“To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.”
- Arundhati Roy
I lay my head on the pillow, wishing I was in The Motherland. It was a hot, sticky, thick midnight in North London and sheets of lightning white were switching through the sky. Rain was taunting and spitting at pavements and as I lay in bed that night I knew; that in Africa, watermelon-sized splashes would be crashing to the soil, filled with force and jubilation. The Divine Mother would be screaming through the town, giving birth to creation itself; unfathomable and awe-inspiring. I speak of The Motherland in the way that many 1st generation babies of diaspora might do: with curiosity, distance and maybe some idealisation. I peek through the lens of tv and film, Brit and U.S black culture and colonialism to form a picture of a place that I only vaguely know.
My soul has been resisting its return to the home of humanity: Africa. I was grown on British soil but Ghana is the home of my paternal ancestors. Until recently, something had been keeping me away. Maybe it was my own discomfort with my estrangement from the place...a fear that the people of the nation that I know to be in my blood might not see their faces in mine if we passed on the streets of Accra. Alas, that is one of the anonymous joys and sorrows of living a dual ethnicity life.
It’s only over the last couple of years that I have begun to piece together my identity as an African. Last year I learnt something about my own Ghanaian ancestry which was hard to stomach. It started in 1790 with the birth of a man named James Bannerman; a grandfather in my paternal line.
James Bannerman had a Fanti Ghanaian mother and a Scottish father. The fairly rare African recipient of a European education in the 1800s, he was a missing link that the British had been looking for in their trade dealings with the Gold Coast (Ghana), and later their colonial occupation which endured from 1867 to 1957. He traded many commodities with England, amongst these commodities were Ghanaian slaves.
This news placed a sharp stone in my heart. 180 years later, I initially felt the smugness, the nation betrayal of an opportunistic Mulatto man. I instantly hated him and his life. As a queer woman of colour, sitting on intersectionally oppressive lines has become a norm for me, but had I become too attached to my identity as a victim to hold this new part of my story? To link myself to the blood of the oppressor in this way felt like a strange and complicated jolt. I do not intend to turn the focus away from the terror of the slave experience by centering my sadness over my ancestral privilege, I am just trying to own this very particular, bitter awareness of trauma.
The journey between finding out this information in passing conversation over a casual Father’s Day dinner and integrating it was a shocking one. The most shocking thing was my Dad’s reaction. Immediately defensive, we parted ways for a while as he seemed to see the discussion of the topic as an attack on the morality of his own existence, whereas I saw it as an important part in acknowledging and owning where we come from, and the history of our family. I felt trapped: the trauma that I needed to process did not feel welcome on the kitchen table space between us. The next few days were knots tied around my heart and stomach. In the silence, in movement, in some passive aggressive messages between my dad and I, and in every mug of tea I found some sadness. Confirmation of something I had long suspected not only in myself, but in us all:
along the line somewhere, whether recent, small, distant or earth-shatteringly massive, there is proximity between us and the pain that repulses us the most.
We’re all in the web together and we are called to explore it together.
Over a year later, I read and I comb through fragmented online research articles like an afro pick parting to skin through tangled black, and I see that it’s a complex story. I am filled with sympathy, disgust, understanding and wonder all at the same time.
James Bannerman was a “leading British mulatto merchant”; a significant slave owner who also had extensive business interests with the Asante people. It is likely that his plantation grew coffee, with between 10,000 and 30,000 coffee trees, and that he was in control of enough slave power to manage such an operation.
Bannerman also played a significant role in the Katamanso war, which forced the Asante people out of power in 1826. The conflict has since been described as an Anglo-Asante War as the English were heavily involved, in their own tactical play. They used rockets for the first time in that war and the British firepower was a significant contribution to the “victory”. Bannerman’s input and contribution of a slave militia, aligned with the British in the fight, was 600 men strong, and it entitled him to more power in Accra after the war.
He married an Asante princess, Yaa Dom, after defeating the Asante at Katamanso. Yaa Dom was taken as a prisoner of war when her father was overthrown in the war. Marriage to James or exile were her only two options. Late in her life she acted as an advocate for more African representation within the British colony’s legislative council. Yaa Dom and Bannerman had many children together. One of their sons, Edmund, aligned closely with the British as his father had done. In 1861 he was sentenced to seven years in prison after accusations of embezzling public funds. He spoke candidly of racial discrimination in reference to the charges saying, “Had it been a white man, we are certain that the governor never would have sanctioned these more extraordinary proceedings. There is no need to multiply the proofs as to the treatment here adopted towards coloured men and white men.”
These words state what could have readily been assumed of the precarious positioning of the 19th century Bannermans in their proximity to the English. Even though I haven’t been able to find similar accounts from James Bannerman, I am still curious and sensitive to his own experience of oppression, and acceptance or rejection of his ethnic background. I sympathise and partially relate to a life lived where the best that one could hope for themselves is to be seen as a white person, or at least be as close to whiteness as possible.
And, to be honest, I am angry.
Angry at our global system of colonisation.
To James Bannerman, this insidiously violent system might have even felt like a gift. It trickles down to the deepest levels of our lives- even today. It rains down on us and we drink it in our water as if it is comfortably quenching our thirst, but it poisons us over and over again- no matter what our societal positioning is. In the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, everyone loses in the end. Whether it is through loss of humanity, the darkness of shame, the heaviness of oppression, or a combination.
I have learnt to hold James Bannerman whole. It is my belief, in line with teachings of African spirituality, that our lives are created by those who came before us, and once they pass on they are still with us in spirit. They are guides for us, willing us through the initiations and lessons of life which they have ascended from. Our ancestors are with us in the trees, the animals and the winds around us. Seeing as we all enter into human life to learn and spiritually evolve, I trust that the guidance of these ancestors still holds wisdom for me. My wisdom is still a gift from them, gifted to me so that I can free them with my own freedom.
I have suffered from the kind of racism that smiles subtly, then breaks in through the backdoor of the mind; imprinting my thoughts and ideas as a child about what is beautiful, who is worthy, who I should hang out with, who I should find attractive and what parts of myself I should allow to flourish.
There is a push and pull inside of me between this trauma, and my knowing that I have also assimilated to and benefitted from proximity to whiteness at times in my life and in my ancestry. It is an ironic and completely polarising truth inside of me. If James Bannerman had been born to a different father, the ripples and aftertastes of slavery could have washed up on me very differently, or I might not have washed up at all.
I am living in too many intersectionalities to make any of them my defining identity: a queer woman, born from a double diaspora, of Ghanaian and Indian origin, descendent of a black slave trader, trying to live consciously but unpretentiously, lovingly but without ignoring the pain, fear and separation that there is in the world. Whilst I am learning to fully embrace the fragments of my identity, ultimately I would rather identify as Spirit than anything else. The presence of Spirit; the conscious being that is always there, is the only thing that has never changed as the stones turn into the sands of time. The more I align with that, the freer I feel, the more I understand.
Everywhere we turn there are crossed lines. We live, and continue writing the future into the past. It’s up to us whether we want to transform the trauma of the pages that are already written, or whether we want to allow the future blank pages to be stained with the same darkness.
We live in between columns of colonisation.
Walking on flagstones laid by indentured men.
One start that we can make in changing the world is to reclaim our history.
Not with shame,
but with pride for newfound awareness,
with ownership of the terrors of the past and invested interest
that it should not be repeated,
even in modern disguise.
It is in our own hands.
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
- Toni Morrison
Ava Riby-Williams is an Artist, Yoga teacher and curator of The Creative Soul Collective. She writes to heal, express and inspire others to do the same.