By Charles L. Howard 2-15-2018

“Forward ever, backwards never,” I hear Kwame Nkrumah say as I visit his homeland. Tomorrow, lunch in Benin. Dinner in Togo. Today we drive in Tracy Chapman-like “Fast Cars” to Slave Castles in Ghana. Windows down so the music can get out and the Spirit can get in.

I’ve finally returned home. Nkrumah knows that returning home is not going backwards. It is forward like sankofa.

On this truth sojourn are my brothers — Curtis from South Gabon and West Philadelphia, Duane, a Trini brother, Rich who was born to Ghanaian parents (Ga and Ewe), yet raised with his brother in Biggie’s New York. Behind the steering wheel is a Ghanaian Muslim brother named Sharif. And me, son of Baltimore, God-son of Philly. Some would call me “just black.” Nothing “just” about it. We are Garvey, DuBois, and Nkrumah’s pan-African dream road tripping in a fast car through West Africa.

Every traffic light in downtown Accra brings sisters with baskets on their heads and brothers with goods in their hands selling everything from bottled water and plantains to kente cloth and cell phones.

Bob Marley the great Rasta prophet comes on the car radio and wails: 

I’m on the rock
And then I check a stock
I have to run like a fugitive
To save the life I live

Sharif and I, with the windows wide open and the golden sun hitting our faces, raise our voices and sing:

I’m going to be iron like a lion in Zion!
I’m going to be iron like a lion in Zion!
I’m going to be iron like a lion in Zion!

In midlife after 400 years I went to Africa for the first time. And I am living pan-Africanism. The shared struggle, the shared compassion, the shared burden which, since it is being shared, is far easier to carry.

We drive windows down so the music can get out and the Spirit can get in. I am driving to and driving from. To history and dreadful beginnings. We drive through Accra on this 98 degree November day. Tomorrow, lunch in Benin and dinner in Togo. Today the Cape Coast Castle. Words, like songs, must be repeated so our children can sing them.

A white stone structure occupied by the Swedes, then the Dutch, and then the British. They lived and worked and even worshiped above ground, while stolen black bodies suffered in darkness in the slave dungeons below. Don’t miss this. An un-Christ-like church worshiped literally on top of black suffering for capital gain.

Black lives matter to Jesus, but not to all Jesus followers. 

“Nothing new under the sun.”

Go there. Let your tears be libation poured onto the cold brick floors of the male or female slave dungeons where our ancestors wept, ate from, slept in waste on, prayed on, were raped on, grieved for families they were separated from on, plotted on, fought on, died on. Lived on. Iron chains for Iron Lions.

Driving from, we are silent in the car. A silent awe. Awful yet awesome. What strength must one possess to endure this?

Garvey stands up and bellows, “Up, Up you mighty people!”

It is an awful and awesome time to be black in America. I hear the voices of those who came before say “it always has been son.” Yet the last few years have been especially psychologically traumatizing and awful. The images of unarmed black bodies being shot, choked, and killed by police officers looping on television and social media and the lack of justice or accountability around many of those murders have haunted me. The resurgence of (and the unhelpful media attention given to) a racist white nationalism. The introduction of policies and executive orders that seek to dismantle progress that took decades to build. And the ascendance of a bigoted fearful president who rose to political power on lies about our first black president, lies about other minorities, and by playing to the siege mentality of many white Americans. All of this has been added to the daily micro and macro aggressions we experience and the contorting demanded of us to calm white neighbors, colleagues and classmates. It is exhausting. Maddening. Awful.

Maya, the uncaged bird, sings from the other side, “But still we rise.” We rise from awful to awesome.

Awesome like brave young activists stopping traffic to make us see black pain and to call us to act for change. Awesome like all those who find the courage to go to work and school and life every day during this hateful season. Awesome like the strength of those who survive the savagery of Cape Coast Castle and slavery.

Lifting DuBois’ veil means crossing borders and speaking new languages every day. After Cape Coast Castle, we crossed the Ghanaian Boarder to Togo and then to Benin — two Francophone nations with distinct cultures, sub-cultures, histories, and presents. Marley is off. The diasporic DJ selects Cardi B and then Big Shaq. We feel the liberated emotion of “I don’t dance now, I make money moves.” We smile at the defiant comedic joy of “Mans Not Hot.” Skrree Pop Pop!

Radio is off in Ouida. Le Negritude offers words that black ancestors in mass graves can’t utter. Here amidst the dance of Vodun and Catholicism we walk La Route des l’esclave in Ouida, Benin.


I shared my experience in Africa with a Jewish American brother of mine after I returned. He said that what I described sounded to him like what many American Jews feel during their first trip to Israel — like coming home for the first time. A safe familiarity, yet simultaneously the distance and hesitance of a foreigner. 

Driving through West Africa, I was aware of my shoulders dropping. There was something profound about moving through a space where nearly everyone I saw was black like me. I understand in a new way Langston’s “Dream Variation:”

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Langston, Jay Z, and Lupe, are interlocutors in the timeless black cipha saying in unison “All Black Everything.”

Blackness is celebrated, not demeaned. Every billboard features ads for black doctors, lawyers, dentists, churches, and musicians. The journalists in the newspapers and the stories they write explore the complexities of blackness. Every store, taxi driver, politician … Even the money, I found out after exchanging my dollars for Ghanaian cedis, had black faces on them instead of complicated white individuals who while being great in many ways, owned and abused enslaved black women and men. 

I was most aware of this when going through a police traffic stop. In the U.S. I’ve been stopped by the police in every city that I’ve lived in. When I was stopped last summer near my home, I began to imagine dying at the hand of a potentially nervous or racist cop. I imagined my children growing up without a father. I’ll be the next hashtag and transient news story. This is the unhealthy pathology around police encounters that so many of us have been feeling the last several years.

Yet, seeing a black police officer approach the car in Africa, knowing that I am not seen as an immediate threat in the same way I am in the U.S. was grace. I might be getting shook down for a couple cedis, but I knew I wasn’t going to die. I didn’t have the terror and fear that has been daily slipped into the Flint-like water we’ve been given to drink the last 400 years. 

Don’t be afraid. Perhaps this is the timeless roar of pan-Africanism. Together, and by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear. Not racist cops, not changing policies, not bigoted fearful leaders. Nothing. We have survived the awful and produced the awesome.

I needed that reminder in the land of Gye Nyame. “I fear none but God.” So after you visit Wakanda, find a way to visit the continent of Africa. You too will hear those who came before us and The One who made us whisper, “don’t be afraid.”

Charles L. Howard is University Chaplain for the University of Pennsylvania. 

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