Wanda Tucker in Angola, on a trip to research her family's ancestry

Wanda Tucker in Angola, on a trip to research her family's ancestry

Four centuries ago this year, a privateer named the White Lion anchored off Point Comfort, an English colony in what is now Hampton, Virginia. In its cramped hold, it carried 20 or so human beings kidnapped from an ancient kingdom in Africa by Portuguese slave traders who sold them to the colonists for supplies.

Among the survivors of this voyage were Anthony and Isabella, who would become the parents of William, the first recorded named birth of an African in America. Six years later, a census showed the family as residing with a Capt. William Tucker at the start of chattel slavery that is this nation’s ugliest heritage.

The specifics of that history were unknown to most Americans over the years since, or changed so completely as to become a lie that some still believe. But not to Wanda Tucker, a scholar and administrator at  Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona. She grew up with that as her family’s origin story, and has long wanted to prove that they they are direct descendants of William, a legacy that is “a family treasure, handed down from generation to generation.”

Now, as major U.S. news organizations offered special coverage of the 400th anniversary of slavery’s American roots, Tucker got her chance.

Accompanied by a reporting team from USA Today, Tucker, 61, traveled to Angola in search of her ancestry. Her quest was chronicled in August in “1619: Searching for Answers: The long road home,” a heartwrenching narrative co-written by award-winning journalist Deborah Barfield Berry, a Washington reporter for the USA Today, and Kelley Benham French, an award-winning writer, editor and teacher who is a senior editor of narrative and special projects at the news organization.  (During her reporting, Berry discovered that she and Tucker might share a bloodline.)

The story joins a new canon of stories marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans to the colonies that would become the United States, perhaps most notably the “1619” package by the New York Times, anchored by a searing essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones. What sets the USA Today narrative apart, Berry believes, “is that we traveled to Angola where the ships came from to tell that unique story. We also chose to tell it through the experience of an African American woman who believes she is a descendant. We hope it offered readers a different view of how that history can be told.”

The story achieves with an inspired structure that weaves Tucker’s emotional travels though Angola into a larger landscape, buttressed by historical accounts, of the shameful history of what happened to Africans torn from their homeland, pressed into slavery and transported, in horrific conditions, across the ocean to America.

 

The story of Tucker’s search begins as she steps off a plane — “to a sky so gray it blended into the tarmac” — in the capital city of Luanda. Berry and French stand to the side furiously noting each move and reaction in their notepads while videographer and photojournalist Jarrad Henderson builds a visual account. Together, they gather exquisite details that bring the reader along as Tucker first encounters Africa from the windows of a van with a “cracked windshield and a broken door.” From the story:

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.

After a nut section that puts Tucker’s journey in historical perspective, the story segues into what French called a series of “must-have scenes,” as Tucker stands in a slave trader’s house in the National Museum of Slavery in the Angolan capital, within earshot of the ocean that carried her ancestors to America. On the walls are shackles small enough to bind a child’s wrist.

 

Initially, a trip to Angola was envisioned as a kicker to a larger story about the Tucker family. Until then, the story had compelling characters, but what it lacked, French says, was a narrative arc. The 10-day reporting trip to “dusty, mysterious” Angola changed that as the team followed Tucker on an odyssey to discover her roots. Throughout, the point-of-view is Tucker’s, elicited by constant questions from the writers and from Henderson, who showed Tucker videos to draw out her inner thoughts.

French provides insight into the reporting process in a page from her notebook:

Blowing + breathing. Wiping a tear. Plane hissing. Low scrub. Dull, hazy sky. Everything same color. Biting her lip. Eyes out window. Flat horizon. Wiping one eye then another. Even if this isn’t the right place, the hole in her is the size of this continent. Everything in Luanda is missing a piece of itself. Every roof has a hole in it. Sit now. Look at camera. Ok. How long this is coming. Sweep back. “It’s been a long journey.” LONG WAY HOME.” 

With remarkable economy and indelible imagery, the store evokes the sights and sounds of an impoverished nation clinging to its heartbreaking history. At a Catholic church, Tucker drinks “cloudy palm wine” and examines a centuries-old history of the kingdoms of Congo, Mamba and Angola. The team travels 200 miles with her into the interior, to the Ndongo Kingdom, locus of the Portuguese slave trade, dodging “crater-sized potholes” as they pass a countryside still marred by land mines from 25 years of civil war that ended in 2002.

Tucker visits the village where Anthony and Isabella might have lived, the fort where they would have been penned and branded, the mountains where they might have tried to flee. In the villages she met village elders who told her that the word for ocean in their tongue — kalunga — means death, a place of no return.

“Nothing she had learned had made the link between her family and the Angolans on board that ship in 1619 more legitimate on paper” Berry and Benham write. “But now she could hear the ancestors speak and have faith in where they were leading her.”

Tucker’s journey home ends on an expected joyous note in the village of Mufuma as she watches a group of villagers dancing. “Aw, what the heck,” she says, and joins them, shimmying to the sounds of the marimba.

Berry and French answered questions about the origins of the story, the challenges of the reporting trip, the structure of the narrative, and the key to their teamwork. A full annotation of the story follows our Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity.

USAToday reporter Deborah Barfield Berry with Wanda Tucker

USAToday reporter Deborah Barfield Berry with Wanda Tucker

What’s the origin of “Searching for Answers?”
Deborah Barfield Berry: We were working on a story, with reporter Rick Hampson, about members of the Tucker family, who believe they are descendants of the first Africans brought to the English colony on a ship from Angola in 1619. There had been some talk about possibly going to Angola as part of the story, but it hadn’t been decided. Then discussions turned to how much better the Tucker family story could be with that trip. We got to know Wanda as we reported on the Tucker story. She had taken on the role as the family historian, so we had a lot of contact with her. Rick and I met her face-to-face for the first time in June at the Tucker family cemetery.

Why did she agree to let a team follow her during her time in Angola?
Berry: It took awhile for Wanda to feel comfortable with the media focus. But once we got to know her and she got to know us — especially during a visit with her family in Hampton — I think she trusted that we would tell her story the best way we could. And most of all, we would be fair. Tens of thousands of people read the story. I was nervous about one reader in particular – Wanda.

What was the biggest reporting challenge?
Kelley Benham French: Before we decided to go to Angola, the story was missing action. We had characters — this family in Virginia who held tight to this identity — but there wasn’t much in the present to chronicle, and they didn’t have many family stories we could retell. Once we decided to take Wanda (Tucker) to Angola, we had a clear narrative arc. The reporting challenges at that point became logistical. We were on an impossibly tight schedule working in a very difficult country. We waited days in Angola for visas and press credentials as the lights flickered on and off and the computer systems shut down. We traveled for days on blasted-out roads, with two translators and a driver. We had to court government and village officials everywhere we went, and everything took twice as long as we expected. It was a physically difficult trip. Just staying healthy was a challenge.
Berry: We didn’t have access to the usual press secretaries or press offices. There were so many hoops to jump through to get basic information and access.

What was the biggest structural challenge?
Berry: Deciding to write in sections that could stand alone but offer enough historical information and color that was digestible to readers. We overcame it by not overloading sections with history, but trying to weave it in.

How did you arrive at that structure?
Berry:  We talked a lot about what would be in the story and how it would best be told. Writing in sections seemed to be the best route.
French: We tried to map it out on the airplane, in the airport, on the bus. We both had ancient laptops that would hold power for about 45 minutes. I did a lot of sketching on paper. Deb was set on starting with Wanda getting off the plane, because that image was so embedded in us emotionally. We needed a nut section next. Then we went through our must-have scenes, blocked them out, and blended the rest into montage pieces that helped us move from scene to scene. I like to make sure every section has a theme, serves one idea. We never questioned the ending. We felt sure the  story would end with Wanda dancing.

What were the greatest challenges of producing a story together?
Berry: Meshing different styles, voices and views. I think one thing that helped was we tended to capture the same details and color. We often agreed about the important elements to include in the story. We compromised on language, scenes, tone. I respected Kelley’s expertise with narrative writing and I think she respected my experience as a reporter and writer.
French: I think we were paired up in part because we come from different traditions. But Deb’s generosity and sense of humor made working together pretty easy for me. It’s true, we were cosmically connected when reporting — always homing in on the same details. When we were writing, there was a lot of give-and-take. Deb’s seriousness and purpose were inspiring.

The story comes in at about 4,500 words, yet the prose is noteworthy for its economy. Was it a challenge to limit the story of Wanda Tucker’s journey and background, the history of the slave trade and Angola?
Berry: Yep. We left a whole lot in our notebooks.

What was the emotional impact of accompanying Wanda?
Berry: It was extremely emotional, particularly as an African American visiting the Motherland for a story about slavery. I had made my own pilgrimage to Ghana, Senegal and the Ivory Coast 20 years ago, but even as an observer, a journalist, there is no way to turn off the pain of standing in a slave trader’s house and in the “Door of No Return.”

Kelley Benham French and Wanda Tucker touring an Angola village with Custodio Armando, a province official

Kelley Benham French and Wanda Tucker touring an Angola village with Custodio Armando, a province official

Was it difficult to keep yourselves out of the story since you were sharing such an intimate, emotional experience?
Berry: At times it was difficult, particularly while reporting in Angola. We were with each other pretty much 24/7. But we are journalists, so when we sat down to write and edit we focused on telling Wanda’s story.
French: I could tell that the rest of the team — all of whom were African American — were having to sacrifice some of the personal experience they would love to have had in order to focus on Wanda’s story. We worked such crazy hours that we didn’t have time to mail a postcard or buy a souvenir. We were also five people following around one woman, so we were naturally interacting with her at all times. We could not just be completely out of the story or she would have felt abandoned and alone in a strange country. We are in half of Jarrad’s photos, on the edges of the frame. We’re in the video he produced, following Wanda around. When we drafted, we’d move to another section of the bus so Wanda couldn’t hear us. But if we had a question, all we had to do was shout and she’d answer it.

Given all the 1619 coverage from multiple news outlets this past year, why did USA Today choose this one as their big presence?
French: The legendary Gene Roberts, a professor and mentor of mine, tells his reporters to zag when everyone else zigs. The best way for our small team to contribute meaningfully on this sprawling story was to zag. So we zagged 7,000 miles across the ocean to the source of the story, and tethered ourselves to a thoughtful, rational, insightful character who had a lot at stake.

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; responses from Berry and French in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.

1619: SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS

The long road home

Deborah Barfield Berry and Kelley Benham French, USA TODAY

Updated 6:12 p.m. EDT Sep. 10, 2019

LUANDA, Angola – Wanda Tucker stepped off the plane to a sky so gray it blended into the tarmac. How did you decide on this entry point for the story?   Berry: We both felt strongly early on that this arrival was important to Wanda — emotional, overwhelming. We wanted readers to  join her on the trip. The image of the sky is magical. Did that occur to you when you got off the plane or during composition of the story? Berry: We both vividly recalled that scene when we stepped off the plane. It was one of the first scenes that stuck in my head.

 

She inhaled, balanced her new bag with the straw handle, then step-by-step-by-step made her way down the metal stairs. Did you rely on any of the video or photographs taken by your colleagues to document scenes and narrative moments in the story? Berry: Most scenes came from our own observations and notes scribbled in notebooks and whatever else was available. Wanda did a nightly video blog with Jarrad Henderson. We sat in on those interviews and also asked questions. Nichelle Smith, another member of the team, joined us. In addition to interviews on the bus, at the sites and in hotel lobbies, we also used material from the video blog interviews.

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. How do you know that flying over the ocean “had brought home the reality of what she had come to do?” Berry: Kelley asked her.

The plane hissed. How did you settle on ‘hissed?” which is very evocative? Did you consider other verbs? French: I just thought of that verb when I was standing on the tarmac and heard the plane hiss in the background. I jotted it in my notebook. It was edited in and out and back in several times. Ultimately it stayed in for rhythm. The faces around her were brown like hers, but their words were a scramble of sound.

A page from Kelley Benham French's reporting notebook in Angola

A page from Kelley Benham French's reporting notebook in Angola

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. The point-of-view is totally Wanda Tucker’s. What kind of reporting made it possible to support it? French: We asked her. It’s so simple just to ask people what they were feeling. To jog her memory, photojournalist Jarrad Henderson showed Wanda video he’d taken of her getting off the plane. Then he asked her to talk him through what she saw and felt and thought. Jarrad is a brilliant interviewer, and that move was one I’ll be sure to use in the future. He tells me it’s called “photo/video elicitation.” Whatever. It was masterful. Wanda told us, “It was hard to breathe.” Later, she noted the same feeling in her journal. You’re watching her closely, aren’t you? Are all these details going into your notebooks? French: Four people were watching her intently. So the notes are a mix of detail, observation, quotes, impressions, thoughts. Berry: I kept my notebook and pen close, real close. I watched her intently,  especially when we landed. I hurried off the plane and down the steps so I could watch her slowly descend. I watched and scribbled, watched and scribbled. I captured quotes. Sometimes to remain in the moment I just took mental notes and jotted down color later. I later worked hard to describe how Wanda looked when she stood in the door of the plane, how she juggled her new straw bag, how she wore a beige African print tunic, how her straw hat had survived the 40-hour trip. All that was in one of the early drafts. It didn’t make the final cut. Sigh. But it made sense to get into the story more quickly and more to the point. What role did editors play? Berry: Kristen Go, the project editor, was heavily involved in the framing of the story and particularly as we line edited. Kelley, who was also the narrative editor, was a co-writer. Nichelle Smith, an editor who was also on the trip working on a related story, was our in-house historian. We turned to her to fact-check, confirm spellings and toss around ideas. She was also key to setting up the itinerary.

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. The repetition of “she would” has a strong rhythm. What was the reasoning behind the device? French: It wasn’t conscious, but repetition can be really pleasing; I think here it helps to build momentum. Is that passage intended to foreshadow what’s to come? Why place it here? French: We are taking people on a long journey, and as they are deciding whether to commit to reading this whole thing, we want to convey that we know where we’re going and that the reader is in good hands. Also by using the word “courageously,” we are ratcheting up the tension and stakes.

Wanda believed her ancestors had called her here. But sometimes she found it hard to listen, and she didn’t hear them now. You interrupt the scene here? Why? Is this the nut graf? French: I don’t think this is the nut graph. I think the nut graph comes in the next section. But I don’t want to go any longer than I have to without giving the reader some idea of what this is about. So sticking some ancestors up high is like planting a clue. Those ancestors are also going to speak to Wanda again later, so we’re setting up that thread.

She had come so far and felt so alone. She said aloud, “Could somebody give me a hug?” Who was she talking to? French: She was talking to our team at USA Today. Berry: And to whoever was listening.

 

1619

What role does this section play? French: This is the nut section. We need to lay plain Wanda’s connection to Angola, and say why her story matters. We need to make clear that the story is not just hers, but part of a much larger American story. This is the section where we need to really ring the bell at the top of the ladder of abstraction.

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. Is the story provable? French: Not with the records we have on hand at this moment, but that doesn’t mean it won’t become provable someday. There is strong circumstantial evidence. The language here was really important, because we didn’t want to cast her as someone operating against available evidence.

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. What are the sources of his powerful history? Berry: The history of the ship’s arrival is well known and documented. But we also interviewed historians in Hampton and at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and others. How can you say they “staggered?” French: Deb fought me on that one. Maybe it’s a reach. I just can’t imagine a universe where they didn’t stagger. If I spend six hours on a canoe, I’m staggering off. They were underfed, probably sick, and had spent months growing accustomed to the motion of the sea. Does anyone think they just strode off the boat? Anyway, we had many conversations about it. 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. This is so dramatic. Did you rely on more than one source to tell the story of Anthony and Isabella? How did you verify it? French: The story of Anthony and Isabella has been pieced together by multiple historians. It’s a narrative inconvenience that the captives got rerouted and loaded off of one ship and onto another. That made writing these background paragraphs always a bit of a dance. They also weren’t the “first slaves in America” because there were slaves in Florida and other parts of what would become the United States. They were first in the English colonies. And maybe they became indentured servants, not slaves. We don’t really know. Did it require a lot of revision to boil it down to this one paragraph from “What’s known” to “a nation?” French: We wrote another whole story about the history, so we felt freer here to just hit the highlights. But yes, the paragraph was revised many, many times. Probably a dozen times. And yes, we interviewed local and national historians to confirm the information as well as the director of the National Slave Museum in Angola. We also interviewed officials and leaders in villages and provinces in Angola.

Anthony and Isabella probably weren’t their real names. Their Angolan names were likely subbed out by whichever Catholic priest baptized them for the journey. I wondered about that? How do you know about their naming? In places like this, attribution is missing. Why? French: We didn’t witness it, so we have to use the word likely, but we asked this question of the director of the slave museum in Angola and of probably every other expert on the trip. At some point, Angolans would have commonly taken Portuguese names when they were voluntarily baptized, but in 1619, in the interior of the country where Antony and Isabella lived, that would not have been likely at all. It would have been nuts to try to gunk up this section with attribution. This is a forceful, hopefully lyrical section staking our claim to all of the big ideas in the piece. It’s not a place for “the professor said.” Other pieces in this package delve deeper into all the mechanics of what happened. And I think we have enough experts in this story to prove to the reader we aren’t just making this stuff up.

The reason they are remembered and other Africans are not is the anomaly that someone bothered to record their names at all. “Anomaly” is the perfect word to describe what happened to them? Did you search for that word? French: It just came to me. This whole section came to me on an airplane, where I was without wifi for a couple of hours. Having that forced period of solitude and quiet allowed me to step back and say, you know, I don’t think we’ve hit the Big Idea hard enough. I wanted to go at it more forcefully. My laptop was dead so I was writing with pen and paper. I often encourage students to free-write on the major themes in their stories, and I was certainly following that advice here. Then I took some of what I’d come up with to Deb when we were together again and we took it from there together. A 1625 census noted that they belonged to the household of Capt. William Tucker and that they had a child named William. Did you see the census? Where did you find it? Berry: Our colleague Rick Hampson had reported some of this material, including Census info. And I interviewed a historian at the Hampton museum who showed me copies of documents and verified other details. 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. You qualify William’s birth with “named.” Why? French: There was one other child noted in the census, but that child was not named in the census.

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.

Why are you relying on links in the previous two paragraphs? French: Personally, I hate the links. Why invite people to leave your story? But it does take care of some attribution. It shows we’ve written about this stuff before in other places and you can go read more about it. And there are probably reasons for linking to things that have to do with audience and metrics and clicks and so forth.

 

USA Today reporter Rick Hampson with Wanda Tucker, researching records of Tucker's ancestry

USA Today reporter Rick Hampson with Wanda Tucker, researching records of Tucker's ancestry

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. How much of the story of Wanda Tucker’s ancestors was discovered in Angola? Berry: There were no major discoveries linking Wanda to ancestors in Angola. But there were remarkable and emotional discoveries about the lives of people who once lived there and ended up in the English colony. Wanda claimed those ancestors. Can you describe the reporting done before the team left for Africa? Berry: We spent weeks reporting on the story of the Tucker family, interviewing members in Hampton, Baltimore and New York. We also went to the county courthouse to look over documents. We visited the family cemetery in Hampton several times. We interviewed historians in Hampton, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and others. We also met with officials at the Embassy of Angola in Washington. We reached out to Embassy officials and other government officials in Angola.

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. You bring the arrival to a close here. Why? French: Without it, it’s been too long since we reminded people that there’s this woman named Wanda and you’re about to read another 3,000 words about her.

History lessons

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.” How do you know the textbook was hers? Does she still have it? French: Wanda didn’t remember the name of the teacher or a lot of the details you’d love to have as a narrative writer. Putting together the scene was tough. She didn’t know the name of the textbook and it was the teacher, not the book, that was the subject of the painful memory. But since we couldn’t put a face on the teacher, I started wondering what the textbook had said. I asked reporter Rick Hampson to try to find out what textbook Wanda’s school would have been using in 1971. Within a couple of days he had found not only the title, but a used copy for sale online for $100. We verified that the entire school system used this particular book in the 7th grade. When the book arrived, it was richer than I had dared hope. It makes clear that this one teacher’s perspective was not personal; it was institutional.

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.” How did you decide what to excerpt from the book? French: We had many, many passages to choose from. We used the ones that most closely aligned with the message that Wanda remembered her teacher espousing in class.

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. How did you verify Wanda’s memory? French: Here, we really can’t. The textbook certainly brings a lot of validity to her memories. But she doesn’t remember the name of the teacher or the classmate, so we can’t call them. I’d love to have found a yearbook, and with more time, I would’ve pursued one. Why did you choose summary instead of dramatic narrative here? French: We just didn’t have the detail for dramatic narrative. The verb choice is powerful. You had other options — hit, punched. Why did you choose “slugged”? French: That was a paragraph Rick Hampson wrote for the original Tucker family story. He graciously let us have it for this Angola narrative. Slugged was his word.

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.  You break from the dramatic narrative for a long time to deliver background. Why? Berry: I don’t know that it was intentional. But I think in part it changed the pace and gave readers some context for what the trip meant for Wanda. It didn’t need the dramatic narrative approach. The details painted enough of the picture.

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. How did you delve into her past to collect these wonderfully descriptive details? French: I asked her. Then I Googled “How to measure a man for a suit” and asked Wanda if the details I found matched her memory. I had written about a tailor years ago and learned some things from that reporting that I was able to use to ask questions here. 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.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Wanda in Africa, her ancestors’ history and her own biography. How did you structure these sections? Did you outline? Storyboard? Berry: Outlines, which changed all the time.

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. The sentence reveals the power of threes. Why did you write it this way? French: Using threes can build a powerful rhythm. As Roy Peter Clark describes in “Writing Tools,” the number of examples (or characters or whatever) carries significance. Two sets up a compare-contrast situation. Three of anything is a group. We want a group here, because we’re describing related elements — all examples of bad stuff that happened. Four is too many. Three works. But the string of threes also starts a rhythm that gets snapped with “the Tuckers knew they were somebody.” It’s like a train is picking up speed and then it smacks into a wall. It takes all the momentum and steam from the those verbs — rob, strip, steal — and shifts the emphasis to the part of the sentence where you really need it. One of my quirks is that I use threes a little too often. Sometimes I have to go through drafts and cut out two of my three examples. Using three can be powerful rhythmically, and it can also create an annoying drumbeat.

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 degrees — in psychology, religious studies, theology and educational leadership. She runs the Psychology, Philosophy and Religious Studies departments at Rio Salado College in Tempe, Arizona. Did you learn all of Wanda’s backstory before you left for Angola? Berry: We learned some of this before we left. We learned a lot more during the hours on the bus, in hotels, in the villages and in local restaurants. We also followed up with her when we returned to the U.S. Wanda graciously answered all the calls, emails, texts and WhatsApp messages. I also called all the colleges to confirm that she had indeed attended and earned those degrees.

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. Who paid for Wanda Tucker’s trip to Angola? Did that raise any ethical or storytelling challenges? Berry: USA Today paid for Wanda’s trip. It was mentioned in the story. As part of the arrangement, Wanda worked (much like a freelancer). She was obligated to write daily journal posts about her experience (excerpts were published) and to do daily video blogs. It didn’t interfere with the storytelling. It helped.

She packed a bag and told everyone she’d be back in two weeks.

She wanted to be part of setting history right.

Recognition

Were the subheds used to organize the story? Who wrote them? Berry: Yes and to set the scene. We all did, including our project editor.

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. How do you know how she felt? Berry We asked — all the time.

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. This is a richly-detailed picture of an African city? How did you capture it all? French: We both took lots of notes. We later compared notes, which often showed we noticed similar details, jotted down similar color, picked up on similar quotes.

Kelley Benham French on assignment in Angola

Kelley Benham French on assignment in Angola

Wanda navigated a packed open-air market where children trailed her with hopeful eyes. “Hopeful” is emotionally charged. What gave you the authority to use it? French: When kids are following you asking for money and holding out their hands, they’re hopeful. 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. How did you learn about the yellow fever outbreak? French: From the local journalist who was helping us with logistics and translation. At times like this the economy of the prose is striking. How did you achieve that? French: I prune and prune and prune and prune and weigh every syllable. Nothing irritates me more than wordiness. If I read this story one more time, I could get another hundred words out. It’s never perfect. But I want every word to do a specific job and do it well. It can always be more sharp, more clear, more muscular, more lyrical. You could have, for instance, listed all the shots she had to get. Why didn’t you? French: The only shot that revealed anything about her trip would’ve been yellow fever. So that’s implied. No need to list the others. If I send you to the grocery to get Diet Cherry Dr Pepper because I crave that stuff at odd hours, that’s a detail that reveals something about me. If you also pick up paper towels, that says nothing, because everyone runs out of paper towels every day. So when a detail goes into the story, it must go in with a specific job to do. But also, in this sentence we are not in Wanda’s head but we are this close to her, writing nearly in her perspective. She wouldn’t have been wandering through that market rattling off every shot she’d received. She’d just say she’d gotten her shots. It’s a tone thing. We’re not just tossing color around willy nilly. We’re leading the reader’s eye. It’s engineered. How long did it take to write? Berry: We had about two weeks from our return from Angola to write the story and help with elements of the rest of the package, including captions, graphics, illustrations, etc.  We also had to finish the original Tucker family story. What was the biggest writing challenge? Berry: One challenge was trying to condense 10 days of reporting and amazing color into a narrative that would tell Wanda’s story and at the same time tell the story of the Angolans who were enslaved and the Angolans still there. Were the first drafts much longer? If so, how did you decide what to cut? Berry: Yes, the first drafts were longer. Kelley did a great job of cutting. And it helped to have fresh pairs of eyes — our project editor Kristen Go and Rick Hampson, co-writer on the Tucker family story. Of course some of the cuts were painful. But something had to go.

“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. Was Wanda telling you these things? French: She specifically noted the straight backs, careful dress, attention to detail. I asked her about the observation I’d jotted in my notebook upon our arrival — that everything seemed to be missing a piece of itself. I said, it seemed this way to me. And she said, oh yes, that feels true. Did you use audio recorders? Berry: Yes. We also used cameras and old-fashioned notebooks. With two reporters on the story, how did you divide the interviews with Wanda? Berry: Sometimes we did it together, particularly when we participated in the video blog interview. But we also just talked to her separately during our travels. There weren’t defined times or angles or approaches.

Family, maybe. Or something close.

Adrift

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 Africans had been captured here. What historians? Why aren’t they quoted? Berry: We interviewed several local, national and international historians. We quoted them in other stories that are part of the package. We had reported enough to write with authority. Mentors like Reginald Stuart would hammer that into my head.

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.

Wanda Tucker at a slave museum in Angola

Wanda Tucker at a slave museum in Angola

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. Again, this is told through Wanda’s point of view? How were you able to do that? Berry We watched her to describe her actions. We asked her to describe her feelings, reactions. French:  Every line is a choice. You could write “the waves crashed into shore” but it’s much more effective to put it in Wanda’s head. “She could hear the waves…” I watched her in that baptismal room, having a moment, visibly emotional. I asked her about that moment. I asked her which part of the museum was the most profound for her. I asked her why. I watched her touch the bowl and then, immediately, I asked her what she was thinking about.

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. Here you rely on an expert voice. Why? Berry: We let the expert (an authority) tell readers what the experience must have been like. French: He’s an expert, but he’s also in a scene and interacting with Wanda, so it’s the least wonky way to get an expert into the story. And Wanda learned some things there, as did we did.

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. What an awful image? What’s the source? Berry: One source was the director of the National Slave Museum in Angola and another was a curator at the NMAAHC. Other sources were history books. French: The detail about sharks trailing the ships comes from journals and personal accounts from the period, but it’s widely documented.

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. Who asked  him to sing a song about slavery? French: A translator working with us.

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 dramatic narrative of Wanda’s visit is broken here by a more traditional journalistic voice? Why? Berry: In part because it was “news” happening. It warranted that approach. French: Because we have to tell the reader some stuff in a little more detail than Wanda was probably carrying in her head. So we need a slight distance from Wanda’s perspective and from the narrative of the trip. Wanda has been aware of all of these news events but she can’t cite poll numbers. We need a little newsier, more objective voice.

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.” When did she make this comment? On the trip, or after she returned home? French: The day we left, at the USA Today headquarters in Virginia, in a conversation with me.

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. “Today” suggests this was happening during the trip? Was it? Did she talk about this in Angola? Berry It wasn’t literally today, but it was part of the current news. I don’t remember exactly when I talked to Wanda about this. But she had repeatedly talked about her work and research around young black men. French: We were together 18-20 hours some days. She talked about all of this stuff on the trip. It was very much on her mind. b

“Here we go again,” she said.

Faith

In a conference room of a Catholic church in Luanda, Wanda furiously scribbled in her pink notebook, peeking over her glasses.

Visual journalist Jarad Henderson in Angola

Visual journalist Jarad Henderson in Angola

Father Gabriele Bortolami, an Italian Capuchin 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. Why did you choose the word “libations?” Berry: That’s what it’s called, particularly as part of  African traditions. Who else was there? French: Our whole team — Deb, me, visual journalist Jarrad Henderson, reporter Nichelle Smith, who was working on a different story— a local journalist who was translating for us, a second translator and our driver.

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. Who asked the question? How difficult was it to keep yourselves out of the story? French: Deb asked. It was a question that was very much on Wanda’s heart and mind, and we knew that. So it needed to be asked. Berry: I didn’t consider asking that as being part of the story. It was a legitimate question to ask considering how Christianity was used by some to enslave Africans.

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. Did she tell you this? French: Yes, we talked about it at length. When she walked out, we saw the parallel to 7th grade pretty immediately.

Spirits

On the road out of the city, cars jammed together and the lane divisions were mere suggestions. What a great phrase. How did you come up with that? French: There’s a line I remember from an old story— I can’t remember if it was my story or someone else’s — about how the water is so deep and blue “the bottom is just a rumor.” That line popped into my head and I adapted it. A lot of writing is just feeding your brain with the rhythms and structures of good writing, with fodder for story ideas, with a sense of what’s possible.

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. A strong metaphor. Did it show up in your notebook, composition or revision? French: Deb and I laughed when we saw this question. I wrote something clunky and Deb didn’t love it and she wrote something. Both versions sat there in the draft until Kristen Go broke the stalemate with a smart mashup of our two versions. Every time I see a dollar store now I think of this.

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.

This is a rich and sad portrait of contemporary Angola? What is it based on? French: It’s originally based on numerous conversations with Angolans, all of which Wanda was part of. This was the portrait our Angolan sources painted again and again. I put the paragraph together without looking at a notebook. Then I went looking for official sources to back it all up and linked to all of those sources in the comments section of the draft so everyone could see the “official” sourcing of what we’d learned on the ground in Angola.

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. Did she interact with any of Angolans? Berry: Absolutely — as much as she could. Those interactions are in the story, in the pictures, in the videos. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

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. How did she know where to go? Berry: Nichelle Smith had mapped out much of our trip based on advice from experts on Angola and slavery.

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.

Did either of you see the man? French: No, but another member of our team said she did. It was too awkward to work that in, and including it would have put the focus on whether or not the man — or apparition or spirit or whatever, was actually there. I was not about to try to establish in this story whether ghosts exist. Wanda had the experience she had and that was enough. Berry: Agreed. We had much discussion about this. We all felt it was important to include. The pacing of the story is very effective as you alternate between short and long sentences and paragraphs. French: For a story to have energy and movement, it needs variety of all kinds. Long sentences and short. Up the ladder of abstraction and back down. Zoom in, zoom out. Speed up, slow down. A story of this length has to do some bobbing and weaving. Often I’m just flying by feel. I hear the music in my head and write to it.. There are some guidelines, though. Short sentences slow the reader. Every comma is a pause. Every period a stop. See? I use short sentences often when I want to pump the brakes, to say to the reader: Here it comes. Here it comes. Ready? THERE. Long sentences take the reader by the arm like Superman grabbed Lois Lane when they stepped off the rooftop and went sailing over the city, swooping past the skyscrapers and spiraling around the Statue of Liberty and slicing through the clouds, then a freefall and a catch and a slow spin, and then we’re off again. I like to use long sentences to get from Point A to Point B, or to build momentum.

Welcome home

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. Did you work with a translator? French: We traveled with a local journalist who translated from English to Portuguese, and another translated from Portuguese to Kimbundu.

“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.” Berry: We were all together when the soba told Wanda you have relatives here. But I talked to her later when we had returned to the U.S. about that visit. That’s when she said that last quote. I thought it was powerful.   

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. Is this based on personal experience? Berry: Yep. The whole team can testify. 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.

Queen

The rock formations rising out of the savannah seem impossible, like they were dropped there by some heavenly spirit with a pocketful of pebbles. That’s a poetic simile. Why did you use it? Did it come to you at the scene or later? French: We had hours to gaze out the bus window at the weird rocks and wrestle with how to describe them. We were talking about spirits a lot, imagining these ancestors and invisible forces. When I’m trying to describe something that has lots of top-of-the-ladder majesty, I will usually screw it up if I try to use top-of-the-ladder words, like majesty. Go the other direction. Go for simple language. Pocketful of pebbles is easy to see. Grandeur is not.

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. How and where did you learn this history? Berry: We relied on research and interviews with historians. We also read articles and other resources.  All of that helped us to tell the history. French: The history of Njinga is not obscure in this part of the world. It’s like asking how did you learn about George Washington. Her face is everywhere. Her story is the story of this entire people. We didn’t just read about her. We stood on sacred ground in the hills where she ruled and spoke with her descendants about the stories they’ve handed down over generations. We got the story every way you could get it.

Queen Njinga of 17th Century Angola

Queen Njinga of 17th Century Angola

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. What’s the source? Berry: Village elders, articles, local museums and experts.  The whole scene is even carved into tiles in the military museum we visited.

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. How do you know this? Berry: We asked. 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. Why did you wait until this point to provide this background about Wanda? Berry: It was relevant here. The queen came to mean a lot to Wanda.  .

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. Did the presence of journalists make Wanda’s journey easier, in terms of access to place and people? French: It would be difficult to just go to Angola as a tourist, though that’s what the leaders insist they want. Logistics there are hard. You can’t just drive freely to these sites. Certainly the potential for Angola to freshen its image post-civil-war in a major U.S. publication spurred local leaders to accommodate our team. Once they knew what we were doing, we had tremendous support there. Did you have any concern that your presence was affecting what was going on? What steps did you take to distance yourself from what Wanda was experiencing while at the same time documenting it? Berry: We respected her personal time and gave her space to experience moments. She knew we were there, but we were respectful. I think that helped when she shared her thoughts then and later. French: The whole trip was arranged by us, so there wasn’t any pretense that we were merely observing some organic scene. Even when we visited the villages, we were not witnessing normal life in the village. That kind of authenticity would take months or years of patient reporting. We had days.

But Wanda’s emotions were real. Her insights were hers. We checked in with her often about whether we were too close or not close enough. Often she wanted us near so she wouldn’t fall apart in public. We had to accept that our circumstances were unusual and just be transparent with the reader.

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.

Not alone

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. What does “mbuenze” mean and why didn’t you translate it? Berry: We figured the context would be enough since we described the men playing an instrument. 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.

“Tusange.” What language is this and what does it mean? Berry: It means welcome home in the native language of the village.

She’d grown more confident introducing herself as one of them. The Descendent. Is this the term she used? Berry: Yes.

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. Was she disappointed? Was USA Today disappointed? Berry: She wasn’t disappointed. It had been 400 years since the ship left. She didn’t expect to find records — not in Angola anyway. USA Today wasn’t either. We didn’t have such expectations.

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. Why was it important to say “aloud?” Berry: Because it wasn’t what she thought or what we thought she felt. I heard her say it before she jumped up. I knew we had to use that. It showed her spur-of-the-moment decision to join in. She later described it as one of the highlights of her trip.

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.

Why did you choose to end the story this way? Did you consider alternate endings? Berry: It changed several times. We felt strongly that the dance scene should be ending. It said so much about the journey, particularly  since Wanda felt so much at home in that moment. We also wanted to circle back to when she got off the plane, had longed for family and needed a hug. She may not have found everything she wanted in Angola, but she found this. French: Our negotiations were about word choice. I overwrote it. Deb wisely dug in her heels until we came upon the right language. I think I’d said she “fell into the arms of family,” which sounds like she got the vapors. Did Wanda Tucker discover what she was searching for in Angola? Berry: We think so, but she’s still searching for more of her family story right here in America.

 

Contributing: Rick Hampson, Nichelle Smith and Jarrad Henderson

What role did these contributors play? Berry: Rick found the textbook, which was a great “get,” and helped report the Tucker family story, which we borrowed from. Nichelle added historical context and research and provided invaluable information about our travel points. Jarrad took amazing pictures, produced a powerful video and led the video blogs, which were key to getting emotional quotes and reactions from Wanda.
The USA Today reporting crew in Angola. From left: Jarrad Henderson, Wanda Tucker, Kelley Benham French, Deborah Barfield Berry, Nichelle Smith

The USA Today reporting crew in Angola. From left: Jarrad Henderson, Wanda Tucker, Kelley Benham French, Deborah Barfield Berry, Nichelle Smith

 

 

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