Kenya is where Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Department of English, first encountered what it meant to be Black in the United States—in his father’s library, reading James Baldwin and Richard Wright and issues of Ebony and Jet. Mukoma was born in Illinois to Kenyan parents in 1971. His family moved back to Kenya when he was still a baby. Returning to the United States for college in 1990, Mukoma was at a keg party his freshman year when an African American student asked him if Africans live in trees. They traded insults and nearly came to blows before an older African American student stepped in.
“She just sat us down and tried to talk sense to us,” Mukoma says. “I guess she’s the one who first gave me the thesis that we are seeing each other through the eyes of racism. At that point, it really wasn’t me. And it really wasn’t him. It’s like history had propelled us to that moment. We were acting out this drama that we didn’t know we were actors in. Shortly after that I wrote a poem about that. And then I wrote an essay. Eventually you find the same themes in my fiction.”
Identities in Tension
In poetry, fiction, and essays, Mukoma explores what it means to be African and Black, both in Africa and the United States. In the poem, “My Two Names,” Mukoma writes, “I have tried but am never hungry in Nairobi and full in Boston.” In the novel Nairobi Heat, an African American detective comes face-to-face with his stereotypes about Africans when he travels to Kenya to investigate a murder. Now Mukoma is writing a hybrid work of poetry and prose, scholarly analysis and personal observation, to explore the overlaps and tensions between these identities. His working title is “Somewhere between Black and African: A Biography of My Skin.”
“All of us assume a natural solidarity,” Mukoma says, “but people-to-people there’s quite a bit of tension between Africans and African Americans. Growing up in Kenya, I learned a lot of negative views about African Americans—drugs, laziness, and so on. And the same thing for African Americans. They’ve seen the Africa we know [in the United States], the Africa of war and starvation. Part of what I’m exploring is, what happens when these two Black people meet, when they’ve been seeing each other through the eyes of racism?”
A lack of education about the history of Black solidarity contributes to the tension, according to Mukoma. “Historically, you had Africans and African Americans in conversation, forging common political struggles. African Americans went to Ghana in the 1950s in the hope of contributing to Ghana’s independence. Organizations like TransAfrica Forum and the American Committee on Africa, that were mainly African American, agitated on behalf of the freedom fighters in South Africa. But that’s not history that you find in a school in the U.S. or Kenya. It should be common knowledge—something that we should grow up knowing, even taking for granted. But that history is not taught. Meaning that the relationships end up being mediated by racism, as opposed to this other history of working together.”
The deepest source of tension, however, goes back to slavery. “Who sold who?” as Mukoma puts it. The majority of Africans taken as slaves to the Americas were first captured by other Africans. To confront this history, Mukoma traveled to Ghana and the English port city of Bristol—places the Atlantic slave trade transformed in starkly different ways.
The Slave Castles of Ghana
In Ghana, Mukoma visited historic fortresses known as slave castles, where European colonialists held enslaved people in dungeons, hundreds at a time, before loading them like cargo on vessels bound for North America. Some slave castles are quite elaborate. The governor’s quarters sit on top with a view of the grounds. Beneath is a ballroom, and below that a church. “There’s no pulling the church away [from the slave trade],” Mukoma points out. “It literally rests on top of the dungeons.” He adds, “When you step on the floor of the dungeon, it’s spongy, very spongy. The guide told us, ‘This is human blood and waste over generations, over five hundred years.’ It creates the . . .” Mukoma trails off, as if he can’t bring himself to put the rest into words.
“It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding an absolute evil. I think that’s what I was looking for, actually.”
Some of the largest and best preserved have become tourist destinations, but the crumbling slave castle in the village of Keta struck Mukoma most powerfully. “It wasn’t a polished slave castle experience, as contradictory as that may sound. When I got there, the village was still as Maya Angelou described it [in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes], even though she was there in the ’60s. Very depressed, melancholic. Part of the town has been eaten by the sea. There’s extreme poverty. The youth have fled, moved to the city. It’s just this desolate-looking place.”
In Keta, Mukoma heard stories of the trauma of slavery that have been passed down from generation to generation. “It’s the closest I’ve come to understanding an absolute evil,” says Mukoma. “I think that’s what I was looking for, actually. To be able to stare at that five, six hundred years removed and just try to get its vastness. Slavery touched every facet of life in Africa. It destroyed communities.”
Mukoma then traveled to Bristol, the English port city where many slave ships and slave traders originated. “In Bristol, there’s the university, bohemian coffee shops, bars, all sorts of interesting stuff,” he says. “It’s a perfect example of how the wealth really ended up in Europe.” There, too, slavery touched every facet of life. “The whole society had to be involved somehow. The people making nails for the ships, the people going to get the timber. It was a whole enterprise. When we think of slavery as being about slave owners and the slaves, we are not grasping the whole societal endeavor.”
Bristol today has effaced some of its past, renaming streets that had memorialized wealthy slave traders and taking down certain monuments—an effort to decolonize, as Mukoma puts it. “But there’s still Keta,” he says. “There’s still this village where for several hundred years they have been inheriting this trauma and poverty over and over again. What’s the responsibility of the decolonizing forces in Bristol to Keta?”
Next Mukoma plans to travel to Alabama. He intends to visit the lynching memorial at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and to participate in the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee commemorating the 1965 Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery. “I’m envisioning the book ending with me there, trying to talk about what happened to the people from Africa when they came here.” He admits, “I’m still looking for the words. I’m still struggling. In postcolonial theory, it’s kind of cool to say that language fails, that maybe some things are beyond language. I don’t think language ultimately fails. I think we just have to struggle. I think you struggle until you find the words for it.”