One Three Centuries Removed i
I first heard her name while in the care of the Sisters of Saint Felix. In the midst of overdoses and transient misery, I heard a fellow vagrant utter the title of a short story.
You should read At the Lisbon Plate. I think you’d really enjoy it.
I gave her a quizzical look and pleaded for another swig from the bottle.
Imagine my shock when I found myself in the company of Dionne Brand some eighteen months later. I was seated at the other end of the table. My fellow diners were celebrating the two esteemed minds who’d launched a book at the nearby Theatre Centre. I nudged my dear friend Lee and asked for an introduction. My enthusiasm must’ve annoyed him enough to do it. There I was, face to face with her – the same woman whose words are inscribed in the city’s built form and admired far beyond this table. All I could muster was that I really enjoyed reading Sans Souci, the short story collection where one could find At the Lisbon Plate. Thoroughly satisfied, and slightly embarrassed at my gushing, I returned to my seat, elated to have been seen by the doyenne of Canadian letters.
What her short story revealed to me was her concern with the relationship between Africans on both sides of the Atlantic. At the Lisbon Plate includes the pitiful refrains of exiled colonial Portuguese, either from Angola or Mozambique and reminded me of the violent intimacy between them and the Somali. As the Portuguese sailed the high seas in search of India, and the fabled Prester John, king of black Christians in Abyssinia, they laid waste to Mogadishu, one of the gems on the Swahili Coast. Disappointed to find that Prester John didn’t exist, they helped the emperor of Abyssinia repel an invading force from the kingdom of Ifat, straddling what is today Somaliland and Djibouti. Brand’s concern for Africa and its scattered children remains unresolved and takes up the greater part of A Map to the Door of No Return, celebrating its twentieth birthday in 2021. The Door, located in Ghana, places us on either side, within and without Africa. The gaze across the threshold is tinged with remorse, longing and a persistent misunderstanding. The question Brand poses to us is how we can reach across that threshold and embrace each other. What happens if there is no response? I wonder about the echo of my own voice as I conjure up the courage to say something, anything really. Crossing the threshold, either through deeds or speech, is the problem that faces all Africans. Concealment can no longer spare us and the longer our tongues are held, the more cavernous are the wounds we leave for the future.
Born near the blue-black cerulean water ii of Guaya, on the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, Brand brings into existence the aftereffects of her ancestors stepping through the Door centuries earlier. Africa continues to stir within the music of the souls around her and she recounts that as a young girl her uncle would take months to draw and cut out the masks; he would leave it for days, frustrated that a cheekbone would not level out. My uncle was not a scholar of Africa of any kind. He did not know of the personal masks of the Bassa people, he did not know of the men’s society masks of the Manding people or Guinea, nor the dance mask of the Igbo or the Bawa or Bamana people. He had no recall of the Baule, the Oan, the Mossi, the Ogoni, the Sennefo, the Ngbaka, or the Akwaya. My uncle had the gaping Door of No Return, a memory resembling a memory of a thing that he remembered. And not so much remembered as felt. And not so much felt as a memory which held him. iii In her native Trinidad, and further afield in the Americas, African names were violently replaced by European ones; likewise, African deities became Christian saints, transformed by the forced landing on the shores of this continent. The quieted stirrings continue long after enslavement and eventual abolition. It is this tension that Brand evokes in her book and it is a tension that hasn’t yet been soothed, unassuaged by journeys back to Africa. I had somehow felt the beckoning of the Door of No Return but was prepared to imagine it and never arrive. iv The quest for answers does little to mend the pain. She finds herself instead to have become a fiction -- a creation of empires, and also self-creation. v
Elmira, Ghana, is where one would go to behold the Door and those who passed through it inherited no ancestry except the black water. vi Across the continent stand other versions of the Door - passed through by people snatched from what is today Malawi, Tanzania, and further afield. Their bodies were sold alongside the tusks of elephants, incense, myrrh, hides and a multitude of produce. Ibn Batuta, in his travels along the Swahili Coast remarked that in Mogadishu, sitting on the northern edge of the Coast, the streets were a constant red from the blood of camels being slaughtered around the clock. Mogadishu was part of a network of city-states that gave the world a major language and dispersed countless Bantus across the Indian Ocean. Some of them were kept in Africa and forced to work on farms in the interriverine regions of what is today Somalia but was then a hodgepodge of sultanates and minor kingdoms, vying for trade across the Indian Ocean. The Somali Bantus exist in a precarious state in relation to the Somalis who enslaved them. The words to describe them, in particular, their form and features, are bywords in Somali for enslavement, shiftiness, untrustworthiness and ugliness. Jareer is one of those words and refers to the texture of their hair - kinky and considered undesirable by Somalis - who embrace bleaching and hair straightening. Addoon is the word for the enslaved, and addooniimo is the condition they occupy. These words have moved with us as the society we crafted from the dreams of freedom fighters went up in smoke and the harbingers of our past caught up with us. Dispersed across the world, we kept our distance from the Somali Bantus, who were resettled in large numbers by the American government in places like Bangor, Maine and Tucson, Arizona. What we found instead were neighbours who hailed from the Caribbean. Suspicious of each other, the oldtimers knew nothing of these new neighbours beyond what the news broadcasts saw fit to transmit. The Somali looks upon the West Indian and immediately decides that they are dealing with addoon and that their children would do better by avoiding them. Alas, it doesn’t turn out that way. Some mimic their neighbours by trying to live a life that is bound to introduce criminal records, wounds from shootings or stabbings, and perhaps an early death marked by a small vigil between the buildings. Others follow their neighbours into the halls of academia and imbue their life with knowledge until such hopes are dashed by the rewards doled out to their mediocre white peers. They realize, like their West Indian peers before them, that they must do twice as much work and expect fewer rewards in return.
Some of the women and men go off to work in the industrial edgelands where low wages and precarious safety are the norms. They slice open raw meat and work countless hours near hot ovens; or staple together pieces of wood to make frames for photos. They stand in groups at the bus stops as their shifts end, eager to return home. Perhaps their thoughts are on building a home in the parish of their kin, or to wire some American dollars to a distressed relation in the Horn.
The threshold to the Door can be as wide as an ocean - the gap between two seats on a city bus or the hallway in a building along Weston Road. It’s not physical distance that makes the threshold so amorphous but the silence that grows into screams and laughter the further you move away from it. In this part of the world are dreams of Africa, a home lost by crossing the threshold. These dreams have become art and enterprise, missions to civilize and eventually morph into collaboration to rid Africa of its colonizers and bring victory to the wretched of the Earth.
African notables, be they Mansa Musa, Shaka Zulu, or the Mahdi, were revered and others like Ras Tafari, crowned Haile Selassie, and Lion of Judah, became venerated. The short man became the symbol of a new faith amongst the Africans of the Caribbean, dispensing with the pesky details of his tyranny. The Africans of the Americas in turn became symbols to those living under the yoke of European imperialists. Their resistance in the Americas became inspirational and their names were known across the new borders of independent Africa. Protests across the continent called for the release of Angela Davis. Stokely Carmichael, himself a Trinidadian like Brand, became Kwame Ture in what can be considered the African period of his life. Countless writers gave us the vehicles to voice our frustrations and aspirations - Langston Hughes and his contemporaries were inspirations to Senghor, and the wave of post-independence writers allowed Toni Morrison a chance to envision an entirely black constellation of characters worthy of description. These high-minded efforts weren’t abstract and limited to the artistic. Cuban soldiers laid down their lives to ensure the freedom of Angola and Mozambique. Haiti dispatched thousands of nurses, teachers, skilled workers and administrators to fill the vacuum left by the Belgian withdrawal from the Congo (Kinshasa).
Tangible efforts were made to narrow the distance between the Africans peering out at one another across the threshold and often they’ve been well-intentioned, including the black American effort to civilize Liberia. [I]t is something strange to think that those people of [A]frica are call[e]d our ancestors. [I]n my present thinking if we have ancestors they could not have been liked [sic] these hostile tribes in this part of [A]frica for you may try and distell [sic] that principle and belief in them and do all you can for them and they still will be your enemy. vii Peyton Skipworth was one of many black Americans who took the chance to return to Africa and make a new life for himself and his family, having been freed from a life of slavery in the Americas. He wrote letters to his former master John Hartwell Cocke, who wished to see freed slaves leave the United States and return to Africa under the auspices of the American Colonization Society. The descendants of the slaves, also known as Congos, acted just like the colonists in Liberia. Despite the imposition of a textbook reproduction of European values, ix the returning Africans disrupted the slave trade and went to war with local notables who in fact depended on the trade for their livelihoods. Skipworth, in his desire to civilize the native African, took up arms to ensure that enslavement was consigned to the past. A Slave dealer for some time had a slave factory at Little Bassa and Gov. Buchanan after he came out order[e]d him away and said to him that he had no right to deal in Slaves in that territory. x
A gnawing silence overwhelms the African standing on the continent and looking out at his counterpart across the threshold. How do we explain our complicity in the enslavement of our brethren and sisters? How do we express this discomfort that exists across the threshold? Some of us don’t deign to respond. Why did you sell us? The Kumasi man of course has no answer...I switch the station, suddenly embarrassed at the question and the answer. There is no answer. The Door of No Return is ajar between them. xi What do I have to say? I can shout all I want about the razing of Mogadishu and the imposition of fascism on my grandparents, but do I stay silent on the history of Europeans forcing my ancestors to end the trade in Bantu bodies? What do I make of the silence between myself and the Somali Bantus in Toronto, Bangor, and Tucson? No longer can I retreat into the falsehood that Africa was a continent where everything was calm and peaceful prior to the arrival of the European villains. xii How authentic am I in standing with my African brethren on this side of the threshold if I don’t fess up to the entirety of my history? What good is it to commune with friends if I’m not transparent with them and myself? There is a way forward and it involves mending and amending our history and laying it out before our brethren to take in. The role played by Blacks in the slave trade remains a taboo subject to this day among Africans...mere mention of this history is tantamount to committing a felony. xiii No longer can we afford to let the silence grow and sink its fangs deeper into us. That silence across the threshold will hinder us and ultimately keep us from understanding each other.
On both sides stand Africans who have fused visions of African royalty, a lost idyll, and a yearning for a better future. We’ve become fixed in our positions. There will never again, inshallah, be a moment when Elmira or Mogadishu’s slave forts will teem with activity, marked by the feverish movement of traders and the quiet terror of the enslaved, packed together in small rooms. Today, Africans land in the Americas in search of something Africa cannot give them. They are not as sentimental about the motherland and view the longing of the black American, the West Indian or the Afro-Latino as something odd and naive. They dismiss it as fantasia but are quick to anger when an artist from this part of the world fuses all ways of being in Africa to create beauty. That's not authentic! The cries are always the same. A new thing has taken root recently which is perhaps more odious than the initial dismissive attitude. Africans who moved here have begun to accuse black people in the Americas of cultural appropriation. I can only throw up my hands in despair and exhaustion. One cannot appropriate what belongs rightfully to one’s lineage, that still stirs in the music of one’s soul and colours the way the world treats you. To counter these developments, I suggest we mend the open wounds that have been covered by the damp rag of history. As we remove the damp cloth, let us gaze upon each other’s mortal frame and take in the generosity of entrusting one another with such vulnerability. We will see each other, bereft of garment as the day we came into the world and begin to share. We tell each other what we’ve hidden for so long. We allow transgression and accusation. We present a hand across the threshold when tears well up in the ones we are facing. As we amend what we know about the African across the threshold, the future will be open for deeper understanding. There might be a future where our wounds have scabbed over and the hardened bits have fallen away. The sun will leave us with a dark mark where the wound once was, forevermore a reminder of how we helped each other.
I must allow Bantu brethren to seize me and tell me what stirs in the music of his soul, and I must account for the wrongs done by a man whose name is removed five, ten or twenty times from my own. I must contend with what Abdulkarim and Ali and Hirad did.
There but for the grace of God, go I.
May Your unfailing love pursue us all the days of our lives. xiv
There may not be a response for some time but we cannot allow the digestion of the truth to delay us from doing the right thing. The words spoken across the threshold will travel into the future to shorten the distance that stands between us. Imbued with this hope, I pray for the willingness to do away with my own discomfort as I disrobe my spirit. A cleansing air shall be my reward when words fail me, and a truthful future will be ours to construct from the silence that holds us hostage today.
i Countee Cullen, “Heritage,” in The Black Poets, Dudley Randall ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1985), 95.
ii Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2011), 6.
iii Ibid, 121.
iv Ibid, 96.
v Ibid, 18.
vi Ibid, 61.
vii Randall M. Miller, "Dear Master": Letters of a Slave Family: By Randall M. Miller (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978).
viii Ahmadou Kourouma, Allah Is Not Obliged (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), 92.
ix Farah Nuruddin, Sweet & Sour Milk (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1992).
xi Brand, 31-32.
xii Alain Mabanckou and Thomas Dominic Richard David, The Tears of the Black Man (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2018), 45.
xiv Psalm 23-6 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2017).