Imagine that you are in room. It’s about 30 by 30 feet. The floor is stone, and the walls and ceiling are a mix of stone and cement. They are a little damp, which you can smell but you can’t quite see. It’s pitch black except for the light that comes in from a low, arched doorway in whose frame is silhouetted an iron gate. When your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see a narrow stretch of beach and the blue and gray of the ocean beyond.
This, a doorway in West Africa’s Elmina Fort, is a Door of No Return. It is the last part of Africa you would touch if you were a slave being led from the dungeon to a waiting ship.
I stood in front of this door a few years ago while visiting my family in Ghana. It is a place of sorrow and suffering. Countless human beings passed by this spot on their way to either a wretched death at sea or a life of bondage in the New World. They had been snatched up near their villages in slave raids; ripped from their families and everything they knew; shackled to others by the neck for a long march to coast; and thrown in a crowded, reeking dungeon for what might have been months until the next ship arrived. That was just the start of the journey.
This door represents many things. As human beings, it represents our capacity for cruelty-as well as resilience. Many of the descendants of those who went through it not only survived, but went on to build the “New World” itself. They paved the way for every opportunity I have had in the United States, and I believe their story makes us all stronger.
But this door also represents a beginning-the beginning of our modern food system.
If, back in the 18th century, you could see all the way across the Atlantic, you would find an unbroken line of plantations that stretched from Buenos Aires to Baltimore. Down this entire line, slaves harvested sugar for British tea, rice for the West Indian consumption, and cotton for the textile mills of New England. These were vast monocrops that broke the body and ruined the soil-but made money for planters and big companies that traded the goods.