By John W. Fountain
ACCRA, Ghana—I am an alien. A foreigner. Easily, if not instantaneously, identifiable. Whether the dead giveaway is my diamond stud in my left ear, my shaved baldhead ala Michael Jordan style, or the two visible modest chains I wear around my neck—one a black sterling silver cross, the other a silver dog chain bearing a portrait of my beloved grandmother—I do not know.
Perhaps it is my African-American swag—my unspoken Western world expectations, or my 230 pounds in my slightly less than six-foot-tall frame. I am not loud, not obnoxious, not arrogant or flamboyant, not assertive of any red-blooded American privilege. But I clearly stick out like a sore thumb.
I have inquired of a few Ghanaian “friends” how Ghanaians can so quickly discern my Americanness. They won’t say.
Whatever it is, clear to me in the staring then averting eyes of Ghanaians, even without me having spoken a word of betraying American English, is that they quickly, upon sight, ascertain that I am not one of them. That I am instead a member of the lost tribe. A descendant of those former Africans once sold into American slavery.
In just a few months’ time here, this much is clear: That my first visit to the West African nation 14 years ago made me feel for the first time in my life, free. Not like a Black man, just a man. But upon my return, I now feel like an alien—outside of Cape Coast, outside of Accra city central and the usual tourist fare—here, in Greater Accra, where I have been immersed in this nation’s heartbeat and soul—among everyday people.
I love Ghana. But barely a day goes by when I am not slapped by a reminder of my enviable status granted by my American passport and my Ghanaian visa. Greeted with a look and by the general feeling in the streets I walk that says: “We don’t want your Black ass here either.”
I am detectable by the Uber or taxi driver, the airport security guard, by the clerk at a mall clothing store or the Realtors, or someone else who has identified me as a foreign fat pocket from which to try and extract the highest amount of cedis (Ghanaian currency). My day name in Ghana since I was born on a Thursday is Yaw. I have joked that my middle name is Cedis. “I am Yaw Cedis,” I have declared to some who erupt in laughter over the sad truth and my humorous spin to try and deflect the pain.
Too often I am the recipient of some slight—an obnoxious and disrespectful cut in line. By frowns as I pass by on the street, or at a clothing store at a mall. By attempts to exact a higher price for a good or service, or by stares of disdain as I walk and that speak to me saying, “Yankee, go home!” or “What’s he doing here?”
The Taste of Freedom
I am here because I love Ghana. As a Fulbright Scholar exploring the world. I have come to give and not take anything. I want nothing, except the air to inhale the breath of freedom and exhale the anxieties caused by a lifetime of racial hate in my own land.
I first visited Ghana in 2007, the year Ghana marked its 50th celebration as the first sub-Saharan African nation to win its independence from colonialism.
I was drawn to return to Ghana by my first taste of freedom. By the beauty of this land. By the poise, resilience and pure elegance of its people—my people—by the blood of my enslaved forefathers and mothers once shipped from these shores. In applying for a Fulbright, I could have chosen almost anywhere in the world. I chose Ghana, drawn by the call to return to the Motherland. To at least, finally, at last, place my feet here again upon this soil and sands from which Black bodies departed more than 400 years ago in the Middle Passage, having passed through the “Door of No Return.”
In my heart, I also pondered applying for Ghanaian citizenship. Romanticized about how it might be to live in a land where white racism could not exist, and where my racial burden in America might eventually become a long-forgotten bad dream from a past life.
But in the absence of racism, I did not fathom discrimination based on nationality, or intraracism, in a land of people mostly Black like me. Or the sting of tribalism and fraternal rejection.
Perhaps I was naive. I was never looking for Utopia. Not Wakanda. Ghana, beautiful Ghana, which I first glimpsed through a tourist’s eyes. I was not searching for Vibranium but something more precious: Freedom, reconnection, brotherly love.
As a resident, I stand out here as a Black American man as glaringly as a white man in a sea of Black folk. And rejection here hurts. Cuts deep. Pushes me to return to the tribe where I am not an outsider.
And despite the warm embrace by some here early upon my return—and continued spots of kindness—I often feel mostly unwelcomed. It is something I sensed early on, though I was sometimes comforted by the words of a few Ghanaians in whom I have confided these feelings.
“We want the Black Americans here,” they say.
“You are our brothers,” they say, echoing the call of Ghana’s president in 2019, designated as the “Year of Return,” in which Black Americans were encouraged by this government to come to Ghana.
“I appreciate that. And if I stay, it will be because of brothers like you,” I tell them, sharing my experiences with perceived slights and the general feeling of being treated like an unwanted guest. Less like a brother, more like a foreigner, more like a biblical Joseph coming home to rejection and scrutiny. Always like an “other,” no matter how much I see them as brother, and no matter how much I understand that for Black people to be divided will always leave room for us to be conquered.
They acknowledge the truth about the existence of that sentiment among some Ghanaians amid the repatriation of thousands of Black Americans to Ghana in recent years. But they insist that any disdain or rejection by Ghanaians is not prevailing. Among them, a taxi driver who shuttled me to the airport to pick up my son fresh from America around Christmastime.
While waiting for my son outside Kotoka International Airport, the driver, an affable guy named Obed, remarks, “There are a lot of Black American women traveling here” today.
“How can you tell they are African-American?” I ask.
(Silence) “…It is the shape of their bodies,” he finally says. He meant they were fat.
No prejudice there, I thought to myself. Nope. Just my imagination. (Sarcasm.)
For Natalie Darby-Reed, a butterscotch-complected African-American woman who moved to Ghana a year ago from Atlanta, it was not her imagination that some Ghanaians, because of her light skin and her American roots, referred to her as “obroni,” meaning, in her case: “white woman.” In an interview in their home near Tema, Ghana, however, she described her adjustment to life and also to rejection in Ghana essentially as growing pains.
I share my encounters with Darby-Reed and her “mother,” Janice Singleton Springer, a Christian evangelist who plans to build orphanages in Ghana as part of her ministry. We trade stories about our disappointments on this side of the Atlantic. They empathize, sharing with me that three weeks into their journey they almost called it quits, although they are happily settling in now with no plans of ever returning to America. Their words give me hope. Their mac & cheese and hot water cornbread soothe my soul.
But inasmuch as I once heard Africa calling, I now must reconcile the voice I hear calling me back toward home. I am sobered by the reality that whatever rejection I have ever felt in America, it has always been tempered by the truth that this land is my land, bought by the blood, sweat and tears of Black slaves.
My dashed hopes are calibrated by the knowledge that I would not be the first to be rejected by my own; by the history of the Middle Passage in which Africans were agents who sold other Africans into slavery, although that side of the story is never fully explored but evokes the question of whether those identified nations who participated in slavery should not also be the subject of reparations for African-Americans, or at least owe us a public apology.
I am enlightened by the clarity born here during my time in Ghana that I am undeniably African and unapologetically American, and I embody the full empowerment of the compound word: African-American. That I am American by blood and African by blood. That Africa is my ancestral Motherland. But America is my Homeland.
And by this glaring possibility: That all I might ever be here is an alien living in Africa. For I know that even if I learned the language (Twi) and spoke it fluently and also wore Ghanaian clothes, I would still never be accepted as “brother.” I have said as much to a few Ghanaians and also Black Americans. And they acknowledge that this is simply the plain honest truth.
Once head over heels for Ghana, I feel somewhat embarrassed by my change of heart. For having uprooted my life and my family’s, even temporarily, for what I believed would be a once-in-a-lifetime journey for the soul. In one sense, it has been. In another, I’m not so sure anymore.
And yet, perhaps I needed to return to Africa to make my calling and election sure. To finally put to rest any notion that there is some “Wakanda” somewhere, waiting for us as Black Americans. And instead to embrace the reality that, like our enslaved ancestors and their descendants, we must work to build by our blood, sweat and tears a more perfect community right where we are.
On this side of the Atlantic, I now hear voices, calling from the other side. The voices of my community, of my city, of my grandsons and granddaughters, and my god-grandsons and others. It is a call that says there is much work—old and new—to be done at home in America in my days that remain. A call to return to America whenever this journey has ended.
America, where my grandmother and mother, and my grandfather and his grandfather—born an American slave—lay buried. America—land that I love. Land where my ancestors cried, fought for my freedom, bled and died. America imperfect, and yet, perhaps the perfect place for me, when I’m there and even when I’m gone.
For America—for good, bad or greater—will always be home. No apology needed. And absolutely none given.
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John W. Fountain is a professor at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 Fulbright Scholar to Ghana where he is teaching at the University of Ghana–Legon and conducting a research project titled, “Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland”