Finding A Way Home Through 'The Door Of No Return'

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Captive Africans at Elmina Castle were led through the "Door of No Return" to ships that would take them to the Americas as slaves.

So the family lore goes something like this: My mother was getting a checkup and some shots before a trip to Ghana with her boyfriend, who was from Accra. Then her doctor told her she was pregnant. Then more tests and more news: She was pregnant with twins. She would have to cancel her long-anticipated sojourn to the Motherland.

I was in my early 20s the first time my mother told me any of this, just a few days before she finally got around to her trip to Ghana. I was in my feelings as she casually shared this story. For decades, she'd put much of her life on hold for my sister and me — the twins. I was happy for her and felt a little sentimental about it.

I said nothing about the passing mention of her old boyfriend, my father.

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I landed in Accra for the wedding of one of my closest friends. It was my first time there.

When we got off the plane, we were shaken down by a short, imperious airport employee named Edith who insisted that there was something wrong with my immunization paperwork. She said if we gave her some money (at our discretion, wink, wink) she would let us pass.

So I was already irritated as I waited for the customs officer to leaf through my passport.

"Welcome back, Mr. Afum," he said, and looked up at me with a smile.

His skin was a little darker than mine and much smoother. He called me by the second part of my last name, the one after the hyphen, the one I never use or think about except when I'm filling out official paperwork. My father's name. It was right there in my passport information. Gene Demby-Afum. The customs agent had taken me for a Ghanaian.

"Oh, I've never been here before," I said.

He seemed incredulous.

"You don't have any family here in the city?"

I told him no. But that probably wasn't true. Accra was once my father's home; I almost certainly had uncles or aunts or cousins — hell, maybe even half-siblings — who lived somewhere near there.

The agent handed back my passport.

"Enjoy your stay," he said with a smile. Then we headed into the city.

This will sound hard to believe, I know, but I hadn't really thought about the familial connection I had to Accra until then. Was there something distinctive about Afums? Was it just the Ghanaian equivalent of Jackson or Jones? This Afum business irritated me.

About that "crisis of the black family"

OK, cards on the table: I hate talking about my father. And I hate it not because of any particular feelings I have about him but because of all the ways the story of black fatherlessness has been warped and weaponized.

How does it make you feel? You know, to not have a father? Don't you want to know about his family? Do you wonder what your life would be like if your dad was around?

You will feel a vague annoyance whenever people pose a question to you like that — and many otherwise smart, courteous people will ask these things way more often than you might think. They've seen that misunderstood fact that 72 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. And they wonder how you fared, because of, you know, The Crisis. And you will bristle at the implication that there's a kind of melancholy and yearning they want to hear expressed, a familiar template for brokenness that they want to see performed.

And by "you," I mean me.

How are you faring, black man, in the daunting personal project of crafting your masculinity out of thin air?

I know I sound defensive, which is why I don't like talking about it. But let's back up a bit. In the Moynihan Report in 1964, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an official in Lyndon Johnson's administration, sounded an alarm about the deteriorating economic condition of black folks in America. At the core, he wrote, was the rising rate of absent black fathers, which led to "the weakness of the family structure."

His idea about black fatherlessness is now one of our most well-worn tropes: that it foments "aberrant, inadequate, or antisocial behavior that ... now serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and deprivation." It's the kind of thing that gets repeated so often that its invocation, without interrogation, informs today's lexicon of pathology: "Black-on-black violence," "the achievement gap," mass incarceration.

And because I write about race, I get to read all the ways this explanation can stretch into the absurd. Did you know that the paltry number of black baseball players in the major leagues is a byproduct of absent black fathers? That specious-but-popular idea was the headline of a press release I got in my email from a think tank as I was writing this essay. When I wrote a piece about the persistent phenomenon of white folks out-earning black folks, an exasperated reader emailed to tell me that the major reason for the racial wage gap was obviously the rate of black children born to unwed mothers. You know, black children like me.

Accra is a crowded place. Its population is about the same as Houston's, but it's packed into an area one-seventh the size. The traffic is awful. There were men and women carrying heavy loads on their heads in the sweltering heat as our small American contingent rode by them. The tro tros, vans that folks use as shared taxis, boasted inspirational phrases on their windshields like God Is the Way. Malik, a large, gregarious dude from Virginia, quipped to no one in particular: "Soooo, this is exactly what I imagined Africa would be like."

There's this thing that happens a lot when black folks from the States visit West Africa. In the retelling of the trip, the excursion takes on the language of pilgrimage — of finally going home. I think that's especially true for folks who travel to Ghana, the birthplace of the pan-Africanist movement — a place some black Americans see as a kind of ancestral homeland for the diaspora. That feeling makes sense, even if it requires an oversimplification of what we share: this universal blackness.

As our group walked down a teeming, dusty street that afternoon, our American-ness wafted off of us. Folks in cars craned their necks to look us over. We were being shepherded by a wiry, charismatic local dude named — no joke — Prince Versace. He knew everyone, and when we asked about his life, he offered each of us a different backstory. He was a former professional soccer player. Attorney. Carpenter. Whatever he thought we wanted to hear. People hawked their wares, calling them cultural — as in, the inscription on this bracelet is cultural and has special meaning. They were trying to sell us authenticity, some real, pure African shit.

I wasn't trying to divine from the faces at the market or on the street any semblance of my father — hell, I couldn't if I wanted to, since I only vaguely remember what he looks like. Here's what I can remember. He had an accent. He worked as a janitor in a hospital in Center City, Philadelphia. The last time I saw him I was maybe 13. How could I have recognized his face in the people around me?

But maybe someone else might recognize something familiar in my face. Maybe a telltale tilt in my walk. There are a million ways that that was ludicrous, I know. But I still felt something vaguely like disappointment.

How it really worked in my fatherless family

Family isn't merely lineage, but lived experience. Here, then, was what my lived experience was like growing up in South Philadelphia: My mom worked and fed us and tied my ties; my grandmother, who lived a little over a mile away, watched us after school and picked me up from Cub Scouts; my aunt fussed at me about my grades, and my cousin, her daughter, taught me how to shoot free throws. There were other relatives and play-cousins in the mix, too, but, this is how my family looked and worked — how nearly all the families around us looked and worked. It did not occur to me that all that fawning and fussiness and guidance was "weakness" in our family structure until other people labeled it that way.

My friend, the bride-to-be, gave a trigger warning to the busload of her American wedding guests ahead of our day trip to the Elmina slave castle.

It's going to be a lot, she said.

The 500-year-old fortress sits on the Gulf of Guinea, and for centuries it was a major hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I had heard stories from other black Americans about how traumatic these tours could be. Still, I told myself that I would not become some blubbering American cliche, that I could approach it with respectful remove. I knew this history. I was sure I'd be ready for it.

I was not.

It didn't hit me all at once. I felt a rising disquiet almost as soon as the guide, a bald man who spoke too quietly, started to lay out the rough history of the castle. He took us to a courtyard.

This is where the Portuguese governor who oversaw the castle would line up the captive African women and choose one to rape.

I tried to camouflage my growing panic as we were led to several barely ventilated dungeons that were the sites of routine torture and deprivation. The Europeans who once ran the castle wanted to starve and cull the Africans they considered weak. I lingered outside each station for as long as I could before joining the rest of the group.

We ducked our heads as we went through a dark passage to reach the "Door of No Return" — a glorified hole in the castle's stone wall that led countless captive Africans to enslavement or death.

And then we came to a dungeon with no windows, with the painting of a skull above its door. The guide told us that this was where people who tried to revolt or escape were sent to rot. A few centuries ago, this was hell. Our guide closed the door and we stood there in total darkness. He asked us to bow our heads as he recited a prayer for the thousands of people who died on the castle grounds. I didn't hear what he was saying. I was crying.

I felt none of Ghana, the genealogical fact of it, in me in the castle that day. I felt linked to different forebears. Not to my absent father, but to the people who were wrenched from that part of the African coast, crammed into the hulls of ships and sold on another continent like livestock. Those people from far-flung tribes and villages who arrived in their new land and cobbled together families that slavers and slave masters tried to shatter centuries before anyone sounded an alarm about the "weakness of the family structure."

I felt the pull of this shared story, horrifying and beautiful, that shaped the lives of millions of Americans, including a black woman, her daughter and me.

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