The last name my husband and I chose when we got married was Vermeer. The name itself holds deep meaning for both my husband and me, even beyond the unusual fact that we changed our name. For my husband, it signifies his Dutch heritage and translates to "from the lake," referring to my where my husband grew up. In Russian, my spiritual heritage of sorts, the latter half of our name – "meer" – translates to something akin to shalom. It means right relationships among people and the earth, a deep concept and commitment to peace, righteousness, wholeness, and justice.
We chose the name Vermeer because we wanted our marriage to be marked by these commitments to our heritage, and to restoring peace and justice in our broken world. This is why I'm not buying anything new. Or why we made sure that the diamonds in my rings were ethically-sourced and made. Or why we are constantly challenging our consumption habits, learning to say enough is enough when our bellies and wallets and closets are full.
But what about the pieces of our heritage that violate peace and justice in the most profound of ways? What do we do when we realize that we are direct descendants – my husband by blood, me by marriage – to an unfathomable, unforgivable history of oppression? And what do we do when we're faced with the legacy of this oppression in literal ways?
By setting foot at one of the most notorious slave castles in West Africa, we literally faced the legacy of this oppression.
We visited the Cape Coast slave castle on our second day in Ghana. Owned and operated by mainly the Dutch and British many years ago, the castle is painted a brilliant white and adorned with cornflower blue shutters. But the brightness above is more than overshadowed by the darkness below.
Our tour guide, a petite Ghanaian man named Francis, walked us through the museum section of the castle first. Midway through the museum, the lights suddenly went out, a near daily occurrence in the country. My mother, ever prepared as she is, clicked on her mini flashlight, illuminating the few feet ahead of us with a striking bluish glow. After a few minutes of fumbling through the dark, the light switched back on as dozens upon dozens of Ghanaian grade school students in matching uniforms shuffled quickly thorough the room.
There we were, the six of us obroni – white people – huddled together as the masses of students passed through, their teacher pointing to the grainy mural behind us of enslaved African women and children saying, "Look! Look, children! Look at what they do to our ancestors. Look at what they did to us." And then they shuffled to the next room, a reproduction of a section of the slave ships where human beings were packed like sardines and forced to live in their own vomit and shit for weeks on end.
I watched a tear leak down my Dutch husband's cheek as I lowered my eyes to the hardwood floor.
Francis said it was time to leave the museum. We were headed to the dungeons now. It was matter-of-fact, as if dungeons for anything other than fabled dragons were a natural part of human existence.
Dank, dark, and dirty, the dungeons once held hundreds of captives who struggled to survive with little to no light, food, and sanitation. There were only two windows for the 200 captives packed together and only a narrow ditch near the walls for urination and defecation. By day they cried out for rescue and compassion, by night they were forced to sleep in their own filth.
Separated into male and female dungeons, the women captives' suffering was compounded by sexual violence. Many women and girls were raped and sexually exploited by the European colonists. If found pregnant while still in the castle, many were forced to give up their children to an unknown fate. Those who were pregnant on board the slave ships were thrown over into the raging sea. After all, slave masters would have no use for pregnant or nursing mothers.
His face half illuminated by the single hanging bulb in the underground dungeon, Francis shared one piece of history that I will never forget. He pointed to the shadowy ceiling, explaining that directly above this dungeon is the chapel where the colonists worshipped. As they sang worship songs to the Almighty God, the captives who had been beaten and raped and tortured shouted for mercy and rescue. Francis added, "They must have heard their cries." He paused, sensing the anguish and guilt and sorrow we obronis felt for the ungodly actions of our forefathers. "But it is not for me to judge."
Even hidden behind the billowy clouds, the midway sun blinded us as we exited the pitch black dungeons. We all seemed to take a deep breath as Francis petitioned that the souls of the captives would rest in perfect peace. A hearty amen rang from our group.
Next we visited the upstairs room where the captives were picked and prodded at as cattle, testing their strength and health for their equivalent value in cotton or sugar. Fully human men, women, and children, made in the image of God, were sold in exchange for fluff and sweetener. Hundreds of years later, not much has changed in the cotton fields and sugar plantations.
We learned that the man in charge of the operations at this castle was the governor. He would have lived in the three-room suite next to the trading block, a space flooded with light from windows touching the lofted ceilings and cooled by the soft sea breeze.
Francis asked us to count the number of windows in one of the governors' rooms. "Nine windows," we all responded. Francis then told us to add the windows from the governors' other rooms. You could see people counting in their heads. "Sixteen. For one person there was sixteen windows. How many windows were there for the 200 captives?"
"Two windows," we responded.
"So what do you think the colonists thought of the captives?" Francis asked. The group nervously cast their glances to the floor, shifting from foot to foot and picking at their cuticles.
My husband's voice cut through the heavy silence: "They were treated as less than fully human."
"They were treated like animals," my younger brother said.
"You are right. They were not treated as humans," Francis reiterated, "And we are going to discuss this more at the end of our tour."
Standing stop the terrace overlooking the ocean, I asked my blonde, blue-eyed husband what to do with this legacy, how we deal with the uncomfortable truth of our ancestors' cruelty. What can we do when we can't erase the ugly past and wash our hands of the incomprehensible history of slavery the largely benefited "us" at the complete expense of "them"?
We stared out into the sea-salted distance, somber and mourning this vast evil. He didn't respond at first.
"Babe, are you okay?"
"No, I'm not okay," he said as I looked at his brow lines crease between his dark blonde eyebrows, "For the first time in my life, I'm ashamed to be Dutch."
"Oh, babe," I whispered, reaching to hold his dew-covered arm in the afternoon heat. But I went speechless after what he said next.
"I feel like a German walking through Auschwitz."
Francis called us over to the circle for some final reflections on the tour. He asked if we had any questions. My mother's hand lifted hesitantly, "Is it difficult for you to give this tour to Americans?" After a solid 20 seconds of silence, Francis answered with a firm but polite, "Yes." Nothing more, nothing less.
"Do you think slavery still exists today?" Francis then asked point-blank, shifting the conversation to us. Every part of my being from the last ten years of my life proclaimed YES!, but I waited to hear what others had to say.
A Kenyan man holding his two daughters' hands said yes in a roundabout way, mentioning that people are selling themselves now on the street.
A Filipino man waxed more philosophical in that people in the Philippines often think less of themselves, which makes it easier for others to treat them as such.
My dad piped up, also providing a more theoretical affirmative to Francis' question, stating how slavery still exists but it looks different now.
I simply said yes, it still exists. I wanted to share how experts estimate that there are more slaves in the world today than during the 300 years of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and how Ghana is on Tier Two of the human trafficking rating system due to the prevalence of labor and sexual exploitation, especially among children, and much more about the modern slave trade. But I didn't. I simply said yes.
Francis concluded, telling us, "Slavery still exists. Now that you know, let's not make the same mistakes again. Let's treat one another as you would like to be treated. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. May we always remember this evil and vow to never let it happen again."
All we could do is offer a final "Amen."