In July 2012, I made a pilgrimage to Elmina Slave Dungeons in Ghana, West Africa. As a descendant of enslaved African people, this journey was part of my emotional and spiritual journey toward healing the wounds of racism.
I serve as director for ELCA racial justice ministries. As a person of color, my racial identity has been shaped within a Eurocentric dominant culture. In the telling of U.S. history, the experiences and struggles of people of color have been marginalized or missing all together. In my work, I have analyzed how policies and practices compounded by relationships and rules across institutions have systematically privileged white people and disadvantaged people of color.
None of this prepared me for what waited behind the walls of Elmina’s faded white facade.
The U.N. designated Elmina as a site of major historical significance in remembering the evils of the transatlantic slave trade. Originally named São Jorge da Mina (St. George of the Mine) by the Portuguese in 1482, Elmina is the oldest European-constructed building in sub-Saharan Africa.
Though referred to as a “castle,” Elmina was actually a fort with dungeons that held more than 1,000 African men, women and children captive for several months. Abducted from their families and villages, people were crammed into dark, dank, overcrowded holding cells to await the arrival of slave ships that would carry them far away like cargo. At the peak of the transatlantic slave trade, 60 such forts dotted the West African coastline.
Africans typically were abducted from interior countries and marched to Elmina on a journey that lasted several days. Once inside its walls, humans were traded for textiles, horses, guns, ammunition and other goods.
As the demand for forced labor increased in the Americas, so did the trafficking of African people who knew how to domesticate crops like rice and mine such precious metals as gold. The U.N. estimates that 15 million Africans were trafficked to the Americas and Europe (4 million of whom survived the journey) in a practice that lasted more than 400 years.
During my tour of Elmina, the agonizing signs of the fort’s slave trading history were still visible. A torture chamber door was marked with a skull and crossbones. Captives showing signs of resistance against their oppressors were forced into this tight chamber and deprived of food, water and light until they perished. Women and girls were equally vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse. Those who fought off their attackers were chained to a 55-pound cannonball and left to die in the heat of the African sun.
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