The irony of Juneteenth is that while African Americans are celebrating a holiday that commemorates the abolition of the last remaining enslaved Africans in Texas, many African Americans have been socialized to distance themselves from Africa and Africans.
The Ghana president Nana Akufo-Addo designated 2019 “The Year of Return” to commemorate the 400 years of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. The Year of Return celebrates the resilience of all the African victims of the Transatlantic slave trade and seeks to attract millions of African descendants back to Ghana to connect to their ancestry and identity.
Ghana is especially significant for African Americans because so many of our ancestors were taken from the Ghanaian coast and shipped to the Americas. It is the site of 75 percent of the so-called slave castles on the West coast of Africa.
This year, as a part of the President’s Award for Global Learning, I am one of three faculty mentors to a group of undergraduate students who were selected to explore the influences of colorism and skin bleaching in Ghana.
As a result, I have finally fulfilled my dream of going to Africa. Standing in the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle and hearing about the unspeakable atrocities experienced by my African ancestors was one of the most profoundly moving and powerful experiences I have ever had.
This is why the Year of Return is so incredibly important. It is a spiritual, birthright journey for African Americans and the global African family.
Research has found that African Americans lack a sense of connection to Africans, which is attributed to Africans’ purported sense of superiority and disregard for African Americans’ ongoing struggle to end racial oppression.
Having taught a class on the Psychology of the African American Experience for over 20 years, I have consistently observed several dynamics. First, many of my African American students do not readily embrace their African heritage.
Instead, they share stereotypes about Africans — “they smell” or “they think they’re better than us” — and admit to using derogatory and degrading language, such as “African booty-scratcher.”
Many of my African students report having heard or being called an African booty-scratcher by African American students but also report having stereotypes of their own about African Americans — “they don’t value education,” “they don’t respect their elders,” or “they have no sense of family.”
The Yoruba people have a word, “akata”— meaning, a wild cat who does not live at home — that is often used to refer to African Americans. Though, there are many debates (origin, urban dictionary, and BlacknBlack) about whether the word is intended to be derisive.
In both cases, there are misunderstandings that have been exacerbated by slavery and colonialism. Africans and African Americans have both been miseducated about each other and have been influenced by racist narratives about each other.
To be sure the tensions are not imagined, and are rooted in a reality that the educational and economic profile of Africans is far above that of African Americans. However, these differences do not negate the fact that Africans and African Americans (and for that matter Afro-Caribbeans) share an African ancestral cultural bond.
Our Ghanaian tour guide had no anger or malice as he walked us through the sites that are representative of our shared, sordid history. Instead, he implored us to never forget and to work to ensure that this history will never repeat itself. One of the Ghanaians present during the tour spoke about our common humanity, commenting that it doesn’t matter the color of our skin, we all bleed red blood.
As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us also remember that African Americans have a special connection to Africa, to Africans, and especially to Ghana. It is my hope that Juneteenth will not only be a time to celebrate the emancipation of enslaved Africans but will also serve to motivate African Americans to truly embrace their African cultural heritage.
Kevin Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents professor of Educational Research and Development and professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today, Dallas Morning News, San Antonio Express News, Austin American Statesman, Abilene Reporter News, Detroit Free Press, Newark Advocate, Africans in America, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times.