WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday stepped through the black doors of a colonial-era seaside fort and down into the dungeons, touring a site where millions of enslaved Africans were held captive before they were loaded onto ships bound for the Americas.
With her visit to Cape Coast Castle, Harris was insisting on remembering the painful past even as she stood earlier Tuesday before a monument commemorating Ghana’s independence, envisioning a grand future between the U.S. and Africa propelled by innovation on the continent.
"The horror of what happened here must always be remembered," she said from the fort as the sun set over the water. “It cannot be denied. It must be taught. History must be learned."
The nation's first Black and South Asian vice president is the most high-profile member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Africa as the U.S. escalates its outreach to the continent. The events on her second day in Ghana are part of a weeklong trip that will include visits to Tanzania and Zambia.
Cape Coast Castle is one of dozens of fortresses in West Africa that held slaves, many of them in Ghana. The government here has viewed preserving them as part of its historical responsibility.
Harris skipped her prepared remarks to talk bluntly about the anguish “that reeks from this place,” and the horrors endured by the people who passed through those walls; mass kidnapping, sickness, rape and death. Those who lived were sold into bondage in the Americas.
“And yet, they survived," she said, her voice cracking with emotion. She said the endurance and determination of the African diaspora in the world should be admired.
“All of us, regardless of our background, have benefitted from their fight for freedom and justice," she said.
During their tour, Harris and husband Doug Emhoff walked past a plaque commemorating a visit by Barack and Michelle Obama, the nation’s first Black president and first lady. The couple walked along the stone ramparts flanked by cannons, pausing to gaze out over the sea as waves crashed on the rocky shore below.
She passed through white archways and down a darkened path leading through the infamous “door of no return,” through which slaves left the coast and never came back. Harris choked back tears, her hand on her mouth, as she approached. She placed a white bouquet of flowers, given to her during the arrival ceremony, at the entrance to a women's dungeon nearby.
Tour guide Kwesi Blankson said he told the vice president about how captives would sometimes gaze up through the holes in the dungeon ceiling and pray to the gods and sing songs. He sang one to her, about wishing for death, “because death means freedom.”
He described the tour as a solemn moment, “like a graveyard.”
Harris has proved to be a potent messenger in Ghana, and thousands waited hours earlier Tuesday at Independence Square for a chance to see her speak at the Black Stone Gate monument.
“Because of this history, this continent of course has a special significance for me personally, as the first Black vice president of the United States,” she said to huge cheers from the crowd. “And this is a history, like many of us, that I learned as a young child.”
Tracy Sika Brobbey said “it’s a special moment” to see the first woman vice president. Margaret Mintah, who waited alongside her, said Harris “gives us some kind of hope, that we can believe that anything is possible.”
“It’s like a blessing,” she added.
During her remarks at the monument, Harris pledged a new era of partnership with Africa, envisioning “a future that is propelled by African innovation.”
Much of her remarks there focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, part of her effort to spotlight Africa as a place for American private-sector investment. It’s something that Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said he hopes to see after years of being overlooked.
“We must invest in the African ingenuity and creativity, which will unlock incredible economic growth and opportunities,” Harris said, highlighting the continent’s innovations to deliver emergency healthcare supplies and provide vaccines, and in farming and mineral processing.
The U.S. must be guided “not by what we can do for our African partners, but we can do with our African partners.”
Harris also homed in on areas for work, including promoting democracies across the world, progress in the digital economy in Africa, and the empowerment of women.
“Women around the world must be able to fully participate in economic, political and social life, and they must be able to participate equally including in leadership roles,” she said. “The empowerment of women is rooted in the concept of freedom, not just freedom from violence or want, but freedom to create one’s own future.”
U.S. outreach is part of the global competition over Africa’s future, with China and Russia each defending their own interests in the continent as well. But Harris has been careful to play down the role of geopolitical rivalries during her travels here.
“Together we can unleash growth and opportunity that far exceeds what either the public or private sector can achieve on its own,” she said.
Harris spoke of the vast capabilities of the continent’s youth, calling them “dreamers and innovators;” Africa’s population has a median age of 19. “It is your spark, your creativity and your determination that will drive the future.”
“Imagine a future where every person is connected to the digital economy, where every young person trusts that their voices are heard, a future that is propelled by African innovation,” she said.
Long reported from Washington.