"The concept of Year of Return is celebratory and complicated for African Americans because our roots are African and American, with a distinct culture forged in the United States — literature, languages, visual art, style, music, food, scholarship." — James McKissic
In August 1619, a ship carrying enslaved Africans docked at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia — what is now part of the United States. Over 20 enslaved Africans were on the ship and with that, American slavery was born. The year 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of that historic moment — the "Year of Return."
Visiting the motherland, specifically Ghana, in 2019 was an incredible and emotional experience. I had traveled to Africa before, camping throughout South Africa in my early 30s to celebrate completing my master's degree program. But this trip was different because of the concept of return. Returning to the part of the continent from which my ancestors came, on a flight from the U.S., to Amsterdam, to Accra, back to New York, which so closely mirrored the transatlantic slave trade. Returning home. Greeted by shouts of "Akwabaa" and "Welcome, brother!"
Return ... The concept of Year of Return is celebratory and complicated for African Americans because our roots are African and American, with a distinct culture forged in the United States — literature, languages, visual art, style, music, food, scholarship. As Nicole Hannah Jones wrote in the New York Times Magazine for the brilliant 1619 Project, "They say our people were born on the water."
Born anew, primed to create a new culture in a foreign and hostile land. As I have traveled around the world, my heart has always swelled as I realize no matter where I am, no matter the continent, that American culture abroad is so often black American culture.
Many black Americans can trace our roots in the U.S. back generations, to include enslaved people as well as enslavers. I recently explored a new branch on my own family tree, that of my great-great grandmother, Sarah Taliaferro, which led me to two of her white ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War.
There is a complication to being black in America, being simultaneously part of and integral to the success and wealth of our country, yet for most of the country's history, excluded from the full rights and opportunities of our native land.
My Year of Return visit to Ghana gave me numerous experiences that I'll always hold close to my chest, like stepping into a slave dungeon on the Cape Coast and feeling so deeply the misery and despair of the ancestors that I had to immediately get out.
Standing on the sand, waves slapping at my ankles while I imagine the strength it took the ancestors to survive the Middle Passage. Eating fufu and jollof rice. The hair-raising Accra traffic. Experiencing the energy and vibe of the University of Ghana. Paying my respects at the tomb of W.E.B. Dubois. The African sky. Red dirt.
My mind, though, was focused on the synapses, those connections between African American and West African culture, and I found those in elder women on porches braiding young girls' hair, the brilliance and entrepreneurial drive of every person I met, the swagger and energy of African fashion and interior design, the ability to take whatever and make something beautiful and useful.
I fell in love with Ghana, and know that I will return.
James McKissic, the president of ArtsBuild, is a passionate community volunteer and avid traveler. He loves visiting new and exciting places around the world, but is always happy to come home to Chattanooga.
Year of Return, 1619-2019: Two perspectives on pilgrimage to Ghana's slave castle
In November, four Chattanooga residents traveled together to Ghana's Cape Coast, determined to deepen their understanding of the events that first brought enslaved Africans to the shores of what is now the United States in 1619. They visited two slave castles where thousands of Africans were held captive and spent their final moments on their home continent before they were forced onto ships and into fates they could not imagine.
Pausing at the Door of No Return at the Elmina slave castle, Lakweshia Ewing placed her hand on the stone and prayed.
"Our guide was explaining how people were pushed out of that door onto ships, not knowing where they were going or if they would ever be back," Ewing said. "I just imagined their hands holding onto that rock and I held on and started to pray for the souls of those people."
The 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans on these shores felt like a crucial moment to make the pilgrimage to Ghana, Ewing said. "For us as African Americans, to be able to come back at our own choice when our ancestors were taken, we were adamant about making that part of our memories."
Ewing and James McKissic shared their memories and perspectives from the trip in two essays.