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As part of Tell Me More's series on memoirs for Black History Month, NPR producer John Asante explores his own family history. He describes his journey to Ghana — the birthplace of his parents and the burial place of his father. Asante shares what the trip taught him about his family and himself.
When most people are asked the question, "So, where ya from?" the response is pretty straightforward. You typically respond with a city, a state or a country. From there, you gauge how much more about your past you want to divulge.
I used to struggle with the question, choosing to respond with "Atlanta" or "Georgia," where my mom lives now, even though I grew up and spent more time in the Northeast. But if I feel really comfortable with the person asking, I'll say, "Ghana." That's where all my family originates — mom's side and dad's side. Until fairly recently, however, I had never been to Ghana.
I grew up knowing that I'm Ghanaian-American, from the food to the customs to the languages, which I actually understood and spoke a bit as a child. Yet my sense of being Ghanaian only went so far. To bridge that distance in my soul, I knew I needed to connect with my roots. And in late September, after months of planning, I made my first trip to Ghana.
Unforeseen circumstances prevented my mother and sister from accompanying me on the journey. We had planned to pay tribute to my father, John Kofi Badu Asante Sr. He passed away 21 years ago, when I was just 3 years old. So I made the trek to Accra alone.
I met loads of relatives who showed me unconditional love from the moment I stepped inside their modest homes. I was offered my favorite foods: fufu, kenke, jollof rice, the works. I traveled through the markets of Accra, and I tried to take in all this West African nation had to offer during my two-week vacation.
While I confronted all of my perceptions of Ghana that had been shaped by what I saw in family photos and on TV, and heard from my mother, I still had a bit of culture shock. Even though Ghana is a pretty progressive country — the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence, mind you — I was still startled by the haggling system when taking a cab, the hawkers on the street selling plantain chips and maps of the country.
Complicating matters, I didn't speak the Twi and Fanti languages used by the people around me well enough to get by. So the second I opened my mouth, my natural camouflage was of no use. I never felt like I was in danger, especially with my cousins and uncles serving as tour guides.
But I did feel defeated. I guess you only recognize just how American you are when you're in another country.
The biggest difficulty I faced was dealing with the reason I went to Ghana in the first place: to learn more about my father. Here's what I knew: He grew up in a small village in the eastern region of Ghana, immigrated to New York City in the late '70s, and earned a degree in accounting from Baruch College. He worked as an accountant by day, and ran his own laundromat in the Bronx by night. Along the way, he met and married my mother, and started a family. And then he was gunned down by a young drug dealer one cold, dark night in January 1991. Four kids and a young wife were left without the patriarch of the household. His body was then returned to his native land.
So when I made the lengthy, rocky five-hour car ride with my uncle and aunt to my father's birthplace of Soabe, I would also see his resting place. Many people get to visit where their parents grew up while their mother and father are still alive. I just felt fortunate to finally see where he'd been buried for the past two decades.
But when I arrived at his grave, the tears didn't flow like long rivers the way they did from my relatives' eyes. I was silent. My heart was beating fast.
Joined by other family members in Soabe, we formed a circle around the ornate 7-foot gravestone made of concrete and pebbles, and my uncle led a group prayer. Then I read the inscription my mother had placed beneath my father's name: "Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. Rest in peace."
Though I was sad, I was at a loss for expression or emotion. Perhaps we came upon the grave so quickly that I couldn't prepare myself. But how do you prepare for that moment? It's something I still think about today.
My mother offers encouragement, telling me that I "made the effort," and "that's all we can ask for."
Now, when people ask: "So, where ya from?" I tell them, without hesitation: "I'm from Ghana."