MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Throughout this Black History Month, we have been digging into recent memoirs by African-Americans. We've noticed there seems to be a fresh zeal to explore family history. Today, we want to highlight the personal journey of one of our own colleagues, NPR producer, John Asante. He shares his story of making his first visit to Ghana, the birthplace of his parents.
JOHN ASANTE, BYLINE: When most people are asked the question, so where you from? The response is pretty straightforward. You typically respond with a city or a state or a country. From there, you gauge how much more about your past you want to divulge.
I used to struggle with the question, choosing to respond with Atlanta or Georgia, where my mom lives now, even though I grew up and spent more time in the Northeast. But if I feel really comfortable with the person asking, I'll say Ghana. Yeah. That's where my family originates. Mom's side and Dad's side.
Until fairly recently, however, I had never been to Ghana. I grew up knowing that I'm Ghanaian-American, from the food to the customs to the languages, which I actually understood and spoke a bit as a child, yet my sense of being Ghanaian only went so far.
To bridge that distance in my soul, I knew I needed to connect with my roots and, in late September, after months of planning, I made my first trip to Ghana. Unforeseen circumstances prevented my mother and my sister from accompanying me on the journey.
We had planned to pay tribute to my father, John Kofi Badu Asante, Sr. He passed away 21 years ago when I was just three years old, so I made the trek to Accra alone.
I met loads of relatives who showed me unconditional love from the moment I stepped inside their modest homes. I was offered my favorite foods, fufu, kenke, jollof rice, the works.
I traveled through the markets of Accra and I tried to take in all this West African nation had to offer during my two-week vacation. Even though Ghana is a pretty progressive country, the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence, mind you, I had a bit of culture shock. I was startled by the haggling system when taking a cab and the hawkers on the street selling plantain chips and maps of the country.
Complicating matters, I didn't speak Twi or Fanti well enough to get by, so the second I opened my mouth, my natural camouflage was of no use. I never felt like I was in danger, especially with my cousins and uncle serving as tour guides, but I did feel defeated. I guess you only recognize just how American you are when you're in another country.
The most difficulty I faced was the reason I went to Ghana in the first place, to learn more about my father. Here is what I knew. He grew up in a small village in the eastern region of Ghana, immigrated to New York City in the late '70s and earned a degree in accounting from Baruch College. He worked as an accountant by day and ran his own laundromat in the Bronx by night.
Along the way, he met and married my mother, started a family and was gunned down by a young drug dealer one cold, dark night in January of 1991. Four kids and a young wife were left without the patriarch of the household. His body was then returned to his native land. So when I made the lengthy, rocky five-hour car ride with my uncle and aunt to my father's birthplace of Soabe, I would also see his resting place.
But when I arrived at his grave, the tears didn't flow like long rivers the way they did for my relatives. I was silent. My heart was beating fast. Joined by the other family members in Soabe, we formed a circle around the ornate seven foot gravestone made of concrete and pebbles and my uncle led a group prayer. Then I read the inscription my mother had placed beneath my father's name. Eternal rest grant unto him, oh, Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon him. Rest in peace.
Though I was sad, I was at a loss for expression or emotion. Perhaps we came upon the grave so quick that I couldn't prepare myself, but how do you prepare for that moment? It's still something I think about today. My mother offers encouragement, telling me that I made the effort and that's all we can ask for.
Now, when people ask, so where you from, I tell them, without hesitation, I'm from Ghana.
MARTIN: That was John Asante, a producer here at NPR, sharing memories from his first trip to Ghana.
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