Voices from the local Black community explore the meaning of the African proverb 'it takes a village' in the 21st century.

Reflections: Returning to the Door of No Return

Photo by Travis Gauthier

When I hear the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a very vivid picture comes to mind of an African village busy with activities. The women are cooking on open fires, the men bring home the catch and hunt of the day to sell at market and children are playing all about. That visual is even clearer now since I have been to the beautiful continent twice in my lifetime, with plans of going back.

The experience itself was quite remarkable in every way. I remember when my plane landed, and we disembarked, the feeling of my feet stepping on the tarmac, my knees weakening, and a rush of energy from the ground through my body to the top of my head. Before I knew it, I was on my knees crying, my tears flowing uncontrollably. Not from sadness, but from the innermost part of my body, the part that’s deeper than my heart — my soul. 

It was cathartic. Every emotion in me poured out from a sigh of relief, an exhale, to a joy of belonging and of welcoming as I suddenly heard cheerful voices shouting, “Welcome home, my sista!” It was the welcoming party of men and women dressed in their colorful and festive native clothing, singing and dancing to the rhythmic beat of drums. All arms were open and extended to us, followed by numerous embraces. 

I was there in the early 2000s covering the historic twinning of an American city with its sister city of Gorée Island, Senegal, on the western coast of Africa. That American city is right here in Acadiana — St. Martinville. 

St. Martinville’s African American Museum was established in 2000 to preserve the African and Creole cultures. To this day, many families still bear the last name Senegal and have traced their ancestry to Senegal. 

The museum founders set out to connect the long-separated families and embarked on what became several trips to the country. I was fortunate to make two of the trips. 

It was there I experienced a catharsis, especially when I stood in the “door of no return” cut from the wall of an historic fort and thus named because it was one of the last views more than 12 million slaves had of their homeland.

This doorway gives an open view of the Atlantic Ocean, as did other coastal enslaved holding structures. Over the cliff below is about a 30- to 40-foot drop where slave ships waited to load the human cargo. 

The buildings include a two-story colonial erection known as the “House of Slaves” and was a holding center for enslaved Africans. The structure is on a cliff of Gorée, a tiny island off the coast of Dakar. It is known for its role in the 15th to 19th century Atlantic slave trade. 

About Reflections on the Village

For generations, Black neighborhoods were communal. Everyone had a role to play, and everyone understood the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. They also understood that their neighborhood, like African American communities across the country, was a village bound by their African ancestry and the bloodline that begat them.

Can you imagine this happening today?

We asked a spectrum of commentators to weigh in, using this prompt: 

Has the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child become irrelevant and obsolete in today’s world? Why? Or why not? And what can we as African Americans do to ensure that our Black children succeed against the odds?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

Tour guides showed us where families were separated, women from men, mothers from children, and young girls from everyone so they could be displayed for traders and slave owners and chosen for sex. The conditions were so excruciating that many died before they even reached the ships. They were imprisoned in dark, airless cells, where they spent days shackled to the floor against the walls and unable to move. The Slave House was converted into a museum and memoriaized in 1962. It now stands as a reminder of the horrific human suffering caused by the slave trade. Standing in that building, and the Door of No Return, I closed my eyes and felt the angst of people ripped from their homes, stolen in the night and thrown into cells. And as I stood there, I could hear their wailing, and the chains that held them as they clanked in echo.  I was overcome with great sadness. 

Darla Montgomery found “catharsis” on trips to Senegal, connecting South Louisiana with Gorée Island, the port of origin for the Atlantic slave trade.

My photographer felt my emotions and immediately put down his camera and threw his arms around me. That photographer is white. Compassion has no color.

Over the course of the next few days, the sadness faded as I ventured out on the island to see and experience all I could. I had a chance to see village life — children going to and from school; the fresh market stocked with the catch of the day; artists carving beautiful statues and furniture from wood; women selling handmade clothing made of fine silk, linen or cotton; artists painting the people, landscape and life on the island. 

It was during my walks on Gorée Island that I saw the intricacies of a village. It was there I heard the children respecting and greeting adults with “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am.” It was there, men, young and old, opened doors for ladies. It was there in Dakar I attended a Catholic Mass on Easter Sunday and witnessed entire families, mothers and fathers with their children, dressed in their Sunday best. It was there on Gorée Island I saw mothers cooking, cleaning, walking their children to and from school. After school, they would wait under the shade of a tree holding babies until their older children would meet them. It was there they played a game of chess before heading home, on foot. It was there I saw the elders looking after the children who were not their own. It was there I saw a village, raising its children. 

How I wish I could send so many young people, especially young Black teenagers, to not only experience the connection I had and gain a real understanding of where they come from, and who they are, but also to learn what order, discipline, respect, ambition, maturity and compassion all mean — all character-building qualities taught and learned when people come together as a nation or neighborhood, community or village.  

So, what has happened to our village, our neighborhood, our nation? I’ve been in the news broadcasting industry for 30 years, and the killings we’re seeing amongst teens in these United States of America have reached epidemic proportions.  Here in Acadiana, there are often several shootings reported in one week with many resulting in fatalities. So, I ask again, what has happened to our village, but more importantly what are we doing about it, and if not us, then who? Socrates once said, “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” making it the greatest knowledge a person can have. So, it goes without saying, but definitely worth mentioning, the foundation begins at home.  How does one know where he or she is going when they don’t know where they came from?