Pull up the sound system vibes and draw for the Steppin’ Razor, the great Peter Tosh who wailed out:
“400 years, (400 years, 400 years, ahhh ahh ahh ahh)…
Come on, let’s make a move (make a move, make a move ahh ahh ahh ahh)…”
This year and this month Ghana will fling open its doors to the diaspora as a way of acknowledging that 400 years ago a small group of enslaved Africans arrived at a coastal English colony in what is today known as Virginia, USA. In what Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo is calling “2019 – The Year of Return,” Ghana opens its borders to Africans who have been adrift in America, so to speak, since 1619. Below you can see video of the speeches given at the United Nations General Assembly (Sept 2018).
With “The Year of Return” Ghana acknowledges what Marley taught us in the lyrics of “Buffalo Soldier”; that “we were stolen from Africa/ brought to America/ fighting on arrival/ fighting for survival.” So for Ghana’s investment in bringing diasporans home, we should give thanks. For reducing the red-tape of international bureaucracy relating to visas etc., we are grateful. We should celebrate Ghana’s welcome, but we should be aware of the choice to pivot around 1619 as a year of departure or entry because 1619 actually privileges the birth of white America more than it acknowledges Africans in North America.
Truth be told, some 500,000 Africans criss-crossed the Atlantic as slaves aboard European expeditions long before 20 enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. The Dutch, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese investment in exploiting and enslaving Africans had been active since the early 1500s. But these pre-1619 endeavors were not always “successful.” For example, Spanish invaders that had attempted to settle in present-day South Carolina were forced to leave in 1527 because the enslaved Africans that they brought with them rebelled, revolted, and destroyed the possibility of the Spanish settling.
The year 1619 is politicized because it is the year America has carefully selected as the start-point of its story. Today the desperate men who invaded the land that was once called Tsenacommacah are remembered less as Englishmen and more as “early” Americans who settled Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. Thus, for centuries native peoples and their place names have been largely unspoken and unknown by the general population because of the imposition of American imperialism on the production and recording of histories.
The record books tell a story of the first enslaved Africans in present-day America being some “’20. and odd Negroes’ [who] arrived off the coast of Virginia” in the year 1619, and this is the story that substantiates 2019 as “The Year of Return” to Ghana*. But this history denies the lives of the half-million African rebels, victims, and martyrs of the 1500s. By erasing some and promoting other stories, history is made political. And, more dangerously, these political histories often remain unchecked and unchallenged for centuries.
The history that is recorded is the history that we recall. But, what I urge us to keep in mind is that this 400th anniversary is only one anniversary for one arrival event that privileges only one nation’s oppressive history. In reality, Africans were forced out into the diaspora at least a hundred years before 1619.
History class aside, if Ghana has been calling you, this year will be full of repatriation pomp and circumstance. So, if you’re feeling the pull, then pack up the house and the kids and be welcomed by the unfamiliar familiar of faces that look like yours yet speak with dissimilar tongues. If you’re feeling displaced in America, then pack up the suitcases and boxes, return to Ghana after more than 400 years of being adrift. Go back and satiate your desire for an unknown nostalgia triggered by colonial rupture. And if we all “return” to Ghana this year to live and work and raise families, what will the history books say? How will “The Year of Return” be written about and memorialized 400 years from now? Who will be the Peter Tosh of the future to sing the songs of history? I’m not entirely sure, but I am confident that it will be politically influenced.
Personally, I do not think I am yet ready for a full-scale move. I still have metaphoric boxes of culture and family secrets here in Jamaica that I need to sort through. So I’ll start with a one-week trip to Ghana’s capital city of Accra for Afrochella (think Afropunk mixed with Coachella) at the end of December 2019. Something tells me many more diasporans will make the concert than the move.
*Because Ghana has only been an independent nation since 1957, politically, “The Year of Return” could not have happened sooner than now. The colonization and independence of Ghana is noteworthy, for sure. If you wish, we can discuss in the comments.