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After 400 Years of American Oppression, Get Ready for the “Year of Return”

Long before being “woke” became a social media trend, 400 years was a round figure used to tally how long we and our ancestors have been toiling in America, first as slaves, then as a segregated, oppressed and disrespected group of people. Even Bob Marley and the Wailers released a song titled 400 years way back in 1970.

The significance of 400 years can be traced back to a biblical prophecy concerning the children of Abraham:

“As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.”

Genesis 15:12-14 (New International Version)

Mainstream Christians, Jews and Bible scholars consider this prophecy to relate to the story of Israelite bondage as told in the book of Exodus. However, some of our ancestors who were enslaved in this foreign land found their own experiences reflected in those words. In more recent times, the Rasta and Hebrew Israelite communities in particular, as well as several other religious and secular groups, have applied this and other scriptures about bondage and freedom to people of African descent in the Americas.

Whether you subscribe to these beliefs or not, I want you to know that the 400th year is just a few months away!

That’s right: the first enslaved Africans were bought and sold in 1619 Jamestown, Virginia, back when the European colonies were still considered British territory. (The Atlantic slave trade began in South America a century earlier. It’s a little known fact that the majority of enslaved Africans ended up in South America or the Caribbean islands; only about 3-6 percent of them were taken to North America.)

Will our oppressors be punished? Will we leave the West with great possessions? That remains to be seen. After all, there are plenty of black folks who don’t intend to visit Africa, much less leave America.

For the rest of us, all eyes will be on Ghana next year. Even though there are more than 50 countries on the African continent, Ghana has consistently drawn the interest of African Americans as well as Afro-Caribbean and Afro-British people seeking to “repatriate”, that is, to return home (vs. expatriate, to leave one’s home country).

One of the most famous repatriates is African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois, who is buried along with his wife in Ghana, inside a cultural center named after him. Countless others from the African Diaspora have traveled there to visit the historic slave forts where many of our ancestors were confined until ships arrived to bring them over the Middle Passage.

Last month in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, the national tourism ministry named 2019 the “Year of Return” and unveiled a slate of events from January to December to commemorate our shared history and to forge a common future. Stateside partners in this endeavor include The Adinkra Group, a Washington, DC-based African cultural resource company. Ebony Magazine staff traveled to Ghana with The Adinkra Group to document and publicize this historic launch.

“Year of Return” events include a “Come Home” concert hosted by Damien Marley in January, the Adinkra Group’s second Back2Africa heritage tour and music festival in February, Ghana’s 62nd Independence Day celebration in March, a Ghanaian-style Carnival celebration in November and Afro-Coachella in December.

Two major highlights during the year will be Panafest, a biannual arts festival that draws performers and artists from throughout the African Diaspora, and the annual Emancipation Day observance, both of which take place in from late July through early August. The 2019 Panafest theme is “Beyond 400 Years; Reaching Across Continents into the Future.”

Chale Wote Street Art Festival draws tens of thousands to Accra each August.

Later in August is Chale Wote, the annual street art festival in Accra’s James Town – think Afro Punk in West Africa. Although it isn’t officially connected with the “Year of Return” activities, it’s an amazing weekend of creativity and fun, revealing a side of Africa that we don’t often get to see on this side of the Atlantic.

Ebony reports that next August will also feature an “African American Investment Forum.” Tourism, business development and investment are just a few of the outcomes organizers are hoping to see as a result of the year’s activities.

Long story short, if you’ve ever thought about visiting Africa, or if you’ve been and can’t wait to get back, now is a great time to organize your funds. Meanwhile, here in the States, we should take this 400 year mark as a serious opportunity to think deeply and collectively about what this milestone in our American journey means for us, what comes next, and what we must do to get there.

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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