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New Orleans & Ghana: Building Connections through Empathy

Written by Olivia Wilkinson

During June and part of July 2022, I studied through one of the UO’s GEO study away programs, African Diaspora Studies in New Orleans & Ghana. The program was led by Dr. Yvette Alex-Assensoh, Vice President for Equity & Inclusion, and Dr. Akwasi B. Assensoh, Professor of history. The aim of the program is to build connections within the diaspora as well as offer students a chance to learn about diaspora studies in predominantly Black and African communities.

Dr. Yvette Alex-Assensoh taught the LACE framework as a way for us to build connections within ourselves, amongst members of the study away group, and finally to the wider world. LACE stands for Love, Authenticity, Courage, and Empathy. It was a unique way to learn through fully experiencing culture while feeling the lingering effects of the history that surrounded us.

Close up of a blooming yellow rose on The Whitney Plantation

The Whitney Plantation

We started in New Orleans, where we stayed at Xavier University, an HBCU (historically Black college/university) located in the heart of the city. We stayed for a week, then traveled to Accra, Ghana where we stayed for two weeks. Over the course of three weeks, we traveled through the history of rich culture in Louisiana and Ghana and examined how these two places are connected.

Beyond using the LACE framework to enhance our learning, I personally saw evidence of this framework in the people and places I visited in New Orleans and Ghana. One of those places was Congo Square, located in Armstrong Park in New Orleans. Enslaved people were stripped of the culture they knew and yet still expressed themselves through music and dance. They were courageous in the way they left clues for future generations in the architecture of New Orleans. They were also courageous when some ran from their enslavers, such as from plantations like the Whitney Plantation, which we visited as part of the study away program. Their acts of defiance, big and small, were all significant. Empathy was present in the ways they came together for one another beyond music and dancing in Congo Square. They found kinship in one another regardless of family and heritage because of the shared traumas of slavery.

An open square with flat stones arranged in geometrical circular patterns on the ground

Congo Square

In New Orleans, Congo Square still stands as a sacred place with centuries of shared trauma and authentic expression. The New Orleans African American Museum showcasing African American art in Tremé tells a similar story of trauma, but emphasizes the beauty and talent of modern Black artists in New Orleans. Gentrification has drastically changed the city and erased some of the Black culture, but the culture that is left is unique, authentic, and loving.

Two separate paintings of women looking at each other, one painted in cooler blue colors and the other painted in warmer orange colors, extending their hands to touch.

Painting by Tatiana Kitchen titled “Above and Below,” 2019, housed at the New Orleans African American Museum

We then traveled to Accra, Ghana. The culture we experienced in Ghana was unique, yet in many ways reminiscent of New Orleans. Everywhere there was an abundance of vibrant clothing and spicy food. There is a rich culture of music and dancing that can be heard every night. The people we met in Ghana were friendly, accommodating, and community-oriented. There is a strong emphasis on family in Ghanaian daily life as well as dignity and respect for elders. We learned that in Ghanaian culture, the whole takes precedence over the individual, which informs how people conduct themselves in social situations as well as how they participate politically.

We visited sites such as the Ancestral Wall, Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle, and the Assin Manso Slave River. We learned about the history of the transport of enslaved people from Senegambia in the West, nearby Benin, and Congo to the southwest, through Ghana, and out to the Americas.

Branches of a tree that have been carved into shapes of people

Tree carving located at Aburi Botanical Garden near Accra, Ghana

At the Ancestral Wall, the painted portraits that lined the wall represented a desire to know our collective history, and to especially honor how powerful the African Diaspora has been worldwide since before recorded history. We saw fascinating portraits of people from at least as far back as ancient Egypt, all the way to the present day.

At the coastal castles where the Spanish, the British, and the Dutch kept Africans captive after buying them inland, the history is imposing and not for the faint of heart. We spent time reflecting within the walls of Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle where the dungeon floors are smooth from the countless people who were kept against their will. We saw schoolchildren during our tours and learned that it recently became part of the national curriculum to teach children about Ghana’s history in the Transatlantic Trade. We learned that as part of this reckoning, a new plaque was made above the infamous Door of No Return that says “Door of Return.” This works as a way for visitors all around the world to understand the importance of acknowledging the past and moving forward toward a better future.

A large stone archway with a black wooden door, one side open

Door of Return, Cape Coast Castle

Slavery in the colonial era created troubling connections between the Southern United States and West Africa, but over time, the connection grew from the culture that was involuntarily transferred. The influences of West Africa are everywhere in New Orleans, from the invention of jazz to the uniquely Black Hoodoo traditions that were developed during slavery. It’s in everything.

The common thread: Love existed everywhere.

Olivia Wilkinson is a senior majoring in history and folklore and currently works in special collections in preparation for graduate school in archival studies. Some of her favorite topics in history to study include the US in the 1960s, indigenous North American history, and popular music history.