By Iris Beaumier
It was 2009 and the first time I had been to Accra, Ghana since I was three. My mom, a flight attendant of 40 years, had been regularly going back to her hometown, but now that I was a teenager, this particular trip would serve as my very own informal debut. My cousin’s wedding set the stage: family and friends surrounded us, the outfits were on point, and most importantly, the aunties were there in full force. Wearing the latest in London style, they were stationed at the front of the dance hall. These regal, stern-looking women would suddenly jump up to dance to Sweet Mother, and just as quickly sit back down, still intimidating but slightly more jovial. My mother paraded me around the aunties as they looked me up and down, loudly flapping their ornate wax cloth fans. They twirled me around, commenting on my shapely hips and slimmed-out face, and said “Iris, be careful oh! We don’t want you marrying one of those Obibini-oburonis. You deserve bettah.”
“Auntie, I’m sorry I don’t know what that means,” I said.
“A Black American.”
My heart dropped and my body temperature rose; compounded with the heavy Ghanian heat, it felt like it couldn’t get any hotter.
For the Akan people, “Oburoni” means “one beyond the horizon”, usually in reference to white foreigners in Ghana. “Obibini” means black. These terms used together are not always insulting, usually they are used to indicate someone outside of one’s tribe. But in this case, my auntie’s message was clear. These were my elders—women I’ve looked up to and respected, who were subtly invoking superiority over members of my community back home. And although my Ghanian heritage is a huge part of my American identity, I am still a New Yorker at heart. Unbeknownst to the aunties, in the complexity of my makeup, I also was on the receiving end of their bigoted remark.
Moses E. Ochonu, a Nigerian academic historian, author, and professor of African History, writes “…the notion that racism and racial consciousness only result from the interaction between black people and white people ignores the different varieties of racism, the persistence of racism long after white racists depart the scene, and, more crucially, the prolific ability of black elites to wittingly and unwittingly carry on the mantle of racism through practices that many misunderstand as classism and other non-racial tropes.”
We have to look at the roots of Ghanian elitism to understand the “mantle of racism” Moses Ochonu writes about. Since Ghana’s independence in 1957, the country has worked hard to define itself as the bastion for Pan-Africanism, a movement seeking to unite African peoples and support local economic efforts. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President, led these efforts across the continent and paved the way for Africans studying anti-colonial nationalism locally and abroad. Ironically, this highlighted the dichotomy between the educated privileged and working class.
Just as white supremacy pervades the United States’ economic and social system, colonial standards of superiority pervade Ghanian culture. For example skin bleaching products are still widely sold, and oftentimes wealthy Africans who study in England return with a British-affected Ghanaian accent, ‘white’ mannerisms, or a particularly rude attitude towards those they deem “lesser” (usually those in lower classes or of different socioeconomic backgrounds). One of my more quirky aunts sometimes adds Cockney affectations to her Ghanaian accent, even though Cockney as a dialect of English, is historically associated with the English working class. For her, I suppose, any form of ‘white’ affectation elevates one’s status.
Since 2009, I’ve returned to Ghana many times. Upper class hierarchical values have not changed. However, recently Ghana has made efforts of inclusivity among people of the African Diaspora, especially in the United States. Last year, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo Addo, named 2019 the “Year of Return”, inviting those who were descendents of families forced into slavery to “come back home”. The occasion represented 400 years since the first documented Africans were sold into slavery. The Year of the Return was a huge economic, cross-cultural success. According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the year-long event pumped $1.9 billion into the economy, with 45% more visitors from January to September than the same period the year before. In my own efforts to visit Ghana in 2019, I quickly found out that it was not going to happen. Flights were constantly full, Afrochella was booked months in advance, and when I tried to get my visa approved, I found the U.S. Ghana Consulate in a state of pandemonium.
In the wake of the recent murder of George Floyd and the continuous rise in police brutality, Barbara Oteng Gyasi, the Ghanaian Minister of Tourism, sought to reinvigorate the movement of 2019. She again enticed Black Americans to come back to Ghana, terming it “Beyond the Year of Return”, and saying “Ghana is your home”. I cringe when I think of my own experience of the existing superiority complex some Black Africans have towards Black Americans. Do they truly value Black Americans beyond the economic scheme that was “Year of Return”? How much has changed now that they understand Black America’s enduring resilience?
Don’t get me wrong. I talk shit, but I desperately want to go back to Ghana myself. I miss fresh plantain chips on the side of the road, negotiating with Ghanaians, going for market runs, fresh peanut stew, my family. The unspoken reality is Ghana provides a place where my American-born Black brothers and sisters can live without fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.
I wish I could speak with my grandmother, Lucy-Victoria. I wonder if she’s rolling in her grave at how disparagingly I speak of my elders. Lucy-Victoria was Queen Mother for displaced Ewes during the 80s. She was raised in the period before Ghanaian independence in a region devoid of colonial affectations. These particular matriarchs defied colonial ideals in their very existence; solving neighborly disputes, overseeing effective communication within the community, and providing resources for the disadvantaged. In a time when Ghana poses as a haven for the diaspora yet struggles with its own lack of inclusivity and equality, how would a Queen Mother react?
In 2000, the word “sankɔfani” (derived from the Sankofa symbol) was introduced during a public address at Kumasi Kwame Nkrumah University as a term referencing diaspora Africans (Pilgrimage Tourism of Diaspora Africans). It means “one who goes back to the source to fetch what was lost”. In this next chapter of “return”, I can only hope that Ghanaians, in their quest to “welcome back” Black Americans, confront their own internal racial struggles and also return to the source.
Iris Beaumier is a multidisciplinary artist based in New York City. Her performance and production work primarily focus on transatlantic themes, reflecting her Ghanian and French heritage. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Acting/Musical Theatre; minor in Environmental Studies. irisbeaumier.com