Updated Thu, Apr 24, 2014 3:43 pm
Above: Carol Hector-Harris finds Sangmorkie Tetteh, her tribal cousin, less than 24 hours after she landed in Ghana. Below: Hector-Harris at the Elmina Fort, where slaves were detained before becoming part of the Transatlantic slave trade. (Catherine McKelvey)
Twenty nameless faces shuffled into Scripps Hall at Ohio University, dumping their tired bodies and high hopes into the cushioned chairs that surrounded the table. It was the first mandatory meeting for the study abroad trip to Ghana.
I self-consciously searched each white face for answers as to why in the world they would forsake luxurious European trips to come to Africa. The girl next to me mindlessly chattered about how she hoped to avoid getting malaria (she would later catch it) faded to the womp-womp-womp sound that Charlie Brown’s parents made. And like all other times when I felt like the only minority in a room my eyes landed on the only other brown person I saw. Little did I know her journey would challenge everything I knew about family.
Carol Hector-Harris, a doctoral student decades older than anyone else in the room, sat confidently across the table from me. Silver braids framed a face much younger than her 60-something years would reveal, and her presence gave off a distinct air of wisdom. Amid stories about how some students chose Ghana for its “cultural” appeal, Carol parted her red lipstick-rimmed lips and stunned everyone.
“When I was born I was colored. And then before I knew it I was Negro. And then I was both colored or Negro depending on who was talking. And then when James Brown said ‘I’m black and I’m proud’ suddenly we were all black. Being black and proud finally allowed us to not be ashamed of it. Ever since then I wanted to know who I came from,” Carol said.
Quizzical glances were exchanged, and suddenly I felt sorry.
I know it was wrong to doubt her, but what she proposed was the most far-fetched plan I had ever heard. She wanted to take decades of research on her family tree and try to find the connection to her living family in Africa. After a 30-year career as an international journalist, working much across the African Diaspora, she wanted to follow one name, Quock Martrick, her fifth great grandfather, thousands of miles to a random village in Ghana.
Like many other black people who have tried and failed, I assumed that Carol’s journey to find her ancestry would result in disappointment. I’d long concluded that the distance I felt from my own heritage was one that was collective and permanent. I had no idea that after decades of fruitless labor she could do what most people of our background had written off as impossible. She bridged the gap that slavery created in her family over hundreds of years. After three weeks of things supernaturally falling into place, she found them.
Like many African Americans, Carol had faced enormous obstacles when trying to dig into her heritage. Despite having a grandmother who kept every birth date, baby shower and bridal party detailed in a tattered family bible, tracing her lineage back to Africa proved to be a challenge.
Carol is the youngest of four sisters, and only one of two who share the obsession with the family history. Her older sister Beverly, a now-retired woman who spends leisure time milling through Ancestry.com and going to weekly historical seminars about the family, relishes all of the discoveries that she and Carol have made. The duo has been picking through archives and digging up family members long before Carol thought about going to Africa.
“Its great to have a sister who shares in your passion for discoveries. Our other sisters are very ho-hum about our ancestry, just happy to listen to the stories. We had a father that was over the moon about the ancestors that he knew about,” said Beverly.
While anyone would give Carol’s attempts at DNA tests, infiltrating historical societies, and utilizing Google a commendable pat on the back, most are shocked that she ended up in Ghana by miraculous accident. Months earlier Carol had glanced at the flyer-littered wall in the basement of Scripps Hall. Her eyes landed on a simple poster. It read, “Ghana: Media, Society, and Governance."
“When I first learned about this trip I didn’t know it was a trip at all. I thought it was a seminar so that I could learn about Ghana,” Carol said, shaking her head and letting herself smile. “Low and behold I learned that I could come here.”
Carol, who picked up the affectionate nickname ‘Queen’ amongst her peers, is a stout, boisterous black woman who soon became our resident sassy grandmother. She stands only a couple inches above 5-feet, but her deep chuckles and ‘Oh Lawds’ echo much farther than she can be seen. She is the type of woman who would want to make you tell her your whole life story and not apologize, and it was that quality that helped her find her first family member.
During an African University College of Communication luncheon, Carol picked over her jollof rice and spicy fried chicken while telling a group of young women about her project. As the minutes ticked by and the chatting got more intense, Carol’s whole body lit up like a Christmas tree as she threw her arms around a short classically beautiful Ghanaian woman in her 20s. They were cousins. And the beautiful young woman was going to bring her to the rest of the Ga-Adangbe clan, one of the largest ethnic groups in that region who happen to all be Carol’s family.
“It’s been basically in letting people know what I’m trying to do, and people saying well I’m a part of that clan. And word of mouth spreading from one person to the next,” she said.
Whispers of the woman trying to find the Ga-Adangbe soon began to precede her. One woman at a luncheon, turned into two overjoyed Rastafarian-looking men at a African dance lesson, and another person at a hair salon, which opened the door for conversations with village elders and historians, which helped her find that there was a huge group right in her own back door of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was determined to find them, and it seemed that the people of Ghana were just as determined to help.
“It’s an experience like no other to look in the faces of people who have been here all along you just never knew who they were. And now you know that they are a part of the family that you’ve always known,” Carol reminisced.
Naturally as those of us in this new Ghanaian habitat found it easy to embrace this bold woman who constantly advised us to get our lives together, and each day we rallied more and more behind her cause. Each family member that she uncovered was not only added to the Hector-Harris family, but to the Scripps family we built in Ghana as well.
“With each different thing that was happening to her it was like things were progressively falling into place for her. You could see it in her eyes,” said Mackenzie Miller, a student on the trip and Carol’s personal videographer. “Something would happen and I felt like I was a part of it. Like ‘Yay, we’re finding our family’.”
I was almost on board.
I stood off to the side of a castle balcony that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. It was a sunset view so magnificent it could suck the air from someone’s lungs. There we stood, Carol and I, in the most beautiful and destructive place that Ghana has ever known. The salt water stung the inside of my nose, children splashed in the ocean and soaked up pink rays of sun that shine through thick smog. I tried to figure out the right words to comfort my resident grandmother in one of the most emotional reunions that she had with her family - the slave castle.
She found her most sought-after family member: She found Quock. In a chamber where he may have spent his final moments on African soil, Carol stood in the same spot that her fifth great grandfather did. As the strong breeze combed through twisted locks of her silver hair and the faded purple African printed dress whipped against her body, she gazed at salty waves crashing into the weather-beaten base of Elmina Slave Castle.
“He was here,” she whispered between quivering lips and eyes that drooped with the weight of her tears.
Carol Hector-Harris had spent the last hour locked behind gritty cell bars that detained her great-grandfather and thousands of others before they were cast off into the transatlantic slave trade. The damp air was warm and still and the heaviness of suffering still clung to the cement that held shackles into the walls. Her short frame filled the archway as she looked at the Door of No Return without motion, expression, or sound.
“Who am I? Who are we? When your history in the United States begins with slavery you know that your ancestry starts somewhere like this,” said Carol after she resurfaced to watch the breathtaking sunset. “I know that at my root I’m an African person. I know what went down. I know who did what. I’m hell bent on answering the question 'Who am I really?'”
In three weeks Carol Hector-Harris answered her own question. She was a black woman, a sister, a wife, a mother, a well-traveled journalist, and now a member of a clan that reaches further than she could have ever imagined. She is Ga-Adangbe.
Regretfully, my bout with my own family history made me doubt Carol before I saw how wonderfully special her journey was. I watched how each interaction with her family added an extra beam to her smile. Before meeting Carol, I scoffed at the idea that I came from anywhere other than my New Jersey suburb. I was black and had no ties to Africa or interest its culture, or so I thought before visiting. Carol’s sister Beverly left with a final word, “When you're young you don’t think of that [ancestry]. I wouldn’t know anything if I left it up to myself to ask the questions.”
I had never asked any questions, I possessed no family bible of secrets, nor taken any tests. Carol, and the three weeks it took to find the Ga-Adangbe, proved that a home extends far beyond the four walls and shackled roof that make up a house. Home is your identity; it’s to whom we belong. There’s something about that knowledge that hits the very core of who we are.