This year, 2019, year marks 400 years since the first enslaved African was documented in America, specifically Point Comfort near James Town, Virginia, the capital of the English Colony of America.
Ghana has decided to commemorate the year by declaring it the year of return. Our president, H.E. Nana Akufo-Addo said in the formal declaration of the Year of Return, Ghana 2019,
“We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions they [Africans in the diaspora] made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year—400 years later—we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.”
The U.S. has similarly made efforts in this regard. In 2017, Congress passed the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act which set up a provision history commission to carry out and provide funding for activities marking the 400th anniversary of the “arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619.”
Someone asked me if we are celebrating slavery by commemorating this. My answer: No, no one in Ghana or else where celebrates slavery by commemorating this year. Commemorating the year does not mean celebrating it.
Another asked if the Year of Return is a celebration of the end slavery. My answer: No, there will be the annual Emancipation day observation on August 1st in Ghana but it is part of a larger initiative to commemorate this 400th year mark.
So, then, what does this declaration or commemoration mean?
Well, let me let the the Rabbi speak.
Rabbi Nathanyah Kohaim has made rounds across social media in the last month because of the #FullCircleFestival that brought almost 100 African-American celebrities to Ghana. In many of the celebrities’ social media post, the Rabbi is seen powerfully orating accounts of the slave experience and the importance of the journey home.The Rabbi’s influence and power stems from his ability to contextualize the spiritual and psychological importance of this moment. It is reason that many are endeared to him; it is for this reason that his words deeply resonate with me.
I had the opportunity to hear the Rabbi speak at the press launch of the Year of Return Ghana 2019 yesterday. I have posted the video of his speech on my Instagram page. PLEASE take the time to listen. When asked about what the year of Year of Return meant, he made special note of the need for SPIRITUAL AND MENTAL re-connection and commitment to the continent. Sure, in practice, the Year of Return is a campaign calling Africans in the diaspora to make a trip to Ghana. But, in spirit, we know that it is deeper than that. We know that:
There are far too many people living in the continent who are not committed to its progress. This Year of Return is for them to mentally and spiritually commit to the continent too.
There are far too many 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation Ghanaians who feel no connection to Ghana or the Year of Return because they do not see themselves as part of the 1619 story. But the Year of Return is for them too.
There are many Ghanaians in the diaspora and many Black people around the world in general who may want to come to Ghana but may not be able to do so due to financial or legal reasons. This Year of Return is still for them too.
The Year of Return is for ALL OF US to return to the continent IN MIND and IN SPIRIT…that we continue to have the best of intentions for Africa and invest in its positive progress in our own ways.
I am grateful to the Rabbi for reigniting my commitment to this work. I am sending an interview proposal to him; I want to ask him some questions about this historical moment and what we need to document as students and historians in this course. Till then, I keep his words and spirit with me to keep me inspired.
This Year of Return initiative is not a new concept to Ghana. Here is a brief history of Ghana’s initiatives to call its Diaspora home, summarized from the UN Africa Renewal.
1957: Ghana’s first president, invited Civil Rights leaders, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. to Ghana’s Independence day celebration as a gesture of our collective fate in the continent’s liberation and liberation of all Black people around the world.
1960: African-American Civil Rights leader, W.E.B. Dubois, moved to Accra and lived here till he died in 1963.
2000: Ghana’s parliament passed a Citizenship Act that made provisions for dual citizenship, so that people of Ghanaian origin who have acquired citizenships abroad can also take up Ghanaian citizenship.
The country also enacted the Immigration Act, including “Right of Abode” provision which stated that “Person of African descent in the Diaspora” to travel to and from the country “without hindrance.”
2007: Ghana celebrated 50 years of independence and initiated the Joseph Project to commemorate 200 years since the abolition of slavery and called for Africans abroad to return .
2019: Ghana commemorates 400 years since 1619 and declares it the Year of Return, calling for Africans abroad to come home.
This work is not new to my motherland! I salute!