When I was 12 or 13 and living in Frankfurt, Germany, my parents loaded my siblings and me into the car and we drove about four hours south and east to a small-ish town in the Bavarian region that was the site of the first concentration camp opened in Nazi Germany: Dachau.
Built in 1933 and initially intended to house “political prisoners” during World War II, Dachau (specifically) became the last stop before death for tens of thousands of Jewish people. Even now, almost 30 years later, I still remember the silence and stillness of the place. I remember how mortified I was learning what happened there and seeing the pictures of the mounds of dead bodies laid in ditches, and even more terrified and sickened by stepping into the crematorium and gas chambers, where humans were incinerated or gassed to death. That feeling of realizing the depths of human depravity has never left me. There are pictures that dot the grounds that I still vividly remember. But that feeling, that intense, Rosewood-esque hatred I felt in my soul is still palpable today.
But along with that hatred was an intense sadness; one that drew tears when we were there, even at such a young age. Growing up in Germany, we learned about the Holocaust in school, but there’s something about visiting an actual concentration camp and walking the grounds and realizing what happened in the very place you’re standing that crystallizes the truism: people can be pure evil.
In January 2019, I ventured to Memphis for the first time ever. Because of how much black history exists in the city, I made it a point to go to both the Stax Museum—dedicated to the memory and accomplishments of legendary record label, Stax Records—and the Lorraine Motel (now the National Civil Rights Museum), where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. In an April 2019 piece about my visit to The Lorraine, I wrote:
The museum itself, good lawd. I don’t know how else to describe it other than this: It’s almost as if they put every single artifact in there that could piss you off, in succession, over and over. The section on education had me so far into my feelings that I literally busted out laughing and had to sit down and collect myself because I got so enraged...It was the most frustrating experience and I could feel myself getting more and more heated.
Sometimes I think that many of us have no idea what our parents who came up in the South really had to deal with, especially in the ’50s and ’60s. Like, we know it was terrible and that the nation and white people in particular were a special breed of horrible, but to see the proof so unapologetically available and so much of it had me looking at every white person as if the only movie I’d ever seen in life was Rosewood, and I’ve seen it 1,000 times and I always hope they don’t...you know what, never mind. I’m getting mad thinking about Rosewood now.
And when we got to the actual spot on the balcony where Dr. King was killed:
And then I walked up to the window to see the spot, and I just started crying. I couldn’t even stop myself. I stared at the balcony. I was so mad, angry, sad, flustered, anxious and, ultimately, so defeated that I couldn’t hold it in.
I was older—39 at the time—and carrying with me the weight of everything I know about black American history and the depravity of white supremacy firmly housed in my consciousness. It is with all of that knowledge that I was truly concerned about going to visit the castles in Elmina and Cape Coast, Ghana (really, they should be called slave dungeons). My wife and I went on the day after Christmas and I had several conversations with people about the trip beforehand. In each conversation, I mentioned how emotional I was afraid of being. Not that I was afraid of being emotional, but afraid of a potential anger and sadness I didn’t know I was capable of. But one thing is true: when my wife and I decided to make this trip to Ghana, Elmina and Cape Coast were places we had to go, that we had to see, that we needed to experience.
I was not wrong.
We got into a car at about 6 a.m. and made the drive toward Elmina and Cape Coast, starting our day at Kakum National Park. If you have friends who went to Ghana, you absolutely saw them taking pictures at Kakum. We knocked out the seven-canopy walk, took pictures with some kids who thought my wife was a princess and laughed at the “Do Not Run” signs as we walked down the “staircase” of rocky death wondering who would dare run, or even trot, with inevitable broken bones waiting with one missed step. One of the more interesting things about Kakum and the canopy-walk is that you don’t have to sign an “If you die, it’s not our fault” waiver. Like many things in Ghana, the blood of Jesus has your back. Prayer is always your waiver. Praise Jesus.
When we finally made our way to Elmina, I was feeling slightly fidgety. I’ve seen pictures online of the castle, but there was nothing like seeing it up close. Both Elmina and Cape Coast do guided tours, and at both places, the tours begin with a small exhibit where you learn the history of the area and castle you’re standing in. And let me tell you something: as a people, black folks are now and have always been too trusting. That’s how Elmina came to be. Basically, the Portuguese showed up and were like, “Hey, we’d like to come and do some trading down here, all good things, all good things…” and the local chiefs were like, “Cool.” And now I have to write about returning to Ghana during the Year of Return, 400 years after our actual ancestors touched down in America, a country that has spent the vast majority of its history telling black people we weren’t welcome there.
Elmina was built in 1481, 11 years before Columbus “columbused” America. Over the course of its existence, it traded hands several times, ultimately ending up in British hands before Ghanaian independence, with much of its history being dedicated to the enslavement and deportation of black bodies.
That part you know. But let’s talk about what you realize while standing in one of the most horrible structures ever built by white supremacy: how much pain and torture your LITERAL ancestors had to endure in order for you to be alive and read this article as a black person in America in 2020.
Many of our ancestors came through the infamous “Door(s) of No Return.” But before they got there, they were marched hundreds of miles from inland Ghana or wherever they were brought from, taking a “last bath” at Assin Manso only to walk another 40 miles to Elmina or Cape Coast in the most oppressive heat I’ve ever felt (imagine being in New Orleans or Miami during the dead of August and increase the heat and humidity), then to be herded into dark cells for days or months on end with the bare minimum of necessities to stay alive, JUST to be walked out of a door so small that even a small man or woman would have to force themselves through it onto a boat taking you away from a home you will never see again—and you have no idea where you’re going. The site is powerful: seeing the spaces and feeling and knowing that it’s possible somebody in your bloodline, your lineage, literally could have been in one of these cells is one of the most enraging and maddening experiences.
It is fascinating to see such old, historic sites that constitute a precursor to the history most of us are familiar with about slavery in the U.S. and Caribbean. I felt the same way standing near Elmina’s “door of no return” as I did standing at the balcony where Dr. King was killed. People were poking their heads out of the “door” (it’s really more of a window) at Elmina and I just couldn’t do it. The thought of doing so made me anxious. It reminded me just how evil white supremacy really is. And how such a small set of European countries really ravaged and destroyed cultures and people all around the world. White supremacy is evil and I was reminded of it over and over.
Cape Coast, though. Being there REALLY incensed me, but because of how the tour is presented it also provided an optimistic promise of reconnecting and regaining what was historically lost by tour’s end. My wife asked me how I was doing a few times; I told her I was good. She cried. She didn’t see me cry. I cried.
And I’ll tell you exactly where I truly had to gather my bearings.
The dungeons at Cape Coast are especially dooming. They’re so deep underground, but there are lights to help you not slip down the stairless descent. And then, the tour guide cut the lights and informed us that a sliver of light coming from three tiny windows was the only connection to the outside so many of the enslaved would see for months before seeing daylight...as they were led onto a ship. The heat was unbearable. The thought of what people had to go through and endure in ORDER to even get on a boat had me square in my feelings.
But what really did me in was a space that had the word “Cell” hanging over the door.
Apparently, this was where the most spirited and uncooperative captives would be put. Nobody came out of there alive. There was a double-door set up to ensure the most unsustainable of conditions. There was no light. There was no air. There was no food. There was nothing but death. In that small room, roughly the size of a very small kitchen, which I believe the tour guide said would at times house as many as 50 people, is where I started crying. I actually stayed behind when everybody else left, and said a prayer and couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I wiped my face before I got outside, and my wife looked at me and said, “Are you crying?” I told her I was good.
Walking through both the male and female dungeons and thinking about the conditions they had to endure was frustrating; on top of the male dungeons was a church, where allegedly holy men preached salvation and righteousness, while right below them they created hell on earth.
They close the Cape Coast tour with the “Door of No Return” you see in all of the pictures on your social media. See, at Elmina, because of the placement of the door and because of its small size, it’s not really fit for a photo-op.
At Cape Coast, however, the original small door was reconstructed by the slavers into a much larger door for both the enslaved and cargo, and it is then, at the end of the tour, you walk through the “Door of No Return” and see a beach and hundreds of folks in the water enjoying themselves in a place that hundreds of years ago would have been the beginning of a months-long trip across an ocean. And if you turn around and look at the door, you see signage that says, “Door of Return.”
In 1998, the remains of two formerly enslaved Africans were brought back to Ghana and transported back through Cape Coast Castle’s Door of No Return, marking the beginning of a return home. Because that tour ended in that fashion, my disposition was much better. But the weight, Lord the weight.
It is impossible to be in these places and not stare off into the ocean. I don’t even know what I was looking for, but I was imagining the pain of making it through the unimaginable conditions to get to a new world and endure and survive, allowing me to be here today.
That’s what I could never shake: In order for me to be alive, my ancestors endured consistent and neverending pain and torture. They survived through it and I have no idea how. This isn’t a “look at black strength” thing—that type of resilience nobody should know. Being there helped me contextualize the ideological debate made popular by the fictional character Erik Killmonger in Black Panther who, upon his death, asked to be buried in the ocean; the tour guides at both castles told us of the thousands of people who threw themselves into the ocean because death seemed a better option than bondage, being placed on a ship to the vast unknown. That movie quote went viral and started lots of debate in Black America about its futility. After touring the castle and learning more, it doesn’t feel as futile.
While I can say the visits weren’t as emotional as I expected—part of me thought I’d have an actual emotional breakdown—and we did see somebody who looked like that was happening—it is still one of the most moving experiences of my life. I potentially walked in spaces my ancestors did (according to my DNA results, a small percentage of my DNA is Ghanaian, but according to the tour guides, Africans from all over West Africa came through those castles) and I cannot stress enough how affecting and heavy that was.
At Elmina (and a similar version at Cape Coast) was a plaque on a castle wall that read:
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 perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.
I’m forever changed by what I witnessed and experienced on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s all of our history. May our ancestors rest in peace.