The Course with the most Impact

Elmina Castle teaches humanity, the understanding and kindness given to all people, better than anyone ever could.

Men and children are following you, asking for your name so they can sell you things until you walk through a narrow doorway that leads to a bridge. The moat below is empty. You pass through a narrow corridor that leads you to a courtyard. What sits in the middle used to be a church. Now, it serves as a museum. And once you sit on the tall flight of steps facing the old church, to the right you see a door marked with a skull and an ‘x’. The door of no return. Some of my ancestors, as did the ancestors of many in the Black Diaspora, were forced through this tiny door (if not a door like it elsewhere) after being left to sit in their own excrements, to ache with hunger, to be abused by European soldiers for days, weeks at a time.

NYU’s top-performing undergraduates within the College of Arts and Sciences have the opportunity to enrich their college experiences by joining the Presidential Honors Scholars program. To participate, scholars must enroll in non-credit courses; and I have been the graduate assistant for the Accra section offered to sophomores since the 2018-2019 school year. My primary responsibilities include managing our section’s class site, assisting the lead faculty during bi-weekly seminars, and chaperoning students during the January trip. That’s right—I get paid to go to Ghana.

For one week, students are introduced to Ghana in various ways. They learn how to haggle in Makola Market, walk through canopies at Kakum National Park, and, most recently, cook jollof rice. As fun as these parts of the trip are, the experience that usually affects students the most is when we visit Elmina Castle. I’ve seen both Black and White students cry as they reach the door of no return. I’ve heard generational trauma brought about from slavery echo as they scream, “Never again!” I thought that I would have an easier time during my second trip than I did during my first trip, but I didn’t. It was just as hard to walk through the spaces where tens of thousands of people were sold and consequently treated inhumanely.

I keep these photos of Elmina as reminders of how easy it can be to not see each other as people. For example, those people who don’t wear masks? They’re “anti-maskers.” We can then strip away their humanity, what it means to be human, by attributing racism and hypocrisy to this label, especially after what happened at the Capitol. These “anti-maskers” then become synonymous with “Trump supporters”, “domestic terrorists”, and “Republicans.” Through these labels, we no longer see these people as people. What is unfortunately true is that Black people in the US have not been seen as people systemically for generations, unlike these “anti-maskers.” For example, Chief Justice Taney’s opinion on the Dred Scott case, which argued that Black people were not US citizens and therefore denied rights guaranteed by the Constitution, was based on the opinions of Dr. J. H. Van Evrie, who wrote in the introduction that Black people are forever subordinate to the superior (White) race as per “the natural relations of the races.”

The above is not meant to suggest that “anti-maskers” are directly comparable to Black Americans; rather, the point is to recognize how quickly we can use labels to dissociate a person from their humanity. This is a lesson that applies in both research and teaching. I make it a point to diversify participant pools because generalizations about language processing should include, and therefore apply to, all races. I try to interact with students as people (first) who study in college (second), though I often make mistakes which reflect how I’ve been socialized. And in those moments when I make a mistake, I wish for grace, courteous goodwill. If we can change Elmina Castle from a trading post of enslaved people to an historic site which teaches humanity, we can change ourselves to become more understanding and kind toward others so long as we allow each other some grace when we do make mistakes.

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