Obama in Ghana

Obama’s trip to Ghana raises fascinating questions about diaspora as a mode of affiliation, about the kinds of choosing we must undertake to forge connections across histories, and also about the kinds of histories we make available as sites for identification. Ghana is, of course, one of the prime centers for such affiliations, if for no other reason than that Du Bois chose to move there. And certainly its status as the first decolonized African country has meant that it is owned by all Africa in a way that, for instance, Ethiopia might not be, and South Africa certainly is not.

I’m thinking about sites of affiliation because the Kenya news reports that Ghanaians have “prepared” former slave-holding locations for Obama to tour. I have no real clue whether or not he will tour them. But I am fascinated by the kinds of affective histories that such sites are meant to provoke, and the kind of historical connections Obama will be asked to negotiate.

In one sense, these slave-holding locations forge connections between Ghana (the Gold Coast) and the United States. They bind the two in a shared, collective history, one in which each location could not exist, in some way, without the other. Even as Obama speaks of contemporary interdependencies, he is also being asked to remember that such relationships precede the present, and that he should recognize interdependencies rather than what is presumed to be Ghana’s dependency on the United States.

These locations also ask Obama to associate himself with, to create affiliations with Atlantic slave histories. As an aside, it is fascinating to speculate on whether he would be urged to associate with Indian Ocean slave histories were he to come this side of Africa.

By virtue of his parentage, Obama might belong to East African histories (some have argued Luo histories), by virtue of his upbringing he is affiliated with West African histories.

Yet such a mapping is clumsy and flatfooted. Which is not to say that some kinds of clumsiness are not productive.

Who has the right to own, to claim, to affiliate with Atlantic slave histories?

To my mind, such histories must be seen as global histories, and that opens the troubling question of who may not be allowed to affiliate with such histories. It also raises the question of who might have privileged access to such histories: who might speak about them and how. I consider this question often as a scholar trained in African American literature, devoted to theorizing diaspora, and affiliated, by birth, with East African post-independence histories. In a recent class, one of my students kept saying “we black people were slaves on ships in the Atlantic,” and I had to keep thinking about the kind of affiliation she wanted and that I was too uncomfortable to provide.

I wonder about that “we” that surrounds and haunts Obama’s trip to Ghana. The “we” with which we keep insisting he’s African. The “we” that creates a line between Ghana and the United States, that implicates him in Atlantic slave histories. The “we” that wants a kind of affect to overcome or intercede between differential structural positions—the “we” that wants him to forget he is the U.S. president on an official visit to Africa.

I also wonder about the “we” that Obama will construct and deploy while in Ghana. The “we” that will anticipate and negotiate the multiple “wes” being thrown at him. The “we” that will allow him to the implicit and explicit demands that he be pan-African, which has, in some incarnations, been highly critical of U.S. policies and politics. He will be asked to negotiate a “we” that demands he be “one of the people,” and that has specific demands on presence and etiquette (one man on TV already complained that Obama will not spend enough time in Ghana).

Obama will be navigating pasts and presents while forging presents and futures. If, as friends and I have been discussing, he embodies newly diasporic Africans, his trip also represents a set of ongoing navigations that will continue to affect Africa in ongoing, unfolding futures.

9 thoughts on “Obama in Ghana

  1. The politics of slave-castles has made for some of my favorite recent work in anthropology. Just go to JSTOR and type in ‘slave castles’ and see what comes up.

    PS so what DID you tell your student after her comment? What affiliation do you choose in class, and is it different in real life?

  2. Slave castles is such an odd designation. Thanks for the tip.

    I teach diaspora as an ongoing fabrication, a strategic and sometimes involuntary weaving together of histories and affiliations. Pedagogy is always about navigating affiliations and attachments and making sure (or trying to make sure) this navigation furthers pedagogy. It’s tricky.

    In “real life,” I am firmly wedded to whichever idiosyncratic affiliation my interlocutors find most interesting, most convenient, or most disturbing.

  3. it is an odd designation (the genesis of castles in coastal West Africa was to protect Europeans from each other more than anything, as during the time of their construction (the famous ones anyways) slaving was not that important, and even when it was important and moved to central and southern africa there was no point in really having a castle, but i digress).

    As for pedegogy, same here. i just switch up what i tell kids depending on the situation and what will make them think more.

  4. I’m thinking of teaching a class called “Africa is a Country.” What would you include on the syllabus?

    Are these actual castles as opposed to, say, forts or other kinds of dwellings?

  5. Africa is a Country? Why, my dear man, just go to the blog of that very same name! But seriously, it has some interesting stuff (dude is a prof who knows ridiculous amounts of pop culture on the continent), and it depends on what you are trying to do. If you are trying to do a course on the various literary constructions of a single Africa (which is a great idea, by the way) in say the past two-hundred years by the black atlantic, there is this one book by Wamba (son of Patrice Dia Wamba) called Kinship which is a great… meditation of a lot of the themes of post 45 pan-africanism through autobiography (I obviously disagree with all of it, but man its done well). Also, i would include the political dimensions of such a statement by doing stuff on the african union (not the OAU, though you might want to read up on some of the infighting between the casablanca and monrovia group in its formation) and, just to show you are ‘with it’, you can throw in Pan-Africanism: Politics, Economy, and Social Change in the Twenty-First Century by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem (the dude who just died). But Kinship should mos def be on that list. If I were to do such an ambitious class myself, I would actually look at the evolution of the idea of africa in the old world and how it became the sort monolithic image it is today… god that would be a fun class.

    there are a few castles, more forts than anything else, and basically everyone is different. everything is complicated by the twin forces of heritage and historical memory (but when is that not the case?), but the big castles in west africa did hold slaves, but the way the slave trade was carried out (especially in the post 1780ish apex) did not really allow for having castles hold masses of humanity in bondage, so the number of slaves that actually came into contact with the castles is… underwhelming (and yes, the numbers are always what it comes down to when discussing this stuff). The door of no return, goree island, etc, not where people ought to be looking. Having said that, it is far more visceral to go to such a castle than look at a sleepy little port in angola, and i completely understand why foreigners love the former.

  6. Excellent.

    Now write my syllabi for the next two years. Include stuff on canonicity, aesthetics, race, migration, recovery and revision, affect, postcoloniality, diaspora, transnationalism, comparativism, kinship, visuality, shame, indifference, metonymy, the future of literary studies, truth, beauty, goodness, prostitution, HIV/AIDS, tourism, transgender, feminism, masculinity, Af-Am poetry, space, temporality, morality, and fun.

    Africa is a country would focus on disavowal, I think. How Africans both insist it is not a country while writing and acting as if it is. And why we seem to be so invested in whether or not it is a country, a rather pointless and petty debate. I like the idea that Mandela is our president. Makes life easier.

  7. Ha! Christ, getting the syllabus together is worth a phd in itself.

    And, to paraphrase Bruno (more on that on a further post), Mandela is the African Obama. Congratulations on having such a president for the country of Africa!

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