Connecting with my family in America: Kyle Thompson
In my day-to-day work, I spend a large amount of time researching and understanding disparities that impact Ohioans through research, advocacy, and writing. Working with colleagues to address maternal mortality, behavioral health, or student debt, I am always learning about the difficulties and challenges Ohioans face. Learning these disparities impact me deeply, especially considering how many of them disproportionately impact Black people. Through historical practices that have shaped our present-day reality, many challenges that Black people face in Ohio are compounded by a deep legacy of racism that restricts progress, potential, and growth.
Through historical practices that have shaped our present-day reality, many challenges that Black people face in Ohio are compounded by a deep legacy of racism that restricts progress, potential, and growth.
In early June, I had the opportunity to attend a family reunion in Atlanta. I hadn’t seen any of my extended family since the pandemic. At the reunion, a relative gave a presentation about the family ancestry. They talked about the slave owners who owned my family and moved them around the country. In the presentation, I saw pictures of slave masters who owned my family. For the first time, I saw history in its absolute form as it relates to my life. Looking in the faces of the slave owners, I was exposed to a story, hidden and removed from my knowledge, slowly unfolding before my very eyes. Even more jarring was the knowledge that the family who owned mine was able to grow their wealth by keeping the ownership of my ancestors within the family.
From abstraction to identity
Learning about the legacy of racism is hard, and it’s especially harder when one understands how it intersects with their own history. Somehow the vantage point of discussing any inequality that impacts a marginalized population becomes blurred to a mere discussion, or simple statement that encapsulates a very broad, complex subject. Most importantly, this experience made me realize the importance of people tracing their ancestry and creating new traditions.
Learning about the legacy of racism is hard.
When I think about this history, I also consider the broader impact that slavery had on our ancestors and their connection to Africa. Black people lost something extremely deep and valuable—a relationship to another country, language, and identity. Hundreds of years of tradition, storytelling, and narratives which form the basis of our cultural heritage were lost. With the recent designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, many Black people have begun the process of investigating and exploring their own roots. Some even return back to Africa, ultimately making their past the present.
Traveling to Africa to connect with my roots: Natasha Takyi-Micah
Over decades, many people of African descent from the diaspora have been traveling to Africa to connect their roots that were erased due to slavery. Some African countries welcome this pilgrimage, such as Ghana with their Beyond the Return Campaign. I have been traveling to Ghana for a few reasons, but one of them is to connect to my roots (although my ancestors came from different African countries). In December 2022, I had the opportunity to travel to Cape Coast Castle with an NFT (non-fungible token) group I’m a part of called The Royals, which comprised of many Black people from the United States, Caribbean and other African countries to experience Ghanaian culture. The Royals participated in many events during that week, but I think the Cape Coast Castle was one of the most emotional places we’ve attended.
Visiting and revisiting the Cape Coast Castle
Before December 2022, the first time I visited Cape Coast Castle was in 2015. On the way to the castle on this most recent trip, I thought I would experience the same emotion I felt the first time: anger. However, I experienced more than just anger when we visited in December: sadness. The tour was a refresher of what I’ve learned from my first visit such as the shrine and Door of No Return, but I learned some additional details about the castle. As I entered to one of the slave dungeons, the tour guide explained to us that it was built under a church (which is now converted to a children’s library) where the slaves would hear Bible verses and Christian beliefs from the British. There is a huge hole in the wall of one of the other dungeons, which was used for the British to kill slaves en masse with dynamite when they rebelled.
There is a punishment room where slaves would die of hunger and thirst, with no ventilation, locked behind three doors.
There is a punishment room where slaves would die of hunger and thirst, with no ventilation locked behind three doors. Throughout the tour, people expressed disgust and anger, especially when we walked through the dungeon under the church.
After the tour, my husband and I talked to some African Americans about their reactions to the castle. Some described how it was disturbing that Africans were abused and enslaved for selfish reasons while others expressed they were processing the depth of the information that we’ve learned.
Enduring the risks of trying to become free
The feelings my colleagues and I experienced during the tour reminded me of the importance of why Juneteenth is celebrated. We celebrate it not only to acknowledge the emancipation of slavery, but to also understand the horrific obstacles our ancestors experienced from castles to plantations and the actions they have done to become free (e.g. running away, revolts, etc.). Many of our ancestors most likely died from trying to become free to ensure future generations didn’t have to experience slavery. Those who died before emancipation probably wondered how their decendants in the years to come might live.
We celebrate it not only to acknowledge the emancipation of slavery, but to also understand the horrific obstacles our ancestors experienced.
Although I may never know which slave castle my ancestors went through as their last stop before never returning home, visiting Cape Coast Castle—and Africa in general—was a form of closure for me. I was able to return to the continental home of my ancestors, and next time I visit a castle, I would like to pay homage to them. I believe other African Americans can benefit from traveling to Africa, making it their pilgrimage like other cultures. There are plenty of places to explore in Africa, especially in West and Central Africa where slaves were taken to the Western world. No matter where Black diasporans visit in Africa, we can all feel spiritually closer to our ancestors.
What we should do now to overcome racial disparities
As Juneteenth is gaining more recognition each year in the United States through community events and organizations acknowledging it as a federal holiday, this is an opportunity for all Americans to seek understanding—how our history, from slavery to emancipation, impact Black people from then to now.
This is an opportunity for all Americans to seek understanding—how our history, from slavery to emancipation, impact Black people from then to now.
If you’re a non-Black person, consider how Juneteenth ties to the how Black people are doing their best to overcome racist systems. Black people have been doing this for centuries, following in the footsteps of their ancestors who struggled and died to become free.
If you’re a Black person, try to understand your roots by engaging in family reunions, creating family trees or taking a pilgrimage to Africa. By doing these activities, we all can learn from the past, which will ignite a fire in every one of us to continue to fight racial disparities that exist today.