400 Years- An Invitation to Mourn, Celebrate, and Imagine


In this blog, former HA: Ghana Ghana volunteer Christian Hayden shares his thoughts on the Year of Return.

The “Year of Return, Ghana 2019” is a major campaign inviting the worldwide African Diaspora to return to Ghana.  The year chosen commemorates 400 years since the first enslaved African arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

A few historians have challenged the significance of this date and the meaning assigned to it with deep and well thought-out arguments. I feel their positions and feel that anyone concerned about the 400-year commemoration should read these articles and be enlightened by the context they provide. Here, I would rather talk about what we might do with this globally-assigned date for folks of various identities connected to the African Diaspora, and see if we might allow ourselves to coalesce as one species— one race— to be guided by its lessons; to work together towards a future that seeks to unravel and heal the damage and destruction bestowed on African-descended bodies, as well as the collective moral and environmental health of the civilizations of this earth.



We must start here, because as Mos Def said, “the length of black life is treated with short worth.” It is important to acknowledge the loss, exploitation, rape, and pillage that has come hand in hand with modernity— the innovations and wealth of many nations relied upon the acceptance of plunder as a rule, and quite possibly as a right. To pursue life, liberty, and happiness meant that weeded in transactions, labor, and capital was a foregone conclusion of the expendability of black (and indigenous) bodies. Why is this important? Because that assumption is hardwired into us and affects how we treat everyone. The success of a nation is measured by the amount it produces, but not by the health and wellness of the people it produces. 

The evidence of this is strewn across the bottom of the Atlantic in countless nameless bodies; the time-stamped images of lynched people hung from trees; the accepted shorter life span of black people; the high maternal death rate of black women in sub-Saharan Africa (and the U.S.); and the indifferent shrug given to preventable diseases like malaria, which takes the lives of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa every year.  And mourning is difficult— many of us don’t want to feel like victims and others do not want to feel complicit, but it is important to acknowledge loss in order that we may better prize life. If we ALL had to care that black men die at the hands of police officers at an alarming rate, would it continue? If we ALL had to care that trans people of color have a life expectancy of 35, would it continue?



Though this essay, for the sake of organization, is presented in three parts, they are in fact not entirely separate. For instance, in Ghana a funeral is not solely a sad occasion where beautiful black and red garments are worn by mourners in the Ashanti tradition, but a time to celebrate life. So simultaneously, we must celebrate the resilience of those of the African Diaspora and their contributions to the world we have today. 

It is too easy to dismiss the communities and lives of black folks with a nihilism, an ungenerous attribution of pathology toward violence. If we were honest we would see remnants of a Biblical story; some of the African Diaspora wholeheartedly accept as spiritual lineage and example the story of the Isrealites. They identify with their exile from home, and continuous search for justice, an existence free from oppression. But this is not a biblical story; this is a wide, vast, never-ending narrative that deserves our awe and wonder; one which we can experience in every corner of this earth. 

In order for us as to be come a fully humane society, we must recognize the irreplaceable gifts that people of African descent have bestowed on all of us: the haunting and reverent sounds of Billie Holiday & Fela Kuti; the moral and creative compass that luminaries such as Toni Morrison, Ama Ata Aidoo, and James Baldwin have provided; the innovation and accountability of online feminist movements in Africa that have shifted and shaped society. In fact, there is too much to list here, or anywhere. It would take a lifetime of study to comprehensively appreciate all that black folk have given to our society. But this is a good a time or reason to do so with intention and reverence. And we remember that though these are individuals, all of them are contained in every black person who has walked this earth.



In this celebration, may we develop the open hearts and minds necessary to imagine a modern world that has confronted its legacy of exploitation and pillage, exorcised its racist demons, and learned a new way. The realization of environmental and economic justice rests on racial justice. Otherwise, what society would have the emotional capacity to extend its manifestation of love via support, investment, and inclusion to those who don’t look like them? Once it becomes untenable for some to breathe bad air— such as those segregated and marginalized from society— it becomes intolerable for everyone to breathe bad air.

The survival of our planet, the future of our children relies on our ability to move in a synchronized, adapted manner; to better distribute the resources, land, and water that will become ever more scarce to people who do not look like us. Otherwise, we will continue to be what we are: a divided world with certain societies that people die to get to— mostly people who are brown and poor. People perilously trying to escape plundered places, already vulnerable made more so by the tendency of wealthy nations to dispense a disproportionate amount of carbon with no ceiling in sight, undoubtedly increasing the factors that lead migrants to our “borders.”

A mundane, maniacal march continues if we fail to learn the lessons and tragedies of our entrance into modernity, which moves us steadily toward another genocide that has been 400 years (and counting) in the making.

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(This piece is a guest contribution to Foundation Belief's blog, and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of FBB, its staff, or board.)