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Jamar Thrasher: An unforgettable journey

A tour of Ghana made me realize that I, too, have a history

Monday, January 20, 2003

I remember a brown globe that was always near me. The globe that I had as a child took me to far-off lands such as Iceland, Russia, Zimbabwe, Guatemala and so many more. There were moments when I would stare at the globe for hours and wonder what it would be like to live in a place other than America.

   Jamar Thrasher is a junior at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. This essay received first place in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards, created by Carnegie Mellon University and co-sponsored by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 

In middle school I was faced with a harsh reality -- I did not know my origin. Everyone in my class basically knew where they came from -- whether it was Poland or Ireland, they all knew where they came from. I knew I came from someplace, and that place was called Africa. I was in the art room at the time. I listened to a student speak of being Jewish and speaking Hebrew. I did not know what my language was, but I knew that I had one. I also knew that somewhere in the motherland that I had family, that my ebony skin didn't shine like the warriors of a thousand tribes for nothing.

Years after my art class, I was a sophomore in the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. I was in English class when the student body was dismissed for an assembly. In the brown seats that filled the auditorium, I marveled at what I heard. The man standing on stage said any one of us could take the opportunity to make a trip to a new land. It was my chance. My chance to see a link of myself other than in America.

I had chosen Ghana as a country that I wanted to explore. It seemed interesting and its culture of gold mines, tribes, and slave castles seemed rich. I was granted the opportunity to go to Ghana that summer by the Experiment in International Living. I nestled right in with my group. My group and I had been touring the country for a few weeks when we were notified that we were going to a slave castle.

Ghana has two slave castles: the Elmina Castle and the Cape Coast Castle. Both castles were fortresses of terror. They were holding places for human cargo. The Elmina Castle was the one on our agenda that day. Elmina Castle, one of the first slave trading areas in Africa, was constructed by the Portuguese in 1482 and captured by the Dutch in 1673. The castle served a major role of trading with Brazil and the Caribbean. Now it is a place where tourists can come and see the harsh realities of slavery up close.

We stood outside of the castle. From the outside it looked marvelous. The architectural work was distinctive. The cannons that lined the wall and the drawbridge at the entrance of the castle let me see something real. We walked over the top of the drawbridge and were met by the tour guide.

I wondered what I might learn that day. I was thinking over and over that I was probably standing in a spot in which my relatives stood. I reminisced about the history of slavery that I had been taught, but this was something that had more significance than a textbook. I was actually somewhere that mattered. I was face to face with the ghost of tragedy.

The guide led my group, consisting of teenage students and a few adult leaders, to the dreadful dungeon. The dungeon is where they held the male slaves. I imagined it, people packed as tight as sardines in a tin. The cramped space was not fit for anyone. The musty air filtered in and out, the paint chipped walls seemed like a border separating the pain of the slaves from the others. The guide told stories of men fighting for food, air and life. The room was about the size of a city playground but hundreds of bodies, souls and lives were packed into the room. I felt sick because I could see and hear the cries of affliction. In the upper part of the dungeon was a hole. The hole let in light and air that barely helped.

The dungeon and its tears ripped my soul. The tour guide led us to a place behind the dungeon. He took us to a door where slaves could not return from: It was called the door of no return. The door was the right size for a child but it was what the captives had to pass through. The door was closed and I could see the light encompass the outside brim. The guide opened the door and I looked through its battered frame, it was the same frame the 30,000 slaves passed through by the 18th century.

As a young African-American male, I find that there is not a lot that history books teach me about my heritage, besides the occasional civil rights movement chapters, and sections on great motivators like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

This is probably going to be the closest thing to my ancestors as I would get. I could not pinpoint the exact African country my ancestors came from or their names -- I only know that it all intertwined and passed through me. I did not have any direct relatives outside of the United States, but I know they exist. I do not have a special language that I grew up speaking in my home, but it seemed that I had found something.

The group, the trip and Ghana helped me realize that I also have a history.

Outside the waves of the ocean splashed together in harmony. The breeze helped calm my soul. I had experienced something that I had not experienced before and I felt free! I felt free because I had something to remember.

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