I hop on the A at Utica Ave., in Brooklyn, and no sooner than I sit down does a short, heavy-set brother move to sit exceptionally close to me, smiling. He asks, “Did you see us annihilate them?” His accent throws me, though it is clearly African. “What?” I am confused, a bit defensive, until he says, “The match! Did you see us beat the U.S.?” And it hits me. He’s Ghanaian. The Black Stars had just eliminated the U.S. from the 2006 World Cup. I am still in my Black Stars jersey that I had purchased in Ghana the month before. I settle into the conversation. “You think we have a chance against Brazil?” My change in attitude does not mask my doubts about bringing down a giant. “We are not afraid of them,” he declares without pause, enunciating each word in a crisp, exacting manner. “We do not care who takes the pitch, we will slay them like we slayed the United States.” We talk football and Stephen Appiah and Michael Essien all the way into Manhattan.
My attraction to Ghana and support for the Black Stars grew out of a sense of connection that began when I read Kwame Nkrumah’s autobiography, Ghana, in an African history course. I adopted a Ghanaian first name in honor of the first sub-Saharan African country to kick out the British. I’ve often wondered whether a family genealogy would reveal ancestral ties to present-day Ghana, whether my mitochondrial DNA could help locate some distant relative there. I envy those who have made such connections, imagined the tangible, specific, locatable tie to the continent providing them some form of closure. After centuries of having your history systematically obscured and hidden, an empirical link is nothing short miraculous.
Such an obscure miracle of connection, to borrow Kamau Braithwaite’s phrase, often involves a good deal of complexity. Some years ago, I watched a news story about an ancestry service that promised the victims of the European slave trade it could identify, through genetic testing, specific people on the continent with whom they share a distant ancestor. The possibility to know who your people are was, if nothing else, brilliant marketing. One segment of that story followed a young brother who went to Liberia in search of the kings and queens he was certain that he descended from; he took it in stride when he discovered that his folks lived in huts and used a hole in the ground by a distant bush to relieve themselves. A sister from Britain went looking for family and answers existential in scope, only to leave crestfallen when that family demanded she start carrying her familial weight and pay for their grandmother’s medications. Diasporas, it would seem, are not without a sense of irony.
During my freshman orientation at Central State University, a small black college in Ohio, along with learning the names of buildings and the school’s history as a black college founded by black people, us freshmen learned that answering a simple question like “where you from” required greater geographical dexterity than “Kansas City” or “Detroit.” “Where were you from, before that?” Such were the ways of the chew-stick crew, self-appointed sages who assumed the responsibility of awakening us from our mental death. “Africa” got you a pass, but a true sign of consciousness involved something along the lines of, “I don’t know where I’m from, because I only have his-story.” Such rituals sought to soothe the wounds of slavery and colonialism, their rather idiosyncratic measures of value and validity tending to create their own solipsisms. This one Nigerian kid laughed, “If I gave them the name of the city where I grew up, they would have no idea where in Africa it is.” When he said as much to our resident Shazza Zulu, money didn’t miss a beat: “See, even our African brothers have no knowledge of self.”
Were genetic testing or a genealogical search to locate my ancestry somewhere else on the continent, I doubt my support of Ghana would change. My connection, obscure and unmoored as it may be, maintains not because it merely awaits empirical verification, but because such connections are, quite possibly, only valuable as a practice. Were my mother’s line to lead back to present-day Ghana, it would not be Ghana to which I would have ancestral ties, but some previous political formation on that same stretch of land. And this might have been Kwame Nkrumah’s singular genius. In his autobiography, Nkrumah remarked that Marcus Garvey “did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm.” It was an enthusiasm that led him to envision Ghana a pan-African beacon, and drawing on Garvey’s Black Star Shipping Line, to emblazon a black star on the Ghanaian flag, name Ghana’s shipping line the Black Star Line, and dub its national soccer team the Black Stars.
It is my only trip to the continent, and I am at the Elmina slave castle in Ghana. I was to have visited the day before with a group of academics but fell sick, so came alone this day. The solitude allows me to commune with the ancestors unimpeded by small talk. My guide says little—identifies the holding pen where women were kept, a whipping post, the still visible signs of dried blood. He guides me into a dimly lit anteroom whose sloped ceiling forces me to walk hunched over—a design, he says, meant to prevent slaves from running. I make my way into the smallest room yet, which I must step down into. There are three local school-aged boys there with a teacher, a Ghanaian woman on her first visit to a slave castle, and a white couple laying flowers at the far wall. Though there are only a few of us, the room feels cramped, hinting at what my ancestors must have felt as slavers set anchor off shore, waiting to fill their holds with stolen lives.
I step, only slightly, into the slim 3×5 opening marked “Door of no Return,” and am overwhelmed by the horror that began here. What could one of my great grandmothers and great grandfathers have felt as they passed through this door and walked along the narrow plank extending out to shore. I hate crying, but I know they walked through this door, or a similarly built one at Cape Coast, possibly Gorée Island.
My tears begin to build and I pull myself from the door to give my emotions their range, when one of the young boys walks up to me and, in precise, exacting English, declares, “It is very bad what your people have done to my people.” At first I wonder what possibly could my group have done to this boy the day before? I know academics can be imperious, but surely not to small children? “Excuse me?” “Slavery,” he clarifies. “It is very bad what your people did to my people.” I can’t help but laugh, relieved for my colleagues, amazed at his boldness. “Oh no, son. You should say that to them,” and I point to the white couple. He looks at me quizzically, and noticing my Brooklyn t-shirt asks excitedly, “You are from Brooklyn? Are you African American?” The locale provides a history that, even at eight or nine, makes the connection obscured by my complexion. “Our teacher is from Brooklyn, do you know her?” I don’t recognize her name, and assure him that Brooklyn is big enough that I likely don’t know her. He seems unsure but poses for a picture. He asks if I like Mos Def. He reminds me that Freddy Adu is Ghanaian. We shake hands, and his teacher scolds him for bothering me. I return to my hotel in time for the bus back to Accra. The next day on Oxford Street, I find a vendor selling football jerseys and buy one. I am ready for the World Cup.