In The Shadow of The Castle: the Legacy of Ghanaian Slave Trade and What “homegoing” Means to African Americans Today

Above: Steve Harvey explores Ghana as part of the “Year of Return” for African descendants in the diaspora.1

By Taggert Smith

In 2019, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo announced a “Year of Return,” inviting descendants of Ghanian people spread out across the world to return to the motherland.

Though we didn’t read this far in class, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing tracks the long multigenerational journey of two halves of a split family returning to meet each other again in Ghana after one ancestor being sold into slavery and becoming part of the African diaspora. Eventually, a descendent of Effia born in Ghana, Majorie, and a descendant of Esi born in America, Marcus, meet and take a trip to Ghana together. Wading in the beach near Cape Coast Castle, Majorie gives Marcus the stone she inherited from their common ancestor Maame, saying, “Welcome home” (300).2 

Finding this gift of “home” again is a journey being played out by thousands of African Americans today as the world grows to recognize how complicit we’ve been in slavery and how much what was taken from African Americans during slavery truly means. Perhaps, like Marcus, we are “surprised by its weight,” and are now seeking ways to give “home” back to a group of people who have lost so much (300). According to Mona Boyd, one of the organizers of the “Year of Return” in Ghana and its associated events, being interviewed on The World radio program, “Most African Americans know something is missing, and you want to be reunited with it.”3 

As part of the “Year of Return” last year, Ghana’s people brought in distant relatives from America as brothers and sisters, and initiated them into many Ghanian ancestral customs the children of the diaspora hadn’t had the opportunity to experience. Local chiefs take tourists to Salaga village, which once was a thriving slave market. Ghanian elders wash the visitors’ feet. Black Americans get the chance to experience traditional drumming, dancing, and eating, and are given African names. At least 118 African Americans went through the process last year. These “atonement ceremonies,” like Majorie giving Marcus the stone, are meant to serve as a reconciliation, both an invitation to claim the Ghanian culture Ghanian-Americans never got to know, and a recognition of the role Africans played in the enslavement of African American lineages. 

Until recently there has been what was described as a “willful amnesia about the roles that we played in the slave trade” by Nat Amarteifio, a local Ghanian historian speaking on The World radio program in 2019.3 This lack of awareness has been recognized also by African Americans who go to visit their ancestral homeland. “Most Africans, when I came to this country, would not admit that [the slave trade] even happened,” said Mona Boyd. Despite the general discomfort with the topic, this part of Ghanian history was impressed heavily upon both Boyd and Gyasi during their experiences touring slave castles like the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where Esi is held as a slave.

For many, according to Boyd, “It’s a very emotional thing that we do because for the first time, Africans are saying to African descendants of the slaves: ‘We’re sorry. Forgive us.’” And moreover, these ceremonies are finally giving back in some small way the national (and literal) family and cultural home that was stripped from African American lineages. 

However, like Yaa Gyasi’s book, these ceremonies and the recognition of grievance they represent do not let anyone, particularly the colonial Europeans, “off the hook.” Rather, they represent a necessary reconciliation, which Boyd says let her stop “feeling resentful, you know, towards Africans about slavery.” 

Boyd has moved her family to Ghana and plans to stay, because finally there she feels free of what she called a “psychic burden” around her ancestry, and feels reunited with a sense of home that America is still not equipped to give while black people are still unjustly murdered because of the unreconciled legacy of colonial slavery. 


Referenced Works:

1 “American comedian Steve Harvey explores Ghana as part of the Year of Return [Photos]”

2 Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

3 “‘Willful amnesia’: How Africans forgot — and remembered — their role in the slave trade”

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