Thursday, July 17, 2008

Photo (Amahl Grant): Kid outside Mosque at Larabanga

Woezor (welcome)! If this is your very first visit, I invite you to scroll all the way back to the beginning so that you can follow along with this journey from its start. Two years ago, through a DNA match, we found and connected with some of the missing African kin from whom my father's line had been separated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade! This is the story of how that happened, and what has been happening since.

One result of this adventure is the post you are about to read, which is an excerpt from the book I am now writing about the experience, tentatively titled, "In Search of My Father's House." Be on the lookout for it. In the meantime, however you found your way here, thanks for joining me on this journey thus far.
In the previous posting, I wrote about how difficult it usually is to talk with either Africans or people of western European descent about the history and the legacy of slavery. This new posting picks up where the previous post left off, as I traveled into Ghana's Muslim north on an STC bus, having this very conversation with a couple of my Ghanaian fellow travelers.


The man in the seat next to her jumped in, “Well, you know, yes, there were many here who once held slaves, and even some who participated in the trade that sold some of your ancestors away, but we are your brothers because we were victims too. Oh, yes, you know it’s the Ashantis and many others who did the greatest evil by far. By far.”

I nodded. Yes, I knew. But I also knew what I’m reasonably sure he knew: the extent to which northern kingdoms like Gonja, which our bus was now entering, were heavily complicit in the transatlantic trade as well. It was an exchange that sparked another vivid memory from childhood. I’d been out fishing for crab with my grandmother, Addie, on vacation in the North Carolina tidewater region. We’d stopped at a farmer’s roadside stand to buy some honey when two white-bearded men, one in his sixties and the other in his eighties, emerged from a trail at the bottom of a wooded hill across the road and approached us. The older man was grizzled and raggedy, and had the wildest look about him, certainly the wildest eyes, I had ever seen. He scared me a little. But it was me he really wanted to talk to; me to whom he had something it seemed he needed to say.

My grandmother sensed my alarm and she pulled me next to her as he came closer. His fierce eyes burned a hole right through me as he spoke urgently in a language I could not understand. The other man, who must have been his son, spoke with the thickest Scottish brogue I had ever heard, even in this region where the local accent is flavored with a decidedly Gaelic lilt. “Don’t be scared son. He means no harm. The old man, ever since he turned eighty, he just stopped speaking English. Refuses to speak it anymore. He’ll only speak Gaelic now.” The ancient one spoke to me again; something sober and sad. “The old man, he wants you to know – that slavery, you know – that were a terrible, terrible thing, that. And he’s saying, he wants you to know… it weren’t us what done that to you, you know? That were the fookin’ Brits!”

I surely appreciated the obviously sincere anti-slavery sentiment, but even at the age of eleven, I knew better. I knew that the Grants who had owned my father’s people in North Carolina, and after whom my family took our last name, were immigrants from the Scottish lowlands. I’d seen photos of the huge, triumphant Klan rally of thousands that had once marched down Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue in the nineteen twenties, a corps of what must have been over a hundred pipers dressed in highland kilts at the fore. The photo had, for me, a chilling resonance with a photo I’d seen in Life Magazine of German troops marching triumphantly into Paris during the midst of World War Two. And as a serious young Civil War buff, I knew about the cherished southern conceit that liked to link the cause of secession with the struggle for Scottish freedom from English tyranny during the days of the great patriot hero, William Wallace. In this skewed view of history, the south was Scotland and the north represented the cruel English oppressors.

Most of the conversations I’ve ever had with white southerners about slavery have eventually devolved into defensive protestations about how it really wasn’t all that bad; that its alleged horrors may have had a germ of truth to them – in some places – but that the worst of the reported depredations were mostly Yankee propaganda, and so forth and so on. And occasionally, I’d hear acclamations not unlike the one I heard that hot, long-ago day in North Carolina; like I had just heard from the African man on this bus that, “Well, yes, we certainly had slavery around here, but if you want to be mad at somebody about it, be mad at those other bastards on down the road. ‘Cause if you’re looking for the real villains, the real evil ones, that’s who you want, not us.”

Our conversation petered out without resolution. But I can’t say it ended without any greater understanding on either side, because, speaking strictly for me, I think I did come out of it with a more sympathetic understanding of how this issue looks to them. Because as I had already learned earlier on this trip, Africans have a whole other set of narratives going when it comes to slavery.

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