Cape Coast Castle in Ghana is one of the most famous slave castles. (John W. Fountain, PHOTO)
That moment in black history washes over my mind, like the white foam waves of the Atlantic Ocean on the shores of Cape Coast, Ghana.
I stood there on the grounds of a white stone castle that once held African slaves. Inside a hot and humid dungeon, a Ghanaian man with yellowish eyes poured libation for those who perished here and along the transatlantic slave route.
For my ancestors, it was a journey that began on the other side of the “Door of No Return,” thousands of miles from the shores of America. I stared at the door, walked through it.
I imagined the horror.
And like others who had traveled there for the tour, I too was moved to tears–tears for today and tomorrow as much as for yesterday.
For I live on the other side of the ocean, where there are daily reminders of a people who do not seem to know, or perhaps have forgotten their–our–history.
And each year, when February rolls around, despite the good intentions that led to the establishment of the month-long acknowledgement of the contributions and history of African Americans, I wonder whether we don’t collectively miss its deeper message:
That black history is as much American history as baseball and apple pie; that every day the saga of this people is worthy of remembrance; and that the knowledge of who we are and from whence we came ought to have some measurable impact on how we choose to live our lives today.
Since standing on the West African coast a few years ago, I have concluded that those black young men most responsible for the constant toll of murder in black neighborhoods could not know their history; that they must not be aware of those who suffocated or bled to death, or who simply expired from exhaustion under the cruel hand of slavery.
And those who smirk at education and at striving to live by some measure of decency and self-respect could not have any real sense of connectedness to the collective of Africans in America who came before us. Among them were those who perished on sweaty southern plantations or endured Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses, but declared with the defiance and fortitude of Langston Hughes, “I’m still here.”
This much I have also come to believe: That the teaching of African-American history cannot be left to schools or to the annual storm of events and exhibits that rise and soon fall at the end of each February. That embracing African-American history doesn’t mean discarding, dismissing or diminishing the history and contributions of other races. That if someone asks my own children who Emmett Till was, and they answer, “a football player,” then I ought be ashamed.
I also believe that if we as a people did not so readily consume movies and other media filled with buffoonery, “pimpology” and Gangsta rap, then Wal-Mart wouldn’t place that kind of garbage on its Black History Month display.
Our disconnection from history is pervasive.
Not long ago, I asked a group of about a dozen teens a simple question: “Who is Jesse Jackson?”
After a few minutes of silent searching, one kid finally offered an answer.
“Michael Jackson’s brother?” he said seriously.
The other kids hadn’t a clue.
This only reinforces the notion that it is incumbent upon me to embrace my heritage, to pass it on to my children, knowing that we cannot afford to forget.
I was reminded of this as I stood inside the Chicago Historical Society a few years ago, grimacing at the photographs in the “Without Sanctuary” exhibit, a visual collective of lynching in America.
I was reminded as I stood at Cape Coast Castle, staring into the blue Atlantic, imagining the sharks that trailed slave ships toward America for bodies thrown overboard. I remember. And I will never forget.
John Fountain stands on the grounds of Cape Coast Castle, peering out at the Atlantic Ocean
IMAGINE by John W. Fountain