“Why do white people come here?”
An African American man asked that to our tour guide, Kwame, a few weeks ago and it’s been sitting with me since. The two of us were on a private tour (meaning I was able to join the tour with just him and the guide), standing in front of the Door of No Return. The door’s large wooden frame a reminder that three hundred years ago, 25% of all slaves shipped to the Americas walked chained across that threshold, never to return alive.
He was angry. At Philip Quacoo, the first black man to be ordained in the Anglican church. At Quacoo’s father for being an African slave merchant. At the British, who ironically built their Anglican church directly above the male slave dungeons. At those who ignored their roots in the diaspora. At the white men, who continue to benefit from the African Slave Trade. And despite some questionable comments, I understood his anger – at least I tell myself that I’m trying to understand it.
Though phrased quite bluntly, he was essentially asking how white people, irrespective of their own familial ties to the slave trade, could walk through those castle dungeons and then walk away. How could any of us? As he patiently listened to our guide explain some of the outbursts he’d witnessed over the years between Blacks and whites on tours together, I stood there thinking what it would be like to tour this castle with a group of Blacks and whites. Previously, nearly all the tours I had been on had been composed of a majority of people who are part of the African diaspora. I only had the memories of multiple tour guides assuring me that the tensions among racially-mixed tour groups were very real.
This past weekend, with the encouragement of my host mom (a former tour guide of Cape Coast), I made my seventh visit to the castle. Being a weekend, I was exposed to the influx of tourists making their way to the youngest slave castle in all of Ghana – the Cape Coast castle is only 351 years while the Elmina castle is 534 years old.
I joined a tour composed of 12 Blacks, 11 whites, and 3 Asians, led by Kofi.
After walking through the five male slave dungeons, the group is brought back to the courtyard. The guide stands by the first grave, that of Philip Quacoo . He recounts Philip’s life story – of being the son of an African slave merchant, being educated in England, and then preaching at the same church located above the dungeons that held his African brothers.
I stand off to the right of the group, having heard this tale numerous times before. But I take notes about the tour group. It’s one of the larger ones I’ve been on. As Isaac moves the group over to the other three graves (John Whitehead, Leticia Elizabeth London, and George MacLean) he points out that there are about five feet between Philip Quacoo (an Anglicized version of Kweku, a Wednesday-born boy) and those three graves.
The 3 graves with Europeans in them are clustered near one another, but the grave with the Black man is separate.
Ironically, the group has (subconsciously?) segregated into Blacks on one side of the tour guide and whites on his other side. As one of the white girl asks “Why are the graves separate?,” I chuckle to myself at the irony of the question. Sure, Kofi explains that technically the entire courtyard was used as a mass grave yet excavation of it only unveiled and identified those four bodies. But on every other tour that I have been visitors are quick to note that it speaks to the segregation that would follow the African Slave Trade.
For the rest of the tour, when we stop and listen to Kofi I notice an almost unanimous division in the group. The Blacks stand near one another, and the whites do too. I also made note of the fact that it wasn’t like they all knew each other beforehand – rather something about the tour had separated the group into two camps, leaving only a few outliers.
Yesterday, sitting with Mr. Alex after another tour I ask him if racial divisions like that are typical of a tour of that make-up and size. He laughs and says “Oh, yes. And that’s not the worst of it.” He reminds me of stories nearly every guide has experienced in his/her time at the castle – groups composed of Blacks and whites ending in verbal fights. One, in particular, always stands out: an American group of Blacks and whites, all friends, came to the castle for a tour together and ended up in one of the most memorable arguments the tour guides can recall.
I asked my host mom if she remembered such a group because she had an office at the Cape Coast castle for nearly eight years. Without hesitation, she said she remembered. I asked if she remembered the specifics, to which she simply said “There were horrible things said….that I refuse to repeat.” While a case study at best, that memory lives in the minds of all the older tour guides I’ve spoken to at the castle.
Though the tour I followed, with the racial divisions that bloomed early on, did not result in verbal arguments I can easily imagine why those tensions arise and eventually bubble over. It’s an ugly history.
There is sadness, tears, anger, and disbelief. Combine individuals who feel one more than the other and there is room for justified disagreement.
It’s why that African American man felt the need to ask our guide “Why do white people come here?” It’s why some tour guides crack jokes, “because sometimes you just have to break the tension that builds.” It’s why I’ve come to expect the audible sighs and shaking heads on every tour. It’s why the guides don’t shy away from pointing out when groups are not composed of solely members of the diaspora.
I came into this research of slave castles wondering how tour guides orient themselves in relation to the group they are teaching – how do they tell this history to Blacks and also to whites in a way that is accurate and just? But the “native” anthropologist in me cannot forget that my presence, neither Black nor white, changes the tour in subtle ways.
It has to, right?
The other day Tony asked what it would be like to have those of us in the Davidson group who aren’t Black or white go to the castle for a tour. How does this history fit into our own narratives? Similarly, a few days after that tour with the divided camps I took another tour with Kofi. He asked me if I felt ready to give a tour. He thought I was joking when I responded: “Only if you trust me to do so.”
He laughed but a large part of me was being serious. Who am I to recount this very personal and very heavy history to a group of people? I do not doubt my ability to recount facts and figures. But what has made these tours come alive, for me at least, has been the guides. They each have their own way of presenting the information and the more I get to know them the more each of their ways makes sense. Kofi told me that if I give a tour in the two weeks that remain I’ll simply have to find my own way.
Of course my mind races down ten different paths, questioning each. As always, I’m left with more questions than answers but that’s part of the anthropologist mentality in me, I say. Though I’m not sure I’ll lead a tour at the slave castle, I do know that I have learned many skills that will surely be applicable to my role as a docent back at the Levine Museum in Charlotte.