Remembering the Instants in the 401st Year

Each year, we get another chance to start over.

The new year welcomes us to engage in instants of reflection. We collectively pause, reconsider, recollect, and remember. These rituals may manifest in commitments to our bodies — to drink less or lose weight — or they may be slower, otherworldly journeys that challenge the beliefs about the body, its purpose, and its home. For the latter, each step is a pilgrimage of sorts: a journey intentionally crafted to remember and to put the self back together again.

In August 2019, I began a pilgrimage.

I grew up in Hampton, Virginia. I lived an idyllic childhood surrounded by the instants of black excellence, success, achievement, and pride. 

I learned to read the English language sheltered by the Emancipation Oak. While I daydreamed about climbing the tree whose branches rested on the earth, my teachers always reminded me of its divinity. It was to be remembered for the enslaved who sought its shelter from ignorance and freedom from bondage. It was to be remembered for the words of liberation the branches held in revery. It was to be remembered for the lessons and teachers who risked their lives teaching others how to read. In an instant, my teachers’ stern and loving eyes reminded me that to climb it, as if it was a mere plaything, was to reduce it to my purpose and my whim. That deed would be tearing it apart — limb from limb. 

I grew up on a street named for Mary Peake, a teacher during the antebellum era who started a school underneath the tree that would one day be named for Emancipation. On ten-speeds, our bicycle gang of four rode up and down the cul de sac looking for adventure. We would stop at the dead end and wonder what lived beyond the yellow sign. 

I visited Fort Monroe, the military base near the tree, often. It was open to civilians for special occasions — weddings, cookouts, and other celebrations. School trips to the Casemate Museum and the Fort were standard, as were the narratives of the Monitor and Merrimac. But the stories about Antonio and Isabella, the first Africans in America, were omitted. 

Visiting Jamestown  was one of the three signature experiences in the fourth grade that triangled colonial life in Virginia. As a child, visiting the wigwams, learning the tales of John Rolfe, Pocahontas, and Captain John Smith, was custom. Stories about Yorktown, Williamsburg, and the battles for American revolution were retold as mythical tales of superheroes making a valiant life as pioneers and liberators. My feet shared the ground with their feet. There was no mention of Antonio and Isabella. 

My journey to remembering myself, to putting myself back together, has been instances of long plateaus, deep plunging valleys, and the highest of peaks. And with each step, one in front of the other, the meaning of each experience is revealed in slow moments like dominoes falling in molasses. They are all ordered and orchestrated, fall together in sync, but sometimes suspended in time before connecting again. I have been putting myself back together for a while. My first instant of remembering, revealed that I needed to go back. I needed to go back home. 

There is no one right way to go home. My traveling shoes were fitted, early, when I did not have the language to describe the nature of the trek, why I had to go, or even the pathway there. But I started walking anyway, and on November 28, 2019 — in The Year of Return — my partner and I travelled to Ghana, West Africa, to remember. This was not my first trip to Ghana, but it felt both familiar and foreign. We were greeted by the resonance of drums and Akwaaba. “Welcome home. Welcome home, sister.” 

Our first stop was to Jamestown, where we met Nii, a teacher and organizer who told us that Jamestown was once a bustling trade port specializing in trading Africans. Now, it prides itself on boxing. The smells of fresh fish, the fishmongers, shipwrights, crashing waves, chopped wood, and turpentine punched through the warm air. The old trading castles stood in the distance as a reminder of a time that once was, their shadows long and wide, struggling for dominance where the sunlight, laughter, smiles, and industry bobbed and weaved. 

I remembered Elmina Castle from my first visit to Ghana, but this time it felt different. While many of the castles were showing their age, the ideas of the castles were well preserved for their progeny. The supply chain of slave catchers, traders, and all of the people in the economy of people of every skin color, heritage, and creed reduced humans to bodies alone. It is that reduction that permits the most heinous, brutal, and awful crimes. To see another human as an other, not as a brother or sister, allows us to justify separation. This idea of separation was built into the architecture of each castle. The lateral tendons of separation stretched from each wall, creating a hierarchy of floors. The lower levels held hundreds of captives at a time, while upper levels were reserved for one governor and his deputy. Elmina Castle was built in 1482, and construction of Cape Coast Castle began in 1610. Their bones, whitened by limestone, supported structures that fueled a 400-year economy in bodies.

“May this never happen again on our watch.” At the end of each stop, the tour guides offered these words as a benediction of sorts, instantly calling for us to remember our responsibility. This was a holocaust. More than 200 million people were captured, sold, and moved thousands of miles away from their homes. Only one third survived the Middle Passage. A continent’s most able-bodied men, women, and children were displaced without respite or pause for 400 years. Consider the psychological and generational trauma endured by the African families of those who went missing. Consider the psychological trauma of being kept in a dark place for months, without family, without sight, without a shared language, in chains. Holocaust is not only reserved for those with white skin. Holocaust is what humans do when we choose not to see the other as our brother. Icons of a holocaust and senitels of suffering, these castles bear witness to the pain that humans create when we are at our worst. All forty of the castles in West Africa, standing still on the coasts, with their white-bleached walls, radiated darkness across an ocean, providing the foundation for European colonists to build monuments to othering in the Americas. 

The castles have been emptied, but they are still there, physical reminders of a ghastly history. What is harder to see is the new life that is born in the pain of the castles. I struggle to fully comprehend and make peace with my relationship with the castles, the economy of bodies, and African holocaust, because I would not be here if not for them. My family would not be here if not for them and the pain and suffering they held. They were the portal to a new world — and yet they are monuments to humanity at its worst. And in this same instant, they are also reminders that life does not die. 

The pain of those walls contracted and contorted to bear a new people, a new language, and a new culture. On my pilgrimage in a new but familiar land, with each step, I wondered — could I live here? Should I live here? And in each instant, I was also reminded that finding a new home was not the purpose of this pilgrimage. Home is in both places. Home is on both sides of the Atlantic. Standing firmly and straddling both, home is where the sunlight continues to shine on both sides of the ocean, where joy and pain trade jabs and uppercuts. Home is where I can stand right in the world, see the light, and use its warmth to instantly remember myself again and again.