Mr. Morgan, the tour guide, has led the group into a small chamber the size of my Belk dorm room. He points out that there are no windows. But I stand there fixated on the fact that three door frames stand between us and the courtyard. I walk further into the room, to give those behind me enough room to follow. I come to stand before one of the walls and stare at the etchings high above my head…I can make out the faint shape of a heart and some letters – perhaps an attempt to spell a name. It is haunting to think of a slave in this chamber, with only his/her thoughts for company, attempting to leave a reminder of themselves for the next “stubborn” slave to find.
But I do not kid myself into believing that the heart-shaped stain or those names etched on the wall were left behind by slaves. I know they were most likely just made by visitors, likely as a joke. I continue to stare anyways, my mind coming up with dozens of possibilities for how those markings came to be.
I hear Mr. Morgan’s voice fading as he moves back towards the door. He shuts it, with us still inside. The room is blanketed with darkness. I can no longer make out the wall that I know is only a foot or so in front of me and I cannot see any of the other visitors out of the corner of my eye. Blinded, I become even more aware of the moldy smell and the feel of my own sweat beading down my face. In that moment I thank Lupe that I’m not claustrophobic. The seconds tick by. No one moves. No one speaks.
For there is, quite frankly, nothing more appropriate in that moment than silence.
Then the woman behind me lets out an audible sound. I can’t describe it other than to say that if the feeling of a heavy heart were a sound it would be that.
We stand like that, in silence and darkness, for only a minute or so before Mr. Morgan finally opens the doors and we emerge out into the courtyard again. We’re silent still, the weight of the death chamber heavy in our hearts. That Belk room-sized chamber is where resistant slaves were brought to live out their final days in starvation and desperation. For African women, the threat of being locked behind those three doors came swiftly if she resisted “being taken to bed” (coded for rape) by the Europeans. For African men, it often happened if they attempted to break free of their chains.
Mr. Morgan continues listing examples of resistance. But I’ve stopped listening – I’m suddenly too busy looking around at the faces of the others on the tour group. Other than two boys, who look to be no older than twelve, I’m the youngest in the group. I’m also one of two who isn’t Black – the other is an Asian man. The rest of the group is composed of a Ghanaian woman, a Black British couple, and about six others whose nationality I do not learn. I confirm to myself then – surrounded by slave chambers ironically located below a Christian church – that for my fellow tour peers, it is (probably) a matter of diaspora. When Mr. Morgan speaks of “our brothers and sisters” who walked these tunnels and chambers in chains, I’m almost positive the words “brother” and “sister” settle differently with me than them. Sure, I can relate from humanity’s point of view. But from an ancestral point I cannot.
After the tour, I walk through the castle’s museum. Their section on the African diaspora reminds me that even here in Ghana I cannot escape some of the same questions of identity and race that follow me back in the States. Mr. Alex – the tour guide director – sits with me when I’m done. I ask him about his most memorable tours. And he tells me about witnessing several fights among friends after going through the tour together. He notes that it’s always among groups of friends composed of Blacks and whites. I chuckle because I can imagine why those feelings of anger emerge after such a tour. But I also chuckle because I do not know where I’d fit into that anger.
Eerie how Anzaldúa’s borderland metaphor follows me even abroad. It’s been a little over a week since our group arrived to Ghana and already I find myself in my usual and perpetual state of in-between-ness. I’m adjusting to having children shout obroni at me when I walk down the market road (obroni is often translated to “foreigner” even though it really only means white foreigner). I’m also growing to expect the puzzled looks when I say I’m from the US. My in-between-ness here, much like back home, becomes this odd reality of not being Black but also not being white. Just brown skin that’s probably already three shades too dark for my mother’s taste and curly hair that only seems to know how to frizz under the Ghanaian sun.
I’m spending a significant amount of time at the Cape Coast slave castle and its accompanying museum during the remaining five weeks doing research. Although, I like to think of it as a project far more personal. Though I may not check the “Black” box when forms ask me to pick a race (we all know I skip that question because I just don’t know), I also know that my motherland was on the receiving end of the slave trade. I know my dark features and curly hair are the likely products of the racial mixtures of Mexico’s colonial era. I may not be Black, but my Ghanaian brothers who shout “Sister, sister!” at me, likely in hopes I will buy something from them, remind me that I, too, am part of this (hi)story.
Just before I left I told Mr. Alex that I was planning to go through the castle on a tour multiple times. I think I saw the hint of smirk when he simply responded “Well, if you think you can handle it….”
I’m sure it won’t be easy. But I also know that I still have a lot to (un)learn about Blackness, primarily within my own cultural context, and these five weeks will be one small part of that necessity.
In the end I left my first visit of the Cape Coast slave castle and museum thinking back to a conversation between the Black British couple on the tour with me. As we descended the stairs from the governor’s hall back to the main courtyard the man whispered to his wife, “So are we products or victims?” His wife chuckled, shook her head but I didn’t catch her answer. On the taxi ride back to the guesthouse I found myself imagining that she didn’t answer. That, if anything, she said something along the lines of “We are both.” Because they are. I am. We all are. Not in an attempt to say that Blacks and white Europeans benefitted or suffered equally from the slave trade, but out of the mere fact that we can all find a way to make this castle’s history personal, if only for the sake of helping us empathize.
Because empathy, in great part, is what keeps slave castles a top tourist destination in Ghana. Yesterday was only my first visit. I can only imagine a fraction of what is to come while I’m there…
I’ll end with the words of a plaque that rests right outside the male slave dungeon:
“In ever-lasting 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 perpetuate such injustice against humanity.
We, the living, vow to uphold this.”