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Bridging Relationships: Benin-Senegal and the Cuban African Diaspora

Cotonou, Benin

Porte de Non-Retour (Door of No Return), Cotonou, Benin: A stunning archway standing tall over the mythical and – for many of us – tragic Atlantic Ocean. It replaces the nonexistent tombs of unknown names. It is also said to be the last slaves ever saw of their homeland before they forcefully embarked on their journey across the bitter sea.

Class Year: 
2016
Concentration: 
Division of Literatures Cultures and Languages
Do African intellectuals and writers write of the African slave the way we do in the Caribbean? Do writers’ imagination of this enslaved individual stay on the coast or do they make the journey?

The chaotic streets of Cotonou greet daybreak with serious moped frenzy and imposing Brazilian and Chinese skyscrapers shading the Dantonkpá market. This marché among other things trades francs for voudun artifacts. If you’ve done your homework, you know that zombies are an invention but that it is here where its myth can trace its roots. While Benin is often visited for being the birthplace of voudun spirituality, it is also host of Diasporic peoples seeking perhaps answers, perhaps closure, perhaps something else entirely. For well over a decade now, African Americans have visited the roads of the Ouidah 92, inaugurated along with Haiti and other Caribbean nations to make tangible the memory of the past.

I walk it in tandem with my guide, reflecting on how – centuries ago – it may have been (or not) the very same surface Cuban poet Georgina Herrera’s ancestors walked, ancestors that she reimagines in her ode to Africa. The swirly roads of red sand, dotted with statuettes by prominent Africa artists eventually lead us to an unforgettable Porte de Non-Retour (Door of No Return). It’s a stunning archway standing tall over the mythical and – for many of us – tragic Atlantic Ocean. It replaces the nonexistent tombs of unknown names. It is also said to be the last slaves ever saw of their homeland before they forcefully embarked on their journey across the bitter sea.

I wanted to know then how West African countries involved with this past see this journey. Do African intellectuals and writers write of the African slave the way we do in the Caribbean? Do writers’ imagination of this enslaved individual stay on the coast or do they make the journey? Obviously, the memorialization exists in places such as Benin, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, to name the most prominent, but does it exist on paper in the literary imagination, as it did for Léopold Sédar Senghor in the 40s? My quest began here – more or less, because first I visited Ile de Gorée, Senegal for the same reasons.

It was clear that Cubans (and Caribbean intellectuals in general) write about this history since it is their heritage. But to say that this belongs to the literary heritage of the Beninese or the Senegalese was proving to be different. While these countries posses “slave trade route tourism” pointing at this history it seems to be acknowledged mostly by foreigners (which I gathered by looking at the statistics), and it may not be internalized in literature and history the way it is in the Caribbean. By contrast, Cuba does not have a strong tradition of slave trade route tourism although from my research two summers ago, I think it is in its beginning stages. I am seeking therefore to understand how memorialization of the slave trade (and remnants of it) are distributed across the Atlantic. This to me is significant because it means that, despite the incongruences, the distance caused by a tragic transatlantic history and an ocean, an American region could be contained in another.