The following was presented as a reflection on February 26th at the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster 8:30AM and 11:00AM services.
The sermon references two readings: words from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (pg 70-71, published by Spiegel & Grau):
Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains – whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains. You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common will toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. Enslavement was not destined to end, and it is wrong to claim our present circumstance – no matter how improved – as the redemption for the lives of people who never asked for the posthumous, untouchable glory of dying for their children.
This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
and also words from “Between the Tragic and the Unhopeless”, by Joseph Winters — an essay from Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity, edited by David Evans and Peter Dula (pg 109-110 and pg 116-117, published by Cascade Books):
Love is more immanent and in the moment than hope; love is conditioned by, and the condition of possibility, for discovery, intimacy, and openness [to] others. And […] love is intertwined with anguish, hatred, painful pleasure, and disappointment. For Coates, love – as the alternative to pessimism – captures the complexities of our attachments, and repulsions, in a way that hope apparently cannot.
[W]e might say that hope for Coates is beside the point. Or, to put it less bluntly, our attachment to traditional hope and freedom narratives reduces the array of affective possibilities involved in beautiful struggles. […] we can say with confidence that Coates affirms both the tragic and the festive dimensions of black living and striving.
There is always more to the story.
We learned that lesson fairly early in our trip – three or four days in, when we visited the slave defence wall at Naa Jaringa. Ironically, that phrase came out of my mouth as we were waiting for the local guide to arrive to tell us about the wall. (Although EasyTrackGhana provided a driver and general guide, at each stop there would be someone familiar with that location who would show us around and share the details of that place.) As we stood around waiting in the heat, the girls started complaining: “Why are we just standing around here? Can we get back in the van and go?”
Now I will admit that I was also hot and annoyed; we’d been standing outside in 100o weather for far longer than EasyTrack had planned. Still, I ended up lecturing them: “We’re here with a mission,” I told them. “The folks at CMCL are supposed to be exploring and understanding the story of slavery in the U.S. We” – our family – “have done that already. Remember the Museum of African American History and Heritage? That basically starts with the slave ships that arrived from Africa. We’re here, in Ghana, to find out what came before that. What happened to our ancestors up to the point where they got on those ships in chains, so we can go back and share. Sankofa and all that. And this wall” – and I pointed at the rather unimpressive remains of this short little wall – “is the slave defence wall, which was evidently built by the people here to defend themselves from those who would enslave them. But we don’t know the whole story – and there is always more to the story. So stop complaining and wait.” Those may not have been my exact words. But I’m pretty sure that’s the gist of them.
And, as it turned out, what we’d been told – that the wall had been built by the local people to defend themselves from slavers – was not, in fact, accurate. When the local finally arrived, he told a story of a wall built by an ancient king afraid that he would be forgotten after he died. Evidently there were a lot of slaves who ended up being forced to work on this wall. And the local guide told us: “If a slave complained or said they were tired or sick, they wouldn’t kill them. Instead, they’d bind their hands and feet, and then put them on the wall… and just continue building over them.
The man telling us the story was proud of this fact; he considered this to be a clever method of motivating slaves who were trying to get out of working. Somehow, he didn’t register the horror on our faces. He was also proud of the wealth and power accrued by this king – at least partially built by taxing slave traders as they passed through his kingdom on their way south, toward the coast. “Of course”, he assured us, “the gate guards would ensure that none of their people were being taken by the slavers.” Far from being there to defend potential victims of slavery, this wall was instead literally built from their bodies.
There is always more to the story.
We visited the slave camp at Pikworo – one of the first locations we visited in the north, even before we visited the wall at Naa Jaringa. The guide there showed us places where slaves had been forced to compete for scraps to eat, forced to dance and sing and be joyous so that their captors would not be faced with their sorrow and despair. We heard stories of how the most fearsome slavers would set villages on fire at night, and then snatch away people as they ran for their lives. We saw markers for mass graves, and the rock where “problem” individuals were tied and forced to stare at the Sun until they died from dehydration. Our guide kept asking us why we weren’t taking selfies. He didn’t seem to understand that, just from his descriptions and stories, for us that place had become like Auschwitz or Dachau – a place forever marked with deliberate cruelty and unfathomable human suffering. He expected us to see it as a curiosity, perhaps – a relic of an earlier time, a simple memory of things past. I cannot say that my ancestors passed through Pikworo on their route out of freedom and into slavery, but it’s not unlikely; the last estimate I saw suggested that approximately one third of Africans delivered to the Americas came via the castles and forts in Ghana. Either way, the trip we took ended up tracing, however faintly, the one that those forced into slavery took – a grueling 500 mile journey from the interior to the coast. Even in the comfort of an air conditioned vehicle, I felt those miles, and I find that I am still mourning all of those who suffered through everything we witnessed – both those who survived and those who did not.
As we traveled, I slowly began to realize that these attitudes were not uncommon. Their ancestors were the ones who remained – the ones who were strong enough, or clever enough, or wise enough, not only to remain free, but also to profit off of the voracious Western appetite for slave labor. Why should they care about the victims of this? Why even waste thought on them? The stories we heard from them, of their history of triumphs and suffering, were the indignities inflicted upon them by colonialism. The problem wasn’t really the treatment of human beings, it was the loss of power, independence, and self-determination as the British systematically stole their wealth and resources. Oh, at the castles on the coast the guides spoke strongly about the evils of slavery – but in a generalized, anemic sense. There was no real recognition of the horrors that those who had gone through a Door of No Return – and every castle or fort had one – had endured, or the consequences of this upon their descendants, up to modern day. And, as we toured, I could not help but be struck by the irony of the situation: the descendants of the strong, the clever, the wise – all those who had remained – were now leveraging all of this history of slavery in order to attract tourists – some of whom were, like myself, the descendants of those deemed unworthy. Those who were, quite literally, sent out through a door, with no intention that they should ever return. Now, they want us to return – to bring to them some of the wealth generated by those stolen bodies.
There is always more to the story.
I must admit that when we left, I went with a secret kernel of hope. The United States hasn’t felt very welcoming to me for quite some time. And I’ve been drawn to the fantasy of an escape route – a place where I could go and feel at home, where I might feel like I belong. I’ve spoken with other black people who’ve gone to Africa, to Ghana – folks who (like me) are the descendants of slaves – and heard their stories, of how warm and meaningful the experience was to them.
That was not my experience.
Instead, I ended up pulled between extremes. On one hand, my ancestors survived and thrived, despite all of this horror. On the other hand, I now know what they likely had to do – both to themselves and others – in order to survive. On one hand, those of my bloodline were discarded as slaves – sold and branded like livestock – and because of that I now live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful, if not the wealthiest and most powerful, nation on Earth. On the other hand, this nation has always despised my blood, down to one drop. And although I am welcomed back to Ghana, it’s not because of my blood – it is because I live in one of the wealthiest and most powerful, if not the wealthiest and most powerful, nation on Earth. My identity is not valued here, and it is not valuable there. I found myself wrestling with this tension, and quite frankly despair.
During this time, I read several books that I had brought with me: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep, Between the World of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Christianity, and The 1619 Project. This last one, in particular, hit me hard; it laid out with cold academic precision just how integral slavery and anti-Blackness are to the structure of the American Dream – especially as supported by the evidence I had witnessed during our trip. (If you have not read it, I strongly recommend that you do.) I realized that the stability of Western democracies is rooted in white supremacy – that, in a way, the conservatives are right: they are championing the America that the Constitution intended – one that, for black folks, champions death instead of life, slavery instead of liberty, and the pursuit of white profits instead of the pursuit of happiness. Hope had been feeling tenuous for quite some time, but by this point in the trip, I felt like the greatest audacity was that of the lie I’d been fed all my life.
There is always more to the story.
In general, I’ve always hated the topic of “love” when it comes to Christianity. The discussion almost always turns to some sadistic parsing of Greek ideals – agape vs eros, with an emphasis on agape. “Sacrificial love!” “Christian Giving!” “Service in Grace!” These discussions never ask the harder questions: Who performs – or becomes – the sacrifice? Who is expected to give, and how much? Who serves, and who gets grace? And most importantly, who decides? Instead, the discussions tend to be simplistic and nihilistic, repeating mealy mouthed generalities designed to conceal and/or distract from the specificities of pain and suffering that pockmark the human experience. Christian love is as cheap and easy as Christian grace.
And yet, Joseph Winters’ interpretation of Ta-Nehisi Coates through a lens of love caught my attention. Between the World and Me has been part of my personal canon since the first reading – a welcome innoculation against the silky lies of American exceptionalism. And yet, it has not been easy to explain why it resonates with me. Winters description of love – immanent love, holding joy and pain together without attempting to resolve the contradictions – perfectly matched what I was experiencing. I cannot hope anymore; hope requires that I sacrifice awareness to avoid dissonance. But the core of this idea – acknowledging and facing these contradictions, “in all their nuance, error, and humanity” – has provided me with a path away from despair. As much as possible, I try to hold all of it together, and simply acknowledge what is: my ancestors suffered and endured, but also likely had to act with selfish cruelty, taking food and resources from weaker folks in order to survive. They were unwanted – discarded into slavery and shipped to a foreign land in chains, destined never to return… except I, and other descendants, are welcomed with open arms, as we bring desirable wealth to the “valuable” people who remained. The land of my birth is strong, and its continued endurance is likely strengthened by the shared identity of whiteness, built upon a fundamental disdain for the blood of the enslaved who built its wealth.
I don’t know that I’d call this approach ‘love’; that small word doesn’t quite capture, as Winters says, “the array of affective possibilities involved in beautiful struggles.” Instead, perhaps I will simply say that I have come to recognize and appreciate the complexity of joy and pain, of intimacy and anguish, of the tragic and the festive inherent in the brilliant constellation of living moments that each of us experiences. And the stories that we tell, to ourselves and others, as we explain, explore, organize, and make meaning of those moments, fail to capture the full intensity and complexity and nuance, in all of its terrible humanity.
There is always more to the story.