Last week I was able to take some time to reflect on 400 years of slavery. It was hard reflecting and grappling on the fact that people were kidnapped and brought to this land to grow a nation whose growth has surpassed so many countries because of my ancestors. The very things I enjoy (modern technology, semi-clean drinking water, bridges) and in which I find comfort exist because America had 400 years of free labor. I was not mad at that fact because well…this is america (in my Childish Gambino voice) and our core beliefs lie in life, liberty, and the pursuit of property for individuals who do not look like me. I am mad that some people fail to acknowledge the fact that my ancestors were enslaved for 400 years. I am mad that people encourage the descendants of slaves to get over our past and fail to acknowledge the effects of trauma on a people that have been enslaved more in this country than they have been free.
In addition to reflecting on my past, last week I had the pleasure of lecturing to a group of master’s level Social Work students at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The students wanted me to explain how America can be so diverse and experience the high level of racism they hear about. It was challenging for them to wrap their heads around Black Americans being discriminated against because of their hair. They were shocked to learn of the need for the CROWN Act and the pressures Black Americans face in the education and work systems due to racial discrimination. They said, “we see America as this great place with so many freedoms, seems like we are doing fine right here in Johannesburg.”
They may be right.
During my reflection of the last 400 years, I thought about West Africa and my time in Ghana specifically. In 2015, I had the opportunity to visit Cape Coast and Elmina castles. These are two of about forty castles built along the Gold Coast of Ghana for trade purposes in the 15th and 16th century. There, I learned about how slaves were treated before being traded. I walked into their quarters (more like dungeons), stood in the slave master’s bedroom and peered through the window where he would watch the ships traveling in and out. I assume seeing dollar signs in his mind. I remember comparing the timeline of what was happening in Ghana and what was happening in the states. I was floored at the comparison. I recall thinking, “so Morehouse College was being founded (Circa 1867) and they were still trading slaves in Africa??” Mind boggling.
I thought of Yaa Gyasi and her book, “Homegoing.” The juxtaposition of two Ghanaian sisters — one taken into slavery and one who was married to a slave master. I recall the tribal fights mentioned and the money african families made from the selling of African people. Classism is real and slavery was a business.
I wonder how the conversation and strategy sessions traversed around the business idea of slavery. Did they have it over dinner? Was it a formal business meeting? Was it a passing idea written on a linen cloth? Did anyone have qualms over kidnapping people and chose to stay silent instead of speaking up? Did someone speak up about enslaving human beings? Or, were we just not human in their eyes?
I think about my slave master’s family whose name I have to hear every time someone says my full name…Zaneta Smith. Up until this year, I really loved my first name but now I have some qualms. Earlier this year a colleague from Sierra Leone said ‘Zaneta’ is her middle name. She explained that ‘Zaneta’ was one of the names that came back from Europe when slaves were returned to Sierra Leone’s port city, Freetown. Whoa! 1) Returned? Lucky. 2) So my name is from Europe?! Nooooooo. Say it aint so?! I had a hunch when I ran into an Eastern European woman years ago whose named was Zaneta but I did not put two and two together.
I don’t hear enough stories about slaves being returned to parts of Africa. I would like to.
It was so special to read parts of the 1619 project this week; an initiative of the NY Times to re-examine slavery’s leagacy in the United States on the heels of the 400th anniversary of the first slaves coming to America. I am grateful to know that we have another body of work in which to refer to learn about the brutal past. Growing up in the Los Angeles Unified School District, slavery was merely a couple of pages in my history books. If I did not have the church griots, family members, and family friends passing down stories, I’d know very little about the history of slavery and segregation.
Following the NAACP’s Tour of Jamestown to Jamestown has been an extra treat. Although I am not sure I would have been able to travel with that many people while experiencing varying emotions, the pictures and videos show self realization happened on that trip. It’s freeing to know your history; to stand in the truth no matter how good or bad.
Four hundred years ago was the anniversary of my ancestor’s coming to America, kidnapping to America, traumatization to America. I’m in my feelings about it all.