There’s been a temporary glitch in the system, the glitch being end of semester stress combined with trying to finalize summer job plans and dealing with some weird personal stuff at the same time. Basically, everyday life is the glitch, but here I am! The creative pieces I’ve been working on lately haven’t been coming along well– or at all– so I decided to share something I wrote for a class (half a cookie for anyone who can guess which class it is, because it’s always the same one)!
This is an extract from my final essay titled, “Back Here Where I Belong,” in which I start to explore what happens when continental Africans and people of African descent from the diaspora can no longer recognize each other, and what that means for the way African culture is preserved (or not) in the diaspora. It is so difficult to write about the kind of forgetting that happens when cultural memory is interrupted by the beginning of colonial history, since there’s so much I’ve “forgotten” and so much I don’t know.
The essay includes some analysis of Cuban abolitionist novels, a brief shout out to Love Jones, Yoruba deities you’ve heard of but don’t really understand, a yearning for identifying my own culture in the diaspora in more than just faint traces, Toni Morrison, “plantains and good vibes,”and an examination of African symbolism in the diaspora, as an attempt to recuperate and reclaim memory and NOT as a form of appropriation. I’ll post a few more sections of this work over the next few days. The actual paper may or may not have been longer than the limit *cringes in shame for being that person giving the professor extra work*
[I’m still enjoying the excitement of recognizing a few Ewe words in a novel about Haiti, and trying not to think too much about the implications of these tiny fragments of cultural memory and how they came to be fragments from a once-cohesive whole. Hint: the answer has a lot to do with colonial violence. In this essay, I use the names of Yoruba deities as they are spelled in Cuban Santería.]
Elsewhere in the Diaspora- A Beginning
The Africa I knew as a child was often not the one I saw reflected in books and film. I can’t even say that Africa was an immediate reality I experienced on a daily basis, unless it was the imaginary version reflected back from the West. Africa was a documentary about wildlife I had never seen leaping from bush to savannah in a single frame. It was a textbook caricature of a map fashioned into a cake, being devoured by personified European countries with fangs for teeth and drool spilling into Cap-Vert and the Gulf of Guinea. It was sung onscreen in dark clubs on open mic night in the name of Yemáyá and Ochún and in praise of a woman in an all black outfit. It was found in repetitive prints and drumbeats of indeterminate origin. It was wooden plaques shaped like the continent and framed pictures of women carrying pots on their heads. It was commercials for hungry children with pleas in their eyes and chests racked by coughs induced by the effort to laugh for the cameras despite their suffering.
The Africa that I encountered everyday didn’t really exist for me. My experience was confined to the borders of Ghana, and to Accra more specifically, with a hazy understanding that there were people in other countries who spoke a host of languages and enjoyed meals I didn’t know and whose dances followed a different style and cadence.
Beyond the Africa that was being constructed for me and around me, I had little understanding of the traces of it still living in parts of the diaspora. Glimpses into this unknown entity known as the diaspora were provided mainly by the few people I knew who had returned from there and built their lives in Accra. There was an older Jamaican woman with white hair arranged into a bun underneath a hat, always in flowery dresses for church on Sunday, and an African-American woman with a huge smile who still runs a successful bakery in town.
Popular culture, and music in particular, provided me with some insight into this concept or place called the diaspora. Reggae, dancehall, soca and hip hop were in a never-ending loop on most radio stations, blues from Bill Withers’ tapes and CDs if my mother was driving, stickers of the Jamaican flag and Bob Marley’s face held pride of place on the back windows of trucks and trotros usually accompanied with phrases like “Who Jah Bless” in peeling lettering. I saw Eve’s Bayou several times at an age I can’t quite remember, but I’m sure I was too young to fully understand the richness and complexity of the film. I read and re-read Sula over and over after my first reading at the age of eleven or twelve. I didn’t yet comprehend what the connection was between me and people of African descent in the diaspora. As far as I was concerned, they were just from an “elsewhere” I had not been to and now they just so happened to be “here,” physically or on pages, screens or in the speakers of a car radio.
Frequent school trips to Cape Coast to visit monuments marking the Transatlantic Slave Trade, during which millions of enslaved Africans were forced onto ships heading towards the unknown elsewhere of the Americas, began to sharpen my awareness of some numbed pain sitting in the background of Ghanaian history, waiting for the right jolt to bring it back with intensity. The way I picture it, the harsh white walls are still sturdy, the canons look as though they could still be in working condition, the bedrooms with wooden paneled floors lead to a narrow balcony overlooking the courtyard where colonial officials would choose the women they “wanted”, a tour guide’s voice echoes in a tiny chamber with the lingering metallic smell of blood and human life thickening the air: “I’m going to put the light off for you to see what it was like.” The tour guide points to the narrow exit that leads towards the ominous “door of no return” and how much smaller it is than the entrance of the dungeon because those that survive that nightmarish confinement will have lost considerable weight by the time they are brought out. The silence is interrupted only by the quiet sobs of a few tourists who are being led back through the door of no return, with a few fishermen casting casual glances at a scene they’ve definitely witnessed before and hushed schoolchildren trying and failing to avoid staring at these returnees from that ambiguous diasporic elsewhere.
Even then, I failed to grasp the importance of the memories contained within the horrific walls of monuments like these, the memories that had crossed the Atlantic, some lost and some preserved along the way, and the people on a mission to restore the faint remnants of the forgetting they had inherited. When Toni Morrison’s characters flew back to Africa in Song of Solomon, I missed how important the hope of a home or a haven to fly to was for the descendants of enslaved Africans trying to hold on to the fraying threads of their ancestors’ culture and to create a new identity out of these elements. At 18, I packed into my suitcase a very shallow understanding of what it meant to be black in the vague elsewhere, pulled from passages in Angelou, Morrison and Hurston, an insight that resulted in the kind of shaky frame one is in danger of building after simply reading without interrogating or actually experiencing the reality awaiting in the US.
(Image of Cape Coast Castle: http://www.ghanamuseums.org/forts/cape-coast-castle.php)
My latest music obsession is Daymé Arocena, whose photo I used at the top of this post! If you enjoy jazz and the feeling of chasing away all your stress, or both, give her a listen. That sentence is proof that I will probably never be asked to write about music. In my defense, I just don’t have the words to explain how much I’ve been enjoying her music for the past few weeks. My favorite tracks are “El 456” and “Come to Me.” You can buy her music on iTunes!