The Portrayal of African-Americans: Then and Now

There has been a great shift in the perception of African-Americans from the Colonial Era to present day. Olaudah Equiano’s “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Quiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African” and Lydia Polgreen’s “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora” both display portrayals of African-Americans, one of which takes place during the time of slavery and the other during present day tourism in Africa. Much of the ancestry of Africans who came to the Americas was lost when families and relatives were separated through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; thus, many African-Americans today are visiting their African countries in hopes of tracing back their roots. They have found, however, that people in African countries are referring to them as Americans, rather than relatives of African ancestors. This has led to a growing controversy on the “correct way” to refer to those with a dark skin color when coming to the continent of Africa.

Evidence of this separation in African heritage came from the end of Chapter II in Olaudah Equiano’s “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Quiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” when Equiano says, “This report eased us much; and sure enough, soon after we were landed, there came to us Africans of all languages. We were conducted immediately to the merchant’s yard, where we were all pent together like so many sheep in a fold, without regard to sex or age.” This excerpt shows the stereotypical view of African slaves that the Europeans kept for centuries, which resulted in a forceful melting pot of African cultures and traditions in the Americas.

During this trip, my group and I had made numerous visits to markets in Accra, Kumasi, and Cape Coast, and on each of those visits our group as a whole was referred to as “obroni” or “American” by Ghanaian storeowners and shoppers. Even African-Americans in our group were referred to in the same manner, and I did not know what to think of it. In the United States, there is a wide spectrum of ways in which African-Americans are represented, and some call them “African-American” and others neglect the race factor. In Ghana, I have noticed that for Ghanaians, it is very easy to distinguish between an African-American and a Ghanaian. It seems to be through the way they dress, as well as a difference in accent.

Although Ghanaians and people in other African countries mean no harm when talking to African-Americans in this way, African-Americans deserve the right to be welcomed by Africans in a way that connects them to their heritage. The beginning of “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora” mentions that Ghana hopes to “persuade the descendants of enslaved Africans to think of Africa as their homeland — to visit, invest, send their children to be educated and even retire here.” It is certainly a hard goal to obtain, considering that not everyone will be able to make the trip to Africa. Some people also would rather be considered American than descendants of African slaves.

Despite this, we as citizens should support this change, and encourage visits to make it easier for people to come to the place that their relatives grew up in. Polgreen says that, “Ghana plans to offer a special lifetime visa for members of the diaspora and will relax citizenship requirements so that descendants of slaves can receive Ghanaian passports.” Advertising campaigns have also been started to persuade Ghanaians to treat African-Americans more like “long-lost-relatives” than as “rich tourists.”


Olaudah Equiano The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Ch 2

Polgreen, Lydia. (2005, Dec. 27). “Ghana’s Uneasy Embrace of Slavery’s Diaspora,” by Lydia Polgreen. New York Times.


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