I grew up by a slave fort in Ghana - Fort Orange, which was built by the Dutch in 1640. It is interesting to note that Albany, New York also once contained a Fort Orange, built by the Dutch in 1624. Both of these were built sixteen years apart. The fort in Ghana stood on a hill, and had an incredible view of the Atlantic Ocean. As kids, we would occasionally tour that Fort Orange, walk through the iron gates to the courtyard, climb the stairs that led to the upper level, and walk through the living quarters. We'd sometimes sit on the concrete stairs outside the fort, or across from it, and simply watch the ocean. The history of the fort wasn’t of any particular relevance to us; ours was simply to explore and enjoy the fort as best as we could, and simply walk back home.
Occasionally, we would see tourists in our neighborhood who were either on their way to visit the fort, or had just completed their visit. We'd simply jump at the sight of tourists and if we got a chance to be close to them we would ask for candy or some other gift. For many of us, it was simply a joy to see tourists in our neighborhood. And I am sure it was a joy for the tourists to also see local kids who were simply excited that they were in their neighborhood to visit Fort Orange.
Today, as it has been for many decades, Fort Orange has been converted from a Slave trading post to a lighthouse. Much of its Slave trading character - especially the dungeons that held the Slaves - has been lost to history. As kids, we didn’t know the history of Fort Orange, the Slave Trade, or the thousands of our ancestors who were chained and forcibly driven through Fort Orange and shipped into the New World as merchandise.
As human merchandise, they had to deal with the horrors in the fields of cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and maize, among others. There was really no difference between them and the crops they were forced to plant and harvest. The brutalities of their taskmasters and so-called ‘owners’ led many a Slave to wake up each morning and question their very existence and dignity. The added layer of Segregation and Jim Crow suffocated and squeezed every single breath from them. But throughout the dark days that turned into years, there was no hope lost in the light that shines over darkness - our lighthouse.
The keys that once held the chains that kept Slaves together in Fort Orange, and together in line, was now invisible. In fact, this time there were no keys, no locks, and no chains to hold and keep Blacks together, but Dr. Martin Luther King did not have to look very far to acknowledge the prevalence of those invisible instruments that dehumanized Black people, making visible what was designed to be invisible. Dr. King, himself, was a lighthouse - shining light on the ills that have followed Blacks since their dark days in Fort Orange, Sekondi.
It is such an irony that Fort Orange now stands as a lighthouse, guiding ships to a nearby harbor. Life, in general, is such an irony, if you ask me. If a Slave fort can be turned into a lighthouse, then indeed any voice that provides the basis or rationale for the dehumanization of anyone, any voice that believes in separate but equal, any voice that still believes in condemning a segment of our population to a dungeon experience and so continues to convince itself that human nobility rests in a perceived superior nature, or human nobility depends on being superior over the other, can and must be open to experience a change that turns that voice into a lighthouse. Ernest Hemingway reminds us with these wise words: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is in being superior to your former self.” That self whose darkness is eerily similar to the darkness of the dungeons of Fort Orange.
Remember, the former self is not so much an old self which has been made new by regeneration, but rather is a new self that emerges from the kind of reality that appreciates the dignity of every human being, a new self that pursues wisdom for its beauty and the radiance it exudes, a new self that embraces work and life with integrity, honor, and truth, a new self that is faithful in seeking the common good, is steadfast in its search for justice, fairness, and equality, is devoted to the affirmation of all men and women, and is fervent in its belief that whatever gift they possess - including themselves - is meant to be employed as a lighthouse, metaphorically guiding human ships.
This week, we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr - a lighthouse. There’s no way we can tell if any of his ancestors ever walked in the darkness of the dungeons of Fort Orange. But he calls on us to be lighthouses; to accept this particular invitation would mean freeing ourselves from the temptation of believing that the old familiar voice which used to question the dignity of African Americans and instill fear in people still holds sway, because it does not, and it can not. Responding to Dr. King’s call would mean accepting an invitation to walk hand-in-hand with neighbors, friends, strangers, co-workers - with anyone - believing that, in the grand scheme of things, the content of a person’s character is all that matters.
We are all thankful for where we are. We are not yet where we need to be, but thank God Almighty that Fort Orange is now a lighthouse.
As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may you resolve that you cannot be everything, nor can you do everything, but resolve to do that which you can - be a lighthouse.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.