Hearing a Culture of Silence

Flying from the United States to West Africa and back is surprisingly easy if you’re lucky enough to have the money to do it. Boarding a plane in Accra, Ghana and touching ground in New York City a mere 11 hours later is an incredible feat considering that even with the ease of flight, not very long ago, direct trips from Africa to the Americas were essentially unheard of. This travel ease is a new phenomenon, preceded by centuries of a crueler sort of journey. The captivity and forced migration of Africans to the “new world” via European slaving ships is by far the most tragic and important Atlantic crossing in world history. While the slaves transported are beginning to be the subjects of admirable academic inquiry, historical silence in Ghana is indicative of limits of discourse on the subject of Atlantic slavery.

In the public schools I attended growing up in the United States, the conception of slavery drilled into us was something that began on a boat and ended on a plantation in the American South. Before starting my own studies of slavery at Harvard and in Ghana this summer, my conception of enslavement was inadequate in its absence of a sense of historical continuity and rootedness.

The aborted idea of slavery being born of a ship crossing the Atlantic is wrong. West Africa was the home of a thriving internal slave trade since at least the 15th century. During this era of Atlantic trade, Europeans rarely ventured inland and instead relied on Africans to supply them with enslaved persons captured in raids or through warfare. Of course, even if the Europeans were altering the course of a preexisting, domestic slave trade, this horror remains paramount. Europeans introduced a level of terror and exploitation to the Atlantic slave trade that killed literally millions of Africans. Ghana’s coast was host to European slave “castles,” which were fortresses of despair in which hundreds of people shared prison cells filled with human waste for months at a time. Sexual assault was rampant and physical abuse was the primary method of control. Scores more Africans died of disease or suicide on the majority of ocean journeys. Once in the Americas, if Africans were able to endure the back-breaking slave labor and seasoning of South America and the Caribbean, their descendants faced centuries of cultural alienation and blatant racism at the hands of whites.

This terrorism of Africa by European slavers was definite. But also striking is how deeply the institution of slavery and involuntary labor was woven into West Africa’s own historical fabric. Despite the historical importance of involuntary labor and enslavement in the nation’s history—or maybe because of it—slavery is a taboo topic in Ghana today.

Modern-day Ghana is experiencing what some historians call a “culture of silence” with regards to slavery. The unspoken anxiety between Ghanaians and descendants of survivors of the African Diaspora springs from the fact that most African slaves were sold into slavery by other Africans, the descendants of whom still live in Africa. If black Americans travel to Ghana expecting—at least to some degree—a homecoming, they might be surprised by many Ghanaians’ unwillingness to talk about the not-so-distant past. Even among Ghanaians, the issue of who comes from slave ancestry and who comes from free families is rarely discussed, although sometimes these histories dictate modern social niches. While this “culture of silence” is not absolute, it is powerful. For example, a detailed search through almost 50 years worth of undergraduate theses and dissertation titles in the history department at the University of Ghana at Legon yields only a handful of major academic papers that addressed enslavement.

As clichéd as it sounds, there are voices struggling to be heard. One is the voice of blacks in the Americas, who still want to know why, that in the face of European violence, Africans sold other Africans. Others are professors in Ghana like Akosua Adoma Perbi, whose book, “A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana,” is a pioneering work. Most important are the voices of university students in Ghana who are breaking into uncharted territory by studying slavery and thereby shattering this taboo.

The act of an Atlantic crossing today resonates because of the modern voyage’s juxtaposition with the most famous Atlantic passage: the voyage of African slaves to the “New World.” That trip was a spiritual, emotional, and physical death for many of its passengers, and its goal was to sever Africans’ ties with their former lives and render them vulnerable at the hands of Europeans. Now, the journey could not be more different: it is easy, fast, and completely voluntary. Only several accounts of the Middle Passage from the perspectives of the enslaved exist because of illiteracy and imprisonment With this dearth of information, it is easy to see how such a “culture of silence”—whatever its origin—stretches back hundreds of years and across continents.

It seems tremendously unfair that one can fly to Africa, study slavery for six weeks, and jet home. From a privileged vantage point, modern students are trying to extract the stories of people who weren’t allowed to speak. Unfortunately, at at every moment there is the constant reminder that their stories are up against an ocean crossing whose purpose was to deprive them of a history and rob them of a future.

Emma M. Lind ’09, a Crimson editorial chair, is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. She spent six weeks with the Harvard Study Abroad Program in Ghana this summer, studying slavery and the slave trade in West Africa and the Caribbean