Tror Na Foe
(troh- na- fway) Is a phrase in the Ewe language (the people from whom our family sprang in the southeastern corner of Ghana) which means, roughly, "to come back and retrieve something that one has lost."
The Universe Is Made of Stories
"The universe is made
of stories, not of atoms"
First meeting between cousin Lawrence Agbemabiese
and I (left) at Gare du Nord, Paris, summer, 2006
(photo, Celeste Grant)
I have always been a lover and collector of stories, ever since I was a kid. No one who knew me back then was the least bit surprised when I became a serious young actor - that's one kind of professional storyteller; nor when as an adult, I became a writer, another time-honored way to turn storytelling into one's living.
As a screenwriter and playwright, I've always loved the challenge of bringing other peoples' stories to life. With the creation of the brand new blog you are now reading, I relish the opportunity, for once, to share one of my own. This is the story of how my family, separated by slavery between Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean; lost to one another for over two hundred fifty years, is in the midst now of reaching out across the historical and cultural divide to reclaim itself from the Great Trans-Atlantic Lost & Found. Through a stroke of Grace and great good luck, we have found not just the specific people from which one branch of our family arose in Africa; we have found a specific family with whom we have blood ties. They're in Ghana. And I'm getting ready, as I write this, to make my first trip - the first of many, many, I'm sure. It's been an incredible journey so far, but the truth is, it's really only just beginning. And I'm inviting you to come along this journey and walk it with me.
A Longing In Our Hearts
The old folks in our family always knew that I was deeply interested in their stories - their personal reminiscences of the teens, twenties, thirties, and forties, for sure - but especially the stories that had been passed down to them from the days of slavery. The stories were full of intriguing and often edifying glimpses of these ancestors. Tales about their grit and determination in the face of the terrible reality through which they lived were always inspirational food for the mind and spirit. And every time I was able to piece together some of the details of lives yet one more generation back; then another... it felt like a huge victory. My window on the past kept getting bigger; the vision through that window a little bit clearer. But like the vast majority of other African Americans, that window on the past never let me see any farther than the shores of this country. Only rarely did the stories passed down to me give more than a tantalizing hint about our family's origins in Africa.
In fact, throughout African American history, it's only been that extremely rare, once in a million story that takes family researchers where we really long to go - back to a solid connection with a specific place in Africa. The Africans from whom we are descended were not born "darkies", "niggers", "jigaboos" nor "spooks." Neither were they "Negroes" nor "coloreds," nor ignorant savages by anybody's definition of the word. They did not come "from nothing" as the ideology that propped up slavery insisted. They were, in fact, people from diverse cultures with rich, complex histories. Many of these cultures were urban and highly sophisticated. They were Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani; they were Mande, Wolof, Fula, and Ewe and Balanta. They were farmers, and traders and fishermen; soldiers, tax collectors and royal courtiers; troubadors, priests and magicians.
On these shores, each was reduced to something less than human - a chattel slave. But in each of our families, that first African ancestor to arrive here was somebody, from someplace. He or she had a name. Many of us have nourished in our hearts a profound longing to speak those names if we could but know them - to let their recitation help us properly remember and honor our dead; to let their recitation help us, our children, and their children remember who we are... keep faith with the past as we march forward into whatever future we will make for ourselves.
Suddenly, Everything Changes
But now, DNA-based geneaological research is making it possible to fill huge gaps in our collective knowledge that were previously an almost impossible dream. I'll talk about how our family is using this new knowledge to make the connections we are now exploring, and provide you with links to people who are doing interesting and vital work in this area. I'll spend the next three weeks catching you up with what's happened on this journey so far, and how we've arrived at where we are. And then, starting in the first week of November, as I begin in earnest to write a book about all of this, I invite you to keep up with me through this blog while I make my first trip to Ghana. Look for photos and video as I attend the annual Hogbetsotso Festival near our family's ancestral village, and then visit with clan elders (griots) to see if we can piece together enough information to identify that first ancestor on my father's side to come to this country as a captive. I'll introduce you to my long-missing family as I meet them - cousin Gideon, at the ancestral village in Tegbi; cousin Lawrencia at the school she runs in Kumasi... and cousin Lawrence, whose picture appears on this page, once he arrives in Accra a few days later on business for the U.N.
Stay tuned. I'm pleased to know you, and glad to have you with me on this journey.