photo by Alex Lear






            In the absence of any physical landmarks of this historical journey into chaos, other communities of African people may seek refuge in collective amnesia as a natural defence against the unbearable trauma of the savageries of the slave trade. But for the people of Ghana, there can be no escape from a historical reality as palpable as the slave castle. Ultimately, Ghana's Pan African consciousness reaches far into a fractured, deeply wounded collective unconscious that insists on being uncovered so that it may be healed back to wholeness. The slave forts and castles are the most immediate though confusing gateway into the collective unconscious. To contemplate and, above all, to penetrate the puzzling, even frightening mystery of these mouments of enslavement is to come to terms with our history of fragmentation, the basis of Pan African consciousness and struggle.            

 —Excerpt from Slave Castle, African Historical Mindscape & Literary Imagination by Kofi Anyidoho, University of Ghana.




            Elmina - 1482. Built by the Portuguese, is the first of the slave castles. I ask questions. The more I try to find out, the less I learn. There is broad confusion as to how many castles there are in Ghana. In West Africa.

             Castles. These military forts which served as administrative centers for colonial government and the administration of the gold and slave trade, including the temporary housing of items of trade: guns, beads, alcohol, cloth from Europe and, sine qua non, gold and human flesh from Africa's interior.

            In Elmina I find one small book, Forts and Castles of Ghana by Albert van Dantzig, and one small pamphlet, The Castles Of Elmina by Tony Hyland of the Department of Architecture, University of Science & Technology, Kumasi.

            In her prescient manner, Nia somehow strikes up a conversation with Albert van Dantzig who just happens to be passing through at that time. I am upstairs in the little gift shop, feeling prideful because I have purchased these two writings and a few other books about Ghana. When I descend the steps clutching my catch, Nia introduces me to Mr. Dantzig. He is seventy some years old, from Holland, now living in Ghana. We talk briefly. He autographs his book for us.

            Danzig's book focuses on a chronological summary of the construction and administration of the 50 forts and castles of Ghana. Danzig suggests "To our knowledge the following list of castles, forts and lodges -- from west to east -- could be regarded as complete." Complete? Can there ever be a complete history of the slave trade and all of the institutions it engendered? For me Dantzig's book is a beginning, a point of departure, an indication, a partial map, the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

            Tradeposts, fortified or not, have been built in various parts of the world, but nowhere in such great numbers along such a relatively short stretch of coast. At various places, such as Accra, Komenda and Sekondi, forts were actually built within gun-range of each other. Within three centuries more than sixty castles, forts and lodges were built along a stretch of coast less than 300 miles (500 km) long. Many of these buildings are still in existence at the present, and if some of them could be regarded as important individual monuments, the whole chain of buildings, whether intact, runined or merely known as sites, could be seen as a collective historical monument unique in the world: the ancient 'shopping street' of West Africa. The 'shops' varied greatly in size and importance. If some could be  compared with department stores, others were hardly more than village stores. (P. vii)


            The essential purpose of all these buildings was to serve as store-houses for goods brought from Europe and bought on the Coast, and as living quarters for a permanent commercial and military staff. If the earliest of these buildings were mainly fortified on the land-side against enemies expected from that side, soon the real danger appeared to come rather from the side of the sea, in the form of European competitors. During the sixteenth century a growing number of French and English ships came to trade in what was supposed to be a Portuguese monopoly area. An even more serious threat to Portuguese supremacy on the Coast came from the Dutch, who had arrived in large numbers on the coast by the end of that century...(P. xii)


            It should be pointed out that the Europeans did not have any territorial jurisdiction beyond the walls of their forts; the very land on which they were built was only rented. Each European nation tried to reserve exclusive trading rights for itself with the local rulers. It is therefore not surprising that political disintegration set in all along the coast, and consequently the tradeposts had to be armed not only to drive competitors away, but also to protect the traders inside the forts or the people on whose territory they were built against attacks by neighboring African states.

            It was also for geographical reasons that all this European commercial activity concentrated in this relatively small area: first of all there is the obvious fact that Ghana is the only area where there are substantial gold deposits comparatively near to the coast. But Ghana's coast is also suitable for building forts because it is rocky, thus providing building material and strong natural foundations, and access from the interior to the sea is not, as in neighboring areas, interrupted by lagoons and mangrove swamps... (P. xiii)           

             The 96 page book has only eight indexed references to slavery, and most of those are cursory.




            Since 1876, down through the current administration, Christiansborg Castle has served as the seat of government.

            Some castles are used as prisons.

            Others as administrative offices, post offices and the like.

            Others are museums and national monuments.

            Some are in total disrepair.

            Some are merely decaying archeological sites.

            Elmina has been recently painted and remodeled. Ironically painted bright white. Whitewashed. Inside there is a photo exhibit with a narrative. The exhibit was created by the French. Plaques have been placed. Some original plaques have been preserved. A few new ones have been added. There is a sign listing the admission prices.

            All kinds of subterranean rumblings bash the stones of Elmina. Something, I can never get the straight of the story to say exactly what the "thing" was, but something about slavery was put up and then taken down. Taken down allegedly because the Ghanaians didn't want to offend whites.

            Didn't want to offend. Whites.

            Diaspora Africans living in Ghana are rightfully incensed by the vacillations.

            Outside Elmina there is a beach party.

            Butts shaking on sacred ground.

            Dr. Robert Lee who went to Ghana during Nkrumah's days. Whose son and wife died in Ghana. Dr. Lee who has spent over thirty years of his life in Ghana. Who operated a clinic for the poor of Ghana. Dr. Lee's pocket was picked during the solemn commemorative program at the castle.

             A brass band played. People danced. The procession was not so solemn.

            There was no written program. There were no informative speeches. No story telling. No rituals of remembrance.

            Frankly, this whole recognition effort is just now seriously getting underway and Ghana is not quite sure how to do it.

            I am told: If anything substantial is to happen with respect to the castles you people will have to make it happen. It will not be given to you. You will have to take it.

            They took the old door down. They painted everything pretty and new.

            When will the truth be told?




            Within the stones of the castle our ancestral spirits are entombed. They silently await excavation. Await our detailed investigation.

            A sankofa seed is planted. I want to return to Ghana and do a collaborative work with a Ghana scholar. I want to focus on the impact of the slave trade on Africans, both continental and diaspora. Towards the end of our trip, as the idea becomes clearer, I approach Kwadwo Tgyemang. He eagerly accepts.

            It's on. There is no concise, point of origin history of the slave trade, not to mention no afrocentric assessment of the impact of slavery. Let's look at the real history, who played what role. Let's investigate and meditate, confront and come to grips with the positives and negatives of our history.

            As significant as the castles are and as many of them as there are in Ghana, there is a paucity of documentation. This lack is a clear manifestation of Ghana's historic amnesia. But also a clear manifestation of diasporan ignorance. Yet what goes around, comes around.

            We were cast out. We shall return. Like a stone flung at the sun. Like a boomerang. Like a child separated from its mother.




            The history of people is movement. I can sense in the diaspora a slow turning. A serious seeking for alternative. In conversations throughout our stay in Ghana invariably the thoughts we expressed amongst ourselves pivoted on the notion of moving. Africa, in general, and Ghana, in particular, is a magnet.

            No news here, but certainly relevance. The communal implosion and resultant disintegration of social life in the United States will invariably fling individuals away from that center toward the peripheries where other realities exist.

            For practical reasons: life and development. For historical reasons: birth and essence. For cultural reasons: temperament and lifestyle. For the love of self and Blackness -- Africa. Africa, in all its contradictions, in all its weaknesses, revulsions, convulsions, repulsions, internal chaos and material un(der)development. Africa, remains a pulsing heart attracting her blood, her brood, back to herself.

            Most of us will not voluntarily go -- but more of us will return than have ever thought about it since the fifties. A significant number, providing leadership by example, will begin the pilgrimage back into ourselves. Of that number, some will remain and others won't, but life will go on. America will continue downward and Africa will keep struggling upward. This is not theory but the inexorable march of the life force.

            After maturity there is decline and death. Before maturity there is the opportunity for growth and development. Who is in a period of "decline after maturity" and who is struggling to develop? The distinction is plain. Especially when we look at the African world collectively, who we are, where we are, and what we have to live for.




            The forts are brute manifestations of penetration. Male movement into fecund  earth. Testimony to the mauling of Africa by marauders and by co-conspiratorial African merchants and mercenaries.

            Facing a fort, I feel my foreigness, my estrangement from this birth earth, but also I feel my essence, my connections. Both rupture and reproachment, as well as reentry and embracement.

            As an individual, I was born in a nation of immigrants, movement is my history -- and yet everyday, folk in America give you 57 arguments, 997 facts as to why going back to Africa is unrealistic. Just five hundred years ago the American migration started in earnest and now these conquering nomads argue that migration is an exercise in futility. The majority of Whites are less than five generations on American soil. Most came not speaking English and with only as much possessions as they could carry. When nomads consul that it is foolish to migrate, who should listen?

            Why are these forts here if moving here is so undesirable?

            There is more than gold in them there hills of Ghana.

            The old itinerant preachers and blues bards used to forcefully sing: "You got to move / When God get ready / You got to move!"

            Could it be that those castles, the last we saw of Africa, those prisons where we were held, could it be, that those symbols of slavery will become beacons, lighthouses, guiding us back into ourselves?

            Moreover, we are each other's completion.

            Africa may need the diaspora more than the diaspora needs Africa because Africa can never be whole until the diaspora is embraced.

            On purely a material level, our skills and resources are needed. On a social level, because we are without specific ethnic interest, we may be the only Africans capable of helping Africa transcend the limitations of tribalism. On a psychological level, we may be the lever to force Africa to turn over the rocks of colonialism and examine what has been hidden beneath. We may be the epiphany that sparks the memory, that shatters the amnesia, that cleanses the wound of slavery, that immense maiming that arrested the continent and continues to unbraid every developmental effort that does not confront this awfulness.

            If and when the diaspora returns, the returning will force the host to deal with a historic reality which, for so long, too long, has been ignored. Perhaps it's a larger plan than individuals in the diaspora returning home "to drink water from an ancient well" in hopes of quenching a thirst for completion that no other liquid can satisfy. Suppose that's only the romance.

            Suppose the real deal is that Africa can not rise without us. Suppose Africa needs us far more than any of us have yet admitted. Far more than any of us have ever imagined or thought about.

            Suppose we are the seed that must be planted in fertile soil, the only stone upon which the future can be built. I do not mean this as self flattery but rather as a reflecting on a most terrible reality: what continent can stand the removal of millions and millions and millions of its strongest and still develop?

            In some ironic manner befitting the convolutions of what it means to be African, the diaspora is the Africa that the continent is struggling to become. The Africa concerned with the whole of itself rather than self-defeatingly focused on specific and antagonist ethnicities and nationalities.

            I don't know. Fathomming this is more than my brain can contain. All I know is that I want to know more. I want to return and learn what I left, I want to return and understand the origin of what I brought over with me. I want to return. I am seeking myself.

            Rummaging through the history of a fort. Sitting next to a centuries old cannon. Standing in an empty storeroom, perhaps in the very spot a not too distance ancestor stood.

Everything I know is nothing compared to the immensity of what this fort teaches me I do not know. And the fort also teaches me an even more brutal reckoning: as ignorant as I am, I still know more about what happened then do the majority of Africans on the continent. As ignorant as I am, I am more aware of my Africaness precisely because I have no African nationality, no African ethnicity. I have no one tribe or nation. I have all of them, and in having all I transcend each one.

Both my consciousness and my ignorance are deep. Deep knowing. Deep ignorance. But that's no news; I'm African.




         STONE SONGS.



            the silent stone so

            full of voices, the spirit

            sound your insides feel




            i am tempted to

            go to the wall and tongue lick

            stone in search of words




            i want to piss on

            dungeon floor, spit on dungeon

            door, eye break stone down




            stone stand, stand stone, stone

            cold dead  at the auction stand

            stand  stone cold dead  still


 —kalamu ya salaam