What My Ghanaian Engagement Ceremony Made Me Wonder About My Future Black Children
"I hope that they will never forget to leave something of themselves in the world, no matter how badly it may want to erase who they are."
“They will live in the library.”
“They will need to come over to my house when they need to play.”
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“They will have bushy eyebrows.”
These are just a few of the things that people have said about my future black children, including my fiancée.
At times, I also wonder how our kids will view themselves. They are just figments of our collective imagination right now, but they will eventually inhabit bodies with brown skin and in a world that often rejects such skin like it is vital food with a bad aftertaste. As if it is good to chew and suck the essential elements of it for a little bit, but after a while it becomes necessary to get rid of it and pretend that it never existed.
Our children will most likely grow up in America, and they will definitely have blood from the African countries of Ghana and Sierra Leone. Both of my parents were born and raised in Ghana, and my mom also has a line of ancestors from Sierra Leone. After meeting in Pennsylvania and marrying in Ghana, my parents settled down in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the 1980s, a magnet for African immigrants who brought with them their diverse languages, attire, food, music and academic degrees. As for myself, despite being called the N-word by white and black alike, being mistaken for Nigerian, Jamaican and Latino, and having people butcher my last name of “Kwansa” as if that collection of letters robs them of their literacy, I have always considered myself Ghanaian-American.
My fiancée is African-American so our children could also have Ghanaian roots on her side as well. It is possible that before her family voluntarily set up residence in the Baltimore area, and prior to their indeterminate and unsung years in North Carolina, they may have lived, worked, played and rested on the land of the Ashanti, Fanti, Ga, Ewe or other ethnic groups in pre-colonial Ghana.
It would actually make sense if my fiancée has Ghanaian heritage. One of her best friends from college is Ghanaian. During college, she also spent a semester at the University of Ghana in Legon, which is near the nation’s capital, Accra. Her taste buds seem to dance the “Azonto” whenever she eats Ghanaian food like jollof rice, spicy shito, meat pies or peanut butter soup. And one of her aunts also married a Ghanaian who I recently found out is a distant relative of mine on my dad’s side, so it seems that our families have been drawn to one another despite the potential years and ocean of separation. There would be a certain poetic justice if it turns out that despite slavery’s centuries-old attempt to permanently distance us, we ended up forming a nuclear family as easily as if we were two Ghanaians who met by accident at Independence Square in Accra, rather than two Americans who met by chance at a law firm in downtown Baltimore. It would be no small feat if love creeped out of slave dungeons, stowed away on ships and camouflaged itself with scars during auctions so that it could bring our possibly both Ghanaian souls together in the same city that gave the world Freddie Gray.
The possibilities of our common ties to Ghana really came to a fore during our traditional Ghanaian engagement ceremony last year. In advance of the ceremony, my fiancée and I had matching light-green Ghanaian outfits made. My outfit consisted of a long-sleeved shirt and pants. Her attire included a sleeveless blouse and a long skirt. I did not actually see her in her outfit until the day of the event. That is when I saw that the cloth and her body seemed to be engaged in a smooth, effortless conversation that extended from her braided hair to the ground beneath her feet, and I was all ears. Although our garments touched our God-given canvases in different ways, and we will have to wait to see where our kids come out in the beautiful spectrum of black skin, it was nice to know that our outfits were both cut from the same type of cloth.
The ceremony took place at her family’s house in Baltimore County, Maryland in August 2016. As we stood next to each other in our Ghanaian clothing that summer, the same season that saw the police-killings of black individuals like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, it was a blessing to even be there. Two other black men who were fortunate enough to live past July of that year, my paternal uncle and my fiancée’s maternal uncle, served as our respective family linguists, or okyeames in the Twi language of Ghana.
My family and friends sat on one side of the backyard, and my fiancée’s relatives and supporters congregated on the other side. Whereas a raging and sorrowful Atlantic may have once served as a barrier between us, now there was only grass in a quiet, suburban backyard. As a collective, we represented Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and Illinois. We included great-grandparents who have been providing physical and emotional shelter for generations, direct and indirect warriors against cancer, veterans who tirelessly served their country for years and also have jokes for days, alumni of historically black colleges and universities and Ivy League schools, survivors of one form or another of structural and individual racism, and young explorers who were just happy that there was a trampoline to fight boredom.
My uncle wore black-and-white Ghanaian attire, which was draped over his left shoulder. As my uncle explained the purpose of the ceremony to everybody with his Ghanaian accent, each word that he uttered, whether it was serious or humorous, seemed to be a mini-time machine that reinforced that our mere togetherness was important and also had precedent. In particular, my uncle explained, “Our son has seen a beautiful flower in your garden, and he would like to pluck it.”
Both of our uncles then performed a “negotiation,” during which my family offered gifts like gin, whiskey, soft drinks, a white Bible, jewelry and Ghanaian cloths to my fiancée’s family in exchange for her hand in marriage. At one point, my uncle asked, “Are these gifts acceptable?”
Even though my fiancée’s uncle was technically supposed to respond on behalf of her family, somebody else yelled, “Yes!” and the crowd laughed in unison.
The interjection was reasonable given that my fiancée and I had already been dating for three years. My fiancée’s uncle, who was wearing a short-sleeved, blue Ghanaian shirt, which my fiancée bought for him while she was in Ghana, also formally accepted the offer on behalf of her family.
After the ceremony, we took lots of pictures in the sunlight. Even the weather seemed to agree that this was an occasion that should not be disturbed. In one picture in particular, my fiancée and I stood in between our fathers on one side and our mothers on the other side. On the far right was my fiancée’s father, who loves to debate and probably would have gone to law school like his daughter, if he had been given educational opportunities that honored his intelligence when he was growing up as a black boy in Baltimore. Next came my father, who is no longer with me in the flesh but whose high expectations I am still trying to meet somehow. On our left, first came my mother, an incredibly compassionate woman who grew up not too far from Cape Coast Castle, the last piece of Ghana that many slaves felt before they left the motherland. On the far left was my fiancée’s mother, a lady whose generosity knows no bounds and who often greets loved ones with a kiss on the cheek. Even though as a black person you often struggle to be seen as an individual and plan your next move in the future, there was something comforting about being able to stand still, look from side-to-side and appreciate that I was part of something bigger than me.
Although there were several powerful forces that had conspired for centuries to make many of the attendees hate, distrust, disown or ignore each other, or simply not exist, we were united for that moment in time. Maybe the deceased on both sides of our families even celebrated that the long-lost Ghanaians had finally found each other at last.
Of course, given the realities of the unknowns created by slavery, the relatives on my fiancée’s side could have actually been proclaiming from above that she is instead from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and/or numerous other African countries. It could thus take a Herculean, or better yet, divine, research project in order to find out exactly how many different African cultural traditions we should have incorporated into the ceremony.Ultimately, I do not know whether the children that my fiancée and I have later on will refer to themselves as Ghanaian, Sierra Leonean, black, African-American, additional African nationalities that they discover in their heritage in the future or some new general term for people of African descent. I don’t know how they’ll react when people consider them too African-American or too African. I don’t even know what their last names will be depending on who they decide to marry. I just hope that they will never forget to leave something of themselves in the world, no matter how badly it may want to erase who they are.