlantic slave trade.
Descendants of the enslaved of the past are the heritage tourists and/or pilgrims in the present.
Still, constructions of Africa have always been central to African diasporic imaginaries. White’s comments resonate for many African diasporans. For many diasporans, the “return” symbolises an act of heritage reclamation. Africa is viewed as the motherland. It is considered a source of black resistance, pride and dignity.
For Africans and African diasporans such as White, knowing heritage pasts are important. But it remains to be seen how this will translate into critical and sustained engagement to realise the potentials for transforming heritage futures.