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Moving Experience

May 21, 2014

Roots tourists are often intoxicated by the unique sights and sounds upon their arrival into Ghana.

By Brooks Clark

The idea of making a pilgrimage to an African homeland was planted in American popular culture in the late 1970s by Alex Haley’s novel Roots and subsequent TV miniseries. After tracing his lineage back to the West African nation of Gambia, Haley journeys to the village of his ancestors. Upon his arrival, he is greeted as a brother and experiences the elation of feeling that he has found where he came from. The concept of “roots tourism” suddenly became mainstream.

In 2005, Michelle Commander toured Ghana as a first-year doctoral student. At the time, she was researching transnational feminism. But during her trip she noticed quite a few American blacks making a similar pilgrimage. She was surprised to learn how many black American tourists had expatriated to African countries—a number estimated anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 in Ghana alone.

Now an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at UT, Commander experienced her own emotional response to the visit. “It’s hard to put into words,” she says. “Part of my reaction was based on the fact that I grew up in South Carolina and I suddenly realized that I did not learn a lot about slavery. The way it all comes to life there helped me better understand the Middle Passage and what the slaves endured.”

Even if her ancestors did not come from Ghana, she was still moved by observing this free black nation. “I felt a lot of confusion, but then something spiritual. Of course, when you’re a heritage tourist, it’s very romantic. But it inspired me to do serious research into why people seek out the roots tourism experience,” Commander says.

Michelle Commander ponders her own heritage from atop the rampart of Cape Coast Castle. Photo by Victoria Okoye.

Michelle Commander ponders her own heritage from atop the rampart of Cape Coast Castle. Photo by Victoria Okoye.

In her upcoming book, Afro-Atlantic Speculation: Flight, Mythmaking, and Imagined Africas, Commander delves into the complex motivations and unexpected revelations of roots tourism.

Along with her research in Ghana, Commander analyzes the search for authentic African experiences in other locales, notably Oyotunji, South Carolina, which was founded in 1970 as a re-creation of a Yoruba village. She also studies the state of Bahia in Brazil, where the roots tourism industry claims countless vestiges of African culture were retained during and after slavery, unlike in the US, Caribbean, or other parts of Brazil.

“For many, it’s a search for the beginning,” Commander says, “for a deeper connection to the world and to one’s ancestors. Because the ancestors did not have a choice in this thing, there’s a feeling that if they could only get back to Africa there would be some sort of identity completion. Slavery left a bit of a cultural gap, and many roots tourists want to figure out who they would have been if their ancestors had remained in, say, Ghana or Nigeria. What they experience is spiritual in nature.”

Evelyn Smith (not her real name), a retired travel consultant and one of the study’s subjects, told Commander about her initial visit to Ghana and her eventual decision to move there.

Like many roots tourists, Smith visited the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles, where for hundreds of years slave ships embarked through the infamous Middle Passage to the Americas. The castle tour includes the “Door of No Return,” through which countless shackled souls walked, and the horrific dungeon where future slaves were held for weeks or months.

As Smith walked into the dungeon, she collapsed to the floor, sobbing. She described those moments as feeling like she was surrounded and touched. “She said it was like her foremothers, who had been held there as chattel, were comforting her, telling her it was going to be OK,” Commander says. “She had that strong sense of connection. She felt it was a moment that told her that she should move to Africa.”

Countless slaves passed through the Door of No Return to board ships headed for the Americas.

Countless slaves passed through the Door of No Return to board ships headed for the Americas.

For many roots tourists, stepping foot in Ghana for the first time can be what Commander refers to as an “attack on the senses.” There is a sea of black faces, colorful garb, lots of different languages, and some oppressive heat. “But the major sensory impression is the evidence of the ancestors,” Commander says. “A tourist can go to the museums or the beach, but the ultimate experience for them is to see the dungeon, the chains, and the hard physical evidence of the way it was.”

Smith’s moment in the dungeon and her following experiences eventually led her to leave the US and move to Ghana. “Her elderly mother was very upset with her,” Commander says. “She told me, ‘The pull of the motherland is much greater than the more short-term biological tie to the mother.’ She left behind a job, a house, and a lot of loved ones. But something about living in Ghana gave her a greater sense of freedom.”

Commander’s research reveals a complex process for tourists like Smith who choose to transition from “I want to go there” to “I want to live there.”

“Ghanaians greet tourists with the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ in a way that resonates with black Americans,” Commander says. “That’s the tourist experience.”

On another level, some claim a deeper sense of belonging. “It’s a feeling of being one of the crowd, rather than someone who is sticking out or is threatening in some way. They feel they are a part of the place and not someone who is looked down upon,” Commander says.

Though the feeling of belonging may be imagined, it is nonetheless part of the experience. Eventually, cultural realities catch up with some who decide to stay. As one expatriate told Commander, “When I came here, everyone was like ‘Akwaaba, sister’ (a word of welcome in the Twi language). Now that I live here, they don’t treat me as one of them.”

Still, the crux of Commander’s research reveals the raw power of the roots tourism experience. As one woman, an attorney with a husband in corporate America, said about her reasons for moving to Ghana: “It felt like a place where nothing could be ripped out from under me.”