“The Exchange Man”: walking across international borders, looking back at home

Denise_Hayes
Denise Hayes is Vice President for Student Affairs at Claremont University Consortium.

By Denise Hayes

The Association of Black Psychologists, (ABPsi) is an organization designed to strengthen the research and practice of psychology for and about people of African descent.  In this spirit the organization decided to hold its Annual Conference in 2000, in Ghana, to mark the significance of the new millennium.

I anticipated that this would be a life changing experience, but I could not have fathomed the somewhat painful, yet freeing, mind-altering wake-up that would occur.  I dare say, my experience was an emancipating moment.

The conference allowed time to visit historic sites including an Ashanti village where authentic Kente cloth is woven and the St. George’s infamous slave castles.  The Slave Castles included the “door of no return” where tortured, starved and abused shackled African slaves departed for foreign lands. We were led through an experiential exercise that involved being enclosed in the slave caves where hundreds of slave men and women were warehoused, waiting for the ships to remove them from their homeland.  These caves had no water, women would experience their menses unable to clean themselves and there was only one tiny porthole window high in the cave for light.  We were led through an exercise were the facilitators talked through fictional but historically accurate slave narratives and experiences. In the dark we imagined their moans, cries and their grief. While moving, devastating and unforgettable, it didn’t impact me as profoundly as my meeting with the Exchange Man.

Similar to most international trips exchanging currency is a necessary process.  In 2000, Ghana’s economy was nearly bankrupt.  One US dollar equaled 10,000 cedes, the Ghanaian currency.  As a result, exchanging dollars for cedes meant having large quantities of paper currency.

The “exchange man” was sitting on the bus that we would use to travel to the Asante village.  When I stepped onto the bus I saw an African man, sitting on a small stool in the aisle of the bus. He was surrounded by paper grocery sacks of Ghana paper currency and several lock boxes to store the US dollars.  Indeed, it was an odd sight.   However, my thought was disconcerting to me.

“They must really trust him” I thought.

In a flash I realized that “they”, in my mind, were White Americans.

“But I’m in Africa”, I remembered.

They were not White Americans, but they are Africans!

I have no idea of my facial expression, perhaps surprise, but inside, I was swirling.

How could I be so prejudice of my own people? What an awful stereotype!

I was ashamed of my assumptions and angry at the brainwashing that was so deeply ingrained in me, much like an alien implant.

The ability to physically see prejudice so clearly that it was virtually a physical entity was mind blowing.

I have my doctoral degree.

I’m a psychologist.

I conduct multicultural training.

I’ve taught African American literature.

I know of the struggle of the African diaspora.

Alas, based only on the color of his skin, I judged this man as untrustworthy.

We traveled to the Asante village and watched Kente cloth weavers, who looked time worn and timeless.  We traveled along dirt roads, saw fields of high grass, thatched roofs and Baobab trees.  I began to reconcile my thoughts.  My ancestors were sold into slavery and ripped from all that was familiar, language, religions, spiritual beliefs, foods, everything that creates a culture.  Many did not survive the middle passage or the subsequent brutality of slavery in America. Those that survived are part of my lineage. They were mentally, physically and emotionally strong.

I was educated in a system not created by my ancestors.  The education I received was constructed by ancestors of the slave owners and slave traders. As I gain awareness of the brainwashing which includes my prejudices, stereotypes and biases, I will examine them and correct them.

I feel grateful I was able to travel to the land where a large majority of the African trade existed. I feel pride that my ancestors lived and thrived in West Africa and survived the brutality of American slavery. I am strong because they were strong.

Like the mythical Sankofa bird, which is depicted as walking forward and looking backwards, it is important to know my history. I am responsible for telling my story.

And in the words of Carter G. Woodson, I’m responsible for correcting the ”Mis-Education of the Negro”.

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