After walking down a path where enslaved people once marched in chains to waiting ships, Vice President Kamala Harris entered a dungeon in Cape Coast, Ghana, where captive women had sung songs praying for death. If nothing else, her tour guide said on Tuesday, they believed death would bring freedom.
Ms. Harris, wiping her face and visibly emotional, walked outside this former slave port and connected the past to the present.
“The descendants of the people that walked through that door were strong people, proud people, people of deep faith who loved their families, their traditions, their culture,” Ms. Harris said during her visit to the port, called Cape Coast Castle, used for the slave trade in the 17th century. Those people, she added, “went on to fight for civil rights, fight for justice in the United States of America and around the world.”
Ms. Harris, who is on a tour of three countries in Africa — Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia — has been focused on promoting investments in the continent and collaboration with the United States. She has sought to showcase young artists by posting a Spotify playlist of her favorite African music and appearing with musicians at a studio in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
But on Tuesday, Ms. Harris, the first woman of color to serve as vice president of the United States, spoke of a different way to revitalize the U.S. relationship with Africa: She encouraged Americans to honor and learn the bleak history that links many Black Americans to the continent.
For Ms. Harris, that meant leaning harder into the historical nature of her position than ever before, an aspect of her role that she has at times expressed reservations about.
“This continent, of course, has a special significance for me personally, as the first Black vice president,” said Ms. Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Black Jamaican father. “And this is a history, like many of us, that I learned as a young child: stories, cultures and traditions passed down from generations.”
A former prosecutor, Ms. Harris often analyzes each word of the drafts of her speeches, aides say, in an effort to inform audiences about legal precedents and policy implications. On Tuesday at the slave port, however, she delivered rare unscripted remarks, according to officials from her office.
Before the port tour, Ms. Harris relied on her personal narrative to drive home the idea that the Biden administration was seeking to collaborate with African nations after years of ceding ground to other superpowers — in particular, China.
She spoke at the Black Star Gate, the monument signifying Ghana’s independence in the late 1950s. Many in the crowd of thousands waved Ghanaian or American flags and danced to Afrobeats music between speeches, and Ms. Harris traced her family’s connection to Africa.
She spoke of her maternal grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, a senior diplomat for the Indian government who helped Zambia, in southern Africa, manage refugees arriving from Rhodesia, Zimbabwe’s name before independence. He had also served as a special adviser to the first Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda.
“The values that guided my relatives when they were there, and the legacy of their efforts, remain a source of pride for my entire family and continue to animate my work today,” said Ms. Harris, who was given the task by President Biden of working on the issue of migration to the United States from Central America.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on the American coast in 1619, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana in 2018 unveiled a campaign to encourage their descendants in the Americas to visit his country as a way to commemorate their family history and honor the diaspora. He called 2019 the “Year of the Return.”
During a state banquet toast on Monday, Ms. Harris told Mr. Akufo-Addo, “You take great joy in reminding us all of where we come from, but always with a glorious vision of where we also know we can be.”
Ghana has increasingly become a destination for Black Americans, including various politicians, to connect with their identity. Eric Adams, New York City’s second Black mayor, has said that visiting the slave forts celebrated resilience. President Barack Obama also visited the slave port in Ghana in 2009.
On his trip, Mr. Obama said that Africa needed to take greater responsibility for the corruption and tyranny in the region. “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” he said in a televised address.
Ms. Harris offered a far different message on Tuesday. While she encouraged fostering “democracy and governance” during her speech, she reinforced the Biden administration’s commitment to Africa, saying that the United States would build a future alongside Africans.
“We have an intertwined history, some of which is painful and some of which is prideful,” Ms. Harris said. “And all of which we must acknowledge, teach and never forget.”