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.