The words "Black History Month" often evoke stories of luminaries like Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King Jr. While their legacies will always be crucial to the culture, this year, we're going beyond. Roots is R29Unbothered's Black History Month series that delves into the tangled history of Black identity, beauty and contributions to the culture. Follow along as we shine light on Black history and Black present throughout February and beyond — because Black history is made every day.
As an African American woman who is unsure where she stems from, I have always been curious about my roots. But I’m not one of those people who will be giving the government my DNA to figure it out, so I guess I’ll never get an Ancestry.com report. My Uncle Lee, who is one of my favorite uncles, did a family tree years before he died. I learned my grandmother’s grandmother was born a slave on the White Oak plantation in Camden, South Carolina and was thought to be a Native American from the Catawban tribe from Rock Hill, SC.
Though I learned a bit about my mother’s family origin, I’m still unclear about where my dad’s people are from. All I know is his great-grandfather was a slave.
With so many secrets around my family history and family members unwilling to share details about our heritage, it made it twice as challenging to narrow down my roots. One thing I do know is that I am from Africa, and I’ve always had a lot of questions about my homeland. What is Africa like? What are African people like? How are we different? How are we the same? When the opportunity to participate in Ghana’s Year of Return presented itself, I was ready to head to The Motherland to get some answers.
The Year of Return was a year-long initiative led by The Ghana Tourism Authority in 2019. It consisted of tours, celebrations and cultural events in an effort to attract African Americans and the African diaspora back to their figurative homeland to increase tourism and generate economic aid for the country. The initiative served as a commemoration of those displaced by the Transatlantic Slave Trade 400 years after the earliest record of enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Whether my roots sprung from Ghana or not, YOR felt like a “welcome home” to those of us who were scattered as a result of slavery. This was one historic event I was not going to miss. So, a group of friends and I decided to embark on a journey — back home.
It’s reported that YOR attracted up to one million visitors and boosted the economy by an estimated $1.9 billion. Between air travel, hotel accommodations, transport fares, tours, and entertainment events like Afrochella and Full Circle — which was hosted by Boris Kodjoe and Essence — Ghana reached its goal of impacting the country’s economy. But the impact went far beyond that. It was a life-changing experience for all those who attended.
“I have always wanted to visit to get a full understanding of the pain and suffering of our ancestors,” Mrs. Tina Knowles-Lawson (yes, Beyoncé’ and Solange's mama), who visited Ghana during the Year of Return, shared with me. “It actually connected the dots on so many levels for me. Our resilience, our incredible human spirit to survive any conditions, our forgiving hearts. I felt proud to know that we were not slaves only enslaved, but we came from Queens and Kings.”
Among the most memorable moments of the trip was visiting the Elmina Slave Castle, one of the largest slave castles that existed during the Transatlantic slave trade about three hours outside of Accra near Cape Coast. We booked a driver to take us to the castle and hired a tour guide to teach us the castle’s history. I was filled with so many emotions during the experience. The reality that my people were beaten, raped, humiliated, starved and tormented in this space was sickening. At times, I felt I could hear the screams or even smell the stench of the dead bodies. We walked into the dungeons that held up to 400 women for nearly three months until it was time for them to walk through the “Door of No Return.”
In this same castle, there was a room where the governor notoriously raped the enslaved women. We witnessed the path those women took as they walked out of his room after being sexually abused and violated. We stood in the holes where our ancestors were starved if they were disobedient. I have read so much about my history — our history — but to be in the same place where these events occurred, and to touch the same walls they clenched as they were being ripped from their land was absolutely gut-wrenching.
American history books teach that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, declaring that all persons held as slaves be freed. But it wasn’t until two years later — on January 31st, 1865 — that the 13th Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery. For many black folks, our day of freedom didn’t come until June 19th, 1865, also known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day, which marks the day Texas received news that all slaves were free. This would be the official end of slavery.
During my trip, I walked around The Black Star Square — also known as Independence Square — which was erected in 1961 in the heart of Accra to commemorate Ghana declaring independence from Britain on March 6th,1957. I thought about how Ghanians and I share the long-lasting effect of being under the rule of white Europeans for centuries, and having to fight for our freedom.
We shopped at the Centre For National Culture and racked up on so many goodies made by locals near and far. I got great bags, fans, clothing, jewelry, headbands and ornaments — and the one thing I really wanted to bring back home: shea butter, the king to black skin. Ghana grows vast amounts of shea nut trees, which produce shea butter so there was an abundance of natural shea butter at my fingertips. I also attended the Naturall Fest, a one-day festival that attracted local vendors selling everything from natural hair and skin products, clothing, oils, scents, soaps and lotions.
This epic trip also gave me great insight as to why black folks can season food so well. We get it from our ancestors! The food in Ghana was so good! I got a chance to try out popular traditional West African dishes like jollof, which is a rice-based dish with tomato, peppers and lots of seasoning. I also had Red Red, which is made with black-eyed peas (black people love black-eyed peas), palm oil, vegetables, plantains, and of course, lots of seasoning.
Although not specific to Ghanian culture, I had a Fulani dinner inspired by the Fulani, also called Fulbe, a primarily Muslim ethnic group scattered across West Africa. The chef who cooked for us spends her time in Fulani grandmothers’ kitchens learning their recipes, puts a little twist on it and hosts magical three-course dinners for her guests. Like the Fulani people, my friends and I had a nomadic dining experience. We enjoyed our tea and meal on a mat while we ate with our hands.
Ghana’s humid climate would not let my kinky, curly hair be great, but there were no shortage of places to get my hair braided. The tradition of hair braiding is said to have started thousands of years ago in North Africa. It is a practice I started at five years old, and still practice to this day. I went to Aunty Ali’s, a hair braiding shop located behind a local shopping mart, to get straight back cornrows in my hair. Aunty Ali is a small business owner and it really felt like I was at my aunty’s house. She was loving, kind, creative, full of joy, and so were the several young women she employs. I loved how quickly they worked, and how inexpensive it was — it took them about 45 minutes and only cost me $9. I wish there was an Aunty Ali here in Harlem!
Music is a big part of African culture. African music has influenced music all over the world, including jazz, hip hop, R&B and even classical. Like in African American culture, music is used in Africa as a form of communication, at weddings, rights of passage, and spiritual ceremonies. The beats and the bass all inspire our dance, from twerking and Harlem shaking to line dancing. I attended a one-day music festival in Accra called Afrochella, which celebrated African culture, highlighting food, fashion, art and music. This is where I learned that no one parties like Africans! The music ranged from everything from house music, Afrobeats, reggae and hip hop. It was amazing to dance with my brothers and sisters from all over the world each night, all night!
Although I’m still not sure of my exact genealogical origins, the Year of Return felt like a homecoming. There was something incredible about being surrounded by people who looked like me and shared my culture in some way, shape or form. And I wasn’t alone in that sentiment.
“I loved the whole experience from the warm, beautiful, welcoming people, to the beautiful beaches, the food, the music, the fashion. I loved it all,” said Knowles-Lawson. “To be in a place where we are the majority was magical — where the president is black, and people in power are black, brought such a sense of pride. I am going back next year for sure!”
I am grateful for the opportunity to visit The Motherland. I learned a lot about the land my ancestors came from. I learned we’re not that different. Although diverse, the only thing that really separates us is the body of water that divides us. The Year of Return left me inspired to explore more of West Africa. Next up...Senegal!