In Her Blood
In August, the NAACP took nearly 300 people to Ghana. It was the largest delegation for the country’s historic Year of Return. During the 10-day trip, participants visited the home of NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois, met village chiefs and toured the Cape Coast Slave Castle where millions of captured Africans were kept before the horrific Middle Passage, which took them to a life of bondage in the Americas. Under Ghana’s dark skies, a number of delegates participated in the African Ancestry Reveal. Some learned their ancestors came from Cameroon. Others learned they had ties to Sierra Leone and Senegal.
Janette Louard, deputy general counsel for the NAACP, discovered her ancestors came from a tribe in Nigeria. Here, she talks to The Crisis magazine’s editor-in-chief Lottie Joiner about her journey in Ghana and what the experience has meant to her.
Crisis: Why did you decide to travel to Ghana with the NAACP? Janette Louard: I am originally from the island of Jamaica. I was born in Jamaica, and there are strong ties between the island of Jamaica and the country of Ghana. In fact, I had been told that there are members of my family that come from Ghana. My father, Voldie Osmond McCarthy, and I had wanted to take the trip to Ghana at some point. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 2002. When this opportunity came, I felt it was an opportunity for me to do this in honor of my father and in honor of my ancestors. I thought it was particularly relevant because it was the Year of Return marking the 400 years of enslavement of African people. What was the most surprising thing you learned during the trip? I was not surprised by the warmth of the Ghanaian people, nor was I surprised at the beauty of this place. In fact, it very much reminds me of Jamaica with the lush greenery. I did the ancestry test, my maternal test, and learned I am a descendant on my mother's side from the Yoruba and Hausa people in the country of Nigeria. That was a surprise to me. Why was that a surprise? I had always been told that our people were Ghanaian. It should not have been a surprise because in doing research on the history of Jamaica, many of the enslaved Africans came from the regions of Nigeria and Ghana. But I just had no idea. In fact, I actually love the Nigerian culture, and I love Nigerian food. I often go to a place in Baltimore called Suya Spot to get chicken suya, which is a Nigerian dish. The servers would always ask me, “You sure you're not Nigerian?” And I would always tell them, “No I am Ghanaian, but I love your people.” So, it was a surprise, a pleasant one, a happy one. It was a gift to me to learn that information because it's about my mother and bringing her back to me and my grandmother bringing her back to me. So it was an amazing experience. Why did you do the African Ancestry Reveal? For me it was very important to know where I'm from. I've traveled in Africa before. I lived in the Gambia. I've traveled to Mali, to Senegal. Each place I went, I wondered: “Are these my people?” I wanted to know where my specific people came from. My parents are gone, and so I crave information about my family. It's not only a gift to me. It's a gift to my brothers, my nieces, my son and my future grandchildren. It is a gift to know, OK, this is where your specific people are from. When you look at your 23-year-old son, what do you see? I see the descendant of strong, proud Black people. The same strength that carried them through runs in his veins. He has a responsibility to live up to their strength. I know that we will both come back together to the [African] continent so he can learn more about himself because you have to know about your people. You have to know who you are. I happen to be an African who was raised in Jamaica and then lived in America. But I am an African, and I identify with this place. Tell me about your experience at theCape Coast Slave Castle and the slave dungeons. It was a tough experience. It really brought home what our ancestors had to live through, what they had to endure to leave their homeland and to be forcibly taken to America or in my case to the West Indies. Seeing the inhumane conditions of the women's quarters, the men's quarters, knowing that these people may be directly related to me, it was very overpowering and it brought it home to me. You also visited the Assin Manso Last Bath River. How was that experience? I was bawling at the Last Bath River. That was a powerful experience. I did not know about the Last Bath River. I knew about the Door of No Return. The fact that this was likely the last bath my ancestors took in their native land before they were sent on to the so-called New World, was very humbling. It was very sad. I felt for all they endured and thought about their strength. They were strong people. I know their strength runs through me, that has given me encouragement. I thought it was a beautiful ceremony. I thought it was moving, and I was so appreciative to go with my NAACP colleagues. It made it even more special because it ties into the mission of the Association. How did your Ghana experience change your perspective on life? A lot of times, I think I'm a strong person, but a lot of times I get sort of overwhelmed by things, by issues. I'm descended from people who are strong and determined and that’s in me. I know that it's in me. And that gives me courage. It's something I want to share with my child and his children when their time comes. I'm already planning to come back to the continent of Africa. I'd like to go to Nigeria to learn more about that culture. It's also amazing to me because I come from a lineage of really strong West Indian women — my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, the women before them. These women were warriors. And from what I know about the Hausa and the Yoruba people, these are strong people. Is there anything you would like to add about your journey? I just think it's really important to know where you're from, to know who your people are. And I think it's critically important to come to the continent of Africa and see for yourself the beauty of this place, the beauty of the people, the strength of these people who are, who are us. And when I say these people — this is us, we are African. And I love that we are, in a way, following Marcus Garvey, another Jamaican, who told us to repatriate, to reconnect with the continent, the beautiful, wonderful continent of Africa. And so I would just encourage everybody, particularly those of African descent, wherever you are in the diaspora — whether you'd be in South America, whether you'd be North America or the Caribbean like me — come and see for yourself the beauty of this land, the beauty of these people, the beauty of us. n — Lottie L. Joiner is the editor-in-chief of The Crisis magazine.