Have you ever traveled to the places where your ancestors were originally from? Have you ever dreamed of doing so? What would you want to see, find or learn from such a trip?
What do you already know about your family’s heritage? Do you feel connected to your ancestral roots? Or do you feel distant or cut off from them?
In “The Trip I Hope All African-Americans Can Take,” Mercedes Bent writes about a trip she took to West Africa to learn more about her ancestral heritage:
At a naming ceremony in the home of my host family in Lagos, Nigeria, I wore brightly colored traditional clothing — a long, rectangular skirt tied tightly around my waist and an off-the-shoulder top with short, flared cuffs, all in a pink ankara pattern with a matching head wrap.
“Please stand,” said my host, who had graciously offered to tailor the ceremony — which is normally performed for babies — for me, her adult visitor from the United States. “I hereby give you the name Esosa; it means ‘God’s gift.’ You are now Esosa Oloke. Welcome to the family. You will always have a family here in Nigeria.”
I felt a surge of gratitude and belonging. For the first time in my life, I felt deeply connected to the African continent and to the people who live there.
The ceremony concluded a 10-day trip to Nigeria and Ghana this year, Ghana’s Year of the Return, that I organized for friends and classmates. To commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to English North America in 1619, President Nana Akufo-Addo has encouraged descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the Americas to return to the country.
But my idea for a heritage-focused trip had been in the making for over a decade. The seeds were planted during my freshman year of college. At the first meeting of the Association of Black Harvard Women, several of the people who introduced themselves had names with African origins. I still remember my classmate Adora Izukanane Obianuju explaining that her middle name was chosen as a reminder of her place in the family and the bond her mother hoped she would have with her siblings.
Then it was my turn. “Hi, I’m Mercedes Bent. My name … well, it’s kind of like the car.”
It’s not that I don’t like my name — I do. I just wished I had a more intimate connection with my heritage.
The Opinion essay continues:
This year, I finally organized a trip for a group of my black friends and classmates and me to explore our own heritage. On that trip I learned to cook jollof, a rice dish that is a staple of West African diets. I learned about investment opportunities in Nigeria, including cashew farms and start-ups. I had my hair braided. I visited castles where enslaved people were kept in dungeons before they exited through the door of no return. We discussed Nigerian history over dinner and learned about the political turmoil and wealth of the country. One day in Accra, Ghana, we attended Afrochella, a Coachella-inspired festival featuring top African musical artists.
Through it all I reflected on what life would be like if I lived in a nation where I was part of the dominant racial group. In Nigeria or Ghana, I would be one drop in the sea of black people at every event I attended and in every social situation. I wouldn’t be subjected to as many off-color remarks and subtly bigoted insults. I wouldn’t have to question whether I should respond to those or stay quiet to avoid being judged through the lens of racist stereotypes. I wouldn’t wonder whether people would think I’d been hired as a token rather than for my potential.
The essay concludes:
Of course, not everyone can afford such a trip. I would love to see a philanthropist or foundation fund educational trips to Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries for black young adults from other parts of the diaspora, making this experience accessible to more people who could benefit from it as much as I did.
Until then I’ll continue spreading the word about the benefits I experienced, the power of exploring my ethnic-racial identity in the place where my ancestors lived and the most important lesson I learned on my journey: It really is possible to heal through heritage.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— Where would you visit to find out more about your family’s past? What would you hope to learn or experience?
— How familiar are you with your family’s history? Does living in America ever make you feel disconnected from your family and cultural roots? Do you ever wish, like Ms. Bent, that you had a “more intimate connection” with your heritage? If yes, tell us why.
— Ms. Bent writes:
There are many ways to nurture a healthy cultural identity, but a journey “home” — to a place that makes you feel that you truly belong — is an especially effective one.
Do you agree? What aspects of her essay resonate with you most? Does reading Ms. Bent’s piece make you want to connect more with your own heritage?
— Have you ever created a family tree? If inspired, create a family tree and then try to plot where your ancestors lived on a map of the globe. (You can find free downloadable family tree templates here.)