Wednesday, January 19, 2011

We, the Living, Uphold This

I went to Ghana January 3-18, 2011, to fulfill the Drew Theological School Cross Cultural requirement. It seems that my trips have led into each other, into this one to Ghana. Venezuela and South Africa--- these pilgrimages began in a small way to force me to recognize my race privilege. This pilgrimage to Ghana is yet another step, a bigger step, for me on the journey to understanding my race privilege and working against racism. This is my reflection from January 6, one of the most powerful days of the trip.

When I walked down into the dungeon for men in Cape Coast "Castle," there was just this horrible weight that pushed me down so much that I thought I would scream under the weight of it. The dungeon was designed to be a place of terror, a place where 1500 men were packed in and abused like livestock on factory farms are today, while so-called Christian missionaries lived in the apartments above them. In reflection later Jessica asked, how can a merciful God love us when this is what we do to one another?

Today began with a lot of apprehension on the part of our group. Most of the other students dressed up, knowing that this place they were visiting is a grave and trying to show respect. Then they sang gospel and praise songs on the bus on the way there, which Garrett broke into to read from Genesis 50:15-20:
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, 'Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today."

I shivered as he read it. Shivered to realize what it was my African American classmates were facing as we journeyed ever closer to those forts on the coast, looking out over the sea where so many died in the Middle Passage.

As soon as we arrived to the Elmina Dungeon--- castle is not an appropriate term here as it signifies to me Disney princesses, rather we must find a name that better captures the horror of it like dungeons or concentration camps--- one woman began crying, overwhelmed by just standing on these steps, stones soaked in death and brutality.

At Elmina, our guide told us the story of the systematic dehumanization of the slaves, the rape of the women, the slow starvation of resistors, the deprivation of light, air, food. The stench of death and dying still lingers in the poorly ventilated women's quarters, almost two hundred years after its use, while the sea air caressing us in the officer's quarters was a slap in the face. Particularly as we stood in the Dutch church above the women's dungeon, or the Portuguese church in the center of the fort (different churches for different occupiers), feeling sick to our stomachs to think people could worship God on the very spot they committed atrocious crimes against humanity. We walked from the men's dungeon into the transition room, into the Room of No Return, where an opening barely big enough for me was the only way out into, in those days when the water was higher, the sea, into boats that would take them to those ships of death that would take the Middle Passage.

In the face of walking over this space where such atrocities, people, particularly white people I think, link this horror to others we know. The horror of Elmina reminded me of the orderliness of German-run concentration camps during the Holocaust. Systematic, orderly destruction. Here bodies had to be kept weak to avoid revolt, so they practiced a business model that caused the death of countless unknown. A business model. Cape Coast Dungeon, though, that reminded me of the sheer brutality of the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. Out of control brutality rather than orderly brutality. We walked down this slope into the male dungeon, stones worn by the feet on men, the filth of their humiliation now fossilized on the stone floor so no amount of sandblasting or excavation could remove it. This serious of dungeons for men had tiny oles way at the top of the walls for slivers of light and air. When our guide shut off the already pitiful lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, added for the tours, I couldn't breathe. It was like being in a cave.

Beside this first room was one in which resisters were chained and starved--- crucified--- in sight of the others, a primitive drain for this blood, urine, and shit to run off. Then we continued to descend into a sorting room where men were sorted by the merchants who bought and branded them. The tunnel--- through which the men would be forced down another, agonizingly long, that led to the Door of No Return--- has now been sealed and blocked by an Akan shrine that had been in that spot long before this place of death and returned to educate and I think try to drive the spirits of that place home to rest.

The women's prisons were not like the men's, down a tunnel through which no guard or officer would go even to feel the men--- no, the women's dungeons had to be more accessible to satiate the white monsters'--- for there is no way men working in these places could be anything but monsters--- lust for power, control. And these women's fates, like those of the men, led out of that Door of No Return just the same.

Both our guides in these places ended with hope. At Cape Coast, you leave through the Door of No Return, look out over the sea, but when you turn back around the door has been labeled the Door of Return as the remains of those who had been slaves in Haiti and the USA have been exhumed and returned through that door, symbolizing the right of return for all whose ancestors were victims of that place.

Both ended with a hope that such sites and the education that is their purpose are a call that Never Again will something like this happen. Yet I am always disturbed by this call because too often we think that if slavery has ended in that form the brutality has also ended. Our guide at Cape Coast boasted that the "castle" is more than a site of terror but, because of how it was used afterward, a site that helped bring Ghana into the new international economic order. I agreed: it is a site that is representative of an economic system that still exists today in which people of color are exploited so a small number of whites (and those who share white hegemonic power) can get rich. One of the realizations I had standing there as he spoke was that today I stood in slave dungeons. On January 31 I will stand in a prison to take a course with women on the inside. Just another way that this system in which we live enslaves people of color.

Yet these sites have forced us to ask questions, critical questions about the way the slave narrative has been fed to us (in text books written by white men, as Dr. Naana Opoku Agyemang talked about in a lecture we went to later that night). We saw in the structure of the building that these dungeons were intended as sites of terror from the laying of their foundations NOT as places to trade gold and ivory that evolved into the trade of human beings. We saw the resistance that must have been, despite their absence in the history books, in the very shape of that building, cannons not only facing the sea but the surrounding village. And we heard a few stories of walled communities to protect from kidnapping, people hiding from slavers in the immense hollow center of a baobab tree. We heard of the white merchants creating tribal warfare to benefit their trade as continues to be common economic and political practice in the two-thirds world today.

And I am an inheritor of these white merchants, as I am white, middle class, and a citizen of the U.S.A. I came to Ghana to continue my journey to understand my race privilege and unlearn racism and these slave dungeons now sit on my heart with the weight of the crimes against humanity. Too long have I thought, "My people"--- which as a construction in and of itself is problematic--- "have never been slave owners. We were busy being colonized by the British ourselves.---" as though I have any kind of cultural memory of that event--- "We came over after the Civil War because of the Famine, and we once classified as people of color too." This delusion denies the fact that when the Irish became white, I became an inheritor of a system in which because of the color of my skin I have opportunity, guarantees, safety, education, wealth, and other privileges I take for granted that some of those African American students with me in Ghana have not had. And this means it is my responsibility to acknowledge my inheritance of this racist system and work against it.

So when I, like Joseph's brothers, say,

"I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and sisters and the wrong they did in harming you...please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your parents."

I have felt the weight of those crimes, breathing in the putrid air in the women's dungeons in Elmina. And I know it is not enough to ask forgiveness, so I must seek ways to act to erode racism, to atone.

1 comment:

  1. Forgiveness is so much easier, and so much more rewarding when people take the time to try and understand what they take the time to meditate on what is broken in the relationship. I love your heart that seeks to understand. Blessings to you shannon.