Sunday, June 29, 2008

Woezor (welcome)! If you are new to this blog, I invite you to scroll all the way back and read about how we have found and connected, through DNA-based research, with one of the African families from whom our ancestors here in the U.S. were separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade!

Below, you'll find the next segment of a chapter in the book I'm writing about this adventure. I'll be adding some video soon too, so do check back here often. Thanks for joining me. Enjoy.


The areas along west Africa’s coastline were the source of most of the transatlantic slave trade’s earlier victims, but the brunt of slavery’s weight fell on the north for the longest period of time – persisting right up until the early twentieth century. When powerful empires like Ashanti in modern day central Ghana, or Oyo in modern day Benin and Nigeria went raiding for slaves who they could trade to Europeans on the coast for iron, fabric, beads, guns and cowrie shells, the relatively defenseless, subsistence farmers and river fishermen of the north became their primary victims of choice.

Even before the Europeans came, the northern regions were often raided by their more powerful neighbors to feed Africa’s ancient internal market for slaves. Many Africans are fond of saying that the nature of slavery in Africa was fairly benign before the Europeans came and turned it into the world’s first truly international business, because African slavery had no racial basis like the transatlantic trade came to have. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the cruelty of this trade, recorded by African and Arab travelers and European missionaries alike, tell us otherwise. But we don’t need historical accounts of African slavery for evidence.

There’s plenty of evidence to be seen in the class divisions which exist to this day between the descendants of those who did the buying and selling, and the descendants of those who were bought and sold; between those “of the blood” and those merely “of the house.” Every year, word of some surviving pocket of modern slavery comes to light somewhere on the continent – and then some embarrassed governor, president or prime minister marshalls the modern machinery of public relations to cover up or ensure that the story dies as quickly as possible. For the most part, those reports of modern slavery come out of remote, isolated areas of the continent, and no casual visitor to Africa is likely to encounter it. But its distant echoes still exist in many forms, one of which is the ubiquitous but low-profile army of house servants who staff the homes of even barely middle-class Ghanaian families. Some commute to work every day; many, perhaps most, live-in.

They perform their daily toil in compliance with a social norm not unlike that of Edwardian England – that servants should be like “living furniture.” The evidence of their work should be easily visible throughout the house and garden, but they themselves should remain as nearly invisible as possible. When you visit someone with servants, the servants will be surprised if you stop to ask their names, and thrown for a complete loop if you ask them to pose for a photo. You’re supposed to pretend they’re not there.

Slaves were the ultimate invisible people. Ripped forever from their homelands, they were denied the basic elements of life that made people fully human in African societies: a deep, life-long connection to their ancestral land; a connection to the ancestors who were the very soul of that land;[1] passage, through being given a proper funeral and being properly mourned, into the eternal role of ancestor themselves someday. Sooner or later, the slave was destined to lose his or her mother tongue as well.

Once the memory of your own language, the memory of everyone you once knew and loved, and the memory of the person you yourself once were has faded, who are you? You have truly become nobody. You are whoever and whatever the person who has purchased you wants or needs you to be. And if your people can’t mourn you in your own language and bury you in your own soil according to the ancient rites that are part of your blood, gristle and bone, then once you are dead and gone, you are truly gone – not an ancestor, still spoken of, and spoken to; honored; cherished, but a ghost, a homeless wraith whose presence can only trouble the living with a gnawing sense of unease and dread. This was the fate of at least twelve million souls, northerners and southerners alike. When they fell by the wayside on the march to the coast, they were left to die and rot where they lay. The ones branded incorrigible resistors at the slave “factories” of the coast were starved to death and then, so that their end might serve as an example to the others, fed to the sharks.
photo: Chamber into which resistant slaves were thrown without food
or water until death claimed them, El Mina, Ghana

The sick and resistant were thrown from the decks of the slave ships, their bleached bones on the bottom of the Atlantic marking the pathway of “the middle passage.” The fate of those who survived the passage, once their lives were used up, was to be buried in shallow graves hastily dug on foreign soil. The collective lore of the entire world agrees: people who’ve left this life never come back to haunt the places where they once found happiness and peace. It’s those who were done some terrible, unredressed wrong, some great, violent injustice, who come back to trouble the living. They haunt the places where the injustice was done. Large swaths of the Americas, Africa, and the passage across the Atlantic between them are haunted places.

[1] Ancestors were, and are, not literally worshipped. It’s simply that though they now live in the spirit world, they are acknowledged as a still vital part of the family, even wiser now than they were in life. Their council, guidance and support are important for the family’s and the community’s well-being. They are the champions and guardians of continuity and the preservation of culture.

1 comment:

Aldric said...