By Edvige Jean-François | Special Op-Ed to The Haitian Times
When I traveled to Ghana in February 2020, the deadliness of COVID-19 had not yet fully registered for much of the world. We had no sense of the collective, global grieving we would experience — no inkling of the unfathomable level of death coming our way. “Pandemic” had not yet become part of our universal lexicon.
I did not just want to go to Ghana. I needed to go. I was not setting off on a grand adventure. It was deeper than that. I felt the pull of my ancestors calling me.
You see, the Ghanaian government had declared 2019 the “Year of Return” for the African diaspora. Officials had invited people of African descent to return to Ghana for a spiritual journey to mark the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to arrive in the United States, in Virginia, in 1619.
The call to the ancestral children of Africa was to commemorate the resilience of the victims of the transatlantic slave trade “scattered and displaced through the world,” organizers said. Thousands of Black people from across the globe heeded that call in 2019. I was not able to go but knew eventually, I would.
As a Haitian American, I thought of the Creole phrases “nou soti nan Ginen,” and “nou se nèg Ginen.” “We come from Guinea.” “We are people from Guinea.” By Guinea we mean Africa — somewhere. Over the centuries, these affirmations of ancestry have bound Haitians by blood and in revolution. They have been a bouquet garni in some of our proverbs, our songs, and our lore.
Going to Ghana in 2020 was my return to “Ginen,” my own pilgrimage to pierce the mystery of an unknown ancestral past. I wanted to get to know myself better. At least that was my hope.
My main purpose was to visit Elmina Castle and the nearby Cape Coast Castle, fortresses that began as trading posts in the 15th and 17th centuries, respectively, and later came to symbolize human depravity and greed. The castles were among dozens of slave factories on the West African Coast, where European human traffickers over the centuries warehoused millions of Africans in dark, fetid dungeons, and holding pens sometimes for months. While this may be difficult to read, it is harder to write, as I recall what I learned on my visit.
On their final march out of the dungeons, the captives were herded through the Door of No Return, the last portal before permanently leaving African soil. They boarded waiting ships, “floating coffins” that would take them across the Atlantic to the Americas. Those who survived the harrowing Middle Passage were sold into slavery to work on plantations, from sunup to sundown.
It is hard to fathom that this evil operated like a conveyor belt of human chattel across Europe, Africa, and the Americas for several centuries.
Grieving old wounds while confronting new ones
Three months after I returned, and still haunted by my trip to Ghana, I watched a Minneapolis police officer, brimming with bravado, his hands in his pockets, kill George Floyd on Memorial Day, as if an unremarkable and routine aspect of his job — all in a day’s work. This was not the first time we had seen institutionalized terror weaponized on a Black man. Since the beating of Rodney King, 30 years ago this past March, and more frequently with the help of eyewitness cell phone videos and the power of social media, Americans have had ample opportunity to witness the failure of law enforcement to police its own.
George Floyd’s death immediately inscribed him into the annals of American horror stories, those unforgettable “Where were you when …” moments akin to Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. We can now add the Capitol insurrection to the list. Mr. Floyd’s martyrdom, if you will, for practicing the religion of being Black, brought about a seismic shift almost overnight. White people, in particular, witnessed and overwhelmingly believed what Black people had been saying for decades: racism is real, and it is systemic.
With the resulting pain, rage, and summer of protests came a global reckoning that brought mea culpas from institutions across the globe. One stark example of this massive wave of public pronouncements, or carefully crafted virtue signaling, instantly took my mind back to Ghana.
When I was touring the male dungeons at Cape Coast Castle, above which sat a slave-era church — yes, a church — one of the tour guides told us that some companies that exist today still reap benefits from profits gained in the slave trade. Hearing this took my breath for a moment, as I stood in an actual dungeon where human beings had been kept to be bartered and bought. The guide mentioned the British insurance giant Lloyd’s of London as an example. Back then, the company insured merchant ships and consequently those with human cargo. It was the first time I had heard such a connection put in quite that way. In my experience, slavery and its victims and profiteers are usually viewed through the lens of the distant past.
Less than a month after the killing of George Floyd, Lloyd’s of London apologized for its “shameful” role in the slave trade, citing events that spotlighted “systemic and structural racism” and promising to implement programs and review its history of racism. I had an immediate ‘aha’ moment and remembered what the guide had said about the company’s enrichment from slavery.
Imagine, an apology more than 300 years in the making for the pillaging of Black bodies. Why did it take one more Black body for that apology, that of George Floyd?
It was so very little and so very late. Yet, as more institutions, college presidents, Fortune 500 companies, professional sports leagues, friends, and colleagues came forward to acknowledge the destructive social cost and injury of entrenched systemic racism, and the human damage it causes, it became clear that it mattered. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We continue to live in the shadow of slavery, not because we discuss it too much, but because we acknowledge it too little.
The quick-fix and agile American mindset that has served us well as the world leader in innovation has also imperiled our ability to look squarely at the ignoble parts of our past. America’s Founding Fathers can be lauded as visionary architects of an American promise forged on ideals of liberty and equality and branded as hypocrites who owned slaves. Yet sometimes we find ourselves debating complicity based on how few or many slaves they owned, how “well” they may have treated them, or whether they only brokered transactions.
Once again, where do we go from here?
So here we are at another torturous inflection point in America, more than a decade after hopes have faded for that post-racial America we thought we had welcomed that Tuesday in November; instead, white supremacy is uncloaked and unleashed at the highest levels of our government. It should not be a surprise that every time we get here, a large majority of Black Americans will link the racism we still face as proof that the vestiges of slavery are still in the marrow of America’s bones. Some white Americans, on their part, may wonder why we are still talking about slavery, whether its champions or abolitionists. Even the most empathetic white allies who work tirelessly for justice in communities of color here and abroad can fail to see the linkage.
Our white family members, colleagues, and friends have had the privilege of pinning slavery on their ancestors, relegating it to the dustbin of history. The Black diaspora, on the other hand, has had the burden of carrying the stamp, the “scarlet letter” of slavery.
We cannot forsake truth for a flawed reconciliation that continues to implode generation after generation. Where is that space where Black and white Americans can talk about slavery as co-descendants of an evil system, even while it is the system that contributed to America’s might and, directly or indirectly, our own personal privilege, or lack thereof?
To take a bit of license with the words of Mr. Baldwin and President Lincoln, how will we put out this fire and “the fire next time?” And who are the “better angels” to lift us out of this morass? Is it us, whether at the dinner table, in our communities, or at the highest levels of power and influence?
For Black people, the American journey is too often littered with “tacks … and splinters, and boards torn up,” as Poet Langston Hughes put it in his seminal poem, “Mother to Son.” Black Americans historically have encountered pervasive racial roadblocks that did not need to be there. The “Little Rock Nine,” a group of nine Black students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, and six-year-old Ruby Bridges, the first Black student to desegregate an elementary school in the south, in 1960, are two well-known examples of such roadblocks: Black students who faced angry white mobs, simply for trying to go to school.
Building coalitions along the journey
As a proud Haitian immigrant, now naturalized American citizen who came to the United States as a child and grew up hearing about one coup d’état after the next taking place in my native country, I wholeheartedly embraced the American dream, viewing it as an antidote to the seeming perpetual chaos in Haiti.
But over the decades, I also came to realize that although my American journey did not come with coups and, arguably, strongmen, too often it did come with diminishment at the hands of some professors, invisibility from some bosses, and suspicion from some white Americans who questioned my credentials, intelligence, or anything else that — to them — seemed incongruous with my black skin. But I was determined that the naysayers would not live long in my thoughts. I banished them, saving space instead for the many Americans of all stripes who have enriched and continue to enrich my experience in this country I call home.
More than 30 years ago, the force-of-nature Angela Davis visited my alma mater, Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. It was in the shadow of an incident during which racial slurs were hurled at some students of color on campus. She spoke out against racism, encouraging us to “get out there and build coalitions that can shake this country and turn things around.” It is clear we have more coalitions to build to fight racism. Many of my fellow alumni, and Americans across this country, are doing this important work through the legal system, in government, as foot soldiers for voter and worker rights, in business, at schools and universities, in medicine, and a whole host of arenas. And this work must continue.
I know America is not a racial, social, or political monolith. I am well aware not everyone believes systemic racism exists nor supports a new or changed perspective on race. I also know that for the first time in a long time many who can effectuate the systematic top-to-bottom changes and take corrective action are listening.
We are in the middle of what feels like the divided states of America. Whether you believe we are standing on the heap of what once was American democracy or what once was American exceptionalism, I know I would like to be standing on the heap of what once was American racism. It is clear we must continue to vocalize and mobilize to build the anti-racist, pluralistic, and equitable world we need and require.
As Haitian Americans, we have to do this work while simultaneously addressing systemic problems back home. But let us remember, “nou soti nan Ginen.” We can do it. We are Haitians, indefatigable and proud.
A version of this Op-Ed was previously published in the Hamilton College Alumni Magazine – Winter-Spring edition, May 2021.
Award-winning journalist Edvige Jean-François started her career at ABC News in New York. She was among the first CNN journalists to cover the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where she was born. She regularly reported in Haiti, including producing interviews with former Haitian Presidents René Préval and Michel Martelly. A storyteller at heart, she has traveled extensively to produce domestic and international news and features, and has covered the White House for Associated Press Television News. As a journalism speaker, she has lectured in Haiti for the Inter American Press Association and USIA, formerly a communications and cultural arm of the U.S. State Department. She completed a master’s degree and a postgraduate fellowship at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.