KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
NPR's Gene Demby thought his recent trip to Ghana would be fun and uncomplicated. Instead it got him thinking about his family story.
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GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So the family lore goes something like this. My mother was getting a checkup before a trip to Ghana with her boyfriend, who was from Accra. Then her doctor told her that she was pregnant with twins. Her trip to the motherland was going to have to wait. I was in my early 20s the first time my mother told me that story. And for decades, she'd put much of her life on hold for my sister and me. We were those twins.
I said nothing about the passing mention of her old boyfriend, my father. And that story came to mind a few weeks ago when my girlfriend and I landed in Accra for a friend's wedding. At customs, an officer leafed through my passport. Welcome back, Mr. Afum, he said. He called me by the part of my last name I rarely use or think about, my father's name. My name is Gene Demby-Afum.
This is going to sound hard to believe. I know. But I hadn't really thought about the connection I had to Accra until that moment. I hadn't seen my father in decades. And I rarely mention him. So cards on the table - I hate talking about my father because of all the ways the story of fatherlessness has become synonymous with black family dysfunction.
And people pose questions to me all the time about what it was like growing up without a father. And they've seen that statistic that 72 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. And they wonder how I fared. So here's what it was like.
My mom worked and fed us and tied my ties. My grandmother watched us after school and picked me up from Cub Scouts. My aunt fussed at me about my grades. And my cousin taught me how to shoot free throws. It never occurred to me that all that fawning and all that fussiness was family dysfunction.
And so while I was in Ghana, we went to the Elmina Castle, a 500-year-old fortress that sits on the Gulf of Guinea. For centuries, that castle was a major hub of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I'd heard stories from other black Americans about how traumatic tours like that could be. And I told myself that I was not about to become some blubbering American cliche. But I felt a rising disquiet as the guy took us to a courtyard, where he said the Portuguese governor once lined up the captive African women and would choose one to rape.
We went through a dark passage to reach the Door of No Return, a glorified hole in the castle's stone wall that led countless captive Africans to enslavement or death. And then we came to a dungeon with no windows. There was this painting of a skull above its door. And we stood inside that dungeon in total darkness as our guide asked us to bow our heads.
He recited a prayer for the thousands of people who died on the castle grounds. And I could not hear what he was saying. I was crying. I felt connected not to Ghana at that moment or to the specter of my absent father but to the people who were wrenched from that part of the African coast and crammed into ships and sold on another continent like livestock - those people, who were from far-flung tribes and villages, who arrived in a new land and cobbled together families that slavers and slave masters tried to shatter centuries before anyone uttered the words black family dysfunction. I felt the pull of that shared story, horrifying and beautiful, that shaped the lives of millions of Americans, including a black woman, her daughter and me.
MCEVERS: Gene Demby is a correspondent for NPR's Code Switch.
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