Tribalism has always existed among those of us who are Black — but why?

If we stand divided, divided we will keep falling.

SHARE Tribalism has always existed among those of us who are Black — but why?
These sculpted heads are among nearly 2,000 at Kwame Atoka-Bamfo’s Nkyinkyim installation in Ghana.

These sculpted heads are among nearly 2,000 at Kwame Atoka-Bamfo’s Nkyinkyim installation in Ghana.

John Fountain

ACCRA, Ghana — I have stood in the rippling cool waters of Assin Manso Slave River site, where African slaves, wearied and broken, bathed before being forcibly marched to slave castles. I have heard how their captors tied those bloodied and most weakened to trees as bait for wild animals, ensuring safe passage for the slave caravan.

I have stood in the dark, humid dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, where my ancestors once lay shackled in urine, feces and incomprehensible agony, beneath the Church of England. And I have gazed from atop Elmina Castle, where the governor of this hell-on-earth would spy a female slave among the latest half-naked brood, then have her washed and brought to his quarters through a trap door for his pleasing.

I have ingested the suffering of Kwame Atoka-Bamfo’sNkyinkyiminstallation and its excruciating images that are forever singed into my soul.

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And from where I sit, here in Ghana, this much has become clear to me: If true harmony and community had ever existed in Africa, the African never would have allowed the white man to enslave their brothers and sisters for hundreds of years.

Instead, many Africans became slave agents. Enemy of their brothers rather than lover and protector of their brothers.

Instead — for liquor, guns or gunpowder, or insignificant subpar incomparable goods — the Black body was exchanged. And the hand of the African is historically undeniable in the largest-ever forced migration in the world’s history.

This is more than conjecture.

During the Transatlantic slave trade (16ththrough the late-19thcenturies), an estimated 12.5 million Africans “were extracted from the continent through coerced migration,” although at least one report places the number of slaves exported, between 1450 and 1850, at over 210 million, according to “Shackles in Darkness” by Felix Nguah and Robert Kugbey.

The method of securing Black bodies was “revised when Europeans influenced powerful African leaders with gifts and trained some in the use of guns to capture their kind for sale,” the authors write.

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Indeed, the documented history of Ghana’s own role in both the indigenous and the Atlantic slave trades — in the selling by chiefs, kings and others of slaves acquired through warfare, raids, kidnapping or other means — is disturbing to read in “A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana” by Akosua Adoma Perbi, a history professor at the University of Ghana.

Sitting here in Ghana, and staring at life today on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I still see liquor, guns and things incomparable to the Black body being used to devastate, destroy and enslave our communities. No longer the cargo of slave ships. I see caskets carrying Black bodies. I see our hand in our own demise.

I also see and hear history and the ancestors, whispering upon the winds:

“Love yourselves, protect yourselves, save yourselves, free yourselves ... For the destiny and hope of the Black man has always and will forever lie in your own Black hands ...”

I am not naïve. Tribalism, or divisions within the race, have always existed. But why do they have to?

How can we afford not to see each other as brothers and sisters when so much of the world sees all of us Black folks as “n—s.” We are not each other’s enemy.

And tribalism — whether it is Hutus vs. Tutsis, Vice Lords vs. GDs, Crips vs. Bloods, or Jack & Jill’s, and assorted “Afro-stocracies” vs. the poor, uneducated and uncultured — only weakens us. Whether it is light-skinned vs. dark-skinned, West Side vs. South Side or Greek vs. non-Greek, if we stand divided, divided we will keep falling.

A call for Black cohesion does not absolve the “white man” of the unspeakable, incalculable horrors and human rights violations he has and continues to inflict upon us. But it can ensure, at least, that we will no longer be his agents.

From where I stand, that’s as clear as the water in Slave River.


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