The Path of Strangers
As I disembarked from the bus in Elmina, I heard it. It was sharp and clear, as it rang in the air, and clattered in my ear making me recoil. Obruni. A stranger. A foreigner from across the sea. Three children gathered at the bus station shouted it, giggling as it erupted from their mouths, tickled to have spotted some extraterrestrial fallen to earth in Ghana. They summoned me, “obruni, obruni,” as if it were a form of akwaaba (welcome), reserved just for me. As the words weaved their way through the crowd and landed on me, I imagined myself in their eyes: an alien tightly wrapped in the skin of a blue rain slicker, the big head bursting from its navy pod.
My appearance confirmed it: I was the proverbial outsider. Who else sported vinyl in the tropics? My customs belonged to another country: my too-fast gait best suited to navigating the streets of Manhattan, my unfashionable German walking shoes, my unruly tufts twisted into two French braids, fuzzy and unfurling in the humid air. Old and new worlds stamped my face, a blend of peoples and nations and masters and slaves long forgotten. In the jumble of my features, no certain line of origin could be traced. Clearly, I was not Fanti, or Ashanti, or Ewe, or Ga.
Then I started to hear it everywhere. It was the buzz in the market. It was the shorthand my new Ghanaian friends used to describe me to their old friends. Obruni lurked like an undertone in the hustle of street peddlers. People said it casually in my face, until I sucked my teeth and said “ehh!” informing the speaker that first, I knew what the word meant, and second, I didn’t relish the label.
But then I learned to accept it. After all, I was a stranger from across the sea. A black face didn’t make me kin. Even when otherwise undetected, I was betrayed when I opened my mouth and heard my father’s Brooklyn brogue rippling across the surface of my studied speech, wreaking havoc with the regimented syntax enforced by my mother the grammarian, whose scrupulous speech was a way of masking her southern origins and blending into New York. My direct way of speaking sounded sharp-edged and angular when compared to the tactful evasion and obliging indirection of the local English idiom. The brisk clip of my speech, flattened vowels, and sounds trapped in the dome of my mouth, expiring from lack of air, branded me the foreigner.
I was the stranger in the village, a wandering seed bereft of the possibility of taking root. Behind my back people whispered, dua ho mmire: a mushroom that grows on the tree has no deep soil. Everyone avoided the word “slave,” but we all knew who was who. As a “slave baby,” I represented what most chose to avoid: the catastrophe that was our past, and the lives exchanged for India cloth, Venetian beads, cowrie shells, guns, and rum. And what was forbidden to discuss: the matter of someone’s origins.
Obruni forced me to acknowledge that I didn’t belong anyplace. The domain of the stranger is always an elusive elsewhere. I was born in another country, where I also felt like an alien and which in part determined why I had come to Ghana. I had grown weary of being stateless. Secretly I wanted to belong somewhere or, at least, I wanted a convenient explanation of why I felt like a stranger.
As a child, when I was angry with my mother and father, I’d conjure up glorious imaginary parents who’d rescue me from the awful people forcing me to call them Mom and Dad. I often imagined that the singer Johnny Hartman was my father since we shared the same last name. Whenever my dad played his Coltrane albums, I listened for Johnny Hartman’s lovely wistful voice. If I didn’t think too hard about why he had abandoned me, I could find succor in this fiction of origins. The sting of obruni allowed for no such fiction.
I complained to an expatriate friend living in Accra that I had never felt as much a stranger as I did in Ghana. He muttered, “uh-huh,” and then he asked, “When you go to Chicago, do you expect black folks there to welcome you because you’re from New York? Well, why should it be any different here?”
The most universal definition of the slave is a stranger. Torn from kin and community, exiled from one’s country, dishonored and violated, the slave defines the position of the outsider. She is the perpetual outcast, the coerced migrant, the foreigner, the shamefaced child in the lineage. Contrary to popular belief, Africans did not sell their brothers and sisters into slavery. They sold strangers: those outside the web of kin and clan relationships, nonmembers of the polity, foreigners and barbarians at the outskirts of their country, and lawbreakers expelled from society. In order to betray your race, you had first to imagine yourself as one. The language of race developed in the modern period and in the context of the slave trade.
The very term “slavery” derived from the word “Slav,” because Eastern Europeans were the slaves of the medieval world. At the beginning of modernity, slavery declined in Europe as it expanded in Africa, although as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was still possible to purchase “white” slaves—English, Spanish, and Portuguese captives in the Mediterranean ports of North Africa. The Iberians can be credited, according to one historian, “for restricting bondage, for the first time in history to peoples of African descent.” It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the line between the slave and the free separated Africans and Europeans and hardened into a color line.
For Europeans, race established a hierarchy of human life, determined which persons were expendable, and selected the bodies that could be transformed into commodities. For those chained in the lower decks of a slave ship, race was both a death sentence and the language of solidarity. The vision of an African continental family or a sable race standing shoulder to shoulder was born by captives, exiles, and orphans and in the aftermath of the Atlantic slave trade. Racial solidarity was expressed in the language of kinship because it both evidenced the wound and attempted to heal it. The slave and the ex-slave wanted what had been severed: kin. Those in the diaspora translated the story of race into one of love and betrayal.
I had come to Ghana in search of strangers. The first time for a few weeks in the summer of 1996 as a tourist interested in the slave forts hunkered along the coast and the second time for a year beginning in the fall of 1997 as a Fulbright Scholar affiliated with the National Museum of Ghana. Ghana was as likely a place as any to begin my journey, because I wasn’t seeking the ancestral village but the barracoon. As both a professor conducting research on slavery and a descendant of the enslaved, I was desperate to reclaim the dead, that is, to reckon with the lives undone and obliterated in the making of human commodities.
I wanted to engage the past, knowing that its perils and dangers still threatened and that even now lives hung in the balance. Slavery had established a measure of man and a ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone. If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.
Nine slave routes traversed Ghana. In following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, I intended to retrace the process by which lives were destroyed and slaves born. I stepped into the path of more than seven hundred thousand captives, passing through the coastal merchant societies that acted as middlemen and brokers in the slave trade, the inland warrior aristocracies that captured people and supplied slaves to the coast, and the northern societies that were raided and plundered. I visited the European forts and storehouses on the three-hundred-mile stretch of the littoral from Beyin to Keta, the slave markets established by strong inland states that raided their enemies and subordinates and profited from the trade, and the fortified towns and pillaged communities of the hinterland that provided the steady flow of captives.
I chose Ghana because it possessed more dungeons, prisons, and slave pens than any other country in West Africa—tight dark cells buried underground, barred cavernous cells, narrow cylindrical cells, dank cells, makeshift cells. In the rush for gold and slaves that began at the end of the fifteenth century, the Portuguese, English, Dutch, French, Danes, Swedes, and Brandenburgers (Germans) built fifty permanent outposts, forts, and castles designed to ensure their place in the Africa trade. In these dungeons, storerooms, and holding cells, slaves were imprisoned until transported across the Atlantic.
Neither blood nor belonging accounted for my presence in Ghana, only the path of strangers impelled toward the sea. There were no survivors of my lineage or far-flung relatives of whom I had come in search, no places and people before slavery that I could trace. My family trail disappeared in the second decade of the nineteenth century.
Unlike Alex Haley, who embraced the sprawling clans of Juffure as his own, grafted his family into the community’s genealogy, and was feted as the lost son returned, I traveled to Ghana in search of the expendable and the defeated. I had not come to marvel at the wonders of African civilization or to be made proud by the royal court of Asante, or to admire the great states that harvested captives and sold them as slaves. I was not wistful for aristocratic origins. Instead I would seek the commoners, the unwilling and coerced migrants who created a new culture in the hostile world of the Americas and who fashioned themselves again, making possibility out of dispossession.
By the time the captives arrived on the coast, often after trekking hundreds of miles, passed through the hands of African and European traders, and boarded the slaver, they were strangers. In Ghana, it is said that a stranger is like water running over the ground after a rainstorm: it soon dries up and leaves behind no traces. When the children of Elmina christened me a stranger, they called me by my ancestors’ name.
“Stranger” is the X that stands in for a proper name. It is the placeholder for the missing, the mark of the passage, the scar between native and citizen. It is both an end and a beginning. It announces the disappearance of the known world and the antipathy of the new one. And the longing and the loss redolent in the label were as much my inheritance as they were that of the enslaved.
Unwilling to accept the pain of this, I had tried to undo the past and reinvent myself. In a gesture of self-making intended to obliterate my parents’ hold upon me and immolate the daughter they hoped for rather than the one I was, I changed my name. I abandoned Valarie. She was the princess my mother wanted me to be, all silk and taffeta and sugar and spice. She was the pampered girl my mother would have been had she grown up in her father’s house. Valarie wasn’t a family name but one she had chosen for me to assuage the shame of being Dr. Dinkins’s outside daughter. Valarie was a name weighted with the yearning for cotillions and store-bought dresses and summers at the lake. It was a gilded name, all golden on the outside, all rawness and rage on the inside. It erased the poor black girl my mother was ashamed to be.
So in my sophomore year in college, I adopted the name Saidiya. I asserted my African heritage to free myself from my mother’s grand designs. Saidiya liberated me from parental disapproval and pruned the bourgeois branches of my genealogy. It didn’t matter that I had been rejected first. My name established my solidarity with the people, extirpated all evidence of upstanding Negroes and their striving bastard heirs, and confirmed my place in the company of poor black girls—Tamikas, Roqueshas, and Shanequas. Most of all, it dashed my mother’s hopes. I had found it in an African names book; it means “helper.”
At the time, I didn’t realize that my attempt to rewrite the past would be as thwarted as was my mother’s. Saidiya was also a fiction of someone I would never be—a girl unsullied by the stain of slavery and inherited disappointment. Nor did I know then that Swahili was a language steeped in mercantilism and slave trading and disseminated through commercial relations among Arab, African, and Portuguese merchants. The ugly history of elites and commoners and masters and slaves I had tried to expunge with the adoption of an authentic name was thus unwittingly enshrined.
I realized too late that the breach of the Atlantic could not be remedied by a name and that the routes traveled by strangers were as close to a mother country as I would come. Images of kin trampled underfoot and lost along the way, abandoned dwellings repossessed by the earth, and towns vanished from sight and banished from memory were all that I could ever hope to claim. And I set out on the slave route, which was both an existent territory with objective coordinates and the figurative realm of an imagined past, determined to do exactly this.
It was my great-grandfather Moses, my mother’s grandfather, who initiated me on this journey. On a hazy summer morning my brother and I set out with Poppa to learn about our people. The summer of 1974 would be the last time we visited Montgomery, Alabama, for anything other than a brief four-day trip, and Poppa, sensing this, introduced us to our past. Peter and I had outgrown the boundaries of Underwood Street and tired of the local kids who, in turn, had grown weary of us and too many sentences beginning “In New York,” which lorded the wonders of our world over the restrictions of theirs—really good Chinese food, the roller coaster at Coney Island, knishes, fire hydrants like geysers crashing on sweltering asphalt streets, and the one-hour mass where we were allowed to wear jeans and Sister Madonna played the guitar, instead of the all-day trial of Morning Pilgrim Baptist Church, where you were pinched if you nodded off and had to wear dresses and tights and jackets and ties, no matter how hot it was.
Poppa took us on a tour of the rural outskirts of Montgomery County, where our people had lived before moving into town. As we drove through the monochromatic brown stretch of farmland broken only by dull grazing cows, Poppa would stick his hand out the window at regular intervals and declare, “Land used to be owned by black folks.” Now agribusiness owned everything as far as the eye could see.
Looking at all the land worked by us but that was no longer ours triggered Poppa’s memory. No doubt he remembered his grandfather, whose land had been stolen by a white neighbor upon his death, forcing his wife and children off the property. White neighbors had poisoned his well and killed his farm animals, trying to drive him off the land, but only after his death did they succeed in evicting his family and taking his property with a fraudulent deed. In the middle of explaining how black farmers lost it all—to night riders, banks, and the government—Poppa drifted into a story about slavery, because for men like Poppa and my great-great-great-grandfather to be landless was to be a slave. He called slavery times the dark days.
What I knew about slavery up until that afternoon with Poppa had been pretty basic. Of course I knew black people had been enslaved and that I was descended from slaves, but slavery was vague and faraway to me, like the embarrassing incidents adults loved to share with you about some incredulous thing you had done as a toddler but of which you had no memory. It wasn’t that you suspected them of making it up as much as it concerned some earlier incarnation of yourself that was not really you. Slavery felt like that too, something that was part of me but not me at the same time. It had never been concrete before, not something as palpable as my great-grandfather in his starched cotton shirt sitting next to me in a brown Ford, or a parched red clay country road, or a horse trader from Tennessee, or the name of a girl, not much younger than me, who had been chattel.
Slavery was never mentioned at my school, Queen of All Saints, although I learned about Little Black Sambo from my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Conroy, whose lilting Irish tones mollified offense. When I wore Afro-puffs, she called me an African princess, provoking the derisive laughter of my classmates, black and white alike. Nor was slavery discussed at the Black Power summer camp where, unbeknownst to my parents who recognized only that the camp was free and within walking distance from our house, counselors forbade us to apologize to white people, where I wore T-shirts embossed with revolutionary Swahili slogans, the meanings of which I could never remember. The counselors taught us to disdain property, perform the Black Power handshake, and march in strict formation, but they never mentioned the Middle Passage or chattel persons.
As we drove through the countryside, Poppa told us his mother and grandmother had been slaves. His grandmother Ellen was born in Tennessee around 1820. She was a nursemaid for a horse and mule trader. As a house slave, she was spared the onerous work of the field, dressed better than the hands, dined on crumbs and leftovers, and traveled with her owners. Yet the relative advantage she might have enjoyed when compared with other slaves didn’t prevent her from being sold when her owner discovered himself in a “situation.”
Ellen had accompanied her master and his family on a trip to Alabama, where he went to sell a parcel of horses. Something went wrong in Alabama and she was sold, along with the horses. Maybe an unlucky hand at cards or outstanding debts or quick cash were what went wrong, at least for Ellen. In Tennessee, she might have had children of her own because nursemaids were often wet nurses who suckled their master’s children. If she was lucky her mother might have lived with the family too. If she had children or a mother or a man back in Tennessee, then she was separated from them without a good-bye.
Poppa’s mother, Ella, was born in Alabama and still a girl when slavery ended. He said less about her than about his grandmother, maybe because his grandmother raised him or maybe because speaking of his mother made him feel like the grief-stricken fifteen-year-old he had been in 1907 when she died. He preferred to stick to the essential facts—birth, death, and emancipation.
Sometime in 1865, a Union soldier approached Ella in the middle of her chores. “A soldier rode up to my ma and told her she was free.” The starkness of Ella’s story stunned me. Her life consisted of two essential facts—slavery and freedom juxtaposed to mark the beginning and end of the chronicle. But this was what slavery did: it stripped your history to bare facts and precious details.
I don’t know if it was the bare bones of Ella’s story or the hopefulness and despair that lurked in Poppa’s words as he recounted it, as if he were weighing the promise of freedom against the vast stretches of stolen land before him, that made me eager to know more than what Poppa remembered or wanted to share. Peter and I listened, silent. We didn’t know what to say.