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Africa: Revolutionist Returnees – Fulfilling Dreams, Finding Freedom

How the Year of Return 2019 in Ghana led to one of the largest transatlantic African-American homecomings in history

The UN designated the International Decade for People of African Descent, from 2015 to 2024, to promote the recognition, justice, and development of individuals of African descent worldwide. Through various programs, events, and awareness campaigns, the Decade seeks to create a platform for dialogue, understanding, and positive change in the lives of the African diaspora. Africa Renewal will publish ‘In Search of Long-Lost Identities’ – a four-part series highlighting the journeys African-Americans are taking to reconnect with Africa – the continent their ancestors called home.

In 1977, a record-breaking mini-series carved its place in the milestone of US history. Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the small-screen adaptation exposed the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on generations thereafter.

Suddenly overnight — eight nights, to be exact — the Emmy Award-winning Roots made the phrase, “Go back to Africa,” sound like a call to action, an opportunity for African-Americans to reclaim their stolen heritage, and not a racial slur.

Back to Africa

Nearly 40 years after the release of Roots, Diallo Sumbry went to Ghana to seek spiritual discipline. “Initially, I came to study manifestation and traditional African science,” the Washington, DC-based entrepreneur said.

Everywhere you go, people are talking about the diaspora.

On a trip in 2016, Mr. Sumbry received a prophecy, that “if I moved to Ghana and decided to do business here, things would go well for me. I would fulfil my life’s mission, and Ghana would be my spiritual home.”

A dozen trips later, he found himself fulfilling that prophecy by reconnecting people in the African diaspora to the African continent.

As co-architect of Ghana’s “Year of Return,” Mr. Sumbry helped to facilitate an international campaign for the 400-year commemoration of the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans in America in 1619.

[The Year of Return 2019 was an initiative of the government of Ghana and the Adinkra Group, that sought to encourage African diasporans to come to Africa to settle and invest in the continent].

Visiting Africa can offer African-Americans a high level of freedom. … You can be who you are.

With more than 1.1 million international visitors, according to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the return may go down as the largest transatlantic African-American homecoming in history.

“The ‘Year of Return’ changed African tourism,” Mr. Sumbry said.

In 2020, the “Year of Return” campaign evolved into “Beyond the Return,” the tourism authority’s 10-year initiative. “Everywhere you go, people are talking about the diaspora,” Mr. Sumbry observed. “It sparked something, and we probably won’t see the full breadth of its impact for years to come.”

Respite from racism

Every person of African descent should visit the continent at least once in their life, according to Mr. Sumbry, who arranges trips through his firm, the Adinkra Group, where he serves as president and chief executive officer.

“The experience can offer African-Americans a high level of freedom,” he said. “There is no racism here as we see it in America. You are more rooted here. You can feel your spirit and your ancestors. You can be who you are.”

His efforts may place the Sumbry name on the list of historical figures who championed ‘Back-to-Africa’ movements. He would be in excellent company.

Paul Cuffe the shipping magnate

In 1815, Massachusetts shipping magnate Paul Cuffe doubted whether he would achieve racial equality in his lifetime. The philanthropist convinced 38 other African Americans to settle in Sierra Leone, and he financed their resettlement there.

According to the White House Historical Association, Mr. Cuffe is believed to have led the first successful Back-to-Africa movement in the United States; and his efforts served as inspiration for the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to establish Liberia and resettle African-Americans there.

A century later, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey moved to New York City and encouraged African-Americans to board ships of his Black Star Line for the voyage back across the Atlantic.

Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah took inspiration from the Harvard-educated Pan-African scholar W.E.B. Dubois, who co-founded America’s longest-running civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), in 1909.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, Mr. Dubois renounced his US citizenship and became a citizen of Ghana, where he spent his final days. He rests in peace at a museum named in his honour in Accra.

In the early 1960s, poet Maya Angelou and her son also lived in Ghana among nearly 200 African-American expatriates whom she referred to as the “Revolutionist Returnees.”

“We were Black Americans living in West Africa, where — for the first time in our lives — the colour of our skin was accepted as correct and normal,” Ms. Angelou wrote in her autobiography, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.

To this day, Ms. Angelou’s sentiments resonate with African-American mothers who have decided to repatriate to the motherland.

Peace of home

In corporate America, Ashley Cleveland was working her dream tech job with an executive title and a lucrative salary while management treated her as if she were in an administrative role.

“Black women get brought into corporations, and they are celebrated at first,” the Boston native said. “Then they go through all these micro-aggressions, and finally they are let go.”

After three layoffs in five years, she checked into a psychotherapy treatment centre, only to find it filled with other senior-level Black women with similar stories. She took a year to reset her life: she traded visiting psychiatrists and using prescription medication for taking hikes and walking on the beaches of Tanzania in East Africa.

Initially, she doubted whether she should move abroad when her first child was born. Recently, the mother of two relocated to Johannesburg.

We were Black Americans living in West Africa, where … the colour of our skin was accepted as correct and normal.

— Maya Angelou, author, poet and civil rights activist

When she is not working as head of growth for BrandUp Global, she echoes Ms. Angelou in telling other African-American families why they must relocate to the continent. “I explain the benefits that it provides Black children to live in societies where their skin colour is not an issue.”

Ms. Cleveland, whose children are learning Zulu and Kiswahili in primary school, said they are more well-rounded and intellectually challenged abroad. “They have a better childhood. We no longer worry about sending them to school and wondering if they’re going to make it back safely.”

I have a sense of peace here [in South Africa.] Here, I’m a better mother.

When asked whether she had any plans to return home, she answered: “Where? America? I have a sense of peace here that I shouldn’t have to give up. We don’t worry about getting pulled over by the police. I’m not operating with that anxiety as a parent anymore. Here, I’m a better mother.”

For Ms. Cleveland, Africa is home.

Ms. Beard is a writer and educator based in New York.



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