I Traveled To Africa And Felt The Joy & Trauma Of My Ancestors In My Body

I view this experience as part of an ever-evolving conversation I’m having as a Black mom living in America.

Originally Published: 
Raising Anti-Racist Kids

This article discusses slavery, rape, racism, and violence.

The first words that a Ghanaian official says to me at Kotoka International Airport are "welcome home.” I smile and thank him, not quite sure what this concept of home means to me, a descendant of Afro-Caribbean and Indo-Caribbean ancestry. All I know is that Ghana instantly feels like just that: coming back home. As a Black person visiting Africa for the first time, I hold deep curiosity around so many things that I'm excited to dig into. I am also a Black mom traveling without my multiracial children, adding a layer of complexity that I am only now beginning to grasp.

I miss my kids so much; it is an almost physical sensation. My son's smiles, my daughter’s giggles, their insistence that I am the Chief Cuddler in the family. But this trip feels important to embark on on my own. We are an ocean away from each other for the first time, and I spent months preparing myself and them for this experience. Before I left, I wrote a note that they could open each day I was gone (17 days in total!), spoke to them about the trip, and made sure that I could video with them frequently. They dropped me at the airport, we said our sweet goodbyes, and I am ready to journey, even as a piece of my heart stays with them.

I grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, a country predominantly inhabited by Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians. Trinidad and Tobago, small twin isles in the Caribbean, was a site for people who were enslaved from West Africa, among other places. The influence of West Africa is still evident in the country through our food, music, customs, and more.

I feel my perception of ‘survival’ for kids shifting.

As I journey through Ghana on this trip, I make intentional space for introspection, understanding that this short trip offers me only the glimpse of a visitor. The country holds so much complexity, nuance, and layers just below the surface. I view this experience as part of an ever-evolving conversation I’m having as a Black mom living in America.

Accra, Ghana, and the meanings of childhood

I fly into Accra, Ghana, and meet one of my besties, Hakim, and Raphael, his Ghanaian friend. Raphael becomes our official guide, driver, and invaluable companion for the packed week ahead. I'm immediately greeted by the thick heat, which transports me back to the streets of my home country of Trinidad and Tobago. This feels familiar and I love it, delightedly peeling off my winter layers. Right away, I am pulled into Ghanaian hospitality with Raphael sharing fascinating tidbits about Ghana as we maneuver the bustling traffic. We pull over at a market on Oxford Street, brimming with clothes, statues, jewelry, and more. As I walk the streets of Accra, the bold colors and generous silhouettes of clothing call out to me, a former designer.

Raphael advises me to negotiate prices for what I want but I fail miserably. He jumps in to help and soon, I walk away with several bracelets and a piece of art.The author

As we walk from stall to stall, a child comes up behind me. He makes eye contact, touches my hand gently, and points to his mouth, asking for food. I learn that he could belong to any of several groups of children on the streets that include children of refugees, undocumented immigrants from Niger, Northern Nigeria, and children of Ghanaian parentage who have been neglected. I think about my son who needs me to cuddle with him for 15 minutes every night with his stuffed animals and thick blanket, at the same exact time that I am looking into the eyes of a child his age, on the street, figuring out how to survive by asking a stranger for a meal. I feel my perception of “survival” for kids shifting. For my son back home, it means certain comforts. Here, on the streets of Accra (and also in many parts of the United States), I see a different sort of survival and it echoes deep within me.

Cape Coast

The next day, we pile into a tiny seven-seater 4x4 truck for the three-and-a-half-hour drive to Cape Coast. We leave at 4 a.m. and are all running on little more than adrenaline. I call home and chat with my kids. My son is having a harder time with me being gone for so long, so I talk silly stuff with him for a few minutes to connect.

As we drive to Cape Coast, the landscape is vibrant and rich, as villages slowly wake up with the sunrise. We see children in school uniforms similar to those in Trinidad, hustling to school. I ask Raphael why all the girls seem to have closely cut hair, barely an inch long. He shares with me that it's the rule for kids in public school from elementary to high school to wear their hair short.

In that brief moment of darkness, my throat closes in and my heart flips. I move towards the door, my survival instincts kicking in, the ancestral pain in my body suddenly alive and resonant.

I think about my daughter’s hair, her tiny spiral curls that are just coming in, and the care I take to allow each one to shine. I think about the legacy of Black women’s hair in the U.S. and how we’ve seen a burst of pride, resources, and products that encourage and support Black girls in embracing their natural hair in every form. This extends to all Black kids, including boys, as discrimination against those with locs and long hair continues to arise in schools and the workplace.

A brutal confrontation of slavery

We visit Cape Coast Castle, where colonizers lived comfortably above while people were enslaved in dungeons below. Before I even walk into the first dungeon, the darkness seems never-ending. Hot tears burn my eyes as I fight the urge to return to our vehicle. In the dungeon, the tour guide briefly takes off the lights in a room where hundreds of people were kept, trapped in dark, hot, dirty, cramped spaces with human waste rising past their ankles. He turns off the light in an attempt to deepen our experience. In that brief moment of darkness, my throat closes in and my heart flips. I move towards the door, my survival instincts kicking in, the ancestral pain in my body suddenly alive and resonant. I think about what those people had to suppress to survive months in this hellhole. I think about the parents, not knowing what was ahead, who were surely haunted by thoughts of what would happen to their children.

The tour guide mentions that women were kept together and, when the colonizers felt the urge, they would pick a woman and demand that she be washed from the sweat, human waste, and menstrual blood that coated her body. The white overseer would then rape her. The women that got pregnant raised their kids in a house in a nearby village. When the children were around age 10, their Black mothers would be separated from their biracial children and returned to slavery. I think about what the color of their children's skin must have meant for them: both a sign of respite from the suffering and a constant reminder of the depths of depravity that birthed the child.

People who were enslaved were captured in Northern parts of Ghana and forced to walk for seven months to this river.
Ghana.The author

I’ve long known that biraciality and multiraciality can be a source of pain for some Black elders but being confronted with the physical manifestations of a building that housed this saddens me. In the United States, older Black people sometimes look at my own multiracial family with a mix of disappointment and pain and I always instantly understand why. I wouldn’t change a thing about my family — but the historical context of our racial identity and what it could have meant in different eras is deeply necessary for all of us to understand.

I leave Cape Coast, deep in thought, the trauma alive in my body, as I think about how to tell my kids about this, how to translate these lessons through my pictures and my words to their young minds. We live in a school community with a sizable population of multiracial children. We did this on purpose, wanting our kids to see themselves reflected around them in a country that seeks to both exoticize their racial identity while, in many parts of the country, there are organized efforts to stop teaching the truth about race and racism.

After Cape Coast, we gather with some friends for a drum circle. I’m traveling with music educators and watch in awe as everyone (but me!) catches the rhythm of the drum beat. I file this drum circle under a list of things my kids could do when I return one day with them. The beat of the drum, the fire-breathing, and the dancing remind me of Trinidad and Tobago, where I first saw much of this, a legacy brought to my country by people who were enslaved from Africa. That familiarity hums through my body as I tap out a simple beat on the drum, lifted by the swell of more complex and captivating drumming around me.

Assin Manso Slave River

We head to Assin Manso Slave River. People who were enslaved were captured in northern parts of Ghana and forced to walk for seven months to this river. They were fed only water and sugar, trudging along barefoot.

I think about what it must have meant to depend on the sweetness for energy even as they probably grew to resent its role as their sole source of food. Today, in the U.S., Black adults are nearly twice as likely as white adults to develop Type 2 diabetes. Even now, our community’s relationship to sugar is complicated and scarred, no doubt reflecting the role sugar played in the lives of people who were enslaved (including being a major driver of the slave trade).

Those who arrived were taken to the river and washed, and their hair shaved with broken glass. Those that died were tossed behind a cluster of trees. Our tour guide brings us to the water's edge and invites us to touch it. This water carries within its memory the blood, sweat, and tears of people just like me. I stoop down and gently float my fingertips into the water. I can sense the pain and suffering that this water's memory holds. This river is the beginning of a tortured relationship with water for so many descendants of people who were enslaved, as they headed to the Atlantic Ocean and into the unknown. I can see them, not knowing what was in store for them and their loved ones, full of despair and misery, tired and weak from not being fed adequately. I touch the water just a little longer and think about how peaceful it is bubbling and flowing, knowing that I will never see nature through the same lens again.

Elmina Castle.The author

As someone who at age 40 is just learning how to swim, I know intimately how that traumatized relationship with water is still embedded in our bodies. The fatal drowning rate of African-American children aged 5-14 is three times that of white children. Nearly 70% of African American children cannot swim. Studies show that many kids who can’t swim also have parents who can’t swim and are fearful for their safety. Segregation played a key role in this alarming precedent as does the fear that many Black Americans hold in their bodies from their ancestors’ relationship to water.

After Assin Manso, we head to Elmina Castle, another slave trading port. It is similar to Cape Coast except for one jarring image. There is an old photograph of three children, dressed in their finest with curls like my children and brown skin like mine. The heading on the picture says “MULTIRACIALISM.” The caption reads, “Elmina’s long association with Europeans has resulted in the growth of a multi-racial community: and names such as Viala, Plange and Duncan bear witness to this.”

I ponder the choice of words and silently replace them in my head. Words like “occupation” instead of “association” or “colonizers” instead of “Europeans.” I want the exhibit to share more about these children and what this melding of races meant for their everyday lives, the lives of their parents, and the lives of those around them.

Returning home — again

We pile back into our truck and start the long trek back to Accra. I don’t yet have the words to process what I have seen, what I have felt in Cape Coast, Elmina, and Assin Manso. I know that it has changed me in an indelible manner.

I have felt an emotional shift from a purely observational role in Ghana and I am wrecked as I think about the generations who this impacted for hundreds of years, many seeing the beginning and end of life without glimpsing the freedom I have. I will be finding ways to share my learnings with my young children, teaching them the resiliency of our people, Black people who deserve rest and ease, even as it is still so elusive. My kids will learn about this legacy of biraciality that they carry. Racism is evident in systems, policies, and subtle acts of racialized harm in U.S. society and I recommit to identifying, rooting out, and dismantling the structures left in place by the legacy of slavery that exists all around us. For us and our children.

My immense thanks go to my travel companion, Hakim, my partner, Adam, and my Ghanaian friends, Raf and Raphael, for helping shephard the birth of this article.

Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a monthly column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email or follow her on Instagram.

This article was originally published on