June 15, 2020

White Man's Burden: Understanding Race and Ancestry through Travel

Myron strong author photoBy Myron Strong

Our knowledge is limited based on our cultural experiences. Traveling is a great way to expand not only our knowledge, but our capacity for compassion, understanding, and hope. In a career that is built on being busy, traveling slows you down and makes you reflect and appreciate simple things.

For these reasons, I often say traveling abroad and specifically leading students abroad is one of my most rewarding experiences as a professor. But beyond that, I am reminded that our lives and decisions are not entirely ours – we carry the hopes and dreams of our ancestors. And, as much as we think we are individuals, we are all connected, and our histories speak too much to how we are rooted.

In January, I co-led a study abroad excursion to Ghana. It was my first trip to the country and was an intense experience. Since I arrived back from Ghana, a number of people have asked me, “how was the trip?” As simple as the question seems, I struggle with it.

Trying to explain the full experience is like trying to catch a dream and hold it in your hand or trying to hug the wind. The connection…it’s something that I cannot really verbalize. Instead, the experience is in me and runs through me like a spiritual chain that goes back, link-by-link, to my ancestors. Nelson Mandela spoke of the connection between Black Americans and Africa in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote, “I spoke to a crowd in Yankee Stadium, telling them that an unbreakable umbilical cord connected Black South Africans and Black Americans, for we together are children of Africa.”

As I got in Ghanaian airspace, I felt emotional. Tears filled my eyes as I thought about my ancestors, the many who longed to go back and the many who longed to see Africa in any form. I couldn't help but feel pride that I am the culmination of my ancestors’ pride and dreams. There is an emotional and spiritual weight to the past. In many ways the countries in Africa almost feel like a fantasy or fable. You know it exists, and you may know people from there, but you never think you’ll get there.

I’m reminded of stories told by my grandmother like the flying African. These stories and folklore passed for centuries through oral traditions more recently retold in Imani and the Flying Africans by Janice Liddell and by Jason Young in “All God’s Children Had Wings: The Flying African in History, Literature, and Lore” in the Journal of Africana Religions. My sisters and I would sit around as she told us stories of how people would jump off of cliffs and fly back to Africa. The stories reminded us that Black people are connected and we are always drawn to Africa. It is something I’ve lived with, and I do not take lightly that when I travel anywhere but particularly to the continent of Africa, I carry my ancestors hopes and dreams with me.

When I arrived and we started our tour of Accra, passing the billboards filled with Ghanaian faces, it was a powerful moment. I think of the movie White Man's Burden. Produced 1995, it presents alternative America where the Blacks are members of social elite, and whites are inhabitants of the inner-city. Louis Pinnock is a struggling white worker in a chocolate factory, loving husband and father of two children. While delivering a package for Black CEO Thaddeus Thomas, he is mistaken for a voyeur and, as a result, loses his job, gets beaten by Black cops and his family gets evicted from their home. Desperate, Pinnock takes a deadly weapon and kidnaps Thomas, demanding justice.

The movie frames the world in which Black is the norm. It’s a visual representation of the “what if” question asked by many Afrofuturist – what if toys, media, hair are all seen through a Black worldview? It's powerful. One that examines what happens when you and your experience are placed at the center. To be in a country represented by Black culture is exhilarating—it’s like someone put on the infinity gauntlet from the Avengers and just snapped.

But there is no gauntlet needed. There were lots of amazing sights from the ancient relics of the Ashanti to the beautiful people. But the two things that had the biggest impact on me the door of no return and the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture. There were about 40 “slave castles” in Ghana. Called castles because soldiers lived, ate and slept there. Talking about framing a place! I visited two Cape Coast castles and Osu Castle. As you enter the “castles” you see these big, black, iron doors to the male and female dungeons. All of these doors at the rear of every “castle” are the doors of no return because the enslaved people that entered would never return. The paths in dungeons led directly out the back of the castle and into the ocean. As I imagined the pain and the sense of loss, I cried. Our return meant we brought back our ancestral history.

This ancestry history extended to the W.E.B. DuBois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture. This is a cultural center at the former home of famed American sociologist and Pan Africanist W.E.B. Dubois, who left after becoming increasing frustrated at the United States. Frustrated by the inequalities of like in the United States, he moved to Ghana in the 1960s and was gifted a compound by Kwame Nkrumah. As I thought about why he left, I thought about the emotional fatigue and terror of racism that makes you see ghosts. With every interaction you have to wonder what role your race plays. Did I get passed over for the job because of my race? I understand why many of the artisans of the Harlem Renaissance felt more comfortable outside the United States.

Taking students abroad has taught me that there are lots of ways for professors to make a difference. As much as we talk about freedom, our institutions and academia dictate so much of our time and energy. Whether it is a mandate to research, publish, or excel at classroom teaching, , we are sometimes fragmented. Being a whole academic means embracing your path and being diverse. There is a saying that “Traveling — it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” And that’s exactly how I feel. For me traveling is important to understand different ways to approach problems and challenging my worldview.

Door of no return at Elmina Castle

Door of no return

Photo by Kami Fletcher

Door at the other end of the dungeon leading to ocean

Door at the other end of the dungeon leading to ocean

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Kami Fletcher

Comments

Being a teacher and teaching those children not to be racist at a young age could be a factor to stop this racism in the community. They are the next adults in the next generation. Thank you so much for sharing this. Not all heroes wear capes.

Excellent article, Mr. Strong. More of our children AND their parents, guardians, and caretakers need to take the journey. It’s an eye opener. Thanks for sharing your story.


This song/video and powerful message after the song, regarding "racism, hatred and enslavement", was just released and is getting a lot of attention. This song What Color Am I- aka "The People's Anthem", was actually played before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark racial discrimination case. Would be great if you listened to it, blogged about it and shared it as this message needs to be heard by the masses.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34hJd2uagWY

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