Article published in The Funambulist 17 (May-June 2018) Weaponized Infrastructure. Click here to access the rest of the issue.
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.