Today – Albuquerque, Unceded Tewa Pueblo Land
I’ve run away from most of these memories. Out of embarrassment at my naiveté – thinking my Blackness and all Blackness was a monolith whose single origins only I could chase down. Out of fear that retelling my failures in West Africa and the pain that came with learning more about the complicated roots, roles, and routes that made up the slave trade would be twisted into anti-black white supremacist rhetoric. That my gender euphoria in the medinas of Morocco, coupled with passing as a local, an insider, for the first time makes me a traitor to my gender, my “real” people.
I’ve been plagued forever by a backbreaking need to people please. To fit in while owning and flaunting my individuality. It’s hard to look back at some of the things I wrote years ago with kindness and compassion now that I have the clarity that comes with sobriety, studying, and connecting.
I went to Africa (as Binyavanga Wainaina jokes in his piece “How to Write About Africa” we must always write about her as a “she” and as a single country) in an attempt to find myself and my family. I had the ambitious goal of finding out what it meant to be a Black woman in America and in West Africa — and a couple of genders later I realize how and why I failed so spectacularly. Growing up I didn’t have many Black women around me; my mother is white, my aunties and grandma lived far away, all I really had was Oprah at four every weekday to teach me what Black womanhood was. A couple of genders later I now realize there were some additional challenges in my hunt for truth in womanhood. I have resentment for those who know where they’re “from from.” No single tongue, nation, regalia is that of the descendants of stolen bodies on stolen land. I fear the way these resentments leaked out when I was in Ghana, waiting to be embraced as I “come home” and always being read as a stranger. I still grapple with the liberation and freedom that came with being read as a local when I lived in Morocco and more confusing for me, as a man for the first time.
What I realize now is that I was in desperate need to feel connected to the land, to be able to say, “this is where I am from.” The answer for diasporic folks — we descended from stolen bodies on stolen land — is not this simple. This year marks 400 years of slave ships completing the wicked triangle of trade that turned us into hyphenated Americans with dashes and slashes connecting/dissecting us from our roots. Over 36,000 ships completed and repeated this cycle. I have no singular land. I have no tribe.
Loss and holes leave room for growth. I am grateful for the time I spent on the continent that I know many of my ancestors are from. I am grateful that I live in a community of Black, Indigenous, and people of color that understand the pain of trying to connect to a land base or find spiritual strength in ancestral practices forcibly hidden. I am grateful for my diasporic kin and cousins for teaching me about the orishas and all the spirits we hid behind saints to stay safe — saved by sacred synchronicity. I am grateful for the resiliency of my ancestors; it was illegal for you to read and write and here I sit with the privilege of telling your stories. I will never have a single homeland. I had to be a tourist in the motherland to learn this.
June 2012 – Accra, Ghana
I get off the plane, tears clouding my eyes. You can tell who was like me – making a return trip centuries later. Us, the children of the transatlantic slave trade, the descendants of the first African diaspora, felt the West African clay under shaking legs. Part of it was the long flight, part of it was the weight of history and the grief of what was lost. They are all strangers to me, strangers in a supposed homeland. Ghanaians move past us wordlessly; maybe they knew what was happening, maybe they didn’t. Airports aren’t for crying, they’re for getting from point a to point b. For me, it’s like going back to the beginning.
I gather my giant backpack, and I wait. I don’t have internet, my phone doesn’t work, and I’ve met the man that is supposed to pick me up only once. The butterflies in my stomach have turned into a hurricane of anxiety. Nothing new for me, but it feels different on this soil. Various white people in matching shirts come up to greet me enthusiastically, thinking I’m the latest member of their mission or non-profit. I sneer at the well-meaning white people; don’t they know how different and noble my mission is? I’m not here to convert, or save any life other than my own.
Finally, through the crowd of caucasians, I spotted a familiar pile of dreads followed by a shorter series of spheres wearing a large grin. “There you are!” I’m taken out of the airport and into a tro-tro, and I get my first glimpse of Ghana. My host barters with a girl for plantain chips while we’re stopped in traffic, palm trees loom overhead, and I can’t stop smiling. He’s talking a mile a minute about what my life will be like at the center. Mornings with fresh pineapple and djembe lessons. Afternoon breaks for the monsoon rains. Evening dance classes. In the group that came to study “Women in Africa,” I’m the only person of color save for the workers at the center. I am welcomed by both and worry about my role as the only inbetweener.
July 2012 – Medie, Ghana
I’m wandering around the town of Medie, where the center is. A young girl sees me and calls out in a singsong voice “Obroni.” I point to my skin and say “no no no.” The Twi word can mean white or foreigner, and I came here so desperately fleeing both identities. I longed for the experience of Maya Angelou, wandering around a village and being taken in by some Bambara folks, patting their heads in mourning, recognizing her as one of their lost kin. How many generations since my family has been here? The only place I know for sure, in my bones and with statistics, that my family for sure stepped foot was the slave castles on the coast. How many generations removed make you a foreigner? Of being named like pets? Of refused service at lunch counters and bars? A foreigner at home and tourist abroad — even in the place I came to find belonging.
I head to the local internet cafe later to check my email. It’s attached to the local Hari Krishna temple. I’d never thought about other folks immigrating to Africa, I was much too focused on those of us forcibly emigrated out. Yes, I’ve read the stories of Maya and Malcolm and all those that returned to create and liberate as transnational citizens, but the Hari Krishna never crossed my radar. I don’t dwell on these questions expect when someone thinks I’m part of the temple. I go to one of their services; an older Black woman from Florida gives a lengthy lecture that I can’t follow. I much prefer the chanting. She’s struggling to keep the audience’s attention, a painful reality I’ve dealt with one too many times. I keep my head nodding like I understand what’s happening and try and be an active listener, relieved to be in the rare presence of a fellow Black American. It’s hot and the topic is huge. She breaks her stream of thought, looks right at me, and says, “Thank you for your smile.” I let my questions rest for a minute.
August 2016 – Albuquerque, Unceded Tewa Pueblo Land
My Blackness has always felt like it was just out of reach. Like it was always somewhere else. This sense of melancholy is a common theme in Black diaspora studies. As a Hail Mary, I applied for some scholarships and made my way to Ghana on my own. I designed my own class with the promise of getting some answers for myself. I headed to Medie, Ghana with a mission to discover what it meant to be a Black woman on both sides of the Atlantic.
Before heading to Ghana to “find myself” I spent the first two weeks of summer in China on tour with my orchestra. Being the first Black person someone has seen is a strange experience, having that experience roughly a hundred times a day is exhausting. When we returned I had a few days before I had my big return to Africa. It was on one of those days that I realized in a panic that I did not know what it meant to be a Black American woman. I rushed to the library and drenched myself in Black Feminist thought like I was on fire. At the time, I thought it was my distance from Blackness that caused this panic, in retrospect, it was the fact that I am not a woman.
I came out as non-binary transgender around a year ago. I’ve always known that no particular gender fit me, and it took me so long because I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. Just like the lye on my scalp or the finger down my throat, I didn’t want to take up space or make others uncomfortable, even if it meant sacrificing myself. But even bigger than this fear was my fear of no longer being a woman of color. I had struggled for so long to find an identity that fit, and I came close through writers like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and countless others. I read my way into being. I write to keep going, to keep discovering.
January 2014 – Fes, Morocco
“Monsieur, monsieur.” I don’t turn around as the kid chases me down through the Medina. He catches up breathless, my wallet in his hand. Slipped out of my damn pocket again; thank god for kids like this. I curl my chest inward, a dysphoric cat/cow pose I don’t have the name for yet, not wanting to embarrass the kid for clocking me as a man. “Merci, merci, merci,” I extol as I try and hand him some dirhams for his trouble. He switches to Arabic as he turns and runs off, leaving me in the dust. Warmth floods my face. I’ve been taken twice as something I’m not — a man and a local. Not a woman and not a foreigner. My skin feels new against my beaten leather jacket and I take long drinks of my reflection as I pass windows. Blending in with identities I’ve never held, experiencing a safety as foreign as I am. Feeling giddy like a spy and guilty as a liar. Sliding closer to who I really am.
January 2014 – Esouria, Morocco
Castles Made of Sand
I’m sitting on a beach watching a drunk British expat draw a large spiral with a stick. The Atlantic winks at me, the forever changing connective tissue between me in the States and me here on the continent my ancestors are from. I’m staring at a castle in the distance, weather-beaten and ominous. The drunk expat explains, in between trying to lure me and my roommate to his house for a party, that it was usually the last slave hold before setting off on the arduous ocean crossing. We’re in Essoura, a famous hippie haven in the 60s and 70s, and by the leather looks of some of the expats around me some of them never left. The conversation keeps going and I’m stuck staring at the castle. Fifty years earlier on this shore, Jimi Hendrix was pulled in by this castle, his inspiration for “Castles Made of Sand,” one of his more autobiographical songs. A ruin of where we’re from, where we went, and the ways we remember.
March 2012 – Northfield, Minnesota Unceded Wahpekute Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) Land
I pack red and white Mario mushrooms into the pipe, add some green, and take deep inhales. I’m in the woods behind my dorm checking the flier one more time. I get to the venue just in time to see one of the best performances of my life. Drums, gyils, singing, dancing, so much smiling. Right in the midst of my hunt for a place to study in Ghana, he finds me. I approach him after the show asking how I can study in Ghana, for some reason it has to be Ghana, outside of a university setting. “Come, stay with me.” He tells me about the program he’s running about Women in Africa and I’m sold. I write proposals, get grant money, and buy a ticket to stay with a man I had a ten-minute conversation within a country I think, maybe, my family is from. When he dies years later I feel something inside me tear that I cannot name.
July 2012 – Kumasi, Ghana
Peacocks strut across the verdant lawn surrounding the palace. Pillars and gold and other trappings of European finery drip. I keep asking the tour guide where they got the money. “Trade,” he says. “Of what,” I say, knowing the answer includes my ancestors. “Trade,” he says.
January 2014 – Fes Morocco
Oranges in the Sun
The call to prayer starts winding up from all the mosques surrounding our home. The beginning whir reminds me of the tornado sirens back home in the Midwest. I smile, close my eyes, and tilt my head towards the sun, letting the adhans dance in and out of my mind. I have never felt peace like this before. My host mom brings me oranges and we beam at each other. I’m here to study French, which I’m terrible at, and she speaks mostly Arabic. Her daughter is a polyglot that has gracefully and generously been translating for me all winter, but I can always squeeze out a genuine smile and a heartfelt “Merci.” I am high on blending in and sober from drugs and alcohol for the first time in a long time. I am fully present and tapping back the terror that comes in equal parts to the delight of consistently being clocked as a man. I am not, will never be, a man — but this head-spinning deliciousness of passing scares me. I push it down and turn my face to the sun.
July 2012 – Cape Coast, Ghana
The Door of No Return
The only place on the vast continent of Africa that I know, through statistics and my bones, my ancestors stood is Cape Coast slave castle. Walking up to the castle we see locals dressed in funeral reds and blacks heading to the shore to take pictures. My gut twists as I recognize the mourning rituals, the funeral rites, that my people detained in this castle and their descendants never got. This whole trip has been an exercise of mourning, I just don’t know it yet. The museum starts with an exhibit about the lives of the enslaved after they leave the castle. I’m mad that no one is taking it seriously enough, nobody gets it, I am all alone in this. Everything, including the air, hurts my thin skin. Some men pretend to sell each other on the mock auction block. I barrel past them and onto the balcony overlooking the Atlantic. I’m going to be sick. I pull out a tiny notebook and write a bad poem about chains and consumerism, feeling that the heaviness of this moment needs immediate and constant documentation. We begin our guided tour. It’s me and some women from the same art center and a gaggle of British teens that laugh at all the wrong times and seem not nearly as devastated as I want them to be. As far as I can tell I’m the only one on this tour whose family has been here before. We walk through the dungeons, I reach out and touch the stone where you can still see the fingernail marks and the lines where the waste stood. We pass the graves of the castle chaplain, a mixed man set on converting the enslaved and the damned. I note the location so I can return to spit on his grave at the end of the tour. I am exhausted in a way I have never felt. I am spirit weary. My DNA is screaming. In one of the dungeons, a local spiritual leader sits, keeping watch over an altar. Of course, they built this slave castle over our (is it ours, mine?) sacred sites. I’m fully weeping at this point, unable to hold back what feels like centuries of tears. I wait for everyone to leave the room and it’s just him, me, and the altar. He just smiles and nods. I cry harder. Every piece of the altar seems so foreign to me.
I catch up with the rest of the group. We hike up stone steps and end up in the quarters of the head of the castle. It’s gorgeous, with a breathtaking view of the Atlantic. In the dungeons the ocean is deafening. Up here it’s beautiful, almost peaceful. I’m mad I was taken here, mad at the contrast of canopy beds and dirt-floor dens. The tour is almost over. We trace the path my ancestors took their final steps on the soil of their home continent. Africa is bigger than the United States, Russia, and China put together — and all I have is the knowledge that somewhere on this vast continent, probably here on the West Coast, most likely at least one of them through these castle doors, my people are from.
They call it “The Door of No Return.” I cry, and I rock, and I pray. I’ve returned to the only place that I feel connects me to this continent. I’m standing at the door that severed any tribal identity and launched my family’s life as hyphenated Americans. It is a victory. I feel them, whoever they are, wherever they were from, standing with me. Always.
A marble plaque shines next to the door, and I know my life’s purpose.
In Everlasting Memory
Of the Anguish of Our Ancestors.
May Those Who Died Rest in Peace.
May Those Who Return Find Their Roots.
May Humanity Never Again Perpetrate
Such Injustice Against Humanity
We. The Living. Vow to Uphold This.🗺️
Edited by Rachel.