Before I got on the plane to begin the most fearful and invigorating journey of my life, I had a dream. It was pitch black. The only light in sight came from the stars. There were so many that I had no choice but to stare at their beauty. I was wearing old jeans and a plain t-shirt with no shoes on my feet. I was sitting on top of a brick border, separating the land from the sea. Suddenly, a Ghanaian girl came to me with a beautiful smile and pearly white teeth. She took my hand and guided me with so much excitement and joy. It was contagious; I laughed and smiled harder than I ever have. Abruptly, she left me. Then I was alone and felt abandoned. Where did she go? Why did she leave? What did I do? Where the hell am I? I looked around and saw the ocean. The sound of the waves hit my ears like an airplane crash in heaven; a monumental sound of peace. I smiled, laughed like it was my last day on Earth, and sat there in my loneliness– in my peace.
I had this dream exactly two weeks before I sent in my UC-EAP application to study at the University of Ghana, Legon. I applied on the last day applications were being accepted, was 2 points below the required GPA, and nearly missed the passport deadlines. But I made it. I boarded the plane with fear in my heart and soul, but I knew I had to do this. Before Ghana, I only heard stories of African royalty. I’ve even seen golden staffs and stools in museums. They spoke about a time that doesn’t exist anymore, a time when there WAS African greatness. But those stories were nowhere to be found in my school curriculum. The only education I gained about Africa was the backwards, destitute, remote and uncivilized narrative. A continent small enough to be generalized, and insignificant enough to receive backwards media coverage. Fortunately, I knew better.
I learned and acquired a lot of from Ghana, but a few life lessons will last forever. Being there taught me about identity, my identity, as a Black woman and an American. I went to Ghana in hopes that I would gain some miraculous insight of abandoning the American status that gave me so many tribulations. I had big dreams of leaving the U.S. and becoming Ghanaian. While this dream can still very well come true, I don’t want it anymore. Ghanaian culture and its people taught me that, not very long ago, my ancestors were African and proud. My ancestors danced and sang. They were royal in their culture. They loved themselves. There was no white man telling them Black isn’t beautiful. Black skin kissed by the sun and gifted from the gods. Those are the truths of my ancestors; but not mine.
My truth is that I am Black, with all of the history and burden that also comes with being an American. I will never be Ghanaian. I will never be Togolese. I will never be Nigerian. I am Black and American. Still, there is no white man that can tell me my skin and culture are anything but perfect–unless I allow him to. Blackness is a culture and a mindset. It is the will to persevere that runs through my blood and will be given to my children. It would be irresponsible to pass down such power without first understanding my identity.
Ghanaian women and men never once made me feel inferior. There was a mutual understanding of our history: one people, two cultures. Even something as basic as the awareness of my body (highlighted by the attention African men show for African and Black women) made me realize my power and purpose. For the first time in my life, when explaining my culture and background, I felt proud. I am eternally grateful to have a place in the world where my skin is appreciated and loved. To sum it up: Ghana taught me about my power, my Blackness, and my femininity being a blessing rather than a burden.
My most powerful lesson I learned was to live and love. In Ghana I danced almost every week to music from all over the world. Sweat slid down my back and a smile covered my face. I ate the sweetest pineapples and wet my feet on the most beautiful beaches. I interned at the National Museum of Ghana and worked with the most amazing and loving people. They taught me that art is embedded in life; without it, our culture and spirit would cease to exist. I watched movies, smoked cigarettes, wrote poetry, sang and made love. I partied with the most amazing Nigerian men and women I have ever met. I made lifelong friends who also adore music and art. I met talented rappers, singers, artists, and, most importantly, I forced myself to spend time alone.
Sometimes I bought a bottle of wine and watched Ghanaian shows alone. Sometimes I sat alone and listened to the rain-soaked toads sing at night. Sometimes I took a tro-tro to the mall and ate lunch alone. Just like in the dream, I found freedom within myself. Ghana, the place I dreamed of, was everything and more. I learned how to completely bathe in my own spirit and greatness. Ghana gave me the gift of freedom and self-love. Studying abroad is the best decision I have ever made. My life is filled with adversity as well as blessings, but Ghana brought me to God. A God that loves me and gave me the opportunity to live.
Jasmine McNeal is a graduating senior at UCLA. She has a passion for Black art and aspires to open her own museum.