I was born in Washington, D.C. to Ghanaian parents and raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I’ve spent more than 99 percent of my life in the United States of America.
Around six years ago, I made my first visit to Ghana, the West African nation formerly known as the ‘Gold Coast’ when it was a British colony. My main purpose for being in the country was to participate in a Harvard Law School course focused on Ghana’s national health insurance law. My maternal grandmother had also passed away recently so my mother stayed in the country for a little bit after the funeral, and two of my Ghanaian-born cousins who relocated to the States were in Ghana during that time as well. Because most of my family members still live in Ghana, I also saw many relatives who I had only known before via the phone or photos.
As I traveled to different parts of the country, I came across people who were looking to make a quick Ghana cedi (or maybe twenty), individuals who didn’t have much to give except infinite integrity and seamless hybrids of Ghanaian and Western influences in fashion and music. I also witnessed church services, religious sayings on vehicles called “tro-tros,” and chairs with the Adinkra symbol for the Twi proverb “Gye Nyame,” which essentially means “Except God, I fear none.”
Even though the trip made me feel more complete overall, I almost felt like I had an out-of-black-body experience when I visited Cape Coast Castle. Many enslaved Africans were stored, beaten and raped at Cape Coast Castle before they were sent off to different new beginnings of death. That is how an infamous part of the building earned the name, “Door of No Return.”
When I visited the slave castle, I was joined by my mother, my two American-based cousins and a few relatives whom I had met for the first time. It was surreal touring a slave castle with my black queen, a.k.a. my mother, and other family members. Although I appreciated being able to see my family tree in the flesh, I still understood that the site served as the uprooting of only God knows how many black families throughout the African diaspora.
It was then, more than ever before, that it hit me what it means to be first-generation African-American. I might possess an American accent, have idolized Harriet Tubman rather than Yaa Asantewaa when I was younger, and rock skin that can magnetize a blue shield in the land of my birth, but in that moment I still could not comprehend what it would have felt like to even fathom that my ancestors were scattered across the Atlantic Ocean like the ashes of fallen black stars but would yet rise again.
Of course, even when I start to mentally grip the luxury of knowing where my ancestors are from, those thoughts can leave me or be taken away from me in an instant. For example, because I’m a member of the Akan ethnic group in Ghana, my parents gave me a name based on my gender and the weekday of my birth. However, as a black man in America, I also know that I can die on any given day because some people might label me as something that bears no real connection to me, my family or my entire race, for that matter.
Moreover, even when I think about passing on Ghanaian culture to my future children, the mere sight of a police car can make me wonder whether I will even live long enough to pass on anything to anyone. I guess that as long as I’m alive I won’t necessarily wonder where I come from, but I will always wonder how much time I have left.
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