A Sort of Homecoming
It has become a genre of its own: the narrative in which a person of African descent brought up in America, Europe or the Caribbean meditates on travel, migration and exile, and grapples with his or her mixed feelings about Africa. Ekow Eshun's Black Gold of the Sun was written half a century after Wright traveled to the Gold Coast. Born in London to Ghanaian parents in 1968 (two years after the army coup that overthrew Nkrumah and the Pan-African dream), Eshun flew to Ghana in 2002. He had no illusions about Pan-African unity. Indeed, after four more coups in Ghana and a number of unsuccessful attempts, he had no illusions at all about Ghanaian politics. His pilgrimage had to do with his fragile sense of identity. He was tired of being a black man in Britain. "I'd felt like an outsider there all my life." He did not expect Ghana to feel like "home," but he hoped he could "feel at home there," he writes. "All I knew was that if Ghana didn't live up to my hopes I'd have nothing left to hold on to."
Surely, we might think, Eshun's experience of the ancestral homeland was going to be very different from the African-American experience. In his childhood, his parents brought Africa into the family home: They spoke Fante (one of the seventy-five languages in Ghana); they ate African food; when they had parties, their guests arrived in Kente cloth robes. In the early 1970s, the family had moved back to Ghana for three years. In England, Eshun tried to make British friends by never talking about anything that made him different:
"Where you from, man?"
"You heard the new Public Enemy album?"
In the 1980s, when he was in his teens, Eshun was bemused by the fashionable new black consciousness in Britain. A black culture, largely imported from the United States--black TV sitcoms, Spike Lee films and rap music--gave blacks in Britain a level of popular respect they had never had before. The left-wing bookshops of Hackney were suddenly selling African pendants and statues of Nefertiti. For his part, Eshun was determined not to mystify an ancestral homeland that he knew was beset by political upheavals and the contradictions of neocolonialism.
He went to Ghana with a mental image frozen in the early 1970s, and found Accra full of SUVs, mobile phones and blaring hip-hop music. When he and his cousin went to a discothèque one night, Eshun was taken aback by the sleek young couples who emerged from Mercedes sports coupes carrying brand-name sunglasses and handbags. In restaurants, he winced at the way the "big men" barked orders and snapped their fingers for service, and the subservience of the waiters made him cringe. On his walks around the city, he noticed that people fell silent as he passed. In an inland village, a friend pointed out that everyone was talking about him; they took him for a black American with too much money. Leaving Kumasi on a bus, Eshun was disconcerted by the slogan on the seat in front of him: We'll Get You There Alive. Tied to the roof of the bus were a flock of goats that screamed throughout the journey, while the bus driver turned up his radio. At sunset every day, Eshun was attacked by clouds of savage mosquitoes.
In a secondhand bookstall in Kumasi, he came across Black Power. "Given the confusions of my own trip I had nothing but sympathy for Wright," he observes. After a month traveling around, Eshun had the same reaction as Wright: "I couldn't wait to leave."
What is this torment all about? Why does Eshun feel much the same alienation as an African-American man whose roots are far more distant from his ancestral land? It is clearly not about the country they are traveling through; it is about lost identity, feelings of exile, dashed expectations of solidarity. They were not white; the world had made that clear to them every day of their lives. In which case, they wanted to know, what does it mean to be black? In Ghana, Eshun learned for the first time that he had a Dutch ancestor who was a slave trader. The man married a chief's daughter, and their son, Joseph, a light-skinned mulatto, would also become a Cape Coast slave trader.
You imagine that the events of history take place in some nebulous "other time" unrelated to your own life. Yet I feel the consequences of Joseph's actions every day in Britain. It was partly because of the pervasiveness of racism there that I'd come to Ghana--only to find my ancestor had collaborated in establishing its tenets.... The shock is physical. You feel winded. The sun is too bright. Your head aches. You find yourself walking along a sand-blown highway no longer sure who you are any more.
Black Gold of the Sun is a beautifully written book, rich with colorful vignettes and astute observations. Its probing, courageous honesty reminded me of Richard Wright. Fifty years apart, both men engage in some very anguished soul-searching. Eshun is a modern, more sophisticated man, and readers will no doubt be less unsettled by his conclusions. When Wright found himself disgusted by African behavior, he resorted to somewhat racist generalizations about the "African personality." Eshun asks himself an important question that Wright does not ask: "Europe looked down on Africa. Maybe I'd been doing the same thing?... Does living in a white country make you, in some way, white?"
What does it mean to be white? It's time that white people asked themselves the sorts of questions with which people of African descent have wrestled for centuries. Eshun seems to be referring to that righteous complacency and sense of superiority one witnesses every day in the modern world--from the conduct of foreign policy to daily interactions between nonwhites and whites. I can't help thinking that if we all tormented ourselves with these sorts of questions, the world might be less ignorant, less polarized, less hateful, less bellicose.