By Mwatabu S. Okantah
I understand, now, why Langston Hughes titled one of his autobiographies, " I Wonder As I Wander." The wondering and the wandering began in my life at about the same time I discovered my affinity for the work of Hughes, and several other black writers: Zora Neale Hurston, Aime Cesaire, Gwendolyn Brooks, Leon Damas, Lance Jeffers and Toni Morrison. I did not realize then that this wondering and wandering that began in some distant place in my mind would lead me to my own cultural heritage in West Africa. I did not realize then that there was relief to be found waiting inside the culture, that there was peace to still the tension; self-knowledge to embrace the alienation.
I only knew that I hurt inside my sense of my own emptiness. I could not describe it. Yet, I knew the prison of being ashamed of my blackness. I knew the shackles of being ignorant of the very things that gave black life meaning. Fifty years removed from Hughes and the rest of the so-called "New Negroes," the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same. My first trip to West Africa, in March, 1988, with a group sponsored by the Rotary Club, had served to confirm the ideas I embraced at the beginning of my own journey toward self-awareness. Our history begins before the black experience in the so-called "New World." Yet, I, too, could not avoid the inner turmoil of being an "Afro-American Fragment." I knew the white-blind of not knowing who I was; of having only a vague sense of my own identity.
In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote that "the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world; a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world." Our history is a living, evolving thing. We must ask ourselves, "What seeds did our ancient African ancestors sow such that we reaped our descent into captivity and this harvest of American days?" Our history has pushed itself forward through the rise and fall of empires; through the holocaust of enslavement and forced exile; through names and faces we will never know, save in dreams and imagination.
The questions remain the same. Too many black people in America are still fragmented inside this same pain. I remember those days. Meeting my first "African-from-Africa-African," while I was a student at Kent State, literally shocked me into the mirror, staring into my own face, wondering, "If he is an African, what does that make me?" Africa. I only knew Tarzan, National Geographic, Shirley Temple, Buckwheat and Stymie, blaxploitation films, J. J., and the rest. The nagging question of identity drove me in search of Africa inside myself. Who was I? Who was this people? Just how had we come to be?
I arrived in Lagos, Nigeria, on December 31, 1989, armed with my faith and the force of my own destiny unfolding. I also had graphic instructions from Nigerians I knew living in the States, two letters of introduction to deliver to strangers I would have to locate, and a recommendation for a "good' local hotel. I would begin 1990 in Africa. Even then I felt the need to begin preparing for the 20th century's end. I was in Africa again. I felt my adrenaline flow. I felt that intense excitement, that controlled fear I used to experience during my days as an aspiring wide receiver at Kent State; days that seemed so distant now. I was acutely aware of all the activity swirling around me. I was standing next to Kehinde Odubiyi, a Nigerian student returning home from Seattle. We had met standing in a line of Africans speaking mostly in French , at the Air Afrique terminal in New York; that we had English in common calmed my nerves as I thought about the chaos I knew I would encounter at Murtala Muhammad International Airport.
Africa. Almost immediately, you notice the faces. Looking back, it is utterly amazing that as a people we approach a new millenium with no real clue as to our proper name. Some of us are still Negroes. Are we just blacks? Are we just Americans? African-Americans? What? Or, is the real question, who? When you arrive in West Africa, you realize the sheer folly of the debate. You see it in the faces. Kehinde and I passed through customs without problems. Standing, waiting for our bags, another Nigerian traveler asked me if I could recognize any of the people as my people? I responded, "They are all my people." Kehinde smiled, and then guided me through the rush of boys who wanted to carry the bag of the dreadlocked "Black American." Kehinde negotiated a taxi and a "black market" money exchange. For safety reasons, he convinced me to stay at the Lagos Sheraton for at least my first night in the city, and he saw to it that I arrived in one piece.
On the morning of my first full day in Lagos, I was up early for breakfast, made arrangements to hire a car and driver, and returned to my room to gather my thoughts as well as my things. When I came back downstairs, I heard the sound of drums and a flute coming from the hotel lobby. I remembered it was New Year's Day. Instinctively, I moved toward the music. I saw my driver and motioned for him to wait. The musicians were warming up. They were the African Heritage Dance Troupe. They would be performing in the hotel throughout the day. I made eye contact with the flute player. During a break, he introduced himself as Umobit Christopher and we began to talk. I told him I knew no one in Lagos, and that I possessed two letters of introduction from a Nigerian friend in Cleveland who also managed an African dance troupe. Umobit rather matter-of-factly asked the name of my Nigerian friend. When I said Emanuel Ayeni, his face went blank. He knew Ayeni. They had worked together before Ayeni rather abruptly left for the States. He described Ayeni and named members of his troupe. I was stunned. Even before delivering my letters, a sign. I had met someone who knew Ayeni in the lobby of a hotel where I was not supposed to be staying.
Lagos. They call it the New York City of West Africa. People everywhere. Streetwise reality African-style; a cacophony of tropical sounds. People sitting on stoops, porches, balconies and outside hallways. Children playing in alleys, in courtyards. Vendors lined along both sides of the streets. Vendors hawking their goods at intersections everywhere. Traffic. In Lagos, they call it, "go slow." Taxis. Rickety cars. Luxury cars. Riding local buses, people asked if my hair was real. They wanted to touch my locks. Walking the streets of Suru Lere, I saw an angry crowd capture and beat a would-be thief, or, as they called him, "Tief Tief." Ikeja. Palm Groove. Lagos Island. I was fixated on the faces. It was all so strangely familiar. It was comforting. Black people are black people everywhere on this earth. Sowande was right. Indeed, the world is a village.
I traveled Nigeria from west to east and into the south; from Ibadan to Badagry to Enugu to Port Harcourt. Nigeria is the ultimate human laboratory for our urgent endeavor to reclaim and redevelop Africa. The diversity of peoples, alone, challenges the imagination; that these groups had their new "nationhood" imposed upon them by the British lingers in a still volatile Nigerian peoplescape. Master sculptor Bissi Fakeye, who traveled with me to Ibadan, spoke passionately of the difficulties in becoming a nation you have not named yourself. Afrobeat King Fela Anikulapo Kuti was right. Everything IS upside down. In a perverse sort of way, it was somewhat comforting to know that geography has little to do with our identity confusion as an Africans and peoples of African descent. The twin legacies of slavery in the in the Diaspora, and colonialism in Africa have left psychological and cultural scars.
When, for example, Umobit and I were received by the man known as "The Black President," Umobit introduced himself as Christopher and me as his "friend Okantah from States." Fela, serenely wrapped in his trademark towel, moved to the edge of his seat. The room was quiet, all activity having ceased when he entered the living room. His house was open. People came and went seemingly at will. He looked directly at us, a slightly amused expression masking his face. Shifting his gaze from me to Umobit, he said to no one in particular, "Dis man come from America. Him have African name. Dis man come from Nigeria. But him have American name. Now, what do you think of dat?" Names. The world is upside down. Whether we are talking about individuals, ethnic groups or nations, any people ignorant of their origins, who do not know their names, can only be a lost and wandering people.
The exchange with Fela served to crystallize the fact that black people were deprived of names in Africa and throughout the Diaspora precisely because names are fundamentally important to any group's resistance to domination. I think there is a direct correlation between African underdevelopment, European colonial and post-colonial oppression, and the changing of indigenous names. Too often, the cultural devastation wrought by colonialism in Africa is ignored or not taken seriously enough; the impact of the tyranny of speaking in received languages is minimized. Nigeria is a name coined by the wife of the first British governor. In so many ways, the imposition of European derived names may be more damaging, ultimately, than imposed colonial borders. More than anything, speaking in the various European languages has imprisoned us inside alien ideas.
Alien ideas. As an African-American, I knew about alien ideas. It had not been my desire or my intention, but, I found myself becoming an unofficial ambassador for the African-American people. Everywhere I traveled in Nigeria, people wanted to know more about our experience living in the USA. It was hard dispelling the notion that all African-Americans are rich; although in relative terms, it became readily apparent that as Americans of African descent, we are privileged. We have access to resources that are simply unknown to peoples of African descent living in other parts of the world. Yet, it was also evident that our people are experiencing the same struggle no matter where we are situated. Contrary to popular myth, in Nigeria I found that Africans in Africa are concerned about their scattered cousins living outside the continent. I was continually asked to tell my people on the "other side" to come "home." I left Nigeria secure in my own sense of myself as an African.
I arrived in Accra, Ghana, looking forward to seeing Dr. Nii Ayi Ankrah, who had received his PHD from Cleveland State while I was teaching there. He had become a senior researcher at the Noguchi Institute on the campus of the University of Ghana at Legon. I was in the land of Cape Coast and Elmina Castles; land of our kidnapped black past. I was in the storied land of Ashanti and Queen Mother Yaa Asantewa. The mythical land of Kwame Nkrumah. The mystical land where Dr. DuBois fittingly laid his "double consciousness" to rest. He had resolved his warring two souls into one by returning to Africa at Nkrumah's historic invitation in 1961. The man who challenged Booker T. Washington, and who had worked unwittingly to undermine Marcus Garvey, returned to Africa rather than tolerate and succumb to a hypocritically white supremacist United States of America.
I have not yet found the words to adequately convey my feelings as I stood before the enshrined remains of Shirley and W. E. B. DuBois. Their residence has been turned into the DuBois Center for Pan-African Culture. It stands as a living reminder of this African-American giant's impact on the African world. The spirits of DuBois and Nkrumah permeate the atmosphere as you walk through the house and about the grounds. A bust of Dubois stands guardian in front of the house, eyes looking straight ahead into brighter days. As I stood inside the former receiving cottage that now serves as the Dubois' tomb, I realized that Africa truly exists at the center of even our American days. I knew that coming to Africa is the ultimate pilgrimage for any American of African descent. I have no illusions about black people in America returning to Africa in large numbers. However, Africa is, and remains, the continent of our ethnic origins. It continues to define our uniqueness as Americans. Its fate holds the key to our survival as distinct African derived peoples no matter where we find ourselves domiciled on the earth.
I stood there, realizing that I was standing in what is essentially a sacred, ritual space. I thought about the significance of Molefi Asante's call for us to designate our own High Holy days; to acknowledge our own holy places. The poet in me soared. The words I could not find had become wings. I could feel my Self take flight. I felt renewed. I felt a deeper sense of my Self that had been unknown to me before my first sojourn to West Africa. Now, I was in Africa once again, only to have this same feeling return with an even greater intensity. I could feel my Self glow. After nine days in Ghana, I left Accra bound for Dakar, Senegal.
My brief stay in Ghana had also exposed me to the differences in color and landscape between West African countries. Nigeria does not look like, nor does it have the same feeling as Ghana. I was struck most by the fact that all Africans do not look alike. The people in Senegal were even more strikingly different in their features, stature and styles of dress. In both Nigeria and Ghana, people would consistently tell me I looked Fulani. After my arrival in Senegal, my hosts took me to visit a Fulani compound in Dakar and I was stunned to come face to face with faces that were mirror images of my own. It was wonderful to see myself in these tall, slender black people. Yes, in Senegal, I would be told that I was "light skinned like the Fulani."
I ended my tour of West Africa with a visit to the House of Slaves on Goree Island, off the coast of Dakar. In both Nigeria and Ghana, I also visited sites where Africans were held before being shipped into New World slavery. I saw and touched shackles, chains and the tomb of an African slave trader in Nigeria's Badagry. In Ghana, I was sickened by the stench that still lingers in the dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast Castles. I will never forget the sight of the vultures that still circle in the air. At Cape Coast, the male dungeons are situated beneath the Anglican church. It was more than ironic that European churches were always in evidence at these sites where African people were doomed to experience what remains the unspeakable African holocaust of enslavement. So, it was with trepidation that I boarded the ferry for the short boat ride to Goree.
The real meaning of my African-Americanness overwhelmed me when I stood in the House of Slaves looking out at the ocean through that infamous "Door of No Return." My experiences in Nigeria and Ghana had drained me of my tears and my anger. As I stood in that open doorway, I felt the deep pain of the African holocaust. Yet, I also experienced, for the first time, a new feeling; a feeling that caught me somewhat by surprise. Standing in that doorway, looking out over the jagged edged rocks along the coastline, I felt a serenity, a feeling that my soul could now find peace in the knowledge of what African people have survived. There was joy knowing that as Americans of African descent, we are descended from the one in ten who survived the Middle Passage. There was joy knowing I could finally lay my personal burden down.
I stood in that doorway, in meditation, freed from all the bitterness, knowing that we descendents of once-enslaved Africans can now make our way back to ancestral lands we can call home. There is no one to stop us from passing back through what is no longer a "Door of No Return." There is no thing, save our own fears and ignorance, standing between us and true self-knowledge. I stood in that doorway, comforted in the knowledge that although they have taken us out of Africa, they could not take Africa out of us. Africa is in us. We only need find it. Yes, I stood in that doorway looking forward to my return to the States because we have new stories to tell.