The Racial Politics of ‘Return’

The Racial Politics of ‘Return’

Tourism initiatives in Ghana and beyond leave out black people without the economic means to travel.


Picture it: a civil rights leader wearing a striped linen shirt and a poet with a medium-size Afro, her dark shades protecting her eyes from the sun. The year is 1964, and the two people are Malcolm X and Maya Angelou; they’re in Accra, Ghana, meeting with local students and activists, as well as the African Americans who were living in Accra.

The goal of the visit was to discuss the persecution of black people living in America, and to figure out how to convince the heads of African nation-states to use the United Nations International Court of Justice to make a criminal charge against the United States concerning the racial violence that black Americans experienced under Jim Crow segregation. Referring to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Malcolm X argued that “if South African racism is not a domestic issue, then American racism also is not a domestic issue.” His call to action was prompted by an internationalism that could bring newly independent countries to raise concerns about the structural racism perpetuated by the United States.

At the time, Angelou was an editor for the African Review and an instructor at the University of Ghana. Malcolm was on a voyage in the Middle East and Africa after having left the Nation of Islam, and he’d asked Angelou to join his new group, the Organization of African American Unity. They were joined there by other black Americans such as W.E.B. Du Bois and social worker Alice Windom. Their growing community of black Americans in Ghana was formative in sharpening a pan-Africanism among leftists and writers who wanted to witness what a newly independent black state looked like. Ultimately, very little happened, but Ghana—and other African nations—became a site for what historian Kevin Gaines calls “transnational citizenship,” the possibility for black Americans to realize their progressive politics outside of the United States.

For people who were the children and grandchildren of former slaves, imagining international solidarity was a way to reclaim a new type of freedom and to move through a wider world that offered escape from the terror that they witnessed in the United States. In practice, this meant that only a small section of the black elite were able to access this freedom. Under the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in 1961, mostly thanks to his stature as a formidable black intellectual, editor, and writer.

Since its independence from the British government in 1957, Ghana has built on this tradition. The Parliament voted for the 2001 “Right to Abode” law granting the descendants of enslaved Africans the right to settle in the country. It has also sought to encourage black Americans to deepen their political allegiance to the postcolonial state, as many of these black activists were drawn to Kwame Nkrumah’s aspiration to help black liberation on the African continent and beyond.

During a period of decolonization when African Americans were carving out their own liberation struggle, Ghana served as a laboratory for anti-colonial minds. As a self-identified socialist, Nkrumah called for global social restructuring, yet in practice he relied on a stalwart political system grounded on his absolute rule, often hardening economic divisions he wished to see disappear. When Nkrumah was overthrown by the military in 1966, the Pan-African socialist reverie that he had promoted was all but lost—leading to a series of militaristic and neoliberal regimes.

The modern manifestation of this idea is somewhat different: African diasporic “return” has been more concerned with producing festivals for the black global elite than with building solidarity and improving life for all black people. While travel can provide the space for people to connect, it forces one to think about the politics of movement during an age of massive inequality.

In 2019, Ghana declared “The Year of Return” and invited African diasporic people to travel to the country “welcoming them home.” Nana Akufo-Addo, the current president of Ghana, was a major architect of the campaign and envisioned it as an opportunity to make amends for the Africans that were enslaved and forced to migrate during the transatlantic slave trade. In theory, the “return” is meant to attract descendants of Africans who left the western coast for the New World. But it has evolved to extend to black people more broadly.

The campaign has also generated attention from Afro-Europeans who seek to connect more deeply with the continent. Kemi Fatoba, a Nigerian Austrian journalist, told me she decided to travel to Africa and specifically Ghana because “the Year of Return gave me an extra push.” She continued, “It was emotional in another way. I felt very connected to the other people I went on the tour with. I spent a lot of time with black Americans and lots of people from the diaspora.”

While the politics of “return” are complex, and have had a political history tied to people’s emotional journeys and cultural connections, there is a commercial incentive that shapes who can travel. For many descendants of African slaves who were forced to migrate to the Americas, there is little evidence that can point to the direct location or ethnic group that they originated from. As sociologist Alondra Nelson has noted in The Social Life of DNA, some African Americans have sought to foster links to their ancestral land through genetic testing. Although there are various ways to use this contemporary technology for grappling with historical trauma, some critics are dubious of these tests because of the ongoing mobility and heterogeneity of African ethnic groups and the reconfiguration of some of those groups long after the slave trade.

Nevertheless, “return” is being invoked by one country and for African Americans seeking reconciliation and wanting to establish deeper connections with the African continent, and Ghana has provided the political avenue for historical reckoning. At the same time, Ghana has generated $1.9 billion in tourism since announcing its Year of Return in 2019.

Some of the most well-known people who have traveled to Ghana during the Year of Return include model Naomi Campbell, hip hop entertainer Cardi B, and actress Rosario Dawson. This has been made possible through the global media strategy of the businesswoman and former Uber executive Bozoma Saint John, who was partially raised in Ghana, and a social media campaign that enlisted major publications such as Ebony magazine. The goal is to attract a black elite that will generate revenue for the country.

This is further facilitated by Ghana’s waiving visa requirements for select countries such as Jamaica, which waives a visa fee for Jamaicans—a predominantly black country that is mostly populated by the descendants of African slaves—to visit Ghana. Yet, with gross domestic product being $9,200 in Jamaica, it seems unlikely that most citizens can afford to travel to Ghana, because tickets range from $2,500 to $3,000, or approximately a third of a household’s salary. In this way, the gesture to waive the visa is symbolic for the affluent Jamaican citizens who can afford to travel to Ghana.

Prior to the current marketing campaign, according to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the number of tourists grew from 580,000 in 2007 to 980,000 in 2017. Tourism revenue increased accordingly, from $879 million to $1,800 million. The Year of Return honors the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Jamestown in British colonial America. In a stunning poem, Clint Smith evokes the historical injustice of displacement: “I drag my thumb from Ghana, to Jamaica & feel the weight of dysentery, make an anvil of my touch.” This sense of being caught between the Americans and the African continent is precisely the tension the “right of return” relies upon. The marketing campaign focused on attracting those who are descendants of the transatlantic slave trade has recently morphed into an economic opportunity for Ghana.

Ghanaian tourism is also part of the country’s international development strategy: The industry contributes nearly 6 percent of Ghana’s gross domestic product. At the same time, the initiative to spend more on tourism is encouraged under the guidance of the World Bank in areas of high leisure, ecotourism, and sites that are directly tied to the transatlantic slave trade, such as the Elmina slave lodging.

Neighboring countries are following suit. In January 2020, the Nigerian government launched a campaign entitled “Door of Return.” Some Ghanaians on Twitter responded by mocking their West African neighbor. One Twitter meme shows a medieval scribe at work with “Ghana” written across his chest, while another man, looking over his shoulder appears to be copying from the studious scribe.

While these marketing campaigns might provide a space to increase interest in traveling to the African continent, many of the venues and events aren’t even accessible to local residents. The strategy to attract the African diaspora to the continent include events ranging from Afrochella in Ghana to Afropunk in South Africa. But daily tickets cost $30 and $35, respectively—orders of magnitude more than what many black Africans can afford.

The current campaign for the year of return, then, can’t be confused with real solidarity within the African diaspora, as expansive, multilingual, and multiethnic as it is. What one gathers from this rich history of internationalism is a politics of solidarity, a politics of discovery, and a politics of memory.

In Ghana, the year 2020 is unofficially tagged “Beyond the Return.” But to truly get past the tourism industry’s marketing bromides, our definition of “return” must have deeper connections to the past: from slavery to Maya Angelou and Malcolm X’s endeavors to sowing the seeds of freedom for all black people—not just privileged ones.

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