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Two Homes: African American Students Redefine Themselves in Ghana

Spring $year.value. | By Melissa Fraterrigo. Photo by Bill Caise.

These fountains are part of Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, honoring Nkrumah as the first prime minister and president of Ghana, who oversaw its transition from a British colony to independent nation in 1957.

While packing to study abroad in Ghana during Maymester 2013, Stephanie Wilson, a senior majoring in African American Studies, admits that she included granola bars in her luggage. Other than the “Feed the Children” specials she recalled from her childhood, where a fifty-cent donation could provide an African child with what looked like a bowl of gruel, she had no idea what Africans in any nation ate. Wilson was more than pleasantly surprised by the cuisine she encountered. “The food I had in Ghana was some of the best I have ever eaten. Every morning you’d see people going to the market to buy fish to make food, but they [the media] paint this picture that everyone is starving,” says Wilson.

Wilson’s study program in Ghana was planned by Venetria Patton, associate professor of English and director of the African American Studies and Research Center (AASRC) in collaboration with Renee Thomas, director of the Black Cultural Center (BCC). Patton, already working to revitalize study abroad as a regular part of African American Studies, worked with Thomas to design a study abroad trip that had parallels with the planned BCC fall 2013 research trip related to Gullah culture in the Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia. There, ancestors of enslaved Africans have retained many West African cultural traditions. Ghana, an area where many African ancestors passed through during the slave trade, made sense to both.

Thomas expected the inaugural trip to increase the number of African Americans taking advantage of study abroad, but she was also delighted to see students like Wilson turn a critical eye toward the way she had been taught to perceive Africans. “We wanted to assist the university in achieving its goal in providing a global experience, but it was also essential that the program incorporate culturally relevant and educationally enriching experiences that made ancestral connections to West Africa,” she says.

Coming home

Stephanie Wilson
Stephanie Wilson, a senior in African American Studies, stamps Adinkra symbols on fabric. Developed by the Akan people, each Adinkra represents a specific meaning or concept, and they are used widely on fabric, pottery, and advertising.
Photo By Bill Caise.

Patton says that it is not uncommon for African Americans to romanticize the African homeland, and that a lot of students think they will go to Africa and be embraced by Africans who will see them as long-lost relatives.

Wilson experienced this disorientation during her trip. “I thought by going to Africa it would feel like home for the first time,” she says. “So when I realized that I was a stranger here, too, [in Africa] that’s when my heart broke.”

Nightly discussions during the trip offered participants the time to review the day’s events in relation to the readings covered in class prior to their departure or Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, which students read during their time in Ghana.  Discussions were student-led, and these conversations helped everyone work through expectations and impressions. “The reflection was always deep and it was kind of sad and frustrating,” says LaQuan Lunford, a junior in film studies.

Wilson, for one, reconsidered her hopes for the trip early on, after realizing the impact of growing up in American culture was greater than she initially thought. “I had thought that bond of looking alike, having a similar struggle, being taken from this space and brought over here—I thought that was more of a connector than the cultures we were raised in.” Critical discussions about these ideas were encouraged and fostered a deeper understanding of the African diaspora.

LaQuan Lunford, a junior in film studies, shot and edited this video montage of the Maymester trip to Ghana.

The legacy of slavery

African Americans have had a complex history in the United States. Although slavery was officially abolished 150 years ago, the legacy remains. In Cape Coast, the group toured Cape Coast Castle and Fort Amsterdam, structures used to hold enslaved Africans before they were forced on the perilous journey across the Atlantic. Many students found these sites the most affecting of the trip.

Walking through the dungeons of the castles, which still retained the smells of feces, urine, and blood, and imagining people who had sat there for months at a time made slavery real beyond anything they had previously experienced. Students were disgusted by the contrast between what they had read in history textbooks about slavery and what they were witnessing firsthand. “Education is full of lies. It didn’t tell the real story of slavery,” says Lunford. To deal with the heart-wrenching experience, students paid homage to their enslaved African ancestors through a Rite of Passage program, symbolizing the students’ descent from those who passed through and perished in slave castles.

Facing these relics of the past helped students reflect on their identities as African Americans. “You are here in America because you are born here, but [as a black person] you don’t really feel welcome,” says Wilson. She explains that it’s easy to feel that, “No matter how much you work or what you achieve, it never belongs to you.” Students who visited Ghana have been reaffirmed by the knowledge of their ancestral history, which has compelled many to personally redefine what it means to be an African American. And in the process, students have begun to appreciate their place in this remarkable history.

The spirit of sankofa, a word in the Akan language of Ghana, expresses the African notion of returning to your past in order to move forward and do better in the future. This concept has awakened in Wilson and other students a personal responsibility to make sure other African Americans are conscious of their past and their capabilities going forward. Wilson, who plans to earn her master’s degree in Africa and then go on for her doctorate in the U.S., considers education key to her awareness of what it means to be an African-descended person. She says that in America it is not enough to read a book about slavery; she is prepared to devote her life to teaching others what she has learned: that the history of slavery does not define the African American experience.

The Ghana-Gullah connection

A 2013 Black Cultural Center (BCC)-sponsored October break research tour related to Gullah culture allowed students to see how cultural traditions were maintained and translated by their ancestors when they arrived in the new world. “During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a lot of enslaved Africans came into the ports of Charleston and Savannah and then were shipped off to the Sea Islands to work the rice or indigo plantations,” says Renee Thomas, director of the BCC. “Due to the isolation of the islands, they retained many of their African traditions.”

Students participating in the BCC trip to Gullah Students participating in the BCC trip to Gullah Students participating in the BCC trip to Gullah Students participating in the BCC trip to Gullah Students participating in the BCC trip to Gullah

Click above to view gallery.
Photos by Mark Simons.

Purdue students traveled to Riceboro and Savannah, Georgia, and St. Helena Island, South Carolina, where they visited museums and cultural organizations, attended scholarly lectures, took master classes in their artistic disciplines, and applied this experience to the production of a major show at the end of the 2013 fall semester. Thomas says many of the students who attended Maymester in Ghana also attended the Gullah trip and were able to draw connections between what they experienced in their travels. They noticed similarities between the Adinkra symbols they stamped on fabric in Ghana and a similar stamping method used in Georgia. In West Africa they also saw how the ink used for both of these projects was made. “In that moment they became educators. It was phenomenal to hear them share with their classmates how Gullah cuisine, crafts, and indigo and rice cultivation exhibit strong influences from West Africa,” says Thomas.

Slave castles that were once used for retaining slaves still stand in the port of Savannah—and are similar to the ones students toured in Ghana. “It’s amazing these people retained their African culture and values and how unaware we are as American black people that you can walk up and down this alleyway and these dungeons are right there,” says Stephanie Wilson, a senior in African American Studies.

LaQuan Lunford, a junior in film studies, is also a member of the BCC’s Haraka Writers ensemble, and wrote the following poem in response to his trip to Ghana. He illuminates his writing process with notes from the journal he kept during the trip. 

Hearing words I never heard, but that I know, I know.
Not on the surface, but deep down in my inner most inner most.
When I was royalty way before I was capital.
The sun begins to kiss the first part of the sky
When I heard children’s voices rattle.
Saying words I haven’t spoken, but that I know I know
But the time across the big blue has buried it in my inner most inner most.

This poem came to me early in the morning on the first day of being in Ghana. I woke up to children playing outside of my hotel room. I could hear them laugh and it all felt like home and so familiar—but it’s weird to me, because obviously I haven’t been hearing it my whole life. I blame slavery; hence, “But the time across the big blue has buried it in my inner most inner most.” In other words, my ancestors being enslaved and brought across the ocean has suppressed this language into my innermost self—my DNA and my blood stream—so it’s there, but watered down and strained through the European colander (America). ~ LaQuan Lunford

Beyond coursework

Thomas and Patton crafted the trip so that students could immerse themselves in African culture, beginning with their very first moments in Ghana. They arranged visits and lectures related to the curriculum of the three courses offered during the Maymester trip. They also wanted to sample the performing, creative, and academic areas—dance, choir, drama, creative writing, and an academic collective—represented by professionally trained ensembles at the BCC. “We knew the majority of the students attending would be members of the ensembles, and we wanted to provide an opportunity for them to mirror back what they are doing at the BCC from an artistic perspective,” says Thomas.

Two people stamping <em>Adinkra</em>Roy Melton, a doctoral student in engineering education, and Kadari Taylor-Watson, a doctoral student in American Studies, stamp Adinkra.
Photo by Bill Caise.

Both undergraduate and graduate students participated in the Ghana trip, and Patton says that this combination added richness to the tour, while also elevating discussions. While many of the undergraduates were taking their first African American Studies courses, most of the graduate students are specializing in some aspect of African American culture, so they helped the undergraduates make connections between their experiences on the trip and their studies. Undergraduates studied black women’s literature and twentieth-century Pan-Africanism and Black Power ideology, which allowed students to explore the struggles of African Americans and Ghanaians in their efforts to attain civil rights. Graduate students studied African diasporic women writers, a focus of Patton’s scholarly research.

Patton connected what students read and studied with what they saw while traveling. Students read about prominent sociologist, activist, and Pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois and then visited the W.E.B. DuBois Center in Ghana. At the Aburi Botanical Garden, students discovered a diversity of plants used for scientific research, as well as the methods involved in their conservation. The visit to the garden demonstrated the great knowledge and centuries-old wisdom Africans possessed about these plants, and provided students with a greater understanding of the depth of their heritage.

Patton chose a mix of rural and urban settings for the trip, in part to help dispel any preconceived notions students had about what they’d find in Ghana. The Accra Mall, for example, was similar to a typical U.S. mall where students might shop, both in size and services offered.

In addition, faculty members from the University of Ghana and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology provided lectures on regional history and religions. As a result of the interaction she had with Ghanaian faculty, Naeemah Webb, a second-year graduate student in African American Studies, is applying for a Boren Fellowship for International Study in its African Language Initiative program. She hopes to study the Twi language in Ghana. “While the African American Studies class that my colleagues and I took provided us with an educational background of some aspects of the Ghanaian culture, the Black Cultural Center gave us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture we were studying,” says Webb. “It has ignited my desire to go back to Africa.”

A transformational experience

Colorful boats belonging to XX float in Accra HarborFishing boats in a harbor of Accra.
Photo By Bill Caise.

The study abroad collaboration between an academic department and a campus cultural center is unique to Purdue and the College of Liberal Arts. The partners plan to rotate trips to Ghana every other year with additional areas of the African diaspora, continuing in Latin America with a trip to Brazil in Maymester 2014, and Europe, with a themed “Black Paris” or “Black London” trip in 2016. Patton is also trying to institutionalize study abroad in the AASRC program by devoting coursework to the African diaspora and including it as part of the core requirements for African American Studies majors, who include majority students as well as students of color.

The tour of Ghana will continue to enrich not only the lives of those who traveled to Africa, but also the people with whom they interact. The trip is influencing the artistic responses of members of BCC ensembles, and how students share what they realized about their African and American heritages. For African American Studies majors and minors, the trip also makes what they read about the African diaspora less abstract and more relevant to their educational experience, says Patton. “Having read their journals, it’s very clear to me that this experience was transformational,” she says, and she is certain that students of color, who have not participated in study abroad at Purdue as frequently as majority students, will continue to seek more chances to do so.

“Going through that experience, I realized how much both [African and American] are very important to being able to describe who I am and the opportunities I have in life,” says Wilson. “Now I accept both parts of my identity.”

CLA study abroad by the numbers

Study abroad broadens students’ perspectives, no matter where they decide to travel. In the summer of 2014, there will be 18 CLA department-led study abroad programs—the largest number on campus, according to Elizabeth Diaz, coordinator of CLA Study Abroad and International Programs.

“Study abroad directly impacts students’ academic futures and the courses students are taking here at Purdue. Students who study abroad are also seen as more competitive in the workplace,” she says.

With some 300 programs available through the central study abroad office, there are affordable choices available for all students. In addition, Purdue President Mitch Daniels has made study abroad one of his Purdue Moves initiatives, offering students $3,000 toward the program cost for a semester abroad, $2,000 for programs outside of the U.S. that last six weeks, and $1,000 for any program that lasts less than six weeks.

5% of cla students currently study abroad; summer programs are the most popular among purdue students and cla students; cla welcomes about 30 exchange students each semester; the uk, italy, and spain are the most frequently chosen study abroad trips, spending a semester abroad satisfies cla's global perspectives core requirement
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