Phyllis Kyei Mensah
Collective Memory and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
Today we explore the collective memory in Ghana of the transatlantic slave trade. With me is PhD student Phyllis Kyei Mensah. Phyllis Kyei Mensah is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership, Culture, and Curriculum at Miami University in Ohio. She also works on FreshEd as the Resource list manager. Her new article is “Collective memory and the transatlantic slave trade: Remembering education towards new diasporic connections” which was published in Curriculum Inquiry.
Citation: Mensah, Kyei, Phyllis, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 273, podcast audio, March 14, 2022.https://freshedpodcast.com/kyei-mensah/
Will Brehm 1:12
Phyllis Kyei Mensah, welcome to FreshEd.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 1:13
Thank you Will. Thanks for having me.
Will Brehm 1:15
It’s quite funny because you actually work on FreshEd. This is, I think, the first time that I’m interviewing a FreshEd team member. So, thanks for being the first one to join. We are actually here to talk about some of your new work. You have a new article out. And I think by way of introduction, it might be valuable to think a little bit about the history of Ghana and how Ghana was connected to the slave trade. So, for listeners who might not know too much about that history, could you give us a little background?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 1:44
Sure. So, Ghana is a country in West Africa, and it is along the coast of Western Africa. And before it became Ghana, which was after its independence in 1957, it was called Gold Coast. And this name was given by Europeans who came to trade along that coast because it had lots of gold in the hinterland. Before the Europeans came and called it the Gold Coast, it was basically just a lot of ethnic groups that had settled in the area and working to consolidate their individual states. So, just like it happened in Europe and other parts of the world, there were several groups. You had the Asante, the Denkyiras, other ethnic groups in the northern part who were basically trying to form their states. And also at this time, before the Europeans came, there was a trans-Saharan trade, which was going on in the Sahara parts of Africa. So, modern-day Mali, Burkina Faso, moving into Sudan. And so, the trans-Saharan trade, the Arab traders, and people from the Mediterranean would come over there to buy gold and salt and other things. And so, part of the consolidation of the states in the Gold Coast was also so that some of the states could be able to control the trade routes along that line. And so, when the Europeans came to the Gold Coast, somewhere in the 1500s, or the late 1400s, some of the states had already been established. Some hadn’t been established. And so, when the Europeans also came and then they were also interested in trading. Originally, it wasn’t about the slave trade, they were also buying gold and other things. But then it evolved somehow into buying people. And so, the focus moved to the coast, right. And so, some of the states in Ghana also wanted to control the routes down there, which resulted in lots of wars, and during those wars, they would sometimes capture people. Before the Europeans came, there was indigenous slavery going on but it wasn’t necessarily for economic purposes. One, it was for them to be able to build up their armies, to get labor for their farms, and all of that. But when the Europeans came and made it a whole economic venture, then it became more prominent from the 1500s.
Will Brehm 4:00
How long did that European slave trade continue to impact Ghana? Like, do we have any estimate of how many years that slave trade occurred? And do we have any sense of how many people from Ghana were forcibly removed? Do we have that data?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 4:19
In terms of the duration, it’s believed that the first Europeans came to Ghana in the 1400s and they started building castles along the coast to trade in things. And then they later began to store humans. So, from the early 1500s to the late 1800s when the British itself abolished slavery. In England, the British did abolish it in 1807 the first time it did. But in Ghana itself, even after the abolition, the indigenous part of it went on until the early 1900s when Ghana became a formal colony of England. And so, in terms of the people: generally, we don’t necessarily know. But we do know that, in general, about 28 million people were captured on the continent of Africa, not just from Ghana. And out of that about 14 million people got on ships out of the 28 million. And then out of that, about 7 million were able to reach their final destinations. And these numbers were from West Central Africa, which is in present-day Congo. The Republic of Congo, and then Congo DRC, and Angola. That’s actually where the slave trade actually started. And then the Gold Coast was Ghana and then parts of Côte d’Ivoire, and then we had the Bite of Benin, which is present-day Togo, Benin, and Western Nigeria. The Bite of Biafra, which is Eastern Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, and then the Senegambia region, which is Senegal and Gambia. There is Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire as well. There’s Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone. And then a little bit of Mozambique and Madagascar, which is like the Indian Ocean, southeastern part of Africa, but the majority of them came from Western Africa.
Will Brehm 6:10
It’s just amazing how the slave trade impacted the continent of Africa, basically. All those different countries that you’re mentioning now. Is there a large diaspora today of Ghanaians, who sort of live-in former colonies where they were sort of sold to and you know, their ancestors were enslaved? I mean, is there a large history of Ghanaian diaspora?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 6:32
I believe so, interestingly. And lots of the people who were shipped from the coast of Ghana came from the hinterland and northern parts of Mali, Burkina. There were some, say present-day Ghanaians who were in there but the majority of them were moved southwards from the northern paths. And so even though there’s a lot of news about Ghana being their home, I believe a lot of them weren’t actually from present-day Ghana. As to the actual number, we wouldn’t necessarily know. They were in transit from the north and so I believe there are some who are from Ghana, but as to the actual number, we wouldn’t be able to know except for the people who’ve been able to trace.
Will Brehm 7:16
Your article really looks at how this slave trade is remembered today by Ghanaian youth basically. And so, how is it remembered? How do people remember and think and talk about this massive slave trade that existed, as you said, across so many different countries and for hundreds of years?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 7:40
So, my article, rather, will probably come from how it is not remembered rather than how it is remembered by the youth. Because in my article, I’m trying to argue that there’s like two sides of it, where the state is actively remembering it. And when I say remember, it’s like outward, in terms of remembering it towards the diaspora rather than inward. So, at the state level, there’s a lot of activities trying to draw the diaspora and remembering the slave trade as part of the diasporan history. But for the youth, which I’m part of, especially for the youth who don’t live along the coast -because along the coast is where a lot of the events celebrating the diaspora happens. So, for somebody like me, who doesn’t live near the coast, who lives in the hinterland, it’s basically what we learn at school, in social studies curriculum at the basic level, which is by US standards that would be grade nine-ish. That is basically where we talk about it. Between grades 10 and 12, we do social studies, but we don’t do anything related to it.
Will Brehm 8:46
When you think back on perhaps your own education, but also the research you did, looking at schools, how do schools approach the issue of the slave trade? What do we find?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 8:58
I would say in the educational curriculum, or the social studies curriculum, we do remember it as something that happened a long time ago, and something we have moved on. So, when you look at the curriculum, one where the people I talked to, there was a show “Roots”. They showed it on TV, I watched it. At the time, I was probably in grade school. I can’t remember but I was very young. And that was the first time I witnessed or remembered that. But that was a long time ago. That doesn’t show anymore. And so, a lot of the people I talk to, they would say that I knew it from “Roots”. That’s how I knew about slavery.
Will Brehm 9:35
Roots was shown in my grade school too, in America, I think.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 9:39
That was a long time ago. But beyond that, a few of them mentioned that their teacher would tell them. But when I look at the curriculum, specifically, it only highlights the transAtlantic slave trade as one of the many things that came with Europeans coming to Ghana. So, it’s not like a specific topic that we dedicate, say one week to talk about it. It’s just part of the colonialism unit.
Will Brehm 10:03
So, why do you think that is? I mean, it’s quite interesting to think that these hundreds of years of slavery, as you rightly point out is part of colonialism. But why doesn’t it receive more attention in the curriculum?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 10:16
So, some have argued, for several reasons, Will. One, post-colonial Ghana, there was an attempt by all the leaders to create, like, an image of national unity. So, we are united, we are one nation, we are not divided. And slavery is a very sensitive topic on its own, especially because -so in Ghana, we have a saying in the local language it says you don’t talk about somebody’s past. Even those who have done scholarship on slavery, you find that it’s difficult for people to talk openly about it, because they are scared that it is going to disrupt the unity that we have. And so that’s one reason that we don’t want to talk about it to build the image of one united country. Another reason I believe, would also be that I guess states are trying to create a narrative for people to be able to come to Ghana without people feeling bad about it, I guess. So, these are people who are far removed from us. They were enslaved at some point, and they are coming back home. Let’s welcome them. But don’t let us talk too deeply about it because it’s sensitive.
Will Brehm 10:59
So, the state narrative, in a way, tries to minimize sensitive topics and sort of emphasize and promote somehow these positive conceptions of national identity. But of course, that is, as you said, that’s the state conception, what do everyday people think, right? I mean, it must be different in a way. There must be more sort of known about the slave trade other than what is absent in the school textbooks.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 11:57
In terms of the everyday language. Personally, I do not remember ever talking about slavery besides the things I’ve read about. I do not remember everyday conversations about enslaved people. But there’s literature that have gone into some of the communities that experienced it that we can trace to now. And a lot of it is we don’t want to talk about it. So, those of us who are victimized, we don’t want to bring that back. But actually, there was an article I did read -I think it was talking about a community in the Anlo part of Ghana. It’s in the eastern part of Ghana. And it’s like the people whose ancestors were the merchants, selling people, were more outspoken about it, versus the people who were victimized by it. And so, like everyday language, it doesn’t -even though the older people, some people know and can trace- it’s more like let’s just massage this.
Will Brehm 12:54
And so why do you think that is? I mean, does it have to do something with just being traumatized and not wanting to focus in on something so traumatic in the past? And I think people do that with any negative emotion, people might want to just sort of gloss over it and not actually think too much about it.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 12:54
That has been my argument: that for the older members of the community, I believe that it’s part of the trauma, right? Not wanting to relive it. But for some of us young ones who don’t even know much about it, I don’t know if I’ll call it trauma. In my article, I’m calling it like amnesia because we don’t know for the young population. Some know but a lot of us just know that the diaspora on TV, who we see doing sports, doing entertainment, entertaining us, you know. We see them in the larger light of them being from a Western superpower, right? It’s just a distant memory that for many of us who are younger, it’s not something you’re trying to protect. We just don’t know a lot about it to care about, I would say.
Will Brehm 14:02
What was your journey to learn about the slave trade, learn about the history of Ghana and the slave trade? How did you, in a sense, overcome the amnesia that you’re talking about?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 14:12
Um, yeah. So, I would say when I moved to the US. So, thankfully, for me, because I’m in the social sciences, I came across things that made me read a bit about it. So, when I came to the US, I went to a church in an African American community. It’s a Catholic church. So, ideally, you’d see like a sculpture of Mary but this one was Black, and then it had an African print on. So, that got me reflecting and then I went to another church, and they were singing spiritual songs. And in that moment, it dawned on me that is the first time I’m actually connecting with this group beyond those I’m seeing on TV. So, that got me really interested in reading more about the African American experience here, reading more about the history and what they’ve been through here. And then I started thinking like, well, how come I had to come here to read or experience the trauma they’ve been through.
Will Brehm 15:10
It sounds like it’s a bit unusual in a way. I mean, it sounds like the amnesia is probably more commonplace. You know, the youth simply just because they go to schools where the curriculum sort of, absence these ideas and they might have parents and grandparents who simply don’t want to talk openly about these ideas. It sounds like a lot of the youth might never have the opportunity, like you did to sort of begin exploring what that history means to you but also to your country.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 15:44
That’s absolutely correct, I would say. And so yeah, in my article, also, I talk about how, because Ghana has a lot of these castles, a lot of people in the diaspora would come visit, right. And, I can’t remember but one of the scholars was like, when she interviewed the people in Ghana, they’ll be like, “Why do they always come and cry”? So, for them, it’s like, you live in America, you’re well off relatively. Why would you still dwell on this? This thing that happened so many years ago. So, absolutely. You’re right in saying that.
Will Brehm 16:19
So, that’s interesting. So, when you go back to Ghana to visit because you live in America, doing your PhD, and you’ll soon do your postdoc in America. Presumably, you must go back to visit family and friends. What is that like? I mean, do people ask you about your research? And is it hard for people to understand what you are doing?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 16:38
So, I haven’t been since I wrote this paper. So, personally, I have never been to any of the slaveholding castles. It’s something I’m going to do right when I go back to Ghana. So, it’s on my list of things I want to do. But where I’m from is in the hinterland. Nobody talks about. I would be interested to see how people on the coast -so, people in Cape Coast, in Accra, or Takoradi, where these castles are located- how they talk about. It would be interesting.
Will Brehm 17:08
Would you say that your understanding of Ghana has changed since you wrote this paper, and you’ve sort of reflected on collective memory and historical memory and forgetting and amnesia?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 17:20
I would say yes, because -so, in 2019, Ghana has had several programs since independence. So, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was a big advocate of Pan Africanism, and he called all the diaspora to come back home to rebuild, right. And since then, there has been several other projects like the Joseph Project, and PANAFEST, and other events to bring people home. Just in 2019, to commemorate the 400 years of enslaved people being on American soil, there was a whole year-long celebration calling diasporans to come home. However, I’ve been looking at these things more critically now. Going on their websites, reading the languages that are framing these projects and these programs that are calling people in the diaspora to come back home and analyzing the politics of it, the neoliberal discourses that are coming up.
Will Brehm 18:16
What does that mean, then? So, to say that you see some neoliberal discourses. So, what? What’s the significance of that in your mind?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 18:24
So, for me, I think we are still missing the mark of what it means for people in the diaspora to come back home. Even if we are not missing the mark, in these campaigns or in the messages we put across, it looks like we have made it more about the economic benefits we get than the healing we are going to give them when they come in. And so that’s how I am envisioning this now. And I’m like, so it’s all about tourism. And they do have healing. They have rituals that are aimed at pacifying them and all of that. But the majority of it is all about, move back, come build your businesses here.
Will Brehm 19:03
So, the idea is, it’s like bring people, bring the diaspora back home to grow the Ghanaian economy, build your business. It’s not about trying to sort of imagine what nationalism means by reflecting on this particular past and sort of coming to terms with it.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 19:22
Yeah. I was just saying and even asking them like what they would want in terms of the healing or these programs we are doing. It’s more like we’ve imagined things for them. How can we help you heal beyond asking you to come in?
Will Brehm 19:37
So, what would you say if they could do it slightly differently and not focus so much on that sort of economic aspects, but focus, as you said, on the healing, what might that actually look like in your mind?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 19:47
Um, yes. So, this is what I call, like the critical collective remembering approach. And UNESCO I believe, has been doing a lot of work. It started the slave trade routes which is identifying specific locations beyond the coast that were significant to the trade and they’re trying to bring these locations out so that people could visit these and relive those moments. And I just found that in 2022, it released a children’s book called The Binto and Issa collection, and it’s basically to tell the story of the transAtlantic slave trade to children. But I am not sure if this book has made it into Ghanaian schools yet. And so, my recommendation would be -so similar to what UNESCO has done with the collection- address the slave trade to these children helping them to understand how is it that the people came to be where they are now? What have they been through? How is that impacting us now and them now, right? It should be something we learn about in the curriculum. My recommendation is also that so far, I mentioned before, there are so many countries along the West African coast that were impacted by this but it’s more like every country is doing their own thing to remember it instead of being a connection. Because people came from Mali and Burkina to Ghana, right? But we are in Ghana, talking about the people who moved from Ghana without interacting with the states in Burkina Faso and Mali to collectively decide how we can actually remember this to make it meaningful. I’m also recommending that -so in terms of the schools, one way to learn about this is beyond texts. Because now most students have moved beyond texts anyways. Making it interesting for them to learn about it. So, through games, through projects that would let them explore their communities. You know, which are the communities that resisted these? Which of the communities have histories about this? If we had students themselves excited about doing this kind of research through the school projects we give them, making them value this piece of history, that would be helpful. And I’m also advocating that we should reduce the neoliberal -not reduce but it shouldn’t be about the money. And we also talk about reparations. I don’t think Ghana has ever, or the state, so, when we talk about reparations it’s only towards people who left but a lot of the communities within Africa, within Ghana, haven’t really been compensated for, for the things they’ve been through. So, that is something we can think about too.
Will Brehm 21:00
It’s so fascinating because on the one hand, what you’re sort of arguing is that the nation state of Ghana has to sort of reimagine the way in which it teaches about the slave trade. But at the same time, since the slave trade was global, and within the African continent impacted so many countries, we have to also think of it beyond the nation state. And once we do that, it sort of impacts the way we understand nationalism. There’s this really clear tension that you’re sort of bringing out and it’s almost like you can understand why political elites would shy away from doing this because it’s almost like doing one impacts the other and so it’s best to do neither.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 23:08
I agree. I think something else I also wanting to say was that, so I just found out that there’s going to be like a Ghana National Museum on Slavery and Freedom which they are building in 2022. But I would say that it shouldn’t just be something that people from the diaspora would come and see and go. It should be something that they would make as “we” the people in Ghana interested in engaging in just beyond the tourism aspect of it. It should be something that locals are excited about, wanting to engage it, wanting to discuss it further.
Will Brehm 23:42
So, are you hopeful, with that new museum being built, and UNESCO’s projects of creating children’s books, and perhaps more sort of curricular content that may or may not put into the national curriculum? Are you hopeful that some of these discourses around trauma, and the slave trad,e and collective memory will change? Are you hopeful that that will actually happen in the near future?
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 24:09
I would say I’m hopeful because a lot of the African diasporan groups have been advocating against some of these projects that they think are moving away from the whole point of remembering. and so, I’m hopeful that, especially for these groups -I don’t think it would come from within the country, but I believe that if these groups that we are claiming to do these things for, which in a way is more like burdening them again because they’ve been through this and you’re also asking them to help us think differently, but I do believe that that is where the change will come from.
Will Brehm 24:46
Phyllis Kyei Mensah, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It’s just so nice to hear all about your research and best of luck finishing your PhD.
Phyllis Kyei Mensah 24:54
Thank you, Will.
Want to help translate this show? Please contact email@example.com
Collective memory and the transatlantic slave trade
Slavery, memory and religion in southeastern Ghana
Kwame Nkrumah’s thought on Pan-Africanism
The UNESCO slave route project
Ghana National Museum on Slavery and Freedom
Healing the wounds of slave trade and slavery
Legacies of slavery: A resource book for managers of sites and itineraries of memory
Pan-Africanism: A quest for a united Africa
The slave trade: How to reconcile the ethics of commemoration and the marketing of cultural tourism
Tourism and heritage sites of the Atlantic slave trade
Exploring the Transatlantic slave trade
The Atlantic black box project
State race-craft and identity formation in modern Ghana
In the shadow of the castle: (Trans)Nationalism, African American tourism, and Goree Island
Slavery and its legacy in Ghana and the Diaspora
Nikole Hannah-Jones’s UN address on the 1619 project
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