By James Morgan


I will start this post off by saying that I have not seen Disney’s new animated feature film “The Princess and the Frog” and therefore must also say that this writing is not meant in any way to be a review of the film because obviously at the time of this writing I am in no way qualified to review it.

Instead what I would like to discuss in this article is the political, social, and racial discussion surrounding this film even prior to its release and hopefully bring some clarity to the discourse at hand. If one simply sat down and read a portion of the thousands of different blogs and thread discussions on the internet or if one simply googled the films title one would find a wide variety of opinions most of which along the line of “finally Disney has created a Black Princess”.

My question is “Why is the Black community waiting for Disney to do something we should do ourselves?” Time and time again I have read comments from people claiming to be African American parents (mothers in particular) who say that although they have some quarrels with the film still feel that racial progress is being made and that Disney’s latest animated feature is a sign of that. As a matter of fact the comment that prompted me to write this article was one that stated “Finally I can tell my daughter that she is a Princess, just as good as any white one, and she will have an image to connect to.” Upon reading this comment and the many others like it I became perplexed, but not at all surprised, as this discussion has been going on, even in my classes at Howard University’s John H. Johnson School of Communications.

The African race were the first to establish royal titles and positions, why then must we wait for a fictional account from Disney in order to make ourselves feel validated? There is a small but growing contingency of filmmakers and artists who are creating cartoons targeted at children of African descent but can be enjoyed by a child of any racial background.

This year I became a fan of Kirikou, originally a Francophone animated film that has made it’s way stateside via DVD release and Youtube. All over the world Africans are re-inscribing cultural ways of meaning and our own historiographies without any interpreters nor are we waiting on Walt Disney’s estate to do it. Why then has this films gained so much of a following, even before it has been released? I understand that Disney films have a certain cultural value in the United States, however the true use of symbolism in the film, even based off of what little bit I have seen is, enough to make at least one eyebrow raise, even if that eyebrow has to be my own. A topic, which has been less talked about with regards to this film, is the fact that Princess Tiana’s suitor in this film, Prince Naveen, is not Black like she is. Granted the film is mainly set in New Orleans which has a high concentration of people who don’t racially identify along the lines the rest of the United States would recognize, (Creoles for instance) however according to a recent article entitled Parents: Disney’s ‘Princess’ is a hop toward progress from CNN’s website by Breeanna Hare notes Ms. Kimberly Coleman, a blogger who runs the Mom In the City Blog (http://mominthecity.com/wp/) asked an unnamed Disney executive about Prince Naveen’s racial makeup who responded in a very generic way but never exactly answered the question of the Prince’s racial identity. This is part of where the real discussion should begin.

Even if Prince Naveen were meant be a Black man he is still very much lighter than his love interest is in the film, which in the racially tense environment this film has been produced has raised some eyebrows. In 2009 one would have difficulty identifying feature length, major motion pictures that showed a Black love story, be it animated or other wise. Why is it that in the era of Barack Obama and the supposed racial paradise that America is allegedly in, does Disney decide to create not only it’s first Black princess but also decide that they will pair her with a racially ambiguous Prince when part of the draw of the film is it’s portrayal of the African American woman? I admittedly do not know the answer; I will leave that question to be answered by my readers and those who see the film.

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textmessage1
Ok. I am feeling a bit like the Bill Cosby of the social media space: come on people and show some thoughtfulness about your textual relationships and social interactions in general.

I mean, this week alone I reluctantly participated in what could only be called a Facebook memorial service, was asked out on a first date by text, received a voicemail message reporting the death of a friend, and engaged, briefly, in a text messaged conversation about a personal matter that should have been held face-to-face, or at least voce a voce.

I admit I have gotten caught up in the convenience of expressing my random thoughts to whomever I may know will engage me at the moment we are logged on. Some of the exchanges have been interesting and appropriate, but not that many. I have used sites like LinkedIn to connect with former colleagues and to do some professional networking. I have even registered with sites in an attempt to increase my dating options. I tweet on a frequent basis. I BBM (Instant Messaging with fellow Blackberry users). I fully understand the desire to participate in the social media space as fast as my thumbs can type. But as difficult as it may be for many people to imagine relinquishing their smartphones for even a few minutes these days, there is evidence that doing so can actually be rewarding.

Exhibit 1: Calls with Mom. I don’t know about you, but the only thing I have sent to my mom using the latest technology is a photo. Otherwise, she expects to receive a regular call and update on what’s going on with me. She provides insight, comfort and perspective that I couldn’t pay for. I haven’t “friended” anyone who compares.

Exhibit 2: Career development. Yes, I know professionals who have gotten job assignments online without having ever met their clients. That’s great. Make your paper. But the Internet has created such a large pool of applicants for entry-level opportunities that personal relationships have become even more important, and they are very difficult to establish and nurture virtually.

Exhibit 3: Authentic experiences. I posted my favorite photo of myself on a web site to meet men. It’s my favorite picture not just because the white halter that I’m wearing makes my smile seem a hundred times more fabulous than it is and shows off my newly tanned shoulders beautifully, although that would be sufficient. But I love that image because of the context within which it was taken. I was at a hookah bar in Dallas sipping cocktails, talking and laughing with my cousins and their friends.

No one sent a text message or IM all evening. Meanwhile I’m still waiting to meet Mr. Right.


Tresa Chambers lives and works in New York City. Find her on Twitter.com @DiviniTre.

by Cheo Tyehimba

In May 1962, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy was asked: “What do you see as the big problem ahead for you? Is it crime or internal security?” “Civil rights,” he replied.

A week after Senator Ted Kennedy’s memorial, I find myself wondering not only who will fill the Grand Canyon-like gap he left behind but also that of the fabled Kennedy family mystique, particularly the brothers John and Bobby and their commitment to sixties-era civil rights issues.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder


I’d venture to guess that if our current Attorney General Eric Holder were asked what today’s “big problem” is, he’d say undoing all of the Bush Administration’s regressive policies especially in the area of civil rights. It’s clean up time, folks.

As reported this week in the New York Times, Holder has the green light to reframe and bolster the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Among other things, the division will once again champion the enforcement of voting rights, employment, housing, anti-hate laws, the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and bank lending and redistricting laws – all areas in which African Americans and other minorities fare disproportionately poorly.

Holder’s move deserves a pre-game locker room-style, slow handclap. I love it.
Not because of my politically progressive viewpoints and personal experiences, but mostly because it’s the legal, necessary thing to do. Whatever gulf existed between public opinion – at least among progressives – and political will during the Bush White House is finally being shored up now.

But Holder and company will have their work cut out for them. As was reported, no other administration in history has done as much to undermine the advances made by the division as the Bush Administration. Under the Bush Administration, the Justice Department was adrift in self-aggrandizing seas, navigating with its own warped license and interpretation of law, often only acting on civil rights violations when there was explicit evidence of intentional discrimination. That left many other potential cases untried and claims unmet.

In fact, the Bush era itself arguably has made new civil rights legislation necessary. That’s right, they brought this on themselves. Whether it was “sanctioned” torture of prisoners, election-result-skewing false terrorism alerts (check out “The Test of Our Times”, the newly released memoir of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge) or voter fraud, its going to be a minute before we dig up all the bodies of evidence left in Bush’s wake.

While conservatives may question this return to a pro-active, watchdog-style of civil rights enforcement, I say it’s the exact kind of duty-bound protection of American freedoms that Robert Kennedy worked and died for. These are the guarantees Ted Kennedy championed for 46 years in the Senate.

Now is the time to give these rights a much-needed boost. The great racial dichotomy of our times insists upon it. Where else on the globe can democratic freedoms produce a black man as president of the world’s most powerful country and yet produce violations of those freedoms resulting in another black man being chased, chained, and dragged to death by racists in Texas?

By Cheo Tyehimba

When the principal introduced me to “Akil,” a lazy-eyed 6 year old enrolled in a kindergarten class at Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school in West Oakland, I knew I’d been gone too long. I’ll never forget him.

“That’s Akil,” said the principal. “He doesn’t speak. It’s not that he’s mute or anything. He just stopped talking. No one has heard him since last year.”
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by Cheo Tyehimba

AP_townhall_smack­_081309-thumb-400xauto-3728
What do well-intentioned town hall meetings on health care reform and the WWE’s “Friday Night SmackDown” have in common? Sadly, more than you might think.

Consider this: both events draw “sell-out” crowds of two opposing sides to witness a staged, rehearsed, public feud that is more about promoting sensationalism than getting down to the real, nitty gritty. At least that’s what I’ve surmised after watching the recent run of town halls held on the Obama administration’s health care reform efforts.

With reports of people showing up carrying loaded weapons, waving signs like “Obama lies, Grandma dies,” and, at least in one case, delivering a tag-team beat down of a conservative African American protestor waving a yellow “Don’t tread on me” American flag. It’s not everything you’d expect but one thing’s clear: it’s show time and the gloves have come off.

A quick rundown of recent town halls called by Rep. Russ Carnahan, (D-St. Louis), Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa) provide clear evidence that anger, whether real or the Wrestlemania variety, has been ignited over hot button issues like health care.

Many have questioned if the hostility displayed at these town halls by mostly conservatives, some independents, and others is real or manufactured. I’d say it’s a bit of both. But even the best K Street lobbyist, his eyes ever on the political road ahead, can only work within the confines of current traffic conditions. And as conservative luck would have it, conditions are pretty bad.

Is the anger real? No doubt. We have some serious issues to contend with after eight years of mismanagement. Is it misplaced? Yep. But that doesn’t matter much. Misplaced anger easily finds a target. Today it’s a health “insurance” bill, yesterday it was a birth certificate, tomorrow (everyday, actually), it will be the economy. Call it what you want. But I call it proxy for anti-Obamaism. And that’s OK too, as long as no one gets hurt and public discourse prevails. Problem is, neither is happening.

What is happening is a lot of distraction. What should be a concerted national dialogue has descended into unjustified shouting matches. And I don’t buy the conservative argument that liberals, who were heavily critical of former president George W. Bush’s policies, are now unable to take the kitchen’s proverbial heat. It’s just not the same, not yet, at least. During The Decider’s tenure, protests were attached to a proven presidential incompetence, a manufactured war for oil, gross human rights violations, a failure to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina… I could go on.

“Let’s disagree over things that are real,” said President Obama at a recent town hall meeting on health care reform, “not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.”

Why talk about what’s actually been proposed? That’s too boring. While the following untrue statements do little for Obama’s push for health insurance reform, they are at least entertainingly polarizing. And isn’t that what good politics is all about? But anger, whether based in substance or illusion is never rational and once ignited is extremely difficult to control or contain. Let’s take a look at the top three wildest misrepresentations by tea party protesters:

3) “Obama plans to cut my Medicare!”

The truth: According to a July 28, 2009 CNN Report “Health care reform plans will not reduce Medicare benefits.”

2) “This is not about health care… This is about the systematic dismantling of this country.”

The truth: Proponents of health care reform say change now can prevent bankruptcy –to control spiraling costs that affect individuals, families, small businesses, and the American economy. According to a CNN Report on June 5, 2009, each year, nearly a million people face bankruptcy because of medical expenses.

…and the #1 wild misrepresentation:

1) “Obama wants to pull the plug on my dying grandma!”

The truth: Claims of “death panels” and forced euthanasia are untrue. According to an August 10, 2009 article from the Associated Press: “No ‘death panel’ in health care bill.”

So as the various so-called Tea Party coalitions go about disrupting public meetings and square off with Obama-supporters, it might be interesting if we as a nation can get beyond the heckling hi-jinks and false claims and start to wrestle with words and ideas. Wishful thinking, I guess.

By Cheo Tyehimba
Obama
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Even if President Obama never publicly utters these words, I have to think that he’s probably already said them to himself just to keep his sanity amid the rising undercurrent of race-fueled, anti-Obama rhetoric that is finding favor in national media outlets.

Like earlier this week when Fox News talk show hack Glenn Beck weighed in on Obama’s reaction to the Henry Louis Gates arrest. Beck, an underachieving recipient of white privilege, delivered headline-grabbing statements about the president that, considering the source, could easily be brushed aside. But doing so would be a mistake.

Said Beck: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture…this guy is, I believe, a racist.”

Nice delivery. As I watched the clip of Beck faithfully deliver his planned talking points, I think I could almost see a smirk on his face. Yeah, he’s an idiot but a clever one. He knows his audience. He knows he’s apart of an intricate game that begins as spin and controversy, and ends as profit. But it’s an activity that could lead us to an end game of unexpected consequences.

Other media pimps like Rush Limbaugh and Lou Dobbs are playing their positions too. Here are a few choice talking points they recently used to grind the media ax against Obama:

Limbaugh on Obama after the Gates arrest: “Here you have a black president trying to destroy a white policeman.”

Or Limbaugh joking about food safety advocates and saying they will go after all the unhealthy foods people like to eat, one by one – “but they’ll have to wait until Obama is out of office to ban Oreos.”

Then there’s Lou Dobbs, who at least tries to bring a veneer of credibility to his racist screeds. He hopped on the Birtherism bandwagon and is grasping for ways to tie it to his anti-immigration stance.

He recently suggested that Obama could be an illegal immigrant on his radio show: “I’m starting to think we have a document issue… You suppose he’s un– no, I won’t even use the word ‘undocumented,’ it wouldn’t be right.”

Now don’t get me wrong. Being critical of the president, or any other elected official, is a part of what makes this country great. I certainly talked plenty of trash against the policies of the Bush administration. And I am no Obama evangelist either. We’ve all gotta hold his feet to the fire. But when a sitting United States president, who happens to be Black, is maligned because of deep-seated racist beliefs and those beliefs are given license by network-backed media pundits there should be cause for alarm.

Why? Because this game is intricately connected to a much larger game called white supremacy, which is a systemic, historic, and institutional chain of anti-black racism and often anti-Semitism that we continue to ignore in this country. The result? The gloves come off and the game gets uglier. Despite, our advances in race relations, hate crimes and demonstrations continue to persist. As recently as July 21, neo Nazis and KKK members defiantly marched in Paris, Texas after murder charges were dropped against two white men accused in the death of a black man.

A few days ago Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) added his name to the growing list to co-sponsor Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-Fla.) so-called “birther bill” requiring future presidential candidates to provide the Federal Election Commission copies of their birth certificates. It’s a clear case of sore loserism, white angst against black progress, and just plain resentment among a conservative minority. They need something, anything, to hang their racist hats on and this bill will do. But this is just the beginning.

As the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, and Dobbs continue to push the limits of responsible journalism and fan rhetorical flames that keep network execs happy, they are also influencing public policy and cranking up the heat on simmering white rage in this country. Any one who thought we were past racial firestorms need to check out national DNA.

We’ve been here before. Three steps forward, five steps back. Call it the Neo-Reconstruction Hustle. That’s how it goes I guess. But if the game is here to stay, we can fight the good fight. Speak out against racism. Join organizations that promote racial harmony and healing. Sign petitions like MoveOn.org which demand responsible journalism.

Hate the game.

Note: The title is a reference to the 1959 Mike Wallace television news documentary “The Hate that Hate Produced,” which was the first national story produced about the Nation of Islam. Fifty years later, its seems race-based hate continues to be the subject of fascination in the media and American society.

Note2: For any birthers out there wishing to check the facts, please visit this reliable source: “Born in the USA.” FactCheck.org. November 1, 2009. 
http://www.factcheck.org/elections-2008/born_in_the_usa.html

By Pendarvis Harshaw
reggaegold2009
I was initially attracted to Reggae Gold 2009 when I saw the headlining names: Elephant Man, Jazmine Sullivan, and Mavado.

Sure enough, the pop attractions on the album provided solid contributions, especially from Sean Paul and Estelle who came together for a smooth hit called, “Come Over.” Elephant Man’s contributions added an extra boost but ultimately were a little over the top for me, as he had not one but two tracks out of the 18 selected. But even with that small setback, Reggae Gold 2009 wins in my book. The way it interweaves a couple of recognized artists in the music industry with newer, less familiar names that are just as talented, if not more, but somehow still under the radar…until now.

Etana and Alborosie’s, “Blessings” was a highlight of the album. I enjoyed the lead singer’s voice, which had a quality reminiscent of Monica’s in the early nineties. It was really a breath of fresh air, mostly because the track doesn’t neatly conform to the usual reggae sound; its more like Reggae & Blues. And to have this track followed by Tarrus Riley’s silky-smooth track titled, “Start a New,” was for me, a proper introduction into the world of Reggae and Blues.

I could have done without the up tempo Elephant man tracks, and even the Mavado smash has been overplayed in the clubs all summer, but the captivating voices of Tarrus Riley and the combination of Etana and Alborosie had me asking, “What do these people look like?”

Instead of leaving me hanging, this well-rounded collection offered a bonus DVD which featured a video of both of them. Good deal. All in all, Reggae Gold 2009, just might have enough jams to keep your summer irie.

by Cheo Tyehimba
Obama
Where’s Rodney King when you need him?

Ever since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested last week for disorderly conduct after breaking into his own home, I’ve been thinking a lot about King, who was brutally assaulted and arrested in 1991 by four L.A. cops. Of course, Gates’ arrest pales in comparison to King’s, but it nevertheless peels back another layer of America’s obsession with race. Right now, I’d venture to bet that a producer at some network is booking King for a talk show where he’s likely to weigh in on the Gates arrest. His likely comment: “Can’t we all get over it?”

Nope. With a black man in the White House and people of all racial and ethnic categories hanging on his every word and reaction to any race-related issue, these are truly “mid-racial” times with no sight of a different hyphenate to describe race relations for years to come. And while the Obama White House is taking steps in the right direction, until our obsession with race gets satiated (can it?), no amount of Obama’s playing Twister with his sound-bites will make a difference to the American people. Why? Because debating race is, and has always been, the true American pastime. Like an itchy scab, we just can’t leave it alone. The media won’t let us.

The media loves a good fight, especially across color and class fault lines, and so it never takes much for a story like this one to elicit a reporting spree. Every day since the Gates story broke, it has consistently ranked as the number one or two positions on Google’s “Top Stories” page. Meanwhile, according to Center for American Progress Action Fund, approximately 14,000 Americans are losing healthcare coverage each day, and millions more around the world are clamoring for their stories to be told.

The networks will continue to regularly weigh-in on, counter, and spin headline-grabbing stories at the expense of reporting on more imperative news such as the global economic meltdown, two wars, the threat of an nuclear arms race in the Middle East, mounting terrorist forces, the swine flu pandemic, domestic social issues, and more. When you look at the bigger picture, one must ask: While the Gates incident is certainly a barometer of how far we still have to go with race relations, how much airtime does a small town quarrel really deserve?

For far too many folks, the media continues to dictate what we discuss over dinner, at the barbershop, and nowadays, more than likely, on Facebook. And despite the shuffling of the new media deck, the rule “if it bleeds, it leads” (read: divides, angers, causes controversy) still dominates from far-flung blogosphere outposts to mainstream social networks. Still, putting the race-baiting sensationalism aside, the media can’t be singularly blamed for highlighting the inherent flaws in our democracy.

Until we really come to grips with the ever-widening racial and social-economic disparities in America, stories like the righteous black professor versus the power-wielding white police officer will continue to be exploited and used as grist meal for the distracted, media-hungry masses.

By James Morgan

As I continue on my journey from young adulthood into full maturity, there is one experience that I have that I think about almost everyday, in a seemingly religious manner, participating in an African Centered Rites of Passage Program. Often times the elders in our community, educators, and politicians ask the question “What is wrong with the youth today?”. I believe that through my own experience and learning I might have identified one of the problems plaguing the Black youth of America today. The question that should be asked is “What does it mean to be a man/woman and how do we bring our youth to that point?”.

In Kenya and Tanzania exists a group known as the Maasai. They have gained a lot of notoriety for many different reasons one of which is their elaborate and well organized rites of passage ceremonies. In this and many other traditional African cultures we find that there are certain rituals, and personal character traits that identify one is on the path to complete adulthood, after which point they are identified as an active mature member of the society entitled to all of the benefits but also inheriting the responsibility.

In a recent conversation I had with a friend of mine we got into a debate over what it means to be a child vs. an adult and I mentioned my 16 year-old younger brother as a reference point for our conversation. I was explaining to my friend that there are certain things that I and my family expect from him now that he is entering manhood and her perspective was “he is only 16” he doesn’t need those responsibilities. My question throughout this whole ordeal was “When will he be a man in your eyes?” at which point I got a collage of answers that to me seemed symptomatic of the overall African experience in America.

When a rapper like 50 Cent says he is a man he is putting a definition on it that is attached in large part to the material wealth he has amassed and the amount of women he has gone to bed with. Is this Black manhood? I believe not, and I also believe that the time has come for us to redefine what it means for one to be on the path from childhood to maturity and that markers should be established to let the individual and the community know that the individual is on the path to reaching adulthood.

The S.T.E.P. Program takes boys through the passage to manhood

S.T.E.P. Program takes boys through the passage to manhood.


The above statements in the mind of this writer are proof positive that African centered rites of passage programs are gravely needed in our community. As a product of New Jersey’s S.T.E.P (Striving Together Equals Progress) organization I have witnessed firsthand the wonders such programs can do for our youth. Dr. Kmt Shockley of George Mason University points out in his research essay “Africentric Education Leadership:Theory and Practice” that all throughout the United States and the broader world other cultures and religious groups have educational institutions that use that particular groups principles, history and culture as a foundation and ongoing framework for learning.

As I am also a product of a Catholic High School, I am also a witness to how such an education can empower people to be more confident and knowledgeable about the history of whichever group to which they belong. Why then should people of African descent not use a culturally based methodology for the education of our children, especially when such a diverse group of scholars such as Dr. Asa Hilliard, James Lowen, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima and others have proven time and again that the American education system is actually miseducating students?

This is my challenge to myself, my peers and our community, we must save our youth from the many challenges they face. I believe that one way that this can be done as part of a multi-pronged solution is by utilizing culturally relevant rites of passage programs so that our young men and women realize that they have a mission to better themselves as human beings and to contribute to the advancement of the community. I would like to add an addendum to the old African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child”, and say that “A child who is raised properly can raise the village”. It is my hope that we begin and, continue this task. Our ancestors would have it no other way.

By Cheo Tyehimba

Are Obama and Ghana's Pres. John Atta Mills the chosen ones?

Are Pres. Obama and Ghana's Pres. John Atta Mills the chosen ones?


As President Obama prepares to visit Ghana on July 10 and 11th, I am reminded of the first time I journeyed there back in 1997. For me, it was a life-changing event.

I was on assignment for American Legacy magazine and what begun as a curious examination of the former slave dungeons along Ghana’s coast, ballooned into an investigative piece about revisionist history, the white-washing of human trafficking, and the looming question: “Who really owns ancestral burial grounds?”

The piece became a cover story and at the time of its publication was one of the first serious attempts by a mainstream magazine to grapple with what the former dungeons represent for countless Africans throughout the Diaspora.

This was before Bill Clinton’s feeble half-apology for slavery and the apex of the reparations movement. So now, more than twelve years later, I find myself mesmerized by the idea that the leader of the free world is a man of African descent, and that this same man will walk the same dark dungeon corridors that I did years ago.

Will he issue an official apology for slavery? Does it matter? Is it ironic that although Obama is Black, his own ancestors were most likely not caught up in the transatlantic slave trade? Yes, yes, and yes. But beyond the questions and politics, I truly hope Obama’s visit highlights the spiritual nexus, if transfixing starting point, that the dungeons represent for Africans whose ancestors endured slavery. I know they did for me.

With what my ancestors endured, I can do anything...

With what my ancestors endured, I can do anything...

Here’s an excerpt:

The dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, in Ghana, where hundreds of thousands of Africans were imprisoned in the transatlantic slave trade, resemble vast, ancient tombs. As I move along the black corridors, the place haunts me. For a moment I feel I’ve become invisible, my soul transparent and lost in the impenetrable darkness surrounding me.

And then I hear a chorus of men wailing a plaintive hymn, and the clink-clank of iron chains. Someone strikes a match, and in the tiny burst of yellow flame I see scarred walls. The wailing becomes louder. Now I see fifteen young African men, shackled and half-bare, huddled in a far corner. Several other black men stand nearer to me, holding lit candles. As this re-enactment ceremony begins, they offer a prayer:

“We give thanks and praise to the Most High for allowing us to assemble in this sacred space,” says Nana Okofo, an African American man from Brooklyn, New York who once ran One Africa Productions, an organization that conducts tours and historical interpretations at the castle.

“Cape Coast Castle is one of twenty-seven built in Ghana to house the captured Africans before we were extracted to the diaspora,” he says.

He introduces his partner, a man named Kohain Haheri, another African American living in Ghana. Haheri explains what happened in the cavernous space:

“Three to five hundred male captives were held in this room, which is barely thirty-two by sixteen feet. As you can see, this floor is cobblestone. As we walk through the series of four connected chambers, you will not see cobblestone beneath your feet. At one time the floor was up to here,” he said, pointing to three chalk marks set at varying heights on the wall. The marks show the floor level that existed before the rooms were partially excavated.

“What you are walking on is literally centuries of calcified bones, flesh, and human waste. This is where the captured Africans ate, slept, and, packed in their own filth, were sick and sometimes died. Everything happened in here. When full, Cape Coast Castle could hold up to fifteen hundred Africans. The captives were imprisoned here anywhere from three weeks to three months, or in some cases as long as a year, depending on how long it took for the ships to make their round trip.”

I stand listening to Haheri recount how some of my ancestors were kidnapped and brought in chains from all over West Africa. He speaks of how infants, the weak, and the elderly were deliberately killed during the slaving raids that brought captured Africans to Cape Coast Castle. He describes how men, women, and children were chained or yoked together and herded as far as two hundred miles toward the shore; how their captors tried to break their spirits, a practice known as “seasoning,” once they were imprisoned in the castle’s dungeons; and how, to ensure a regular supply of slaves, European traders often instigated tribal wars, the victors then selling their prisoners into slavery.

Haheri leads us through a series of adjacent dungeons to a sealed passageway that runs beneath the main courtyard to the “Door of No Return” and out to the open sea, where the captives were forced to board ships bound for Europe’s colonies in North and South America.

They are called castles, but Cape Coast and Elmina never housed royalty. Rather, they were fortresses built by Europeans to defend their holdings and warehouse captured Africans. Now they are museums run by the Ghanaian government, permanent reminders of a slave trade that engulfed West and Central African people, an estimated twenty million, but likely millions more, and helped destabilize the entire continent.

My tour of Elmina Castle was conducted by a Ghanaian, who led us to a plaque next to a dungeon door that read:

“In Ever-lasting Memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We, the living, vow to uphold this.”

Then down we walked to an underground cavern, where the dank, foreboding atmosphere immediately began to close in on me. As I moved among the group of twenty people, I was almost overcome with claustrophobia. When the guide pointed out that up to three hundred Africans had been packed into one small, dark room without space to lift an arm or to lie down, my fear seemed absurd by comparison. Next we entered a dungeon where naked women and girls had been hosed down before the slavers picked out the ones they would rape.

Back up on the ramparts, we walked past cannon that could be swiveled from their positions facing the sea to aim at the nearest village. During the late 1800s, when the British began to colonize Ghana in the hope of exploiting the Ashanti’s rich gold reserves, the issue of ownership of Elmina and its surrounding territory sparked frequent conflicts between the two groups. High in the castle walls rises a tower where Prempeh I, an Ashanti king, was imprisoned in 1896, after the British occupied Kumasi, the Ashanti capital city. There he languished in chains, like so many other Africans he was said to have bargained into slavery. “It’s a sad, rather unfortunate part of our history,” the guide commented.

Those whose ancestors left the castles in chains also regard the sites as sacred ground. Shortly before I arrived, a group of West Indians who refused to pay the admission fee staged a small protest at the Cape Coast Castle entrance.

One of them said, “We didn’t pay to leave; why should we have to pay to return? We won’t pay to enter a graveyard of our ancestors.”

The castle officials argue that the landmarks need funds to be maintained and that there is nothing wrong with charging admission.

“I think initially there was some misunderstanding,” says Charles Mensah, an administrator at Cape Coast Castle. The people at One Africa Productions demanded that we consult them about what happens here. There’s a way of being part of it. You have to learn the process, not muscle your way into it by appealing to people’s emotions and pity.”

Kohain Haheri, however, believes that African Americans and other descendants of enslaved people do deserve a role in determining how the castles are run.

“We told the museum’s director that it was a total contradiction in terms of what they’re promoting,” he says. “They want brothers and sisters from the diaspora to come home. They even have the nerve to identify African Americans as their number one source of tourism dollars. We take offense. When we were separated from here, we were seen as a product for sale. Some haven’t left that mentality.” But despite their differences the Ghanaians and the tour company have found ways to work together.

Ghana happens to be the top destination for African Americans visiting the continent. Peter Kpikpitse estimates that about thirty thousand people a year visit the castles at Elmina and Cape Coast, and that about 60 percent of the visitors are Ghanaian, 20 percent are blacks from the diaspora, and the remaining 20 percent are Europeans or white Americans.

Among the most memorable moments of my tours of Cape Coast and Elmina were those when I saw each castle’s Door of No Return, which had given so many thousands of enslaved Africans their last view of the coast before they were imprisoned in the hulls of slave ships. After spending hours in the dungeons, scene of countless atrocities, I felt drained. Nothing I had learned before I came to Ghana had prepared me for the emotional horror of actually being there.

I remembered what a friend had told me before I left for Ghana. “Whoever you think you are when you get there,” she said, “will affect what you see in Africa. Your own social, gender, political, and cultural identity will come into focus. Whether you see more similarities or more differences depends on how you see yourself.”

Somewhere over the Atlantic, homeward bound, I closed my eyes and recalled the scarred dungeon walls. Years later the image still comes back to me, and like a wound that cuts beyond flesh, it causes a sharp and lingering pain. But the stories etched in those dungeon walls have a healing power too. They summon feelings of great pride, telling me that I am a descendant of those nameless spirits of the dead that prevail, unvanquished still.