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Christopher Lydon

Christopher Lydon

Posted: February 8, 2010 08:07 PM

Ghana Speaking: The "living wound" at Cape Coast Castle

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I'm in Ghana for a week -- starting from Cape Coast, toward the western end of Ghana's Atlantic shore. Cape Coast is a university town and a major fishing center in West Africa. It's the spot where First Lady Michelle Obama locates her ancestors. It is the site of the Castle that President Obama and his family visited last July. No ordinary tourist attration, the Castle is the place that haunts human history eternally as the point where millions of Africans were warehoused, then shipped in the infamous Middle Passage to slavery in the new worlds of North and South America.

I am picking up many threads (starting with slavery) of a conversation that began most of ten years ago with the poet and teacher Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, at the University of Cape Coast. His voice has become for me one of the beautiful deep songs of Africa:

Before I'd ever met Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, his book of poetry and prose, Cape Coast Castle jumped into my hands off a bookstore table in Accra, and many of his lines seemed to clutch my heart and never let go:

Slavery is the living wound under the patchwork of scars. A lot of time has passed, yet whole nations cry, sometimes softly, sometimes harshly, often without knowing why...

... perhaps the most horrendous experience of the victim society belonged to a group hardly ever mentioned in the literature: the damned who survived, those deprived relatives of the captured African. These included parents, brothers and sisters, uncles and other relatives and friends who knew and cared for the captive. In a way, theirs was a lot de profoundis, a lost of deepest death. For they were denied the cathartic benefit of a burial for their loved ones. Olaudah Equiano, the 18th century African abolitionist, tells the story in his autobiography of 1789 of how, as a greening youth, he and his sister were kidnapped from their Igbo village by slavers while their parents were at the farm... And yet what we read is not the full story, only a portion of it. For Equiano's mother came home from the farm one evening to find her only daughter and youngest son stolen, never to be heard from again. We do not know her story. Nobody knows the story of her grief...

The Castle is a standing provocation to thought and action: upon its disarming rests a whole people's freedom. Cape Coast Castle, the metaphor and the edifice, is a society in itself, a society of experiences, a system or order whose fundamental concepts are planted in the disordering of our society. We kneel because it stands, and it stands for a system of production, distribution and exchange. But it does not tend what it produces, does not nurture what it distributes, does not value what it exchanges. There is no tending, no nurturing, no valuing...

The fact is that the pressures of our societies today, the tributes we play in blood -- colonialism, neo-colonialism, even poverty in the lopsided world order -- are largely the effects of the slave trade. In the trade, societies were ransacked, the land was gutted, its human loam was washed to the sea, its potential was stunted...

Slavery gives the enslaved nothing but a legacy of pain, alienation, fear, and worst of all, a fetish erected around the denial of the fact and lasting effects of enlavement. It is a fetish that allows us to pretend that our world is whole; thus we nullify the castle by incorporating, then ignoring it. And so we live in a shattered world with an eroded sense of history in a world we swear is whole.

Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, Cape Coast Castle, A Collection of Poems, 1996. Pages 1 - 10.

I associate Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang with a broad and deep unofficial drive in Ghana to break an old silence around slavery. About the time his book was published, a troupe of Jamaican musicians and dancers refused to perform at Ghana's first Pan-African Arts Festival, precisely because it was being held in the Castle where their forebears had been stockpiled in chains. In public and private, Ghana's conversation about itself has never been the same again. In my first Cape Coast reunion with Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang we're trying to keep the inquiry perpetually open-ended, as he says, "so that every new generation may visit it to quarry its lessons."

 

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