Ghana: Return to the Door of No Return with Natalie Patterson (Part One)
For the Black community, the impact of centuries of unaddressed trauma still manifests today. And while part of that is certainly due to ongoing social injustice, some of the impact might very well be inherited. Today’s guest is Natalie Patterson, a poet, teaching artist, mental health advocate, and diversity, equity, and inclusion leader. She uses her dynamic range and expertise to masterfully make abstract concepts tangible, bridging personal experience with larger cultural occurrences using art, performance, talking circles, and custom workshops. Natalie is known for her integrity, passion, social activism, and her ability to work with people of all ages, genders, races, and cultures by showing up fully and inviting folks to remember that who they are is enough. In today’s deeply personal episode, we address intergenerational trauma through the lens of a trip that Natalie took to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, one of the most famous trading posts in Ghana’s dark history of slavery. Natalie shares her candid reflections on the delusion of the human spirit, why knowing where you come from should be a birthright, not a privilege, and the relationship between generational trauma, disenfranchisement, and belonging, as well as how she seeks to deconstruct and humanize these experiences through her work. This is a deeply insightful and difficult conversation, but one that is critically important for understanding the blueprint of historical cruelty that still exists in our systems today, so make sure to join us for part one of our discussion with Natalie Patterson.
Key Points From This Episode:
- What led Natalie to take an ultimately extraordinary trip to Ghana.
- The deep, visceral impact of the tour she took of Cape Coast Castle.
- Natalie shares her experience of the rooms where slaves were held before being shipped off.
- The immense grief and overwhelm she felt while bearing witness to the inconceivable horror of what occurred in these spaces.
- What this taught her about the delusion of the human spirit and the importance of ethics.
- Our reflections on the intolerable and mind-blowing cruelty that occurred in the castle.
- Why Natalie believes that returning to the place of your ancestors should be a birthright.
- What the water led her to understand about Black intergenerational trauma and swimming.
- Hear about her experience of being othered by a local in a bustling, outdoor market.
- Generational trauma, disenfranchisement, and belonging; how Natalie fights for comfort.
- Understanding the blueprint for this kind of horror that still exists in our systems today.
- How Natalie seeks to deconstruct and humanize these narratives through her work.
“You don't know what something is like until you’ve stood in the room and had to wrap your brain around something that is inconceivable, as your feet are standing in the same place that your ancestors’ bodily fluids are still caked into the floor of.” — @natalieispoetry [0:16:03]
“It made me understand: this is the delusion of the human spirit. We can rationalize anything, which is why you have to have a moral compass, and a code of ethics, and integrity.” — @natalieispoetry [0:21:58]
“Even in the circumstances of being a Black, queer woman in America, the privilege to be able to return to the place of your ancestors. I don't think that it should have to be a privilege. I think that's a birthright, to know where you come from.” — @natalieispoetry [0:33:32]
“[Generational trauma] means that there are very few places I go that I belong. By very few, I mean almost nowhere.” — @natalieispoetry [0:43:31]
“Whatever [comfort] looks like for you, where you feel completely grounded and safe and whole and understood and you feel you have a grasp of what's going on around you. I would argue that that’s a very rare feeling [for me], and equally a feeling that I have to fight to sustain.” — @natalieispoetry [0:43:59]
“There is a blueprint for this horror that is still very active in our society, and we don't get it. We think that we have outgrown these systems. The reality is, the systems are so brilliant, that they are now just the way we do business.” — @natalieispoetry [0:47:40]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
Zoë Kors’ Links:
Zoë’s Book: Radical Intimacy
[00:00:01] ANNOUNCER: You are listening to the Radical Intimacy Podcast with sex and intimacy coach, Zoe Kors.
[00:00:14] ZK: I don't know Natalie Patterson that well. The truth is, I'm a bit of a fan girl. Natalie is a poet, teaching artist, mental health advocate, and diversity, equity and inclusion leader. She uses her dynamic range and expertise to masterfully make abstract concepts tangible. She has the unique ability to bridge one's personal experience with larger cultural occurrences using art, performance, talking circles, and custom workshops. Natalie is bold, honest, and relentless in her pursuit of liberation for the human spirit.
I had the good fortune of co-facilitating an event with her last year, and once was not enough. It was like an amuse-bouche of badass wisdom. When I decided to launch this podcast, Natalie was one of the first people I reached out to. She scheduled right away to come talk about body positivity and self-love.
In the meantime, she took a trip to Ghana and started posting about it on her Instagram stories. An enthusiastic traveler myself, I loved to see Accra through Natalie's eyes and lens. Then one day, she posted a footage of herself at a castle on the coast, walking in the footsteps of her ancestors through their experience of imprisonment and torture, between abduction and transport across the Atlantic to their destination of enslavement. I was horrified on a number of levels.
First and foremost, there is no better example of man's inhumanity to man. The idea that this level of suffering occurred not because of a natural disaster, or an outbreak of hemorrhagic fever, but was willfully and intentionally inflicted on one group of humans by another. This was one level of horror.
In trying to process what I was witnessing. I thought to myself, as a young American girl of Jewish descent, I was made well aware of the atrocities of the Holocaust. The ways in which my own ancestors were brutalized and how that generational trauma informs the Jewish experience in the world today. Why wasn't I taught about Natalie's ancestors in the same way, in the same detail? The answer, of course, is enormous and complex and another part of my despair.
I texted Natalie immediately to let her know I saw her, and thanked her for sharing her experience so vulnerably. We decided together to have this conversation here. Now, Natalie’s story is so powerful and important, it feels two episodes. Much of what Natalie says is hard to hear. I encourage you to stick with it, and hear what she has to say. There isn't a better person to tell this story.
[00:03:08] ZK: Hello, Natalie Patterson.
[00:03:10] NP: Hello. How are you?
[00:03:12] ZK: I am good. Welcome to the Radical Intimacy Podcast. It's really, truly an honor to have you here.
[00:03:19] NP: Well, thank you. I'm so grateful to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
[00:03:22] ZK: Yeah. I want to talk about this trip that you took to Ghana.
[00:03:27] NP: This extraordinary trip to Ghana. Yes.
[00:03:30] ZK: What made you decide to go?
[00:03:33] NP: I had made a goal to, as I continue to be more successful in terms of dollars, that not only would I live well, I would also do the things that I wanted to do, right? Now, the purpose of being successful to me is to inspire and have access to freedom, liberation, happiness, all of those things. Part of my expression of liberation and happiness is traveling, learning about things I don't know anything about, immersing myself in other cultures and seeing what life is like in all the places that I'm not. I had made this goal to myself several years ago, I was dating this woman, and she took me on a trip to South Africa.
At the time, I was just like, this amount of money to go somewhere, I will maybe never have. I so was so grateful for that experience, but made a commitment to myself and a promise to myself that at some point, I would earn enough money where a trip like this would not only be something I could do, but I could do with ease and grace. I have a good friend, Alua Arthur, who is a death doula and extraordinary human. Her family is from Ghana. Every year they take a trip. I basically threatened her and I said, “The next time y'all go to Ghana, and nobody tells me, you have a problem.” She was like, “Oh, we're going in December. You can totally go.”
Her sister is Bozoma Saint John, who is the CMO of Netflix, and is an ambassador and diplomat to Ghana, and has spent several years bringing folks back to Ghana, through the beauty of their family. It's four dynamic sisters. Their mom is a powerhouse and they just all are dynamic. I was like, “If I'm going, I want to go with them.” Had the extraordinary privilege of being able to accompany them on their family trip and got to explore Ghana, through the lens of its beautiful people. It was really dynamic.
[00:05:35] ZK: I have to say, I followed your trip on Instagram, and thank you so much for sharing. Your stories were incredible. It captured my heart. I reached out to you. I want to come on the next trip. It's really so beautiful. The terrain, the geography, the people, the culture, all of it.
[00:05:56] NP: It is. It’s so beautiful, and it is so many of the things that I think are the most extraordinary parts of the world, all in one place. In a place where everyone is Black. Usually, if I'm going to go to the beach, I'm somewhere where it feels foreign, where I'm not centered. Well, the beauty of Ghana for me is walking around and every single person I saw over these many, many days, all of them were Black. There was a tropical beach that looks like Hawaii, and a rainforest. It looks like all of these other places I have been with the backdrop of these beautiful Black people. For me, that was just an extraordinary and new experience. The water is warm, which in South Africa, it's cold. I was like, “It's beautiful, but I'm not going in this water.” In Ghana, the water's warm. It's just a combination of all the things that I love really.
[00:06:55] ZK: Yeah. Incredible. You took a tour?
[00:06:59] NP: Yes.
[00:07:01] ZK: You want to tell us a little bit about that?
[00:07:03] NP: Yes. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ghana in the first place is to go to a place called Cape Coast Castle. There's a bunch of places like Cape Coast in Ghana along the coast. Essentially, these places are where all of the Africans were abducted and held, and held captive there, prior to being shipped off to come to places like America and islands, and all of these other places that we now know as the transatlantic slave trade. This is essentially a port. It's one of the places that was open the longest. It’s the youngest one, essentially, in terms of closest to slavery, this is the place where essentially, my people potentially were held.
I knew that I wanted to go there. If I'm totally honest, I absolutely disassociated from what might happen when I got there. I spent zero energy thinking about it. Even on the long drive, it's about two and a half, three hours from Accra, the capital. I didn't give any energy to thinking about it, because I was like, “I don't even know how to think about this.”
[00:08:20] ZK: How to pre-process. Right.
[00:08:21] NP: Yeah. I was like, you’re not going to do anything that you’re going to be prepared for whatever you find in this place. Essentially, it is this castle by the sea that's dilapidated, but it's all real. That's the thing about history. A lot of times we have to reenact things. Or, it's like, oh, this is part of a thing that we don't have the rest of. This is the entire building, with the cannons still there, where the Dutch were defending against other countries that were trying to come and take this place over and take over the slave trade there.
Recognizing that this was a legitimate business for many European and white countries and places and people, this was a legitimate business. That to me is mind-boggling. It is absolutely mind-boggling. I think about mass incarceration. I think about prisons. Those privatized prisons are a legitimate business.
[00:09:25] ZK: Oh, yes. They are.
[00:09:26] NP: For the business owners who decided, with their life, what they would do is cage human beings. To me, there is no difference between that and what was happening at Cape Coast. The only difference is we've decided who we deemed criminals and what we deem as an offense. At that point, the offense was that you were African, you were Black, and we could use you, essentially, to build this company that needed labor.
[00:10:05] ZK: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. We can still say the same thing today.
[00:10:12] NP: We could say the same thing about so many companies right now here in America. It's interesting to me, this thought that we're so – I sometimes hear white folks say, “Slavery was so long ago, we have to get over it.” Or, “My family wasn't – We didn't own slaves, so how can I be held accountable? Or what am I supposed to do about this?” I understand that rationale, if you've never experienced what I have experienced.
[00:10:40] ZK: A 100 percent. Listen, I grew up in New York. I was born in 1964. I grew up in New York. I grew up in New York at a time, I was a teenager when crack was exploding. When Ronald Reagan, the Reagan administration was there and crack was – I mean, you want to talk about a period of time where Black people were exploited for the business of incarceration.
[00:11:09] NP: Right. In all the ways that we've iteratively done that, pre and post the crack epidemic, and recognizing that these are models that make a lot of money, and that's the point. But it's off of human capital. It's off of people's lives. Anyway, so I go to Cape Coast. I go with my friend, Alua. She is like, basically, looking at me like, “Have you processed what's about to happen?” I'm like, “No, because I don't know how.”
We get there, and we have to pay a little bit of money. Essentially, it's a couple of dollars equivalency to American dollars for non-Ghanaians. Then, there's a Ghanaian price. She pays the Ghanaian price. I pay the non-Ghanaian price. Everything is fine. They say, there's a tour in about 20 minutes. To go walk around the courtyard, and take pictures and do other things, and then they'll call us. Cool. I'm like, these are the real cannons? This is for real. Okay, cool.
[00:12:16] ZK: Because we, in this country, walk around places like Disneyland. Everything is a replica.
[00:12:22] NP: Yes. I'm like, no, this is the for real, where eight men had to carry the thing and stuff it in there. Then they're like, “Ooh,” and shooting into the sea at some ship, from the people from the different land. I was like, “This is wild. Okay, cool.” That's like, okay, I can comprehend that.
Then, there's this room. Essentially, it is – what I didn't know, I walked into it, and I could smell death in this room. Not the death of a single person. The entire room smelled like horror. I could not walk in the room. This is prior to the tour. I say to Alua, “I don't know what this room is, but I have to get out of it. I feel sick to my stomach.” Now, keep in mind, it's about 90 degrees that day. 90 percent humidity in 2021. I'm sweating. My stomach is hurting already and I've only been in one room.
Okay. The tour begins. This beautiful, lovely man guides us through the rooms. Essentially, we go down from the courtyard, down this slope, and we are all wearing regular clothes. You know what I mean? I don't know what to wear on a tour such as this. However, my clothing was wrong, okay, I was hot as hell, believe me, because we go down into, essentially, a dungeon. It's squared off in four halls. As you go all the way to the last one, it gets increasingly darker.
[00:14:11] ZK: Is this made of stone?
[00:14:14] NP: It is made of some kind of limestone, dirt concoction. Essentially, it's the basement of the place. It's dark. It’s dingy.
[00:14:26] ZK: Dank. The word is dank, right?
[00:14:29] NP: It is dank. It's thick, because it's so hot. We're standing in this very dark room, and he's saying, “Oh, this was where the men were held. It could have been 200, 300 people in this room.” This room is not big enough for 300 people. You're like, okay, everybody's on top of each other, you're already horrified, because it's COVID. You know what I mean? You're measuring everything against your own life experiences.
I'm going, there's 20 people in this room right now and it feels too crowded. Okay, so 200 people. Okay, cool. Then you realize, there's nothing. There's nothing but the floor, and a little thing in the center that is supposedly was intended to collect the feces and the urine, and whatever. If 200 people, have you ever been to a port-a-potty? You know at a music festival, if you don't go to the bathroom within the first 20 minutes of that concert, you just end up holding.
Not only that, this is where they’re being held 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until they are going to be put on the ships to then be sardines underneath the bottom of the ship. You're just getting super connected to the horrific experience that this is. The other piece of this is like, I'm hella American. I'm hella Black American, so I don't actually have any context for real of what this was like, other than the stories I've been told. Which is – that is like watching a Disney movie. You don't know what something is like until you’ve stood in the room and had to wrap your brain around something that is inconceivable as your feet are standing in the same place that your ancestors’ bodily fluids are still caked into the floor of.
Of course, we're all hot, we're all sick to our stomach, because we were coming in waves of grief. A realization of, I will never know where my people actually are fully from. We can do all the DNA, we can do all of that stuff, but things are too complicated. We don't know the answers, and I'm not going to do all of the work that it would require just to know, “Oh, you're from here, instead of two blocks over.” Who cares? It's all a tragedy and awful and terrible.
We continue to go through the rooms. As we get to the more bright rooms, we all are like, “Why is this room so bright, and the other rooms were so dark?” He says, “Oh, because this is the room where the business owners, the perpetrators would come and look in on the captured to determine who they were going to buy.” At which point, when they decided, “Oh, I want you instead of you,” then you would be cleaned up and you'd be brought upstairs into a room where they would poke and prod to determine your strength and your sensibility and how much you could carry and if you would be a good slave to pick cotton, or to do some other horrific tasks on a plantation in America, or in Jamaica, or in wherever, all these other places.
It just was so horrifying, these conditions. Right above the male dungeon is a church where all the soldiers and the governor and all the people who are running this facility would go to church.
[00:17:57] ZK: All the white people.
[00:17:58] NP: All the white people would go to church.
[00:18:00] ZK: On top of the Black people.
[00:18:02] NP: On top of the people they have enslaved every Sunday, praise God above them, and below, creating hell for other humans. It is inconceivable to me what level of demented, or I mean, I don't know the language. I am a poet, and I do not know the language to describe what would have to be happening in your brain to make something like this acceptable.
[00:18:30] ZK: Yeah. Depravity.
[00:18:33] NP: Just unreal. Right outside of the church doors is a square cut out, where as you're going into church, you could look down –
[00:18:42] ZK: Stop it.
[00:18:42] NP: – on who is held captive.
[00:18:43] ZK: Stop it.
[00:18:44] NP: And see what's going on.
[00:18:46] ZK: Stop it.
[00:18:47] NP: It's a place where they would go to listen to see what's going on with those that were captured.
[00:18:55] ZK: What is there to listen to? The extreme suffering of other human beings that you've inflicted upon?
[00:19:02] NP: They’re just like, “Oh, are you all trying to survive? Or What are y'all trying to do?” They're just trying to keep up with the tea, about what's going on. When it was so hot, one of the things that they would do is just pour water down into the humans and the feces and the whatever, throw food down this chute. It’s like, okay. What? At one point, the man describes that they would just pour water. That's not helpful. What would happen is it would fall into the men's hair. The men would suck on each other's hair to extract the water.
It’s like, everybody's filthy. This is just a horrible situation. How you're going to drink water from someone else's hair? Okay, cool. Cool, cool, cool. It's just, the experience is beyond comprehension. The levels of horror are beyond what I can even comprehend. You're on this tour with a handful of other people, who are from all different places. You are on the tour, there were two white women who are not American, but were from somewhere who were going through the tour. I was way too involved with my own process. I was like, “I can't coach the white people today. Okay, I've got nothing for y'all. I don't care what you think. This is for me and my people. I can't be worried about it.”
My friend, Alua, who had been there multiple times, was like, “I don't think they're taking this seriously.” I was like, “Well, girl. I don't know what you're going to say to him, but I don't know.” Her method was, essentially just putting pressure by staying very close to them, to encourage them through physical proximity, to recognize that some people – I mean, within the first five minutes of this experience, I'm weeping. I mean, weeping. I have never wept. Guttural, spiritual, just senses completely overwhelmed.
[00:21:00] ZK: Yeah, you're bearing witness.
[00:21:02] NP: I’m bearing witness to something that I don't know how to see. I cannot see everything that is here. I don't have the ability to process everything that is happening that I'm like, “Wait, and then what? Then who's over here? Da, da, da, whatever.” We go around, they take us upstairs to the governor's home. Honey, don't you know? This man had access to the breeze, the view of the ocean. I mean, the breeze is coming through. It is like a villa in Mexico. This is what it feels like. You're on a vacation up there.
I'm thinking, so you mean to tell me you are over here, just living your wonderful white life, while all of these Africans are literally dying beneath you. You're just like, “Yup, we got a successful business.” It made me understand, this is the delusion of the human spirit. We can rationalize anything, which is why you have to have a moral compass, and a code of ethics, and integrity, because if you do not have them, you think your life is wonderful, and the person next to you is going, “Somebody, please get me away from this person, because this is the worst. This is my nightmare. This is a monster.” That's the delusion of not actually being in community, even if we're in proximity.
[00:22:27] ZK: That's right. That's right. Or being in community with people who are just as equally in denial and deflecting.
[00:22:36] NP: Right. You just have a community of sameness, and so everybody's like, “What's the problem?” It's like, ask the person who's othered in the situation what's the problem. Because I'm sure, they know the answer.
[00:22:46] ZK: Yeah, that's right.
[00:22:47] NP: Then, they take us to the female dungeon. They walk us past this tiny little coat closet of a room. They're like, “Oh, this is the room where the females would be taken, if they protested to being raped.” This is the room they would go. The room is literally the shittiest coat closet of all time. I don't know if I'm allowed to cuss, but that's what it is.
[00:23:11] ZK: You can cuss all you want.
[00:23:12] NP: It’s a terrible a little coat closet. They're like, “Oh, and they captured girls and women from the time they were 12-years-old.” If they weren't down with being raped, which I've never met a human who is down with being raped, so the assumption that somebody is down, I'm like, “No, they're not. They just don't want to get killed.” If you protested, or you taught others how to protest, you'd be shoved into this little room to sit and bake, essentially. It has a hole in the ground, so that your period, and any release that your body does, will go in this hole, but you are sitting here.
I just was overwhelmed with just like, you are captured. I think about when I walk down the street, I think about safety. I am preparing myself for, okay, if someone drives up too close to me, don't walk on the outside of the curb, don't have your purse on. All the precautions as a woman in America that I would take to be saved would not matter, because people were abducted from outside their homes in their villages. Part of what would happen is these folks would go into the villages, burn the village down, so that whether they captured you or not, you were capturable.
[00:24:32] ZK: Right. They're just forcing you out of the home.
[00:24:34] NP: They're forcing displacement. Whether you are captured or not, you are displaced. Then if you are captured, you don't know where you're going. You don't know what's happening. Then you're brought into these dungeons, for you have no idea how long. Then essentially, between a week and three months, you would be in these dungeons. If you survived this long, then you would be taken to the door of no return.
[00:24:59] ZK: Just pause for one moment. I don't want to gloss over that. You're imprisoned for –
[00:25:08] NP: Existing. Yes.
[00:25:09] ZK: Three weeks to three months, maybe. I mean, can you imagine being in those conditions for three weeks?
[00:25:16] NP: I can't imagine. First of all, walking through there as a free person in 2021, I was upset, ready to fight everybody. Beside myself, sick to my stomach. I had every feeling that human spirit could have. I had all of it. I had 10 times as many questions. Imagine if you are a person who actually lived through this, if you survived this. Let me just say right now, I wouldn't have survived, okay. Day one, I'd be like, “Well, how do I die? Because this is horrible. I don't know how it's going to get better.” The gag is, it's actually not going to get better. It's going to get worse every single day that you're here.
[00:26:00] ZK: Yeah. Every single day that you – once you leave here. Okay, so three weeks to three months. Three weeks seems absolutely intolerable. Three months is mind-blowing. The thing is, I work in hospice. I volunteer in hospice. I help people die, or help people come to terms and have a dignified death. There are so many people who would love to die, that you can't just decide to die. You're in those conditions. So many of those people probably were begging to die, but there you are. With that many people, I mean, let's get really specific here. With that many people in a room, you can't necessarily lie down. How are you sleeping?
[00:26:52] NP: How are you sleeping when you don't know what's happening? Just think about how your sleep is just disrupted by change. Just get a new mattress and you’re like, “Ah, it's really hard for me to sleep,” or let it be too warm in a room, or too cold, or there's some sound outside. Imagine all, anything. The smallest thing is disruptive.
[00:27:15] ZK: Yeah, it's inconceivable.
[00:27:17] NP: Literally, I was standing there going, “I have zero answers. I don't understand anything about this. I cannot understand.” Then, they take us to this other room before we go to the door of no return. They take us to the room that we initially walked into, this room that made me sick to my stomach within 10 seconds of walking in the entryway of it. I was sick to my stomach.
[00:27:40] ZK: The one that smelled like death?
[00:27:42] NP: Yes. He tells us, “Okay, all of you go in there.” I take a breath, because I'm like, I don't even know what's fully in this room, and I don't like this. We walk in, and he shuts the door. Now we're all locked in this room. He turns the light that is illuminating the space, he turns it off. The room is pitch black. We all are standing there completely silent. There is no air in this room. There are 50,000 feelings.
Then he tells us, he turns the light back on, and it is still dead silent, because we can all feel the gravity of this moment. He says, “This is the room where, if you were causing trouble, you would be sent.” They would lock you in this room for three days, without food, or water, or opening the door. On the third day, they would open the door. If anyone was still alive, they would close the door for another three days. The longer you survived, the longer you stayed in there. Because the point of it was to kill everyone who went in that door. Not only kill everyone, but also, as you try to survive, whoever else is in there with you, as they die, they are left in there with you.
No wonder the room smelled like death, because thousands of people, I can only imagine, had died in that very room under those horrific conditions. That was the purpose. That is what that room was created for, was to make an example of anyone who stepped out of line and had the will to attempt to survive.https://getcoral.app/
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[00:31:07] ZK: Yeah, my question was going to be, why not just kill people? Why torture them?
[00:31:12] NP: To set the example. To show you what you better not have the audacity to do, to defend your right to be free. Of course, if you were in the dungeon, and someone left and they never came back, after they had made an uproar, or tried to fight, or whatever, of course, you know people tried to fight the guards. You know different things happened, and so one of the things that they started doing, instead of taking the men through the courtyard, they built an underground pathway to get them to the door of no return, without them coming through the open space, where then they would interact with more people. They would be marched through.
If you survived all of this, then you'd be prepared to go on to the ships to come to America, or these other places that Africans were taken to. As we all are marched towards the door of no return, and it's right next to the female dungeon. I'm just, at this point, this is an hour into this tour, I am just broken –
[00:32:20] ZK: Of course.
[00:32:22] NP: – by, just the ugliness of something I can't understand. I have never wanted anything enough to be so cruel to another human being. I don't know what that is. I don't have a name for that. He tells us to walk through the doors of where our ancestors left the continent. These are the actual doors. We walk through. We walk through and, on the other side, there's ocean. Beautiful. There's a man who's sleeping, and there's another man that's painting. There's a bunch of construction that's happening, because they're building who knows what.
I just take a deep breath. I'm sobbing, because I have gone my entire life without knowing this part of my own story, without knowing this part of my people's story. That, if I wasn't in a position of such privilege, even saying that, it's ridiculous. To say like, “Oh, I have so much privilege.” Even in the circumstances of being a Black, queer woman in America, the privilege to be able to return to the place of your ancestor. I don't think that it should have to be a privilege. I think that's a birthright, to know where you come from. To know the story of your people should be part of what you can just know. Because it's handed down, because there's access, whatever.
The privilege of my life has allowed me to, in this moment, be standing in the same place that my ancestors were standing when they left the continent of Africa, and I am beside myself. The tour guide looks at me, because I'm filming the whole process, because I wanted to share it with my community online. They close the doors partially and he says, “Go stand in front of the door. I'll take your photo.” Of course, I'm weeping again. He says, “The door of return is on this side. It is the door of return, because we get to walk back in.”
He takes these pictures and this video of me and I'm just weeping and trying to hold myself together, because I am not prepared for this moment in my life. I'm not prepared. I don't know how to do that. I'm holding myself together the best I can to stand there and be poised, recognizing that this will be an iconic photo in my life for the rest of it. All of this is swirling simultaneously. I must look insane, because I've been crying for hours in this place. You know what I mean? I'm thinking about all that. Then I'm like, “Who cares? My ancestors, the whole entire universe has conspired for me to be here." I'm the only person the tour guide asked to go stand there to take a picture off. I’m like, “Oh, my God.” I'm having the whole existential moment. “Oh, my God. My ancestors have brought me to this moment. This is so important. This is so significant.”
It was deeply moving up until that point. I think, I went my second or third day being in Ghana. I went relatively early in my trip. Afterwards – and you have to drive there. It's three hours to get there. We went maybe 30 minutes away to have lunch. It was the first time I got to be at the ocean, go in the water. One of the interesting things about this beautiful ocean is it's filled with death, because people were thrown in this water to dispose of their bodies. All of the people that were murdered in all of these castles, I think there were 30 along the coast in Ghana, they were thrown into the water. If they didn't make it across the ocean to wherever they were being taken to, they were thrown into the water.
This water is a graveyard. It is not a playground. What you'll notice in Ghana is very many of the Ghanaians do not go to the beach. They don't go in the water. There aren't resorts built along the coast.
[00:36:34] ZK: Oh, that's fascinating.
[00:36:36] NP: It’s a graveyard.
[00:36:37] ZK: Yeah, it's so understandable.
[00:36:40] NP: It's not something that we would ever think of. Because we're like, “This is beautiful. Who doesn't want to live here?” It's like, there's Ghanians that live across the street from the ocean and do not really go to the water. People go to fish. It's a place to find resources, right, but it's not – I did not see people playing in the water.
[00:37:00] ZK: The way that we do here.
[00:37:01] NP: The way that we do here and the way that we do in other places around the world. That wasn't the experience that I saw. What it translated to me is this understanding of, and the connection to the trauma over time, and thinking about Black people not swimming in America, and not doing water sports in America.
[00:37:20] ZK: Oh, that's really interesting.
[00:37:22] NP: While we were there, many of us were talking about this of like, is this the trauma? Is this the ramifications of the trauma? This is how it plays out? We think, oh, it's because Black people don't have access to pools and luxury and whatever in the same way in America. I'm like, “No, this might actually be deeper than that.”
[00:37:39] ZK: It might. Yes. It's fascinating for me, and I've been quiet through a lot of this, because, A, I'm speechless. Also, when I was preparing to come online with you, and have this conversation, and I was sharing with you, I'm really super happy and grateful that you're here and sharing it. I'm also somewhat nervous, and what is there to say, especially as a white person here.
One of the things that I have thought. I have a lot of Black family members. My ex-husband is Black, and my daughter is mixed race and identifies as Black. We've had a lot of conversation. I've been immersed in the Black American conversation for many years, decades. I've thought about not being able to know where you came from and who your people are, and being cut off from that. What I haven't really thought about are the Africans who lost their family members, and what kind of generational trauma exists there?
I see it here, and I am completely ignorant, and that's one of the things. Having a relationship with the water, having a relationship with the geography, having a relationship with all kinds of things that I haven't grown up witnessing.
[00:39:14] NP: Yeah. That was one of the things that was really interesting to me, too, is to be hella American, and also Black, and coming back. There's this whole movement of coming home, the return to Ghana. That was one of the things that was – That's the challenge, is I can't not be American, but I am a victim in many ways of the oppression of America. Then, going to Ghana, I am not Ghanaian. I am not Kenyan.
I can go to the continent, but I'm culturally not those things. The culture is as foreign to me as going anywhere else. The food is foreign to me. All of the things I'm having to learn as an outsider, and I'll share with you one of the experiences. I went to this place called Macula Market. It's the market that locals go to. It's an outdoor market and it's beautiful and colorful. There's so many people everywhere. All these different things people are selling, and there's so much – the spirit of entrepreneurship in Ghana is unbelievable. Everyone is an entrepreneur in Ghana.
I was so taken with just the ladies walking with their baskets on their head, and all their treats and all the things and their snacks, and just so many things to buy. As I'm going through, and I am a light-skinned Black woman in America, going through this Ghanian village, and this Ghanaian market, and everyone I'm seeing is this rich, brown, Black color with these dark eyes and these beautiful features and just so not what I look like. I am walking through this market, and they know I'm not from there.
As much as I'm like, “Yeah, I want to be a part of the culture. Coming home.” I'm like, I don't know how to walk. I don't know how to keep in the flow of what's happening here. I'm sticking out a like a sore thumb, physically, but also don't know the cadence and the rhythm of this place. As I'm going through, people are saying like, “Oh, welcome back. Welcome to Ghana.” Saying very nice things to me. I'm walking through and this one man yells something in a language I don't speak. He yells, essentially, “White girl. White girl, come over here.” In all my life, I have never been called a white girl, until I went to Ghana.
My friend is like, “Oh, my God. He just called you white girl. He just called you white girl.” I start laughing, because I said, in all my life, I have never been a white girl, until today. Okay, well, that's hilarious and interesting. Who would have thunk it, right? Then my friend, I see, who is cool as a cucumber 90 percent of the time. 99 percent of time. Alua is chill. She is enraged. What she tells me is that actually, he's bastardizing a term that is foreigner. Now, he's made it white girl, which is derogatory. He's basically othering me further.
She essentially says to him like, “You need to not say that.” A lot of people talk about the diaspora in Ghana, and really are talking about how do we welcome Black Americans back to the continent? Let's embrace people. She basically, chastises him to say like –
[00:42:45] ZK: Stop that.
[00:42:46] NP: “If a person comes all the way here, what are you doing? What an embarrassment that this is the way that you would behave, and this is the way that you would treat someone? You may not realize the harm of what you're doing, but you need to essentially stop.” In the moment, I thought it was funny, and I was not bothered by it at all. I was bothered that she was so bothered, because I was clear that I didn't understand the context, what he was saying and what he was trying to say.
[00:43:15] ZK: Can we talk a little bit about generational trauma, and what that means in a very real way of being disenfranchised? I mean, you tell me.
[00:43:30] NP: The best example I can give you is, it means that there's very few places I go that I belong. By very few, I mean almost nowhere.
[00:43:40] ZK: Let's just sit with that for a moment. I really want people to hear that and hear what that means.
[00:43:47] NP: I mean, if you think about whatever comfort means to you as an individual, if you never found that, whether that's you in the morning with your cup of tea, or your coffee, and you're meditating, or whatever that looks like for you, where you feel completely grounded and safe and whole and understood, and you feel you have a grasp of what's going on around you. I would argue that that is a very rare feeling, and equally a feeling that I have to fight to sustain, to find to sustain, and then I'm having to make it. It is being manufactured, which is different than feeling like you belong somewhere, because you do.
[00:44:34] ZK: We're talking a lot about context and systems and feeling like we exist in a system that supports us and wants the best for us, and provides opportunity that – That is something that you and the majority of Black Americans don't feel.
[00:44:56] NP: Unless, we are in an environment that is of our own, made by our – with all the intentionality, with all the nuance. All of that takes money and time and thoughtfulness and resources and all of these things, that there are other people in our population who inherently have. So much so, that you maybe don't even ever think about it that way. I think, that that's what is most poignant to me, is the ability to take for granted things, because you have them. You have them inherently, by birthright. You are born in a country that wants you to succeed, as opposed to being brought to a country that enslaved you.
[00:45:45] ZK: Yes. Now, we are generations away, fast forward, and our Black Americans are the descendants of the enslaved Africans. There are things, like the geography not being from Los Angeles. I read about, and now I'm not going to be articulate and knowledgeable enough to have this conversation fully. The gist of what I want to mention in this context is that the geography of Los Angeles and South central and the Black neighborhoods have been drawn up and Black people have been relegated to a certain geographical location with white people making laws that they cannot cross certain boulevards without getting arrested and incarcerated.
[00:46:41] NP: What I think is interesting about that is, that that was not always the way it was in Los Angeles. That that was intentionally created. That is what we have to wrap our minds around, that there are human beings who actively work to make others’ lives terrible. We have to get out of this delusional idea that there are not people who are trying to do horrible things to other human beings.
[00:47:11] ZK: That's exactly right.
[00:47:12] NP: We feel completely justified and we think, “Well, it's fine. I'm a real estate developer. I'm going to make this neighborhood better.” Better for who? Because the people that live there might already like it, but you don't know them, and you haven't talked to them. They're not going to be able to live here when you're through with it.
[00:47:30] ZK: Right. You're going to put them in a dungeon and worship your God, while standing on top of them.
[00:47:37] NP: I say all this to say, that there is a blueprint for this horror that is still very active in our society, and we don't really get it. We think that we have outgrown these systems. The reality is, the systems are so brilliant, that they are now just the way we do business.
[00:48:03] ZK: Ouch.
[00:48:05] NP: We just go, “Well, what can we do?” Well, we created the internet, so clearly, there's a lot we can do. We have put Teslas into the middle of space. We've done a whole bunch of things. We can't figure out how to treat each other decently?
[00:48:25] ZK: We can't figure out how to empower Black people, people of color, all people of color, properly.
[00:48:34] NP: Right. This is why I do the work that I do in the world, because I think it's important to deconstruct these narratives, and to really humanize these things that are beyond what we can understand, in a way that we can understand. When you say, I'm not into politics, what you're saying is, you don't want to be responsible for what goes on in a place that you not going to have to live in. That’s what you’re saying. Where I am, I'll be able to control what's going on and it works for me. For everybody else, I don't know what they're going to do. I just think that we are capable of more than that.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:49:14] ANNOUNCER: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Radical Intimacy Podcast. We are committed to facilitating courageous conversation about things that are hard to talk about. To support what we do, please subscribe, review, and refer us to your friends. To connect with us directly, visit theradicalintimacypodcast.com. To learn more about Zoe, visit zoekors.com. You can buy Zoe's book, Radical Intimacy: Cultivate the Deeply Connected Relationships You Desire and Deserve, wherever you buy books. You are worthy of love and belonging. You are enough. We see you. We got you. We love you.