Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 4 · July 2001
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Cheryl Finley writes about photography and African American Art. She is completing her dissertation, entitled "Committed to Memory: The Slave Ship Icon in the Black Atlantic Imagination," in the departments of African American studies and history of art at Yale University. She is co-author of From Swing to Soul: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1930 to 1960 (Washington, D.C., 1994) and author of Berenice Abbott (East Rutherford, N.J. 1988). In January 2002, she will join the faculty of Wellesley College.

 

 

"Like Wright's, my trip to Ghana marked my first time in Africa and combined research with a spiritual homecoming."

The Door of (No) Return
Cheryl Finley

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI

In the summer of 1953, Richard Wright left Paris for West Africa's Gold Coast, where Kwame Nkrumah, that country's first black prime minister, was about to make a historic bid for independence from British colonial rule. The purpose of Wright's trip--his first to Africa--was to document Nkrumah's political moment and to dispel stereotypical myths about the continent in the process. Yet as Wright's reflections in the now-classic Black Power make clear, his six-month sojourn became, as well, a personal pilgrimage to an ancestral homeland. "I wanted to see the crumbling slave castles where my ancestors had lain panting in hot despair," he wrote (6). He chose to travel to the Gold Coast by ship, then a twelve-day voyage, re-charting the course taken previously by slave ship captains and colonial officials from Liverpool in England to Takoradi in the Gold Coast.

Two summers ago, I traveled to Ghana to conduct research in the historic castles and dungeons of Cape Coast and Elmina. Since Wright's trip forty years ago, these sites have become hugely popular with tourists. I went there to study how the curators of these sites reconstructed the history of the slave trade, and how visitors interacted with the history exhibitions and the physical environment. Specifically, I wanted to understand how visitors formulated ideas about remembrance, cultural identity, and heritage in the space of the monuments.

Like Wright's, my trip to Ghana marked my first time in Africa and combined research with a spiritual homecoming. Prior to going, I had traveled from New York to England, where I spent several weeks examining archives and exhibitions in London, Bristol, and Liverpool, ports notorious for their connection to the slave trade. Consequently, not unlike Wright's, my trip to Ghana originated on the shores of its former colonial ruler. Instead of traveling by ship, however, I flew from London to Accra. From there, I took a State Transportation Corporation bus, crowded with Ghanaian travelers and tourists from around the world, along the rugged, hilly coast, and saw for the first time the crumbling forts and the angry waters that still churn around them. It was a view that I imagined to be not too dissimilar to the one that my ancestors in the coffle might have witnessed centuries ago on their defiant and painful march to the coast (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. View of balustrade and cannons at Cape Coast Castle

Such journeys, unusual in Wright's day, are quite common in ours. In recent years, increasing numbers of people of African descent, particularly African Americans, have engaged in what I call cultural heritage tourism, a type of travel-related identity seeking, where they visit monuments, historic sites, and other places of interest in an effort to get a glimpse of where they came from and an understanding of how they define themselves. The cultural heritage tourist in this case is typically middle or working class and travels as part of a group, usually a church group or an organized tour, with "roots seeking" in mind. Indeed, this type of leisure travel is also called roots tourism, in part after Alex Haley's popular novel and later television miniseries, Roots, which spurred the first big wave of African American heritage tourism in the late 1970s, together with the designation of both Cape Coast and Elmina as World Heritage Monuments by UNESCO in 1972 (fig. 2). But while cultural heritage tourism seems to be booming, it is not for everyone. When my sister, Lisa, asked about joining me in Ghana, I mentioned my research plans at Cape Coast and Elmina. Her response was, "Cheryl, that's depressing! Why would I want to go there and revisit that horror? That's not my idea of a vacation." I suggested that she could also check out a local village, the nearby nature reserve, rainforest, or beach, but being familiar with the history of coastal Ghana, she could not begin to imagine treading in waters that at one time had been so bloodied. Clearly, for some, the pain of visiting sites of such human devastation is simply too unbearable.


Fig. 2. African American tourists posing for group photograph outside of Cape Coast Castle with fishermen's boats on the shore

The attention directed towards Cape Coast and Elmina by tourists from around the globe, then, is not part of an isolated trend. Nor are members of the African Diaspora the only ones going to visit. Rather, Cape Coast and Elmina are frequented by Ghanaians, different groups of people from the African continent, and others still from around the world. This makes for an interesting mix of descendants of slave traders, both African and white European, and descendants of slaves at these popular yet controversial sites. Converging in the space of the monuments then are the contested memories of the significance of the place, different perspectives on which histories should be most emphasized, and which cultural group lays claim to them.

In other words, such sites become important battlegrounds for what I call symbolic possession of the past, that is, claiming the memory of a historic event by one social group or another. Symbolic possession of the past concerns a group's willingness to take responsibility for its past, to (re)claim a particular slice of history that defines who they are. As victims of traumatic histories struggle to possess the sites and symbols of the past, they begin to acquire the sense of agency to shape dominant narratives and to police their history, making sure that its significance is never forgotten. Because exercising symbolic possession of the past repeatedly affirms the existence of the group, this action constantly validates the identity of the members of the group. Understanding contests for symbolic possession of the past, then, can help us understand our attachment to (or disavowal of) lost or painful histories.

At the historic castle/dungeons of Cape Coast and Elmina, the struggle for symbolic possession of the past unfolds among visitors, who draw battle lines along ethnic, racial, national, gender, and class divides. Furthermore, the battle for symbolic possession of the past involves government officials and museum professionals, for it is at the center of the controversy over how these sites are treated as memorials (or not) and whose and what memories are represented there for tourist consumption. As I learned on my journey, no one group controls the symbolic possession of these monuments. Rather there exists an often contentious joint partnership, one that is fluid, shifting between many different interests, different features of the sites, different pasts. Wright's questions to himself before embarking on his trip to the Gold Coast laid out the complexity of the dilemma at hand: "Perhaps some Englishman, Scotsman, Frenchman, Swede, or Dutchman had chained my great-great-great-great-grandfather in the hold of a slave ship; and perhaps that remote grandfather had been sold on an auction block in New Orleans, Richmond, or Atlanta . . . My emotions seemed to be touching a dark and dank wall . . . But, am I African? Had some of my ancestors sold their relatives to white men? What would my feelings be when I looked into the black face of an African, feeling that maybe his great-great-great-great grandfather had sold my great-great great grandfather into slavery?" (4). Such questions still haunt today's African Diaspora tourists, nearly four decades later.

All photographs the copyright of Cheryl Finley.

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