Going Back to Your Roots, The Journey Begins

Sankofa-Go Back to Your Roots
The trip begins.

Here in Ghana, you find a graphic language called “Adinkra.” Each symbol carries a complex meaning. The Adinkra symbol of a large bird walking forward while turning its long neck and head toward the path behind it reminds us to “go back to your roots.” Every time I walk down the streets of Kumasi I feel as if I have come back to some part of my roots. It is not as simple as tracing my bloodlines. To my knowledge, I have no West African relatives.  I am part Scottish Protestant and German Catholic with a dash of other Celtic tribes for good measure.  I grew up in the midst of a rural farm town in upstate New York with lots of Italians.  Though my family carries no Italian DNA, our daily routine is more Italian than Scottish or German. Many members of my family speak Italian. We grow grapes in the backyard and make the wine that goes along with lots of pasta, homemade bread and many other trappings of our adopted culture.  My wife has strong Polish roots. I have nieces who grew up in Vietnam and a nephew-in-law of Syrian decent.  We are quite a picture of American diversity but there is still no connection by blood or marriage to West Africa. Meanwhile, back here in Ghana, I do my best to learn the music, the language, the history, and the food, knowing that I will always be an outsider. So why do I still feel this illusive sense of coming “home” every time I return to Ghana?

Don’t misunderstand me.  This is not some romanticized fabrication of a westerner grabbing at straws to reconcile the mistakes of his colonial ancestry. Similarly, this is not a Stephen Colbert-esque satire on finding my “lost African heritage.” This sense of “going back to my roots” is more personal…it’s more immediate.

Maybe it emerges from the sense of raw and joyful hospitality I receive from friends, colleagues and strangers here.  Maybe it comes from the pervasive role that music plays in Ghanaian culture that resonates within my artistic soul.  Maybe it shines through the vibrant optimism that sustains Ghanaians in the hard work of building a country, driving them to push forward in the face of huge obstacles. This optimism often inspires me when I become consumed by the comparatively small obstacles I face back home. Certainly, I must attribute a good chunk of my love for this country to the friendships that have grown over the years.   Regardless of the color our skin, those that call me “brother” are those that I will know for the rest of my life.  We will follow the growth of our children together. We will share our sorrow when friends and relatives pass away. We will follow our respective careers, do some great projects together and look forward to the next time we can share some food and laughter- either on their side of the Atlantic or mine.

Beyond the personal connections I feel here, there are many reminders of how American ideas and culture are now returning to their roots.   We drove by the “Abraham Lincoln International School” in Manhyia yesterday.  I think that the former president would be proud to know that a West African school bears his name.  The same is true for our current president. Since Obama’s visit here in 2009, his name and image can be found everywhere.  In fact, while I write this blog, I am sipping a very nice cup of “Obama Tea” (I doubt he is receiving royalties!). There are also images of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement that show up on billboards, church publications, and small business advertisements. A while back, on a remote coastal road, I saw a hand-painted sign advertising the availability of farmland.  There was a simple picture and a slogan that read, “40 Acres and a Mule.”  I am not sure how many potential farmers here knew that this was the same deal offered to newly freed slaves (many with Ghanaian ancestry) in mid 19th century America.  I hope this offer works out better for them than it did for post Civil War Black Americans.

Last November, I chatted with the director of the Elmina Slave Castle Historical Site.  This restored fortress served as one of the largest trading posts for West African slaves, gold and other commodities of European expansion.  The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British ran this slave castle at various intervals for more than 350 years.  The director noted that Americans visit this place in increasingly large numbers.  He said that African Americans often come to Elmina because it represents the ancestry that otherwise cannot be traced.  Africans sold into slavery lost their names.  Records of their lineage were rarely kept or preserved.  The tools of Western genealogy are not available to today’s descendents of slaves, so Elmina provides a glimpse into a collective history…a history that represents all West African slaves and therefore reaches back to their lost ancestors. I shared with the director that when our SUNY Geneseo students come to Elmina, they discover a vital part of their history that is often forgotten in the American classroom.  Our Slave Trade curriculum usually begins with the slave ship, then continues on to the plantation and the ultimate struggle for freedom and equality.  We rarely explore the complexities of West African tribal conflicts and the colonial manipulation that placed so many slaves on those ships.  A walk through the solemn walls and battlements of Elmina goes a long way in filling the gaps of our historical imagination. The inscription on the wall of Elmina reads…

“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 again perpetrate such injustice against humanity.

We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

Going back to your roots places certain demands on those who dare turn back. This poem reminds us of the profound responsibilities of those who return to their roots.  To honor those who passed through these walls, we must make sure the mistakes of the past are never repeated.

Yesterday, Susan and I talked about this sense of “going back to our roots” during a long bus ride through the inland savannah in the northern Asante/Brong Awafo region.  Slender tree trunks stab the horizon, supporting graceful, arching palm branches that wave gently in the West African breeze.  These towering trees emerge from grassy fields that are peppered with small shrubs.  This is mostly a new growth savannah that is recovering from the deforestation of a much denser rainforest.  This habitat hosts many small animals, including Moma and Colobus Monkeys, small rodents, snakes, lizards, snails, etc.  The Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson once reflected upon his many years of research in Africa.  He suggested that the Western notion of the “backyard,” with its short grass, shade trees, shrubs and small pets can be traced back through our genetic memory to humanity’s origin in the African savannah.  He argues that the manicured, middle class, suburban lawns of America represent an attempt to artificially recreate the natural landscape that gave birth to our species.  While many scholars question this provocative argument, Wilson’s idea provided some interesting fodder for reflection as we drove through the inland savannah.

Even if we don’t accept such a sweeping theory of genetic memory, these days it is hard to escape the American music styles that are returning to their ancestral homeland.  Most forms of American popular music trace some part of their heritage to the mixture of West African and European music styles that occurred during and after the slave trade.  Antonin Dvorak, the great Czech composer of “The New World Symphony,” wrote in the early 1890’s about the importance of emerging African music styles to the unique artistic character of the young American nation.  Today, Ali Farka Toure, a singer and guitar player from Mali, is called the “African Blues Man.”  He has taken the Blues, a style born from the mix of cultures in the African diaspora, and brought it back home.  Similarly, Ghanaian dance music known as “High Life” has given birth to a new genre called “Hip Life.”  American Hip Hop has returned to its artistic roots and recombined with modern West African styles.  The music throbs with multiple languages, irresistible rhythms and some marvelous surprises not found in its American musical parent.  Furthermore, as a composer of multi-ethnic music, I cannot resist the chance to explore the points of contact between Ghanaian song and Western musical forms.  I’ve got some stuff on the drawing board now that will explore some of the same ideas in this essay with music.

So, we begin our trip in Ghana by returning to our roots.  However, this is not a one-way ticket.  Even as I look toward Ghana, like the large bird of Sankofa, I cannot help but to look over my shoulder back to the US. The yardstick of my life, on which I measure my moments of hardship on one end and joy on the other, seems to get longer on both ends with every visit to West Africa.  Those things that I experience here that are frustrating and frightening are more so than their equivalents back home.  Similarly, many moments of triumph and joy here push the frontiers of similar moments in my life in the US. In the last couple of years, Americans have hit the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. However, a visit to West Africa places the economic struggle of my family within a bigger picture.  Though we have had a hard time making ends meet, we have never doubted that our children would be fed.  We are confident that someday we will emerge into a more prosperous life.  That is not the case for many other Americans and also for many here.  Despite riding the ragged edge of survival, this country still radiates a sense of hope and muscular optimism.

When we look back to our roots for the purpose of understanding our present, we must remember that our identities are more than our bloodlines.   My ethnic roots define one part of me, but my experiences define much more.  There are days when I feel like I share more with my Ghanaian brothers and sisters than my fellow Americans.  There are other days here when I feel like I was born on Mars.  At any rate, I am grateful for the chance to know some beautiful people here in Ghana. I know that they will continue to add to the richness of my life.  I hope I can add some to theirs as well.