Wanda Tucker stepped off the plane to a sky so gray it blended into the tarmac.
She inhaled, balanced her new bag with the straw handle, then step-by-step-by-step made her way down the metal stairs.
It had been 40 hours since she left Virginia. Her 61 years had caught up. Something about flying over that wide, dark water, watching the low tin roofs rise to meet her, had brought home the reality of what she had come here to do.
The plane hissed. The faces around her were brown like hers, but their words were a scramble of sound.
She boarded the shuttle bus and plopped on a seat, nervously tapping her knee with her left hand. At first she brushed away the tears, then ignored them. It was hard to breathe.
Wanda and her family believed they were descended from the first Africans brought to the English colonies 400 years ago this month. They hadn’t proved it, but they didn’t doubt it. Now here she was, in the place those ancestors had called home: dusty, mysterious Angola.
She would walk the roads they walked by the rivers they fished under the stars that guided them. She would confront, as courageously as she could, the reality of what happened to them and those left behind.
Wanda believed her ancestors had called her here. But sometimes she found it hard to listen, and she didn’t hear them now.
She had come so far and felt so alone. She said aloud, “Could somebody give me a hug?”
Wanda would tell everyone she met in Angola she was descended from the first Africans brought to the English colonies. The story was a family treasure, handed down from generation to generation. It’s a story that Wanda and others had worked to bolster over the years despite a vacuum of evidence, as records for African Americans from that period barely exist. Their names were lost to burned churches, unmarked graves and to a government that didn’t count them as human.
Like any family heirloom, the rough edges have been worn smooth by the passing years, so the story in Wanda’s family invokes a deep sense of pride whether it is provable or not.
What’s known is that in 1619, two Angolans named Anthony and Isabella, along with 20 or so others, staggered off a ship into Point Comfort in what is now Hampton, Virginia. They’d been taken from the Ndongo kingdom in the interior of Angola and marched to the coast. They’d endured months packed in the bottom of a ship named the San Juan Bautista. When raiders attacked in the Gulf of Mexico, the captives were rerouted to Virginia aboard the White Lion, changing the course of a nation.
Anthony and Isabella probably weren’t their real names. Their Angolan names were likely snubbed out by whichever Catholic priest baptized them for the journey.
The reason they are remembered and other Africans are not is the anomaly that someone bothered to record their names at all. A 1625 census noted that they belonged to the household of Capt. William Tucker and that they had a child named William. Wanda and her family believe they are descended from William, the first named African born in what would become America. An American forefather most history ignores.
The arrival of the first Africans in the fledgling English colony foreshadowed a prosperity unfathomable without the forced labor of hundreds of thousands who would follow. Chattel slavery launched the longest, ugliest, most shameful period in American history.
It sought to erase the identity and culture of 400,000 people taken from Africa. It left their millions of descendants with a history they can never fully know.
So when Wanda Tucker traveled 7,000 miles to a country no one she knew had ever been, she did so on the faith of her connection to Anthony and Isabella.
But she was also doing it for the millions of African-Americans who don’t have the name of an ancestor to claim.
When the plane landed, the void she felt was bigger than any one ancestor, any one tribe. It was an entire people missing its past.
Wanda learned about slavery in a freshly desegregated seventh-grade classroom. The textbook, “Virginia: History, Government, Geography,” published in 1957, featured Robert E. Lee on the back cover and described 1619 as “an eventful year.”
“Slavery was in many ways a harsh and cruel system,” the book read. “But slavery made it possible for the Negroes to come to America and to make contacts with civilized life.”
Most slaves were treated with kindness, it said. Black and white children played together in creeks. Sometimes slaves were whipped, but whipping was a common punishment at the time. Masters took care of their slaves like they took care of their own children, the book said.
“The regard that master and slave had for each other made life happy and prosperous.”
That the teacher would sanction and amplify these notions did not sit well with Wanda.
“From her perspective, slaves didn’t deserve any better,” Wanda recalled. “They had been rescued.”
When Wanda objected, she was sent to stand in the hallway.
Later, when a white classmate told her that “God cursed black people,’’ Wanda slugged her – a right hook. Both girls wound up in the vice principal’s office.
Wanda and her two brothers, Vincent and Verrandall, grew up in a mostly black neighborhood in Hampton. Much of what they learned about their history came from family elders when helping with the grocery store, the family cleaners or the produce truck.
Wanda learned that her people had been self-made. They were entrepreneurs. Wanda herself worked in her grandfather’s tailor shop from the age of 12. She knew how to fit a suit to a man in a way that made him stand taller, that commanded respect – an inch of break at the cuff, a quarter-inch of sleeve at the wrist, knuckles even with the bottom of the jacket. On Easter, her handiwork was displayed in the pews at the Providence Baptist Church.
Her father and her uncles kept their hair trimmed and their shoes shined.
“They walked like proud men,” Wanda said.
In a land that had tried to rob their people of dignity, strip them of their identity and steal their labor, the Tuckers knew they were somebody.
As she grew up, Wanda came to realize that history was an ever-changing story, and it depended on who was telling it.
She earned several degrees and runs the Psychology, Philosophy and Religious Studies departments at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona.
Her academic training never undermined her faith in her family’s history. Just because it wasn’t on paper didn’t mean it wasn’t true.
Over the years, she and others interviewed their elders, pored over birth records and carefully tended the family cemetery. They gained a level of celebrity in Hampton.
When the opportunity to go to Angola came along, Wanda didn’t flinch. She packed a bag and told everyone she’d be back in two weeks.
She wanted to be part of setting history right.
Wanda bumped along with a knot in her stomach, riding through the capital city of Luanda in a van with a cracked windshield and a broken door.
Low adobe huts blurred past, roofs held down by concrete blocks. Then came peeling high-rises with rusty air conditioners. Wash lines with colorful clothes hung from balconies. The city bustled with people, but few of them seemed in a hurry. Children headed to class in white uniforms. On the sidewalks, people prayed, bounced babies, grilled yams, crammed bus stops, peed against walls, braided hair, carried strings of fish.
Wanda navigated a packed open-air market where children trailed her with hopeful eyes. It made her nervous to be crowded like that. Yellow fever had spread through this same market not long ago, but Wanda had slathered on bug spray and gotten her shots.
“This is just a part of the journey,’’ she said.
It seemed as if everything in Angola was missing a piece of itself. Everything was a little crooked, a little broken. But there was something recognizable here, too. She saw pride. She saw straight backs, careful dress, attention to detail. She saw flashes of something in the faces around her.
Family, maybe. Or something close.
Through the window of what was once a slave trader’s house in the outskirts of Luanda, Wanda could hear the waves rolling into shore.
Angola was barely mentioned in most histories of the slave trade, but this was where it had begun. Historians had learned fairly recently that the first African-Americans had been captured here.
The striking white building on a rocky cliff was now a national slavery museum.Director Vlademiro Fortuna guided Wanda past iron shackles, some made small to grip the wrists of children. At one display, she paused by a yoke cut from a thick tree. She put her hands up by her face as she imagined the weight of the wood across her shoulders.
It was the baptismal room that gave her the most pause. She gently touched a small, sand-colored bowl, imagining Anthony and Isabella being sprinkled with holy water and given their new names.
Wanda, who had been ordained in the Baptist church, was shaken by the thought of captors using religion to defend the business of slavery.
“The slave traders had to justify their crime,” Fortuna told her. So they said Africans were descended from Cain. Slavery would cleanse the sins of past lives.
In the time of Anthony and Isabella, Wanda also learned, the slave trade had been dominated by the Portuguese. The Portuguese would stoke tensions between African tribes and reap the captives from those battles. The English were not yet as involved – they were plundering gold and silver from Ghana.
Anthony and Isabella came from the powerful Ndongo kingdom, whose descendants still lived in the Angolan interior near the Lukala and Kwanza rivers. Many from the kingdom were skilled iron workers and farmers, Fortuna said.
He speculated that Anthony and Isabella knew each other, their bond forming sometime during the long march to the shore, or on the horrific voyage, five months long. Nearly half of the 350 captives aboard the San Juan Bautista died on the journey.
“It was one of the most terrible experiences someone can endure,’’ he told Wanda.
Outside, Wanda boarded a small boat so she could view the museum from the water and get a sense, if only a little, of what it might have been like for Anthony and Isabella to step off of Angolan soil for the last time.
It had been mere hours since she’d crossed this water on a KLM wide-body jet.
From the window she had looked down at this same ocean – black and flat and forever deep. She’d imagined her ancestors shackled aboard ships.
The men had been packed into the lower level where they couldn’t fight back, she’d learned, with women and children higher. Some became so desperate they jumped overboard. Some threw their babies overboard to spare them what lay ahead. They sucked in the brine and closed their eyes and swallowed salt. Maybe they tried to swim or maybe they just sank. There were so many bodies, sharks trailed the ships.
But Anthony and Isabella survived. Wanda drew strength from that.
She tried to picture them there, in sickness and stench, in a space that became less cramped as the months wore on. She closed her eyes and felt the rocking of the ship, rocking, rocking in the dark. So much had changed in 400 years. But not the sound of the wind, and not the sound of the waves.
All her life, she’d found comfort in prayer. But she hadn’t prayed on the plane, and she didn’t pray now. It was hard, so hard, to admit that. She often wondered, to whom should she pray? To the God who let it happen? Or the God who let her return?
Black and white
That evening, Wanda ventured to an open-air market crammed with rickety shacks as the shadows grew long and the light turned gold.
She ate local fish with the head still attached. Women toting infants on their backs had scraped scales with sharp knives and cooked over tin barrels, the skin of the fish blistering and blackening.
A young man with a guitar played songs about love. When asked to sing a song about slavery, he said he didn’t know any. But all his songs were sad anyway.
Later, Wanda learned that back home, President Donald Trump had called the city of Baltimore a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Fifty-one percent of the U.S. voters thought he was racist, according to a Quinnipiac University poll.
It had been two weeks since Trump had encouraged four new congresswomen of color to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places’’ from which they came. It had been 18 months since he’d called African nations “shithole countries.”
The happenings at home weren’t lost on Wanda.
When people spoke about American values – about freedom and equality – she saw a more complicated history. “Our values are mixed,” she said. “It depends on where you’re standing on what day.”
Those in power justified slavery with the values at the time – prosperity, survival, the cleansing of souls and the expansion of the empire.
Today, she saw brown children in cages at the U.S. and Mexico border. She saw black boys being shot in the street. Much of her research involved young black men.
“Here we go again,” she said.
In a conference room of a Catholic church in Luanda, Wanda furiously scribbled in her pink notebook, peeking over her glasses.
Father Gabriele Bortolami, an Italian priest and professor of anthropology, poured libations onto the floor in honor of the ancestors. He passed around small cups of the cloudy palm wine. Everyone sipped.
Casually, as if he were pulling out a dictionary, Bortolami took a thick book from a wooden cabinet. The cover barely clung to the binder, but the words – in Italian – were bold against the white pages. “Istorica Descrittione De’ Tre Regni Congo, Matamba Et Angola.”
Historical description of the three kingdoms of Congo, Matamba and Angola.
It was written in 1690.
Wanda was in awe. Here was a document written by people who might have been alive at the time Anthony and Isabella were taken.
Bortolami flipped through the pages, talking about the culture of ancient African kingdoms. But when someone asked how the church justified the role it played in the slave trade, he didn’t fully answer.
Angolans were also enslaved by Catholic priests, he said, and life with them was better than with the Portuguese. It was an old familiar theme. Somehow, they were better off, even as slaves. Wanda heard no remorse.
Wanda walked out. She didn’t want to cry. She was way beyond seventh grade, but there she was again.
Out in the hall.
On the road out of the city, cars jammed together and the lane divisions were mere suggestions. People lined both sides of the streets offering goods for sale – zip ties, pillows, mangoes, USB cords, popcorn, shoes, basketballs, ties, lighters, pens, floor mats, shower heads, crackers, rakes.
It was like a dollar store in the streets, brought to you one item at a time.
Wanda was seeing the contrasts of the Angolan economy up close. The country was rich in oil, diamonds, gold, iron and farmland, but a small number of businesses kept a stranglehold on commerce. The country didn’t build much of anything and imported most of its food.
Twenty-seven years of civil war, from the ousting of the Portuguese in 1975 until 2002, had torn the place apart. Land mines still marred the landscape. Even the animal park needed replenishing, as soldiers had eaten most of the country’s prized giant sable antelope.
Most everyone here was brown, but they were not equal. They had endured decades of hardship for the benefit of a few.
At the slavery museum, Fortuna had told Wanda, “There are new ways of slavery.”
She could see it.
She also saw that people here were resilient. The women selling yams on the roadside were entrepreneurs. In that way, they were not so different from the Tuckers of Virginia.
“They seem to be a very proud people,’’ Wanda said.
Wanda’s bus continued east more than 200 miles, to the village where Anthony and Isabella might have lived, to the old fort where they might have been branded and penned, to the mountains where they might have fled.
The bus lurched and swerved around crater-size potholes. Wanda bounced off her seat. Water bottles and luggage shot across the floor. Darkness fell outside the bus windows. Bonfires lit the sky. The air smelled like burning hide.
Wanda, sleepy in her seat, looked up and saw a man standing in the aisle. He was tall, thin, wearing a hat. She didn’t see his face, but he was no one she knew.
Wanda doesn’t normally see spirits or apparitions. But her daughter, Alexis, had told her she needed to be open to them. The ancestors are talking, she told her mom. Wanda didn’t know what to make of the man on the bus, but she wasn’t afraid.
She looked away and back again, and he was gone.
The answers Wanda sought were in the villages, where the elders told stories around the fire under a dome of stars.
Out here, there were elected or appointed officials, and then there were the sobas – essentially village chiefs. To see the far-flung relics of the slave trade, Wanda would have to seek guidance from both. Suspicion and police checkpoints made free travel impossible. But everywhere she went, when she told them who she was, they broke into smiles.
As the sun set in Kalandula, the village soba greeted Wanda in his khaki uniform. He took her hands and she bowed.
“Welcome home,” he told her.
She wished she’d worn her finest hand-made African dress, but he welcomed her like a lost daughter anyway. “It is an honor to be here,” she told him, “to be home.’’
The elders spoke a mix of Portuguese and Kimbundu, the Bantu language Anthony and Isabella likely spoke. They told of villagers captured and sent away. They told her they had a word for the sea: kalunga – death. No one who crossed those waters ever returned.
“We suffered a lot,’’ said the soba, whose name was Antonio Manuel Domingos. The slave trade devastated communities, and many never recovered.
Wanda asked what she should tell fellow African-Americans back at home.
“You have relatives here,” he replied.
That stuck with Wanda. “It wasn’t that they forgot us. We forgot about them.”
Everywhere Wanda went – in Kalandula, in Malanje, in Ndalatando, in Ndongo– local officials made it clear the country is desperate for outside investment.
They’re trying to revive their oldest industries – cotton, coffee, farming. But investors face a system hobbled by corruption and red tape. Unlike other African countries such as Ghana, Angola is not a tourist destination. Getting a visa can be an ordeal. Historic sites are hours apart. They have no roadside scenic stops or gift shops or even a place to mail a postcard.
Still, there are few places with an older connection to the slave trade in the British colonies. Local officials told Wanda they would welcome back their lost brothers and sisters. African Americans and Africans are still connected, said Pedro Dembue, administrator for Kalandula. Values have endured.
“The good will always leave and return home,’’ he told Wanda.
He called her a good daughter.
The rock formations rising out of the savannah seem impossible, like they were dropped there by some heavenly spirit with a pocketful of pebbles.
The people who lived and hid among them four centuries ago gave them names. One of the most famous looks like a sleeping baby elephant.
It’s here that Njinga, queen of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms, fought to defend her people from Portuguese conquerors in the 1600s.
Njinga, who came to power five years after Anthony and Isabella were captured, is the most awe-inspiring of the Angolan ancestors. Statues of her overlook fortresses and traffic circles. Her image is on hotel drapes and her name is emblazoned on water bottles.
Here in Pungo Andongo, her footprints, they say, are embedded in the black rock. Wanda stood over them as the grand soba of the territory, Philip Manuel John Lenda, told her this was a sacred place.
Some scholars once told the soba those could be anyone’s footprints, trapped in lava, but something about the stillness of the place made it feel as if anything was possible.
“Our great grandfathers were the kings of this land,” the soba said.
Njinga demanded the Portuguese treat her as an equal. When they showed up to a meeting with chairs only for themselves, expecting her to sit on the floor, she had a servant kneel on all fours and used his back as a stool. She made the Portuguese look her in the eye.
But even Njinga has seen her legacy questioned. She submitted to baptism by the Portuguese – a political move some saw as weak. She gave up prisoners of war to placate the Portuguese, who betrayed her.
Something stirred in Wanda, seeing an entire country honor a black woman for her leadership and strength.
To Wanda, a mother of three and grandmother of four, the queen represented the fortitude she’d had to summon in her own life. She had dealt with divorces, family tensions. She’d learned to turn strength into action.
She organized a domestic violence conference on the campus where she teaches. After the shooting last fall at a Pittsburgh synagogue, she helped coordinate a march.
She saw Njinga’s strength most clearly in her youngest daughter, Alexis. Every night on the trip, Wanda Skyped with her and told her about the day’s adventures. The trip had brought them closer.
Wanda wanted to show Alexis the statue of Njinga at the military museum in Luanda – a warrior, standing tall. She wanted her daughter to see cornrows forged in bronze.
She couldn’t wait to return to Angola with Alexis at her side.
In Mufuma, a tiny community of red clay huts, day turned to night. Five musicians kneeled behind the marimba, an instrument made of flat wooden keys and hollowed out cabaca fruit. They gripped their wooden mallets and began to tap.
A young girl stepped forward, stirring up red dust as she began to step frantically to the beat of mbuenze. Soon others joined her, women and children and men and elders, shimmying to a centuries-old sound.
Wanda smiled. She’d arrived here curious but an outsider. She’d felt utterly alone. Over the past week, she’d come to recognize herself and her relatives in the faces of these strangers. She saw her grandfather’s proud walk. She saw her daughter’s strength.
“Welcome home,” they’d said at the U.S. Embassy.
“Welcome home,” they’d said in Malanje.
“Welcome home,” they’d said in Kalandula.
She’d grown more confident introducing herself as one of them. The Descendent.
She had been received like a daughter, long lost and now returned.
Nothing she had learned had made the link between her family and the Angolans on board that ship in 1619 more legitimate on paper.
But now she could hear the ancestors speak and have faith in where they were leading her.
“Ah what the heck,” Wanda said aloud, then jumped up and joined the dancers.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t have the exact moves. She was surrounded by beautiful black women who looked like her.
An elderly woman from the village danced up next to Wanda. The two wrapped their arms around each other and laughed and spun and laughed some more.
She had come such a long way to land in the arms of family, in a place that felt like home.