August marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade with America when, in 1619, a ship carrying 20 slaves landed at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia. This year, Nana Akufo-Addo, president of Ghana, a major slave trade hub at the time, declared 2019 the “Year of Return.” The campaign has given African Americans nationwide a chance to reconnect with and reflect on their ancestral beginnings.
Last month, the second African American Rose Queen, Drew Washington, who presided over the 2012 Rose Parade, traveled with her father Craig to West Africa to learn more about their ancestry and culture. After conducting a DNA test from Ancestry.com to locate the region their forebears originally came from, they traveled to Ghana, Togo and Benin, three small countries in the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic coast.
“I didn’t know what to expect regarding how the dynamics would be, being African American and going back to Africa,” said Drew, 24, who graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in May and moved to New York a couple weeks ago to begin a job at Winston & Strawn LLP. The firm represents players’ associations of major league sports and the US women’s soccer team in their equal pay lawsuit. “But everyone we met said ‘Welcome home. You are home.’ That felt so good. It’s almost indescribable. I’d never felt like that anywhere else I’ve traveled.”
When Drew first went to New York University, other African Americans didn’t use the term “African American” as an umbrella term to describe all black people.
“They were able to point to a country in Africa where they were from,” she explained. “They’d ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I was so frustrated that I couldn’t answer the question, so this trip was about me being able to find those answers. I finally felt connected to a culture. I had heritage, culture and tradition that I could bring back home.”
Craig, 56, who serves as a director-chair of Tournament of Roses committees and regional contract manager at Jacobs Engineering Group, appreciated being able to correct many of the mischaracterizations that Americans have about Africa based on limited and inaccurately negative information. One of those mischaracterizations is about family.
“Family is so important in Africa, so it’s disheartening how African Americans are portrayed as not having strong families,” he said. “Where did this come from? This wasn’t our culture or foundation. Breaking up families, that’s what this whole slave trade did. Now the fabric of this bond of family has just been ripped to pieces. This is a part of African-American history that needs to be more exposed, and exposed truthfully.”
Before the slave trade and before colonial powers imposed modern country names and borders, powerful kingdoms existed in West Africa for hundreds of years, such as the Ashanti Empire and the Dahomey Kingdom. A form of slavery existed, too, among warring African tribes.
“This concept was going on within their own continent, so within the Africans’ mind, it wasn’t farfetched to trade people,” Craig said.
When Europeans first showed up, they didn’t start enslaving people immediately. They first traded goods and indoctrinated Africans into Christianity.
“They did a good job of gaining the trust of the leaders of the kingdoms,” Drew said. “Slavery already existed in Africa, but it was more like indentured servitude. They had no idea what the Europeans had intended.”
‘Its Own Genocide’
After starting their tour in Accra, the capital of Ghana, the Washingtons paid their respects at the Assin Manso Slave River. Inland Africans bound for slavery were marched shackled and barefoot for hundreds of miles over several months to the coast, where they received their “last bath” in African waters at Slave River.
“They would wash all the captured slaves and put shea butter on them to bring out a glow on the skin, prepping the body to make it look its best for the slave trade market,” Craig said.
Once the slaves got to the coast, they were held in slave castles for another few months. That’s all before they were forced onto a crowded ship, where they spent another six months crossing the Atlantic.
“In our history books, we hear about the Middle Passage and the ships being horrible, but you don’t hear about what happened on the ground before they got to the ships or to America, so it was quite the experience to be able to see that,” Drew said.
Historians estimate that between 1525 and 1866, about 12.5 million Africans were forcibly brought to the New World. Of those, only about 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, and of those, only about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America, with the rest going to the Caribbean and South America.
“Millions of people didn’t make it,” Craig said. “The attrition was unbelievable. It was its own genocide even before they got to the ships, as well as the disease and starvation they endured along the way.”
The Washingtons also visited two slave castles: Cape Coast Castle, built by the Swedish in 1653 and later run by the British, and Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482. The castles are about half the size of the Rose Bowl, each with an inner field, guard towers, master quarters for the governor which overlooked the courtyard, a church in the middle, and cramped, non-ventilated dungeons where the slaves were housed.
From there, the Washingtons visited Lomé, the capital of Togo, on their way to a village in Benin called Ouidah, home to the sacred Temple of Pythons.
“I thought that was just a name, but there are real pythons inside this temple,” Drew said. “In Benin, they view the python as sacred, as gods. It’s considered disrespectful to not wear a python around your neck when you visit. You also have to walk into the temple itself where there are pythons roaming around everywhere.”
The Washingtons then traveled to Ganvie, Benin, an entire village built on stilts over Lake Nokoué. Known as the “Venice of West Africa,” the water village of about 30,000 people was built 300 years ago as a defense mechanism during the slave trade.
“They row boats to go anywhere,” Drew said. “A typical family has three boats: one for the father to fish, another for the mother to sell the fish in the market and the third for the children to go to school. They have a hospital, a hotel, a church, a mosque and restaurants, all on stilts. Even their markets are on water. The women gather on boats in the center of the village and sell toiletries, fish, food, whatever you need.”
Sharing the Experience
Part of the reason why Americans have misconceptions about Africa is because of the lack of a meaningful connection. It’s not easy for Americans to travel to Africa and virtually impossible for Africans to travel to the United States.
“I don’t know who has made traveling to those countries difficult, but it is,” Drew said. “It’s not as easy as going to Europe, where you just hop on a plane. You want to go to Africa? Hold on, you need visas, you need shots, it’s a long plane ride, there are no direct flights, the flights are expensive. There aren’t flash sales for plane tickets to Africa. It’s prohibitive for a lot of people to go, coupled with the unknown. What we’re told about it, it doesn’t seem like that’s what you want to spend your vacation time and lots of money doing. But we found that it was just the best way we could have spent our money.”
Craig pointed out that they had virtually no interaction with Americans during their trip, while they saw and met lots of Europeans.
“That’s why no one in America knows about Africa, because no one goes,” he said. “Whatever they’re told, that’s what it is. All we get fed about Africa is that it’s a warzone.”
By sharing their experience on Facebook, the Washingtons have inspired a number of their friends to consider visiting Africa as well.
“It will help take down some of the mystery about Africa,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen: someone they know has gone and done it and they see it as a possibility.”