Series Note: The following post is part of a series written by Rutgers graduate students participating in the 2017 Dissertation Funding Mentoring Program. Designed to allow students to practice public writing, the first blog post prompt asked participants to narrate a story about how they came to be interested in their research topic.
My first time leaving the United States was a study abroad trip to Ghana during the spring semester of my junior year of college. I reflect on this trip as a period of learning through immersion, which resulted in intellectual, social, physical, and emotional lessons that have resonated far beyond that brief period of time.
The theme of this program was “Social Transformation and Cultural Expression.” We read canonical Ghanaian novels – Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, and Kofi Awonoor’s This Earth, My Brother. I was introduced to the political and literary legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and a premier theorist of African social, political, and economic unity. I conducted my term research on the contemporary social perspectives on the theories of Pan-Africanism put forth by Nkrumah and W.E.B. Du Bois.
As I became increasingly familiar with the language and concepts of Pan-Africanism, I became more able to asses the complex dynamics of my presence as a black American person traveling with a largely white group of students. Aspects of my identity – my blackness, my ‘Americanness,’ my position as a diasporic subject – were thrown into relief as I learned to translate my often unexamined understandings of these concepts into a new cultural context.
The cultural and identity-based disorientation I felt was physically manifested in my geographic disorientation. In the fall semester preceding this period, I learned to navigate New York City’s subways and multiple boroughs (pre-smartphone!) with the help of transcribed Google Maps directions, Manhattan’s relatively reliable gridwork structure, the context clues of public transportation signs, and trial and error. The cultural, social, and material geographies of Accra demanded different tools – though trial and error retained its utility. The contrast in my experiences navigating these distinct cities enforced the contingency of stability, certainty, familiarity, and skill.
The experiences described above are part of the scaffolding for what I am attempting to develop through my graduate work. I took the picture posted below through a window in the wall of the Elmina Castle – a structure built by the Portuguese on the southern part of Ghana’s coast that served both as a residential and commercial center for European traders, and as a dungeon for West Africans entering the Transatlantic slave trade. This structure is a major site of heritage tourism for Europeans who may have descended from these slave traders as well as for black people from all parts of the diaspora.
Approaching this photo through the concept of a frame allows us to think about how my decision of what to include and exclude from this photo may be impacted by my diasporic positioning. We can also ask how the objects and the subjects in the photo might relate to one another, while also considering the historical, cultural, and social framing with which we approach the image as spectators. This image is a rich source for generating a narrative of how time and space are experienced through different operations of power, as is the narrative I have constructed for this post. Ultimately, I want my research to be able to theorize what happens in the visual and literary narratives of how we experience space. The time I spent in Ghana was key for introducing these questions.