“If all the sea were ink, and all the sky paper, there would not be enough ink or paper to write down the human suffering caused by the Slave Trade”
I traveled to Senegal, once. My intention was to return my ancestors to the place where they were last seen on the continent of Africa. My goal was to walk back through one of The Doors of No Return of the slave trade. I had fantasized about the visit for years, hoping for and dreaming of the day that my folks would return home, in my mind defying the predictions of those who had watched the slave ships pull away.
When we arrived, strangers gave me hugs and big smiles everywhere I went, saying, “Welcome home! Welcome home, sister.” My husband and I made friends quickly. Most of the other guests were thoroughly excited for me, and the staff was delighted that they were meeting someone on a pilgrimage like mine. They rarely met Americans, let alone Black ones on their way to Goree Island.
We sat sometimes with the staff and talked to them about home, and listened to their life stories as well. They couldn’t believe my luck to be born in America, the richest place in the world. They were also proud of their good fortune – blessed to be working for a dollar a day and they were allowed to bring infants to work. And I, soul soldier that I believed myself to be, had the nerve to pity them.
In one of our frequent chats, one man mentioned how happy my family would be when I got back to the states, and asked me if I’d brought photos of them for the family in Senegal.
“I don’t know them.” I said.
Unfazed, he told me they would be simple to find. If I only told him my family name he’d borrow a car, and bring us to them right away, or go and get them, and we could meet at the resort.
“I don’t know our family name. No one remembers it.”
This threw him for a serious loop. He stammered, and asked me again, “No one kept the name?”
I told him they hadn’t.
“What is your family name, then?” I told him, and he frowned, then pointed at my husband, “Even if you took his, you certainly must remember your family name – the name of the first African.” I felt ashamed, and sad to say that I hadn’t even taken my husband’s name when we married.
The one I had was the one I was given at birth.
And then it hit him, “Dear Father. You don’t even know who you are. Not even your tribe, if you don’t have a name.”
“No, not like you mean, I don’t.”
“You poor thing.” He said, halfway to himself. “I’ve heard of people like you. I wouldn’t even want to live if I didn’t know my people.” And for one second, I didn’t either.
Who is, after all, to be pitied?
When I finally got to the Door of No Return, the tour guide asked everyone to move aside so that the descendants of those lost through that door, and hundreds of others like it, could hear the story and smell the sea air; passing through the door as a matter of proving that the notion of No Return is not true. The other tourists obliged, and the tour guide explained to them that African Americans are the strongest people in the world. He said that I was a living example of the human will to survive. We, the descendants of the enslaved, came from the ones who were able to survive the conditions of transport, packed in tighter than livestock. They sailed for months at a time, only to become property for generations, working in deplorable conditions.
They gave long, eloquent speeches, the tour guides, saying that no one can take you from who you are; even should they try, even should it take hundreds of years, every soul can find its’ way home. They took photos, for which I could not smile.
In the coming days, the staff at the Club were that ‘extra nice’ to me; the sort of goodness that makes it very clear that someone is beyond sorry for you. I could see them with their heads close together, talking about me. Sometimes the listener would gasp, sometimes they’d mop their eyes. There were moments when employees would pat me on the shoulder as I went past, or put extra squares of chocolate on my espresso. Not one of them ever expressed their condolences aloud, but bad news spreads. My quest to get back to my roots felt very much a failure.
On my last day, my buddy who was hoping to reunite me with my family pulled me up to our usual post near the pool. He said, “I’ve been told to leave our honored sister in peace for the rest of her trip.” So, that was where he’d been! I’d felt a little sad without him amongst all the Parisian vacationers. “But I feel as if I’ve made a friend.” I smiled, and checked around for his boss.
“You are a child of God” he said simply. “With or without your name, you are God’s child.”
Nothing I have heard in my life before or since has made this lesson truer; not thinking of the middle passage, or slavery or the legacy of those things in my life. I may have learned my most important life lesson from this guy, on the very edge of Africa, who reminded me that I am God’s child.
I, specifically, am God’s child. His unique and perfect creation.
Not ONLY me, more like “Me, too”.