Following a tour of the “Musée de la Porte de Non-Retour,” I take a selfie with the square entrance structure behind me. My face is framed by a symbolic doorway with the words “Welcome to your homeland / Porte du retour/ Bienvenus à la terre natale” written across it. I stand next to a statue that represents Mama Africa, a tall matriarch with the continent stamped on her clothing, reaching down with arms wide open towards two Black folks dressed like they just walked off a boat straight from the financial district in lower Manhattan in the 1980s-early 1990s. I tell myself that I take the photo to share with family back in the United States: “Wish you were here.” “Home sweet home”…? I immediately become uncomfortable, change my mind and delete it. My physical presence on the Slave Coast of Benin quickly evaporating into the data cloud — present, but dispossessed. I wonder if it is more honest that way.
My first time in West Africa, I dedicate a few afternoons to visiting sites of cultural heritage in Ouidah (Whydah and Glēxwé), Benin. I am curious about the place — the ways I may or may not be personally tied its history and also the nationally institutionalized recognition of the Kingdom of Dahomey’s role in the slave trade of over one million people from the 16th to 19th century, largely in partnership with the Portuguese.
I am here visiting a friend on a United States passport with a Master’s degree from a French institution. These markers exert significant force in problem with “making the diaspora definitive” or the revolving door of being “no longer seriously diasporic with reference to the modern state” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Diasporas Old and New,” 1997). I selfishly want to parse through my own personal desire for an imagined belonging, and how I feel about setting foot in a country whose current president comes from a family complicit in selling Black people to the Americas, but all of this is undergirded by an obligation to reckon with my citizenship, educational and financial profile, my participation in the rise of neoliberal global economic citizenship.
As skeptical as I am of the premise of slavery-based diaspora tourism, I am a prime consumer for its market. Being born to a Black father and a white mother from the United States, I’m not immune to the fantasy of authenticity and a longing for an imagined homeland. And while this search for belonging probably has more to do with 400 years of fleeing terror in the United States than with recognizing West Africa as home, I would be lying if I say I was not bracing myself in anticipation of catching a sign or sensation — anything that might indicate relation to ancestors who passed specifically through Benin.
As my mind makes presumptuous leaps across intergenerational trauma and amnesia in search of the “right” way to mourn the capture, trade and sale of my ancestors, I wonder what and who the business of memory serves today. Memorialization acts upon memories in the form of symbolic representations, and the case for acknowledging the atrocities of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is no different — the modifying terms of the phrase “Atlantic slave trade” always feels dishonest as the ocean did not do the trading, and it was not the ocean being traded either. In these representations, memory detaches from what is necessarily real and becomes what we need it be. Within this unreliability and murkiness, history, trauma and intergenerational transmission become territory for fantasies of NGO and development dreams and the facade of slavery diaspora memorialization emerges.
Diaspora tourism, in my understanding, is a kind of cultural heritage tourism rooted in the hopeful and aspirational travel of diasporic peoples to (potential) ancestral homelands searching for sensations of homecoming, attachment, memory, and heritage. Tourism is still tourism, no matter the thematics of the itinerary. Both commemorative and performative, slave-based cultural heritage tourism is about the collective and individual experience of bearing witness to atrocity. I wonder if I am engaging in being both the consumer and the product, but the more I think about it, the less plausible it feels that my ancestors ever set foot in the Kingdom of Dahomey. I begin to feel ridiculous for even believing it possible. But I will not ever know, and I am not sure that tangibility is the point of diaspora tourism, anyway.
“This is the ‘Tree of Forgetfulness.’ Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven. This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had.” – tour guide
After the tour, the museum’s director asks me where I come from. I tell her about New Jersey but I know that is not her point. We laugh, knowing that very question is part of what brings Black people in the diaspora to the museum. I share with her that my paternal great-grandmother migrated from South Carolina to New Jersey in the 1930s, and I have taken up a genealogy hobby project with my grandma. We tried to follow threads back as far as we could, but after 5 generations of names of maternal lineage, we hit a wall. She offers a pen and paper to write down names of family members in case she finds a lead. Maybe, the missing stories will shore up on the beaches of Ouidah. But more immediately, it becomes clears to me that this host-guest dynamic exchange is probably a labor of authenticity included in the museum fee.
This museum moment is perfectly teed up by its preceding tour sites. After visiting the “Door of No Return” the “Museum of Return” evokes an affective register contrast between hospitality of homecoming and the seeming finality of exile. The “Porte de Non Retour” is at the end of the 3-kilometer long “la route des esclaves” which leads from the town’s market square where enslaved people were sold before being forcibly led down to the beach in shackles. Monuments and sites dedicated to the slave trade began in Benin around 1992. Commissioned by a patrimonialization phenomenon of the 1990s led by UNESCO, the Ouidah’92 conference came about around the same time as similar inaugurations in Caribbean nations.
The entire project is vague and swiftly weaves between expressing apologetic repentance, commemoration of the atrocities committed and a celebration of the resulting diasporic connections of slavery. The Slave Route, where allegedly the enslaved people were marched down traversing a lagoon and down to the sea, is adorned with voodoo statues to honor Ouidah’s cultural heritage. The path leading straight ahead from La Route Des Esclaves is meant to symbolize the last few meters of land before Africans became free sources of labor, and eventually hyphenated Americans. But a quick turn left brings tourists to the refuge of the Brazilian themed “Diaspora Hotel” with a swimming pool and beach cabanas.
What am I supposed to feel about this experience? Who benefits from these? Just as it feels impossible to write about individual or collective experiences of dehumanization, diaspora and displacement, I am unconvinced that there is a graceful way to acknowledge and memorialize the magnitude of trauma and harm of the enslavement of Black people. The Cape Coast and Elmina in Ghana, Goree Island in Senegal, Juffureh in Gambia and Bahia in Brazil have all had waves of diaspora tourist initiatives similar to the ones in Benin, where visitors can witness Slave Castles and more symbolic Doors of No Return. The 1990s resurgence was mobilized by Alex Haley’s Roots but this was far from the beginning of this impulse. The impulse to return was central Marcus Garvey’s political message and the Back to Africa Movement in the 19th century. Even before then, in the 1800s, there was the returnee movement between the Bight of Benin and Bahia, the region in Brazil the majority of Africans in Ouidah were deposited. There is something to be said about solidarity that forms when people are lumped together in a category, the way Black folks in the Americas have been. At risk of oversimplification, it is also true that the innumerable geo-locations of all Black folks do not foreclose the possibility of connectivity. While my own blood relatives may not have ties to Benin, the impulse of pan-Africanism is grounded in this truth of community and solidarity, with connections even though our experiences are significantly distinct.
With my feet planted firmly on the “homeland,” I can’t take my gaze off of the sea. I am advised not to swim because the violent undertow is notorious for being fatal. I wonder if it has always been so. What happens to the inertial forces of Africans who leaped from the ships to their freedom? Does the ocean hold the energy of potential ancestors still spiraling, lost between land masses? It is in these moments that the melancholia of diaspora is not lost on me.
I take a seat on the beach and watch fisherpeople on pirogues navigate through the violent breaks of the waves safely back to shore. My mind loops like a boomerang, trying to do the psychic work of trying to replay the movement of ships in reverse, an attempt to witness enslaved people being brought out on small dugout canoes past the shallow waters to the awaiting slaving ships. I feel silly and foreign and Western gazey in my fixation on the space between the shoreline and deeper water. While I sit there, conjuring images of the atrocity of slavery and capture and fratricide, nothing concretizes in particular. I wonder, at which point during capture and deportation did we became alien? Was it the moment our backs were pressed against the floorboards of the mothership?
I decide to settle by staring blankly into vast ocean — for me, the symbol that most powerfully exists between historical phenomenon, collective memory, and a personal feeling. I begin to pray, but all I am distracted again by the sea foam formed by the crashing waves of the Atlantic.