photo by Alex Lear
FLIGHT LT. JERRY JOHN RAWLINGS, PRESIDENT OF GHANA.
He looks like Larry Fishburne. The jutting jaw. The cinnamon brown. The beard. The muscular frame.
"What do we do with armed robbers?"
Our second day in Accra, a crowd caught a thief and killed him.
"We execute thieves."
"These people driving these cars irresponsibly. Accidents? No. It's manslaughter. It's murder they're getting away with. Let the courts convict one of them. I will sign the execution."
He had a script and he had some deeper stuff he wanted to get off his chest -- and brother man did go off. In addition to the prepared script he talks about family planning, sanitation, and some things in a language I don't understand but which delights the crowd.
When he speaks, I look at the people.
The shine of their eyes. The smiles set to break into laughter as the punch line is delivered.
When he talks about executing irresponsible drivers, these people who spend a large part of every day walking -- walking with water on their heads, with food on their heads, with trays of vegetables, boxes of canned goods, chewing gum, walking, a load of firewood, maybe a baby on the back, oranges, pineapples, walking, bolts of fabric, walking, a sack of rice, walking, roasted corn, walking, walking, walking, through dust, down miles and miles of dirt road, walking, to the market, walking, pausing and backing up for speeding cars, the drivers leaning on their horns, walking, bus broke down, walking, car broke down, pushing and walking, waiting to sell to tourists coming out of the castle, standing, hoping to get closer to the president, standing, walking, sandals, walking, bare feet, walking, hopping cross open sewers, walking, legs bruised, open sores, walking, pants the wrong size, walking, lacy dress soiled, worn and torn, walking and then waiting, waiting and then walking, standing, silent, glancing at us up and down, whispering something to each other, teeth missing from big beautiful smiles, laughing, standing, shyly touching your hand, hello, akwaaba, welcome, siss-taa, braaaa-thaaaa, eyes looking up from the smoke fish fire, bread on the side of the road, walking straight up like some mothers used to make girls do with books on their head for posture practice, walking, pausing while suckling child, hawking wares, standing, looking, waving, bending, walking, lifting, working, sleeping, walking, eating, walking, eating and walking, walking to eat, walking, braiding hair, those dark skinned people, little girls with close cropped hair and their hands hiding the hope light of their smiling lips, walking, children and elders everywhere, walking, these people, these people, my people, walking, me, when he talks these people listen, and cheer, and clap.
Execute irresponsible drivers.
"Commitment." He says we have knowledge. We have skills. We need commitment. He says in the States a Ghanaian away from home wanted to know what the government was going to do to help all of the people who are moving from the rural areas into the cities.
Rawlings encourages the brother to come home. Encourages all Africans to come home. Whether continental or diasporan, come home.
In terms of development, it can be said that Africa is the rural area and the West are the cities. We need you in the rural areas to help us develop. Together we can develop our rural areas. Leave the cities. Come home.
What do we do with thieves?
This is Ghana. The streets are safe at night. And the people whom dark finds three hours walk from home, can set down their load and sleep where they are, wherever they are in Ghana.
It's murder these people driving these cars irresponsibly.
The people who walk love the President. The people. Who walk. Love. The President.
When the President arrives he walks onto the field. He walks around the field and greets each king who has been carried in the Durbar procession of the kings, carried in these boats held aloft on the waves of muscular shoulders. Boats shaded by umbrellas. Preceded by the court. Followed by drums. The chiefs rode in waving and dancing. The President of the country walked around the soccer sized field and greeted each king individually. The President walked.
The people who walk love the President who walks.
Walking is the Ghanaian way.
Surely there are those who hate this man. The wheelers have different values from the walkers.
The people who walk.
IN THE HINTERLANDS OF OUR SOULS.
I have been to Africa before so I am prepared. I know that I am not going to visit an unspoiled land, and unsullied people. I know that I will encounter more than Africans in Africa. I know that I will also meet Tarzan there.
He will be there to greet me. I know this. I know this because even though I am African, a descendant of those Africans who were enslaved, I know that I, like every African, especially we Africans in the diaspora, we carry Tarzan within us. Indeed, a major part of our value to the motherland is that we have African souls and Tarzan personalities, with all the positives of skills and technology that implies, and all the negatives of individualistic material and moral decadence it also implies.
Tarzan will arrive at the same time I do, if and when I am frustrated in my search for hot water to bathe or angry about the unavailability of iced, chilled drinks to consume. Or when I am turned off by dust and dirt everywhere, repulsed by hot sun and daily heat. Tarzan will be gleaming in my eye as I am aroused by all the opportunities I spy to run the con games and hustles which are the daily fare of life in the industrial world, especially when my schemes and dreams are clothed in the brotherly cloak of helping my people to develop the motherland. We could put up a hotel there. Open a specialty restaurant here. Put an import record store over there. Import this. Start up that.
I can not help it, I was reared in America to be like Tarzan. My brothers and sisters on the continent were reared to believe they need a Tarzan.
Tarzan, as the big White man can not revisit Africa, but I am coming weighted by the terrible knowledge that we all have a Tarzan to expel from the interior of our African souls.
After the Revolutionary War when the American colonialists beat the British, some of us vanished from these shores. Thus, Sierre Leone, a british colongy in West Africa which was partially colonized by American born Africans reintroduced into Africa. Some of us had fought against the colonialists, had sided with the British. Had been promised freedom. When the British lost, we won a return trip to Africa.
As has ever been our history, we African Americans always seem to be on both sides of the battle line. Crispus Attucks the first to fall, martyr defending American freedom. On the otherside, unnamed others boarded English ships fleeing America's freedom.
Sierre Leone was our first major return. British subjects reinserted into Africa.
The second coming was Liberia -- and a bigger mess could not possibly have been made. Tarzan was in full effect.
The bible and the gun. Liberia. The so-called first Black republic. Liberia declared itself sovereign on 26 July 1847. From jump street it was a colonial missonary state.
We went there (or more accurately, were sent there) for the expressed purpose of establishing a Christian colony. We were literally pilgrims in Black face. And true to our Christian creed, true to our God, true to our "native land" (i.e. the U.S.A. who sponsored us), we came, we saw, and we conquered. Committed all sorts of unspeakable cruelties. Wallowed in all sorts of corruptions.
Meanwhile, the American Colonization Society, peopled and funded mostly by Whites, acted on their conviction that the way to respond to the slave question was to take Lady MacBeth's advice: "out, out damn spot." In Historical Lights Of Liberia's Yesterday And Today, author Ernest Jerome Yancy, writing in 1954, breaks the history down.
...Liberia is a by-product of the complex conditions of American society resulting from the American Negro slavery.
A careful study of the American economic, political, and social conditions beginning in 1619 at Jamestown, VA.--a nursery of slavery--to the organization of the American Colonization Society in December 1816 at Washington, D.C., avails one the opportunity of knowing the conditions under which the colonization society was organized and that the founding of Liberia was an attempt to adjust those conditions. In this respect, Sir Harry Johnston wrote: "Its inception" (the American Colonization Society) "grew out of the institution of slavery and represents an endeavor on the part of early statesmen and philanthropists to solve a vexing situation in America which was confronting them."
Historical data show that at this time there were free men of color in America and it is claimed that they had an evil effect on the slaves and menaced the institution of slavery. Many criminal acts were charged to these freemen of color and Negroes, and in some instances, we are informed, they were guilty of these charges. Under these two-fold conditions it became necessary for something to be done in order to save American society and the institution of slavery. Therefore, with these dual motives, statesmen, philanthropists, and former slaveholdres joined in devising means by which they could solve the problem. As a result of these efforts, the American Colonization Society was organized for the purpose of assisting free men of color to return to the continent of Africa.
The first president of the American colonization Society was Judge Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington, and among the founding organizers was Francis Scott Key, author of the "Star Spangled Banner." Their exclusive aim was to remove free folk of color from America.
Back on the block, Negro leaders, principlely Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, were intransient in their opposition to colonization. Wasn't going nowheres. Saw no future in it. No win. Wanted their piece of the rock. Insisted on making a home of where they were born.
Of course, there was always a current that wanted to return to Africa, a current whose water level rose and fell at various junctures in history. The biggest problem was simple, most of us didn't know precisely where to return to and there was no welcoming committee specifically prepared to receive us.
All other American immigrants could return to specific countries. Specific cities, towns and villages. Specific familes and friends. A church where they used to worship. A field where their fathers and mothers worked. A farm house where they were born. Or something specific.
Most of us couldn't hit our nativity marks with a blunderbus at point blank range, i.e. land us in Africa, anywhere we wanted to go and we still couldn't find home. Once we got back to Africa we were literally lost.
So much of Africa had been cut off from us. Amputated. When we went to scratch the Africa itch, we rubbed bare air. The nerve endings were tingling but the aching African leg had long ago been shot off.
Amputees are we, dumbly trying to utter something sensible with the muteness of tongueless mouth. Our African tongue had been callously severed. The resultant loss of language was one of the major, literally unspeakable traumas of chattle slavery. Instead of a dark mother tongue, a mutant mulatto tongue grew and spoke an Africanized English. Which didn't do us a whole lot of good in Wolof, Akan, Fulani, Twi, etc.
We wanted to return but... and those of us who went back? Well. Tarzan was with us. Even the most supportative of chroniclers had to note that we acted White, acted arrogant, inflicted on the indigenous "savages" the same indignities that had been heaped on us. For example, in Liberia the indigenous peoples were not considered citizens and could not vote. Sound familiar?
Even the official and sympathetic chronicler Yancy notes:
These backward conditions and slow progress as were found in Liberia prior to President W.V.S. Tubman's administration, in our opinion, may be attributed to the following four major causes or shaping forces, namely: (1) the lack of pioneering spirit and initiative to migrate on the part of the earliest colonists, (2) foreign aggressions, intrigues, and the absolute disregard for Liberian authority, (3) tribal or primitive problems of all types and complexities and (4) financial difficulties and entanglements. These four causes in the aggregate have been the shaping forces of Liberia.
The pilgrim fathers being removed from the injustices of "the land of the brave and the free" found solace and repose in their new home and gave themselves to leisure, self-indulgence and little constructive work. They reclined, as it were, in the arms of relaxation, freedom, supremacy and authority; they concerned themselves chiefly with those things which they thought would demonstrate one's ability and capacity to govern himself, and those things which exhibit one's power and authority to rule and govern others. Whereas, they very sparingly attacked those things which are essential, and indispensable in any national sub-structure.
The spirit of pioneering, self-initiative to migrate and the spirit of ingenuity akin to the spiritual equipment of the pilgrim fathers of the United States and those of other countries were apparently lacking among the first group of settlers of Liberia. This may, however, be accounted for when one considers the educational, cultural, social, economic background and preparedness as well as the purpose and philosophy of these settlers.
Yancy believed that the Tubman administration would correct nearly a century of ineptitude and political backwardness.
Therefore in 1944 the Tubman administration embarked upon an extensive Five-Year Economic Development Program, the like of which had never been attempted in the history of the country. It also undertook to make fundamental changes in the national structure and policies of government. Thus the indigenous element of the citizenry was granted representation in the national legislature; women were granted suffrage; election laws and practices were revised and tribal customs and traditions were given more consideration.
The present administration, knowing that additional aid and zest resulting from new blood are very necessary to put over its policies and program, instituted an open-door policy for immigrants form all parts of the world.
The early settlers found in Liberia thirty-three tribes with their several and different philosophies, customs, habits, practices, religious beliefs, forms of government and languages or dialects. These in themselves have presented many problems of baffling nature; the problem of lack of uniformity in language, customs, habits; the problem of education, and the problem of injecting into these tribes the spirit of the Western civilization.
From the very beginning of the Republic there have been territorial fueds, disrespect and disregard for Liberian authority on the part of white aliens who, for the most part, were and are merchants.
These problems, happily are being resolved by means of a vigorous national literacy campaign; universal education, economic developments and humane and liberal policies of the present administration.
If you want the specifics, in all their gory and embarassing details, you'll have to piece it together. Although the whole story has yet to be told, an excellent place to start is African Americans And U.S. Policity Toward Africa 1850-1924, In Defense of Black Nationality by Elliott P. Skinner, an African American scholar and Franz Boas Professor of Anthopology at Columbia University and former United States ambassador to Burkina Faso.
In any case, there is a reason that returning is so hard. Africa doesn't want Black face Tarzans swinging through it. I mean, why accept an imitation of oppression when the real deal is always waiting in the wings? One of the reasons that Africa has been so reluctant to reach out for the diaspora is because the diaspora can act so un-African once it gets back to Africa.
Just to give you an example of how bizarre it can get, consider this. After the Civil War, the Liberian government thought it was an affront to them that the United States would send a Black ambassador. These transplanted Negroes wanted a White ambassador so that they could feel that they were being respected like other countries.
The monkey jumped up with tears in his eyes. "My people, my people" the monkey cried.
What can you said? You can't say nothing.
So when the Liberian orgy of savagery kicked off in the eighties. Charles Taylor's people hacking up Samuel Doe's people. Prince Johnson's people cutting off penises and ears. Doe multilated on video tape. Broadcast to the nation. Most of us didn't hear a mumbling word about it, nor see it. The few of us who did notice. Sort of recoiled in horror and wished it would go away. But the various peoples of Liberia, from the enclave of Negro colonialists who sold the country to Firestone and other moneyed interests, to the peoples of the interior who were mired in continuous wars against each other, to the ubiquitous military and mercenary types who wanted to assure themselves a line or two in the annals of iniquity commenserate with their heritage of being slave merchants, to the foreign diplomats and business people who feigned innocence and repulsion as if their respective nation states and corporate employers had no interests nor involvement in the Liberia entanglement, all of the parties contributed to the melange of African madness. A melange which makes it hard for any sensible African to naively advocate the return of African Americans to Africa.
This is an ignoble aspect of our history. The diasporan fishbone that sticks in our continental craw. The mark of pestilence blighting our body politic. This is our closet and we've got to deal with these bones rattling around.
At every juncture of my self-education, I reach a point where I think I have some sort of understanding of the meaning of my life. I step off, moving in a direction I consider forward, step off with knowledge, or so I think. And then I run into reality, run into a thick block of ignorance which lets me truly know just how much I don't know.
If I hadn't gone to Ghana, I probably would never have learned very much about Liberia. And that's the whole point of a pilgrimage to Africa: If nothing else, Africa will teach you just how ignorant you really are.
Just go. Go. GO!
Whether you dig it or hate it, fall in love or get repulsed by dirt, dust, disease and underdevelopment. Go as a hustler looking to get rich off a business scheme, or as a romantic dreamer seeking ancestral roots; a committed Pan Africanist seeking to participate in development, or a tourist looking for a unique travel experience. It really doesn't matter how you get there, cause Africa will touch you. In one way or another. Touch you to the core.
And once touched? Then you will decide for yourself what to do with the transformed self you've become as a result of feeling Africa's caress of your inner soul. For some nothing substantial will happen. For others it will be a life changing experience. For most it will be somewhere in between, an uneven mix. But it will be something. Something will happen. Just go.
Clap your hands. Stamp your feet. Swing on the vine. In the jungle. The jungle that is Africa in your mind, in your heart, in your gut, in your groin. The Africa you imagine and the Africa you experience. Scratch the itch and watch what happens.
No one should deny themselves a chance to touch the womb of their being.
What follows touch? That is your choice to make.
I really believe the best way to experience Africa is in silence.
Don't talk too much. Just immerse oneself and by osmosis, let Africa seep into the pores. Don't think. Don't discriminate. Just go with the flow. If you feel something, heed the stirring.
Africa is both extraordinary and just another day in the life. Both special and eternal. At core always simply about taking life and tasting life one day at a time. Birth. Life. Death. Rebirth. Over and over. That's all. Just specifically ours. Our birth. A chance to live our lives. To die natural deaths. And be reborn again in the embracement of a home from which we have been long time gone.
I hoisted Tarzan's carcass atop the funeral pyre. And then climbed astride. Dropped my torch and went up in flames. My weeping cleansed my skin. The white dirt washed away. I stood naked. And had to make a choice.
Walk out of the flames or die with Tarzan's tongue in my mouth. Uttering all kinds of inanities about how much better progress was, how much better it was to be in the West.
Our singed skulls, flesh burnt off, faced each other. My skull as white as Tarzan's skull. Tarzan's skull, blackened by soot and ashes, is as dark as mine. Two heads facing each other, in death indistinguishable one from the other.
African Americans have an intrinsic African dream. We dream of flying. Literally flying through the air.
Flying. Our birdness could be sankofa, but only after the rise. First we must be phoenix. Fly up out of the ashes and return to yard to pick ancestral corn. First we must fly up.
Get up out of the ashes of Western demise. Beyond the smoke. Away from the fascination with flame. Fire is to temper us. Fire is to free us. But fire is not home.
Tarzan burns. Colonialism burns. Inevitably festering areas of our acculturated consciousness simultaneously go up in smoke. The only question is what is left. And where do we go from here.
From the flames a pale hand reaches out to me. The skull calls: "don't leave me here."
Tarzan's last words. "Don't leave me."
From the forest, comes calls in languages I don't understand. Soft Black voices I don't understand. Inbetween me and my ancestral people are all the contemporary horrors: from Black male gun runners shooting up our nights to junior Tarzans/Black politicians picking over the bones of our desert days. The trauma of containment within colonial culture tumors our brains. Western addictions and fantasies direct our desires.
The funeral pyre burns. Will I turnaway or turn toward the fire, enchanted by the flames, too fascinated to feel the heat?
"Don't leave me."
Or will I fly outward seeking self by burrowing forward into Africa. The Africa inside myself. And the Africa outside myself. Africa the people. Africa the land. The Africa that calls "Join us."
And that has always been our destiny. The one choice, in either ignorance or consciousness, by active commision or inactive ommision, the one choice each African American makes in her or his lifetime. Fully flying forward or returning backward. Vacillating between. Or committed and cleaving to one end of the spectrum.
Tarzan: "Don't leave me."
Africa: "Join us."
One way or another, we respond.
Acknowledging what we hear or ignoring the pleas. Acting one or both calls, or rejecting one or both. One way or another; a third way or no way.
The essential problem of twoness is that every journey is made one step at a time. So even if we go one step forward and then one step backward, one step up and one step down, even if we stand and rock from side to side. It's all still just one step at a time. And at every point we must ask ourselves: which way? Which call will I heed? Which direction will I turn?
One way or another, our inner spirits always respond.
Geronimo would ask, "where is your heart?"
The old folks would say, "where you gon run to, all on that day." Standing at the crossroads, which way should I go. Lord, lord, lord, what should I do, which way should I go? And how shall I get there?
—kalamu ya salaam