When Erik Killmonger died at the end of Black Panther, tears welled up in my eyes. As the credits rolled, they slid down my face, leaving a trail of salt in its wake. Erik Killmonger was a mirror image of me exposing my deepest insecurities. He was the forgotten child of Wakanda, who had returned with bitterness in his heart. In his blood flowed his father (a Wakandan prince) and his mother (a descendant of the Atlantic slave trade). Although he had Wakandan blood, he was a stranger to the land, to the people, and most importantly to the culture—and that broken connection fueled his self-destruction.
Growing up, my parents never forced me to speak Twi (a dialect of the Akan language in Ghana) and I never thought to learn. It wasn’t intentional, it just sort of happened. My parents were immigrants who had worked their fingers to the bone in order to provide for me and my three siblings. Like many immigrant parents, they had different priorities for us and teaching me about my culture fell to the wayside.
During middle and high school, I went through a phase where I was ashamed of being African. Fueled by the one-dimensional images of starving children whose ribs protruded from their bellies and whose bodies were covered with flies, I distanced myself—content with just being American. But I wasn’t truly “American,” not to the majority, and nor did I want to be. I lived in a country where my blackness was weaponized, where my melanin equaled murder, and where I experienced oppression through systems larger than myself.
Erik suffered rejection from America as a black man and from Wakanda as an American. He was neither but also both. He was composed of ever-changing dualities and I imagine that caused him frustration—the same frustration I felt. Over the years, I suffered through countless embarrassing moments at Ghanaian functions; people always assumed I knew how to speak Twi or that I at least understood it. And when they spoke to me in that ancient rhythm, my eyes would glaze over in confusion. In their eyes I could see the disbelief and in their voices I could hear the judgement. When I returned to Ghana in 2016, after more than fifteen years, I felt like an imposter. And just like Erik Killmonger, I was a stranger in my own country.
Similar to the threads that tethered me to Black Panther, I felt a kinship with the book Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing is a tale of two half-sisters from Ghana. One (Esi) was sold into slavery while the other (Effia) married a British slaver; the story follows their descendants through the centuries. The stories are linked because similar to Erik, the protagonists were separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
One of my greatest insecurities was that my lineage would end up like Esi’s; slowly losing themselves with every passing generation. I feared they would end up like Erik Killmonger, rejected, and separated by an ocean filled with ghosts. The same ghosts I felt when I visited the Elmina slave castle in Ghana.nm
When I entered the castle’s darkened cells, I could still smell the rotted flesh-it lingered on me long after I left. Yet as I stood there I could feel the power of my ancestors well up into my soul. In that moment, I never felt more connected to the earth and to myself. As the days went on, I fell in love with the magic of Ghana and fell into rhythm with it. Walking through the markets, I saw beautiful people who looked like me. I saw a kaleidoscope of colorful houses and tasted heaven. At night, I went out and my body swayed to the harmony of the afro beats.
In the Ghanaian culture there is a powerful symbol called the Sankofa. It is often depicted as a bird who twists its beak behind itself, in order to bring forth an egg from its back. It is associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi" which translates as: "It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The symbol has been a testament to my journey of returning to myself. Over the past three years, I’ve begun to teach myself all of the forgotten things.
My history is more than slavery. I descended from the sun, from warriors, from Kings and Queens. My continent and my country are more than ignorant depictions and assumptions. Erik was a lost child separated from his roots and Esi’s descendants were separated by an ocean littered with pain. But that same ocean brought me home. It led me to my homegoing.
*all words are property of and copyright of Akosua Twumasi, 2019. Do not use without permission*