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One of the most symbolically important trips ever taken by a United States president was Barack Obama's visit to Africa in 2009. After centuries of a complex and often painful relationship between the two continents and their people, Obama's visit signified a healing, a correction, a homecoming and a new beginning--and the nation where he chose to begin this momentous journey was Ghana.
In February, we visited Ghana with our teenage children Chiara and Dante. Our trip was planned as a very personal journey, but we quickly came to understand what our president was signaling to the world by choosing Ghana first. In one brief but incredibly full week, we experienced Ghana both as the ancestral homeland of millions of Americans and as an emerging leader among African nations.
For our family, this was a type of homecoming, the tracing of a long-known clue. Chirlane's grandmother, Irene Quashie, was born in St. Lucia and lived in Barbados before moving to the United States. While there is not yet proof of the family's exact roots in Africa, Irene's last name is unmistakably Ghanaian. It is a common surname among the Ewe people from the Volta region of Ghana. Her last name has been preserved in many ways throughout Chirlane's family, and we chose to give both our children Quashie as a middle name. We also decided long ago that we would one day take them to Ghana.
Our trip was immeasurably improved by the presence of Chirlane's brother Reginald Jackson and his wife, Christle Jackson. They have lived in and around Accra for the last three years, and Reggie teaches there at the African University College of Communications. Through them, we met some extraordinary Ghanaian leaders and intellectuals, such as the president of AUCC, Mr. Kojo Yankah; the director of business development at Internal Advisory Ghana Limited, Dr. Reuben Djopong; and Dr. Osei Bonsu, who heads the Ghana Genealogy Project for the Latter-Day Saints Church in Accra. Djopong and Bonsu generously helped us learn even more about our family's likely tie to the Ewe people.
Another highlight of our trip was a meeting at the U.S. embassy in Accra with Ambassador Donald Teitelbaum. He passionately explained why America has focused so intensely on Ghana. Few African nations have as vibrant a democracy and free press as Ghana, and even fewer have seen the peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another--something Ghana achieved in the last decade and may repeat again later this year.
Ghanaians have an impressive sense of national identity, which balances their affinities for region, religion and ethnic groups. Their economy continues to grow, as their education levels increase. In short, Ghana is a positive example for all of Africa, and Obama chose it with his visit to remind the whole continent of that fact.
We took our trip with the hope of beginning to connect to family origins. We wanted to give our children the confidence that comes from experiencing one's heritage, and we wanted to deepen our understanding of a beautiful, inviting and compelling country.
Even in the most sobering moment of our trip, our visit to Cape Coast Castle, we found hope for the future. For many decades, it was one of the headquarters of the transatlantic slave trade. Thousands upon thousands passed through the "Door of No Return." We spent only a few minutes in a dark, airless dungeon, experiencing a minute amount of the terror the slaves must have felt, then we emerged into the light, in a free nation working hard to leave our mutual pain behind.
On one wall in the courtyard of the castle is a plaque commemorating the visit of Obama and his family. It is simple and clear and brings with it an overwhelming feeling that, many years later, a liberation finally occurred. In so many ways, this epitomizes what our time in Ghana left us with.
Bill de Blasio is the public advocate of New York City. His wife, Chirlane McCray, is a writer and activist. Her new blog, chirlane.tumblr.com, features images from their family's trip to Ghana. They live in Brooklyn with their two teenage children.