October 5, 2007 § 2 Comments
I told myself that no matter what I saw I wouldn’t cry. That Friday afternoon I mentally prepared myself to approach a place flooded with harrowing memories of a dark past–not of my own, but of ancestors that I’ll never know. I felt the presence of millions of men and women–all of them connected to me because of the lineage we share. Bodies and souls stripped from their native land and subjected to more than 400 years of forced labor intertwined with despair and death. Captured, chained, and exploited to build a New World that I today call my homeland—America.
I always knew America was built on the browbeaten backs of my ancestors. I understood the toil of centuries past. I was fully aware of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, having read several history books in my day and having heard stories from the mouths of my parents who made it their duty to make their daughter aware of her past, no matter how dark. Knowledge of one’s history spun from the pages of books and the tongues of men is telling. But seeing the traces of a bruised and battered history is even more powerful.
Just off the coast of West Africa lies a place in Ghana overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The destination—the Cape Coast Castle, is now a tourist attraction. I watch as mostly foreigners walk to and fro, cameras in stow looking for the best angle to catch a glimpse of something strikingly beautiful to send along with the post cards they’ll send to their family, friends, and colleagues back home. Yes, the Cape Coast Castle! Oh, what a majestic sight for a tourist’s eyes to navigate. The pentagon shaped ivory colored structure covering about 3,900ms captivates all those who look upon her. The large triangular courtyard faces seaward giving rise to a stunning ocean view which centuries ago was where slaves were auctioned and branded before being placed in their dungeons. Despite the aesthetic visage of the castle, I look at it in disdain because the atrocities that took place here cannot be excused. The way the sunlight hits the castle attempts to eradicate the stark sadness that still permeates the premises. But I know better. There isn’t a light bright enough to deluge the despair that can still be felt within these walls even after all this time. With each step I take, my feet touch the solid rock surface and I envision the souls of my people. Their feet planted in this very same spot where I now stood. The only difference—my soul would be free once I left the premises, while the souls of my ancestors were trapped. Their footprints that I see as I walk are the remnants of a tragic past.
The tour guide, a Ghanaian male probably in his late 20s gives me and several other students a brief history of the darkness that at one time covered the Cape Coast Castle. The look in his eyes as he recounts the misery of millions upon millions of my ancestors is at times unbearable to witness. The male and female dungeons are deep, dark tunnels in the castle with one way in and one way out, symbolizing the entrapment that was the life of a slave. As I travel through the female slave dungeon I feel the coldness of the pain endured there long ago. Each dungeon had one air vent and opposite each vent was a spy hole, which enabled slave masters to supervise their captives. The walls of the castle were built with lime and sand, allowing the moisture to penetrate the walls evaporating inside to cool down the rooms’ temperature and whitewash the castle as it reflected heat into the air.
In this claustrophobic space where hundreds of women at a time laid their heads to rest, ate (very little), and relieved themselves, the stench of blood, sweat, and feces is an aroma one wants to forget, but cannot because it still lingers. The stains of blood spilled also remain. When sickness ensued as a result of these appalling conditions, the death toll increased. Awaiting shipment to the New World, the only daylight the slaves saw were the few minutes they spent on the courtyard for labor and exercise.
Inside the dungeons men and women were treated like savages. And those that showed resistance—their fate was gloomier. When I was led there, the vision was heartbreaking. When I entered what the tour guide referred to as “the cell,” my tears could not be withheld. Slaves were transported in shackles from their dungeons and pushed into this black hole of silence. In isolation, those that were forced into the cell waited to die from starvation or the lash—whichever came first. The silence and darkness of the cell was so much to bear that some even slowly went blind. Once they were dead or near death they were discarded into the Atlantic, their bodies washed away for eternity. With no knowledge of what conditions awaited them in the New World and frustrated with life in the dungeons, some slaves saw suicide as an escape. The plunge into the sea for many was like entering the gates of heaven. The sour taste of tears dripping downward, reaching the corner of my mouth made my head swell with pain. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. I had to stay in this moment to truly take in all that had happened in the cell. I stood motionless, a solemn look in my eyes as the tour guide said a prayer for all those that had passed on.
As I left the grounds of the castle that Friday afternoon, I realized I had an overwhelmingly emotional experience that I couldn’t clearly convey into words. Like I said before, I was well aware of what happened centuries ago. But the moments I spent inside the castle allowed me to internally feel the pain of the strife my ancestors endured. Maybe it was the imagery or maybe it was just the aura of the place still infested with sadness and turmoil. Whatever it was, it encompassed my entire being that afternoon. It created a storm in my heart as tears fell and my body weakened. Entering the grounds of the Cape Coast Castle was like entering a realm of darkness. For them it was hell because there was no turning back. For me it was only dark territory. And I was relieved to escape and see the light, unlike those from generations past.