On She Goes

Finding Home in Kinship

Being Black American in Ghana

Gabrielle Hickmon
Gabrielle Hickmon
September 12, 2017
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This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. . 

It had only been a week since I arrived in Ghana when I first met Kwame after traveling from Accra to Kumasi. He was a local and endeavoring to live out his football (soccer to Americans) dreams—which, as he proceeded to tell me, was not easy because it costs a lot up front to play the sport without guarantees that he would ever “make it.” One day, as we casually walked to the school where I was working in a small gated community, he said to me, “You’re so lucky to be a Black American.”

Kumasi Central Market, the largest market in West Africa, from an overhead lookout point.
photo by Gabrielle Hickmon

The moment I stepped off the plane in Accra, the capital city and jewel of what used to be the Gold Coast, I began my journey to a reckoning within myself. There was something in the air—a smell I recognized but knew I had never smelled before. Still, the molecules of my DNA knew they were safe, knew they “belonged,” knew there was a larger purpose for their landing than a service-learning program with Cornell. On paper, my trip to Ghana was about working on the infrastructure of a school and a cultural exchange. In reality, it ended up being about much more.

My ancestors were enslaved people taken from a place unknown to me. When asked where I’m from—something I experienced in a new way in Ghana—I answered, “The American South, Alabama and Mississippi, but now Michigan.” American slavery was horrific and created many pathologies that have been passed down from generation to generation. My pathology is the lack of a concrete understanding of “home.”

The two weeks I spent in Ghana that summer marked my first journey to the continent of Africa, my first journey to the land from which my ancestors came.

When I say “home,” I mean the place one is indigenous to, which has complicated how I define home generally and was further complicated by my time in Ghana. The two weeks I spent in Ghana that summer marked my first journey to the continent of Africa, my first journey to the land from which my ancestors came. The grass was greener than green and the ground red clay. Sunsets were brighter there, almost as if the sun knew it was shining on the land from which all human life began. I may have been born in America, but I am not indigenous to that land. My lineage was brought forcibly from the continent of Africa. The people were brought over and made to build a nation that reminds me of my foreignness every chance it gets, even though America is and always will be a land I am indebted to.

My biggest lessons from travel always come in the little moments, like throwing a ball around with kids.
photo from Gabrielle Hickmon

I say indebted because until Kwame said I was lucky to be a Black American, I never thought of it that way. I scoffed at his comment until he explained. See, Kwame understood my kinship tie before I did. I was lucky to be a Black American because even with the hardships I face in America, in his eyes (and now mine), the privilege of my birth gave me better access to opportunity. I was not looking for a way out, like he was with soccer. Hearing my “struggle” through his voice helped me see my life in a different light. My identities as Black and female position me pretty low on the list of those who have access to opportunity in the United States. But, in Ghana, my Americanness became something to be thankful for—a thought I had never interrogated before.

My tour guide called me “sister” and said he felt I belonged.

On the southern shores of Ghana, at Cape Coast Castle, a former slave market and site from which so many lives were taken and alternative histories launched, my tour guide called me “sister” and said he felt I belonged. How a place that took so much from so many could be called a “castle,” I will never understand. Its walls are white and the ground was formed from cobblestone, with canons present in case of attack. The smell of sweat, fear, feces, and menstruation lingers—reminding you of where you really are and what really happened there in the process. Someone told me I looked Fante, the ethnic group that settled the area around Cape Coast in the 17th century, with my high cheekbones and wide-set nose. What a weight it was to look like I came from a place but not to be sure if I grew from there. To be spoken to in Twi and to not understand, to the dismay of both the speaker and the spoken to. Traveling to Ghana put my alternative history into context. I am not African and, in many ways, I am not American. But, I am the dream and the hope of those who were enslaved.

I am lucky to be a Black American. Because when I went to Ghana and walked through the door of no return, entering the castle where the enslaved were taken away, I brought my ancestors home. Reforging the ever-present kinship tie and ultimately proving that, as a Black American, I may belong to many unknown lands. Though, ultimately, I belong always to myself.