“I have to do it every day”
Chapter 9: “I have to do it every day”
This afternoon we’ll participate in what Katrina calls “a community dialogue.” She informed us earlier this week that as we meet peo-ple, any people, we should invite them to join us today. There were no qualifications other than an interest in talking about the legacy of slavery. Several Ghanaians, as well as African Americans, have been invited. We are reminded to speak slowly. Here in Ghana, we have the accent.
During our drive from the hotel, Katrina and Juanita try to focus our expectations. We don’t all agree. Some want to apologize for our ancestors’ role in the slave trade. Dain thinks it would be in-appropriate. He and Ledlie spoke with a Ghanaian priest yesterday who reminded them that Africans were full partners in the slave trade, so shouldn’t they apologize as well? James agrees with Dain about the apology, but he does think it is important to say how terribly sad we feel.
Abiko Eghagha, a young woman of twenty-four and one of our production assistants, sits next to me on the bus. So far she’s been mostly silent around me. Today she says, “Sometimes I think the African Americans who come here leave with hate. That is not helpful. It would be better if people would use their energy to make the world better.”
Our bus driver, Sam, pulls through an open iron gate and parks on the hard dirt in front of a large building. The walls are dingy white like the walls at Elmina Castle.This appears to have once been a school, probably built during colonial times. A hand-painted sign reads, “Darosem Restaurant; Cape Coast Town Hall; Catering for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Parties, Birthdays, Weddings, Etc.” Wide steps, flanked by two twenty-foot-tall trees as high as the front of the building, lead to the front doors.
DeWolf descendants meeting with Ghanaians, African-Americans, and others at the Town Hall, Cape Coast, Ghana. Courtesy of Katrina Browne
We enter a large auditorium with a stage at the far end. In places, its curtains have separated from the track above. Dozens of white plastic patio chairs are gathered in the middle of the open wooden floor. Far above, several ceiling tiles are missing. Others are cracked or discolored by leaking water.
Wide slatted doors to the outside are set into the sides of the auditorium. They remain open so air will circulate on this, another hot, humid African day. I walk outside and watch three small boys jostle and play together.
When I go back inside, Ledlie sits in the middle of a small circle of chairs that are filled with young girls in peach-and-brown uniforms from nearby St. Monica’s School. They look to be twelve or thirteen years old. I stand a short distance away and listen as he speaks with them about slavery, rape, malnutrition, and the Middle Passage. One girl asks if Ledlie’s ancestors bought her ancestors for a lot of money.
“No,” he says.
“They lied to us,” she says. “The white people said they are com-ing to make friends with us and trade with us. Instead they came and made us slaves.”
“Are you not ashamed of coming here?” another girl asks. The other girls giggle. They look surprised by their classmate’s boldness.
“Yeah, I am ashamed. It is a shaming thing.”
As more of our guests arrive, Ledlie’s intimate conversation breaks up. We soon sit among the students from St. Monica’s and more than two dozen adults of various ages from Ghana and the United States. We begin by introducing ourselves to each other.
Then Kofi stands. “Good evening to you all. My name is Kofi Peprah and I’m the co-facilitator for this program. We are all gathered here this evening to create history. We have a family from the United States whose ancestors were directly involved in the slave trade and it has created a lot of tension in their heads.”
Katrina explains the background of the project and Juanita then asks for a moment of silence to honor the ancestors who were taken from this continent, to honor the people who were taken on ships and did not survive the Middle Passage, to honor the people who made it alive to the New World. Their legacy is why we’re here. “When we talk about slavery and spiritual decimation, we often talk about black folks. But something has happened to white folks in this whole process. This family is trying to figure out what that is and they want your help and your wisdom. You don’t have to be nice. The last thing this family wants is for people to say things in a way that’s overly polite and is not getting at the real stuff.”
Abiko says, “If you are trying to ease racial tensions, why are you having this conversation in Ghana when the problem is really in America?”
An African American woman, Dr. Jessie Ruth Gaston, professor of African history at California State University, Sacramento, wears a bright fuchsia-colored wrap around her head and a light blue blouse. “Why Ghana? I say, why not Ghana? The participants in the slave trade are diverse. It’s not just an issue with the U.S.; it’s an African issue as well. Not all Africans participated. But some of the rulers did benefit from the trade. When I teach African history, it’s a hard area to discuss. It’s complex. Many times, when students learn Africa participated, they just throw the responsibility off.”
She talks about the treatment African Americans continue to be subjected to: one group of people has been taught that they are “less than” while another has been taught they are “greater than.” Everywhere in the world where there are black and white people, or lighter-skinned blacks and darker-skinned blacks, the images remain. The negative images connected to people of African descent impact them when they seek employment. The assumption is that they aren’t qualified. People question whether she earned her job or if it was handed to her through affirmative action. People of color can have college degrees, she says, but “When people see me, they see black.”
“That gets at the crux of the issue,” says Juanita. “There are things that white folks don’t understand that intensely affect present-day living for black people. How has this whole legacy impacted white people? What has it done to the ways in which they set up their families, their communities, the ways they move through the world, and the ways in which they deal with nonwhite people?”
We listen to example after example of incidents in which people of African descent are regularly suspected, followed, or looked down upon. We hear how young African American girls play with white dolls and how young black women want to straighten their hair to look whiter.
“When I was in college I read Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye,”says Katrina. “I had blonder hair than I do now and I cut my hair as short as I could because I was so upset that I had the kind of hair and blue eyes that were making young black girls aspire to look like me. It was such a quintessential white guilt thing. Until I started dealing directly with my family history, and working through my feelings, the guilt was all-consuming. When you hate yourself, you’re not an effective ally in solving problems.”
She says that one legacy of slavery for white people is that we don’t notice racial inequality because it’s too painful.”When you do notice, it’s so upsetting that all you can do is hate yourself. A lot of people get stuck in one of those two places. What I’m trying to fig-ure out is if there’s some other place where I can absorb the horror, yet be in a better relationship with myself and others in solving the problems.”
Kofi walks farther down this path.”Do you think the slave trade made the whites feel superior? Do you whites feel superior while you are sitting with us?”
“Whites of European descent have felt superior from the very beginning,” says Dain, who sits next to Kofi. “In every new country we went to, people of a different color we considered barbarians and savages.”
Kofi leans forward, looks directly at Dain, and digs in. “Do you still personally feel superior as a white person?”
“That’s a wonderful question for me,” says Dain as he taps his own chest and smiles. “I can say uncategorically no, I do not. I feel that everyone in this room is my peer at least, and some of you are probably my superior in many ways.” He tells about growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, a terribly racist community, in the forties and fifties.
“I was terribly racist. I remember walking behind black people and yelling out the word ‘chocolate.’ I remember throwing pecans at the flower ladies across the street from us, all of whom were black, simply to harass them. That embarrasses me very, very deeply. Was it the environment that I was in? Absolutely. Was it more than that? I don’t know, and that thought scares me. I may be afraid to dig for that answer.
“I feel very proud, frankly, that I have been able to overcome as much of that as I have. But it’s taken a great deal of looking inside, and it’s taken an enormous amount of risk to reach out and put my arms around those black people who I know. It has at times been very scary, because we’ve been taught to be scared of black people.”
“So Dain,” says Juanita, her head tilted slightly. “I’m curious. Do you really, really think that you’ve shed every single bit of the racial categorization and the racism? Do you really think it’s possi-ble that’s where you are? Because I know a lot of black folks who would think that wasn’t true.” It’s obvious that Juanita doesn’t think it’s true.
“And I would think that wasn’t true also.” He laughs. All of a sudden he’s in the hot seat and his bald head turns red.”I’m not sure I said it was completely gone.”
“You said overcome, and so to me…”
“Largely overcome,” he interrupts. “Let me narrow that down.” I feel a little sorry for Dain as he grapples for his next words. “My deep concern is that racism is a part of the human condition. Peo-ple want to feel superior to other people. I don’t think it can all ever be shed. What I can do is move how I interact with people beyond where I used to be, and embrace them. That is the best I can do.”
Juanita calls on a Jamaican woman, Dr. Kaylene Richards-Ekeh, a professor of criminal justice who, like Jessie Gaston, teaches at California State University, Sacramento. She wants to address how the legacy of slavery impacts criminal law in the United States. She explains the disproportionate percentages of incarceration of people of color—that when black people violate the law, they’re treated differently than Caucasians who commit the same crime. For the same offense, black people are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be prosecuted, more likely to be convicted and sentenced to longer terms in prison.”That is one of the legacies of slavery.When people violate the law I’m not saying they should not be prosecuted, but black people are less likely to be able to obtain a good lawyer, and justice in the United States depends on the lawyer you can afford.”
She discusses images in our society that perpetuate certain myths, such as that black people are criminals and drug addicts.And even though most people on welfare in the United States are white women and their children, the prevalent notion is that it is black people on welfare.
Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi teaches video production at Berkeley High School. He came to Ghana for the first time to study and to trace his roots. Eli tells about his Puerto Rican and Jewish heritage. He’s traveled to Israel, Puerto Rico — where his African ancestors are from— and elsewhere in the Caribbean. He says, “If you look at the whole world today, you have to ask yourself why blacks and Africans are at the bottom everywhere. In Africa, in the Caribbean, in South America and North America, the darker skin you have, the lower you are in society. That’s the effect of slavery.
“For the family that came here today, and for we of privilege in the United States, whether white folks or folks of color, do you really want equality and justice? We’re here today on top. If we weren’t on top, we wouldn’t be able to be in Ghana. Are you really willing to give up what you have to be equal? I figure the answer is no.” His voice becomes more animated. “You can talk about Nelson Mandela, and what he did was great. But the situation in South Africa is the same.The same people have the money. It’s easy to play around with, but when we’re talking about action and being real with ourselves, where are we willing to go with this?”
Ledlie sits across the room from Eli. “I’m a retired priest of the Episcopal church. My brother here asks the right question, and it’s very disturbing. I think of the parable of the young wealthy man who went to Jesus and asked what he could do and Jesus said, ‘You can give up your wealth.’ And he turned away sorrowful.” Ledlie says he’s scared of that image; that he would be that man.
“When I began this journey,” says Elly,” I thought I needed to return transformed into a disciple of a new vision or that I would need to be done. And I’m not going to be done. This conversation has to happen every day, every hour, with whites among whites, with blacks among blacks, between blacks and whites—every combination. We need to keep talking.”
“I’ve been a primary teacher for thirty years.” I turn my at-tention to an African American woman with a powerful voice and presence. Josephine Watts sits next to Jessie Gaston and sounds like someone who could keep the attention of a primary school classroom. She works with teachers who teach English as a second language. She says, “You asked what you can do. Take a closer look and try not to deny that racism exists, that injustice exists. You can do something about it. Minorities cry about it, and nothing is done. But if the dominant culture accepts it, then something can be done.”
Josephine says that at schools we need to ask the educators to accept blacks and whites on an equal level. Many black children have felt the stigma of a white teacher believing they cannot learn, that they have nothing to offer.”I sat in a class observing a white teacher. She only had two black kids in her class, and she was asking questions. A little black boy had his hands all up.” She waves her arm like a young child. “She kept telling him to sit down. This is in Sacramento. These things are happening to our black children.They grow up to be adults and here we are.”
“Can you help me?” I ask Josephine. She nods and smiles. “If I as a white person stand up and talk, whether I talk about Dr. Martin Luther King or about Nelson Mandela, I have the impression that people think I’m just trying to be politically correct. I don’t know how not to sound that way. Are there words or images that I could bring to this dialogue so black people don’t think I’m full of crap; so that black people can see that I’m trying to be a sincere person who wants to do better?”
Josephine’s eyes bore into mine from fifteen feet away. She says February is the only time we talk about black people. Throughout school curriculums the focus is on European culture, and subjects like Shakespeare, with which black students have little or no connection. When teaching math, why not include the contributions the Egyptians made? When education is broadened to include contributions by Africans and African Americans, blacks can start feeling good about themselves and then they’ll know we’re sincere.
“But if you just dwell on one thing, well, everybody knows about Martin Luther King.”
I respond that I don’t work in a school, and ask how to apply it in daily life.
“Daily life, okay. I was a teacher; only black teacher in my school. It took years for the white teachers to even invite me to any func-tions they had. Then, if we were going to a movie, they didn’t ask me if I was interested in the movie we were attending, and it was the most boring movie I ever went to.” Her comment elicits laughter. “Reach out to any minority person you’re working with and invite them into your home, into your circle. That’s a step. And once you invite them, don’t think it’s a token. Ask what they want to do this weekend. Just sit in our shoes. Make it a point to go to a black play or a black concert, so you can see how it feels. That’s a step.”
“See,that’s hard.”I’m not sure why I said these words.They just came out. I look at Josephine and shake my head.
“That is hard.” Josephine leans forward as she slings her words at me. Most of the group laughs and claps, but I don’t look at them. I focus on Josephine, who also doesn’t laugh. “Hey, I have to do it every day. I’m almost the only black teacher in my district. When I go to a conference, I’m the only black person sitting in that conference. Is it easy? No. But I have to do it. You have to do it. You have to do it in order to feel what I’m feeling.”
“Thank you,” I say. I continue to stare at her for several moments.
Dr. Gaston says, “What the family has hooked onto is the truth. Once a group of people get hold of the truth, they don’t just sit still on it. In African history or black studies, everybody used to say, ‘What is there to teach anyway?’ I have one African history class, to cover from ancient times to present. Now, what can you do with that? How can you teach the history of a continent four times the size of the United States all in one term?
“Once the truth starts coming out it will cause this kind of con-fusion amongst members of the dominant society, which sets off a chain. So I think it’s a good beginning. And what Eli was saying too, ‘But what now?’ ” She asks if we’re willing to talk about reparations and other types of programs. Becoming conscious of racial injustice and the legacy of slavery is only the beginning. “What then?” she asks.
That is the key question, I think to myself. What next? The truth is confusing. Actually, that’s not accurate —it isn’t the truth that’s confusing. It’s what to do with the truth that upsets the ordered world I’ve been raised in and taught to believe in. That’s confusing, and very challenging.
“I want to comment on walking in people’s shoes,” says Eli. “I never believed that would work. You’ll never get the experience the other person has.” He looks toward Josephine, “You said, ‘I have to do it every day.’ They don’t have to do it every day. So they’ll never understand what you’re talking about — ever. So don’t even think that you can. It’s not comparable. The direction you’re going is great, but if you’re not going to devote your life to it, they’ll never take you seriously. You can talk about Martin Luther King, or whatever, but they’ll know after you leave the podium you’re not real because you haven’t devoted your life to it. It’s not something you can turn on and off. It has to be a path, a walk of life.”
Eli’s comments ring true. It is my privilege that allows me to be here. Before this journey I never considered my own privilege. Of course I’ve known I’m better off than many people, but it has always been generic. It was “we Americans” or we “middle class” who had it better than “those poor people” over there. It was never me.
Listening today, I realize even more that I’ve been trained, invisibly and unconsciously, not to see my own privilege as a man or as a white person. I look down at the little notebook in which I write. Even this twenty-five-cent pad of paper is evidence of my privilege.
I have every confidence that all these notes I’m taking, and cassette tapes I’m recording, will one day become a published book.
I look around the auditorium and marvel at this moment here in Cape Coast, Ghana. I’m part of an amazing conversation with several Ghanaian people, but mostly with African Americans. Why don’t we talk together like this at home? Why did it take all of us coming to Africa? How can we whites understand what African American people experience, and how can they understand us, if we don’t talk with each other?
Excerpted with permission from Inheriting the Trade by Thomas Norman DeWolf. Beacon Press, Boston, © 2008.
Thomas Norman DeWolf was born and raised in Pomona, California. Tom began writing Inheriting the Trade in 2001, during the summer in which he joined Katrina Browne and eight distant cousins on their life-altering journey to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba, to make the film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. He has been writing full time since 2005. Tom and his wife, Lindi, live in Oregon. They have four grown children and three grandchildren.