“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.
With the release of films such as 12 Years a Slaveand TheBirth of a Nationand the re-make of the “Roots” mini-series in 2016, we have seen our fair share of the history of black slavery. However, the past few years may have marked the beginning of a burgeoning interest of millennials and younger in exploring slavery, the eventual emancipation of slaves and beyond.
While the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, it would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to learn of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in the city and told them they were free. In years since, June 19 began to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth and in 1980, the Texan legislature established Juneteenth as a state holiday. Still, the celebration of Juneteenth, which has been inconsistent throughout the course of history, has yet to achieve the recognition and popularity of other official American holidays.
Rev. Ronald V. Meyers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has been working since 1994 when he helped organize the foundation that is working to have Juneteenth recognized as a national American holiday. “Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a special day of recognition or observance. We’re still missing North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, and Hawaii,” says Meyers.
Myers learned about Juneteenth through celebrations in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We had one of the largest celebrations around and it was then that I began to understand the history of our freedom in America, and I took that with me wherever I went.”
By 1994, Myers, who was living in Louisiana then, met with Juneteenth enthusiasts from across the country at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was selected to be the chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation at the meeting. “We wanted to work together for greater recognition of Juneteenth to make it like Flag Day and have a day set aside for the celebration.”
While Myers has been successful in securing senate resolutions in 2014 and 2015, designating June 19 as Juneteenth, he had hoped to gain former President Barack Obama’s support of Juneteenth by his last year in office.
“When President Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he supported legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2003. And when he was a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to recognize Juneteenth in the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he hasn’t issued a proclamation to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance as president or held a Juneteenth celebration at the White House. I don’t know why since the White House was built by slaves.”
While Obama did not issue a proclamation, he did issue a statement on June 19, 2015 supporting the observance of Juneteenth which was posted on the White House website. He also referenced the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E., which occurred a year ago on June 17. To read the statement, click here.
The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s great-grandparents who were slaves. (Photo Courtesy of Floyd Cooper)
Similarly to Meyers, Floyd Cooper, children’s book author and illustrator, remembers celebrating Juneteenth in Haskell, Oklahoma where he grew up. “I’m from a very large extended family, and all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone would get together and have big cookouts for Juneteenth.”
He also remembers hearing about his family’s history from his great-grandparents who were freed slaves and lived in a home built from stone in Oklahoma. They migrated to Oklahoma after packing up in a covered wagon and leaving Texas. Before that, they moved from Georgia where they worked as slaves on a plantation owned by an Irish man. “They said he never whipped them which was important for them,” Cooper says.
His great-grandparents also kept a photograph of one of their slave ancestors from Georgia in their home. “I remember being a child looking up at that photograph. It was in one of those oval frames.”
While he hasn’t been able to link his great-grandparents directly to the slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston, Texas, he did draw from his own family’s history to write and illustrate Juneteenth for Mazie, a children’s picture book of the history of Juneteenth which was published in 2015 .
In the book, Mazie’s father teaches young Mazie about the struggles and the triumphs of her family’s past as they prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. “Juneteenth is a great American holiday,” Cooper says.
“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.
“Emancipation Day celebrations took place May 8 for some and August 8 for others.” Penrice also pointed out in her book that many of the celebrations stopped after 1920 when black people moved to larger cities and wanted to disassociate from their rural pasts.
However, while Meyers agrees that slaves learned about their freedom on various days, he still believes that freedom from slavery should be celebrated.
“My challenge to African Americans is ‘What day do you celebrate our freedom?'” he says. “On the 4th of July when Americans of African descent were still caught up in the tyranny of slavery?”
Do you and the people you know observe Juneteenth? Why or why not? Sound off below.
It’s been a week since the presidential election, and much of the chatter prior to Election Day about how racially divided America is has continued in different forms thanks to a crop of strange and often disturbing news stories that feature racial subtexts. Here are a few.
After President Obama’s victory, reports circulated about a race riot on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Apparently some students were angry over the Obama win and caused a ruckus which included the torching of an Obama/Biden poster. But was it a “race” riot?
A new meme has been making the rounds in social media that displays maps of slaveholding states in 1859, legally segregated states in 1950, and the breakdown of red vs. blue states after the 2012 election. The suggestion is that the slaveholding and segregated states from the past bear an uncanny similarity to the states won by Romney last week. But the meme doesn’t mention that Obama won Florida (as well as Virginia). So, does the comparison meant to show how far we’ve come, or how some things never change?
Obama’s Black Liberal Critics Are Still Mad, Too
Reports from The Grio and The Root find Cornel West calling President Obama “a Republican in black face.” And African American political pundit Boyce Watkins warns African Americans against “drinking the Kool-Aid” again and argues that Obama has yet to demonstrate a serious interest in tackling issues deeply affecting the African American community, including poverty, black unemployment, urban violence, and the mass incarceration of black men.
Those are just a few of the post-election race stories that are making headlines. Did we miss any? Is this much ado about nothing? Please share your opinions below.
BLACK HISTORY DETECTIVE: Northwestern University professor Dylan C. Penningroth was named one of 2012’s MacArthur Fellows. His ‘Genius Award’ will facilitate his ongoing study of ways that African American slaves participated in the legal realm of public life, even before emancipation. (Photo: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
The annual announcement of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” Award winners always offers us a moment to pause and marvel at the richness and unconventionality of the intellectual and artistic game changers among us. They are scientists and poets, musicians and mathematicians, filmmakers and neurosurgeons. Their backgrounds are as varied as their vocations. But they all share a common creative brilliance. Each of the 23 award recipients, chosen for their unique intellectual contributions to society and culture, was awarded an unrestricted $500,000 grant to celebrate and support their work. (Ah, wouldn’t it be nice if the MacArthur judges were fans of UrbanFaith?)
For those of us who follow such things, each year there are usually one or two winners who especially stand out among the honorees and grab your interest. Last year, for me, it was Jeanne Gang, the Chicago-based architect whose adventurous and eco-friendly designs led the MacArthur judges to observe that she challenges “the aesthetic and technical possibilities of the art form.”
Of the 23 honorees announced this week, it was the work of historian Dylan Penningroth that caught my immediate attention. Penningroth, a 41-year-old associate professor of history at Northwestern University, explores the concepts of property ownership as it related to African American life under slavery and during the era following slavery’s abolition. “I study the ownership of property by slaves,” he says in a video at the MacArthur website. “I wanted to figure out how was it that slaves were able to own property when they themselves were property.”
Consequently, Penningroth has spent thousands of hours digging into historical court records, sermons, and slave narratives to piece together the antebellum and post-antebellum experience of black Americans. His research reveals a surprisingly robust participation of African American slaves in public life — owning land, getting married, making contracts, suing people. Penningroth explains, “The thing that studying law during this period has shown me is that African Americans were in it. They were participating in it. … As long as those claims didn’t threaten white supremacy, many whites were perfectly happy to let them make those claims.”
By studying this obscured aspect of the African American experience, Penningroth is breaking new ground in American history and revealing important antecedents to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Chicago Tribune culture critic Howard Reich keenly recognizes this dimension. He writes of Penningroth’s work, “Though at first glance this might seem like merely a historical curiosity, in fact it points to a people strategizing under oppressive circumstances and setting the stage for expanding their rights in the 20th century.”
Penningroth also draws important connections between the early participation of African Americans in the law and the gradual development of the black church. According to Penningroth in the Tribune interview, the descendants of freed slaves “used the law to build the independent black church. We think of the church as the seed of the civil rights movement, and it was that. But the church was also a legal institution.” Though whites owned the church buildings during the slavery era, once emancipation arrives, the law allows black people to “build this religious institution, which is so central to black history,” adds Penningroth. “At the same time, building the black church pulls them into the law.”
As Penningroth continues his research, no doubt with added impetus from his newly conferred MacArthur grant, his work bears watching. “This fellowship is enormously important to me,” he says, clearly grateful. “It’s going to make it possible for me to take a story that might otherwise be limited in time and space and make it a bigger story.” A story that sheds new light not only on African American history, but American history.
NO LOOKING BACK: Democratic delegates and supporters waved “Forward” placards at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 4, the first day of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Robyn Beck/Newscom)
The contrast in diversity was striking on the screen.
The sea of red, yellow, white, black, and brown faces at the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night compared to the sea of white with black and brown specks at the Republican event last week in Tampa. It’s like watching color TV vs. black and white.
But is it really?
Nowadays we talk about red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) as code for conservative and liberal, but as the Democrats take their turn this week and re-nominate the first African American POTUS, I wonder how many black Democrats know their party’s history is much redder than the GOP when it comes to black people and other minorities. In fact, the DNC’s founding fathers would be red with rage that Barack Obama is the party’s leader.
You certainly wouldn’t know this by viewing the DNC’s website on your computer. The opening paragraph of the African American section reads:
“For decades, Democrats have stood with the African American community in the struggle for equality and the enduring struggle to perfect our nation itself.”
The section about the party’s history reeks with campaign spin:
“For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. We are the party of Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR, and the countless everyday Americans who work each day to build a more perfect union.”
This is followed by a timeline with the entry being 1920.
C’mon now. Your official founding date is 1792, making the Democrats the nation’s oldest political party, yet your timeline begins in 1920? Is it because you are also the party of President Andrew Jackson that promoted the bloody takeover of Indian lands and the expansion of slavery? Is it because you are the party of President Andrew Johnson, the Confederate who during Reconstruction championed laws leading to Jim Crow that re-shackled black freedom for decades after the Civil War?
I was reared in a Democratic household in Brooklyn, New York, to parents who were union loyalists. My initial DNC history reached only as far as FDR and the New Deal. But as I came of voting age I sought the backstory for myself. In a word, it is racist.
The party of Obama had for centuries championed a laundry list of oppressive policies that have led to the tragic disparities and the areas of health, wealth, education, housing, and incarceration rates that continue to plague the African American community today. However, that revelation then didn’t stop me from voting my interest such as, helping David Dinkins to become New York’s first black mayor in 1990.
The truth before 1920 and after is easily accessible via several legit Web sites. Of course Republicans pointed this out themselves in 2008, no doubt as a way of throwing stones at then-Sen. Obama’s magical run for the White House.
What’s curious is why the DNC doesn’t openly embrace its full history — that the party that once championed slavery has produced the nation’s first African American president. Wouldn’t that show how far the party has led nation, though there’s still a ways to go? Wouldn’t that illustrate “change we can believe in,” and progress “forward?” Wouldn’t that show respect for blacks, a constituency that is supposed to be highly valued? DNC leadership obviously decided on the history revision. Where are the black Democratic leaders on this? Where are the whites who are supposed to be progressive?
For me, it shows that both parties share a common problematic history on the issue of race. One doesn’t want to hear about it, while the other doesn’t want to talk about it. This hasn’t changed much over the years. People have just switched sides and traded names.
Real change would be seeing a sea of colorful faces at both conventions, and two parties focused on meaningful policies rather than spin. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime, though.
But then again, I said the same about a black man becoming President of the United States.