We welcome a guest post today from Jonathan Scott Holloway, author of Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940. In Jim Crow Wisdom, Holloway analyzes the role of race memories in developing, articulating, and fortifying a sense of communal identity among African Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. Employing the methods of several academic disciplines as well as first-person narrative, Holloway investigates the various ways in which African Americans have used their own memories in forging racial identity before and after the civil rights movement, and considers the ways in which these memories have contributed to class consciousness and political ideologies in the United States. Fundamentally a book about the concept of black memory and identity-building, Jim Crow Wisdom is also a deeply personal project about the effect of group and individual memory on the construction of racial identity.
Here, Holloway raises important questions about sites of slave trade remembrance.
In late June Barack Obama traveled to Africa on a multi-stop tour of western and southern African nations. Because he was unable to visit with the ailing Nelson Mandela, the most prominent photo opportunity came when Obama stood solemnly at the Door of No Return in the Slave House at Senegal’s Goree Island. The symbolic value of a black president of the United States—with half of his family line just one generation removed from Africa—standing at the same threshold where millions of captives moved from holding cells to waiting slave ships was obvious.
Perhaps too obvious.
As Washington Post reporter Max Fisher pointed out, historians have debated the numbers of captive Africans who passed through Goree Island’s Door of No Return, one of the most famous markers of the slave trade on the West African coast. In a follow-up article, Fisher went into greater depth on the topic, emphasizing the evocative power of what the door represented even if relatively few or any Africans passed through. Fisher understood that even if the Goree Island Slave House Door of No Return is only a “sincere fiction” it nonetheless remains a valuable reminder of the very real horrors of the African slave trade. The door is a site that is important for both its theatrics and its honest invocation of inhumanity.
Goree Island is not the only site of slave trade remembrance on the African coast. Further south, in Ghana, there are two prominent warehouses, most often referred to as the slave castles at Cape Coast and Elmina, that are part of a thriving tourism trade catering mainly to black American travelers, many of whom are on roots journeys to “return home.” Just as Post reporter Fisher is right for asking critical questions related to Obama’s photo op at Goree Island, we can profit from asking challenging questions about a tourist trade that offers an uncomplicated reconciliation and welcome home at the same time that it traffics in horror.
The last stop on the official tour of Cape Coast Castle is its Door of No Return. There, tour guides explain the meaning of the door and what Africans encountered when they left the castle for waiting ships. Then the guides open the door and encourage the groups to go outside. At this point in the visit, tourists learn about a ceremony in 1991 when the remains of two former slaves, Crystal from Jamaica and Samuel Carson from the United States, were exhumed and transported back to Ghana. Their bodies were passed from the exterior of the castle into the courtyard through the Door of No Return before being reinterred upriver. As part of this ceremony the exterior side of the door was renamed the Door of Return.
After tourists walk back into the castle through the Door of Return they find a large tile plaque affixed to the wall that reads “AKWAABA.” Usually, “akwaaba” means “welcome.” Now, however, a more formal interpretation of the word is intended: “welcome home.” This is where the tour of Cape Coast Castle concludes. The tour guides, having just led the group through various chambers of horror, say that with Crystal’s and Samuel’s return Ghana welcomes all of its brothers and sisters home. Then they teach the group that one of the typical responses to “akwaaba” is “maydasi,” or “thank you.” They offer a “new akwaaba” to the group, asking that everyone respond with “maydasi” in unison, on this occasion meaning more than merely “thank you” but “thank you for welcoming us home.”
But what is this home?
After the guided tour is over tourists are free to walk around the castle, ideally stopping in the castle gift shop after they finish their own visit of the museum on the second floor. The entrance to the shop is immediately to the right upon exiting the museum. There, a banner proudly positioned above the door signals that this is a stop not to be missed. It turns out that the Cape Coast Castle Museum Shop was recognized at the Eighth National Tourism Awards ceremony as the Tourism Retail Outlet of the Year, Coastal Zone. The restaurant that one could find in Cape Coast Castle in the early 1990s never had the chance to earn similar accolades. It was closed almost as soon as it opened when African American tourists complained that building a restaurant in the castle was akin to putting a café in a cemetery.
In Elmina Castle tour guides lead groups through a fairly similar narrative of capture, rape, inhumanity, and degradation. In Elmina, however, the tours do not end at its Door of No Return but at the church (for the garrisoned Portuguese troops) that was built in the courtyard less than twenty yards from the windowless punishment chamber where captives were chained together and left to die as an example for other Africans who were tempted to challenge their treatment and fate.
If the proximity of the sacred and the profane were not enough to overwhelm the tourists’ senses, a 2011 exhibit in Elmina’s museum makes clear that troubling questions about the connections between history’s traumas and tourism remain. The exhibit details the renovation and preservation of the castle and unintentionally captures the underexplored ethics embedded in the phenomenon of renovating a site of horror simultaneously for historical preservation and the tourism trade.
The final poster in the exhibit is titled, “Building on the Past to Create a Better Future.”
Jonathan Scott Holloway is professor of History, African American Studies, and American Studies at Yale University. Jim Crow Wisdom is his fourth book.