Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in Africa and Beyond

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Overview

"Black Gold of the Sun is a memoir that chronicles a man's journey to his ancestral home and to the hidden keeps of his heritage." In 2001, at the age of thirty-three, Ekow Eshun - born in London to African-born parents - embarks on a trip to Ghana in search of his roots, and in this rich narrative he evokes both the physical and emotional aspects of his travels. Eshun makes his way to Accra, Ghana's cosmopolitan capital city; to the storied slave forts of Elmina; to the historic warrior kingdom of Asante. He reflects on earlier pilgrims who
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Overview

"Black Gold of the Sun is a memoir that chronicles a man's journey to his ancestral home and to the hidden keeps of his heritage." In 2001, at the age of thirty-three, Ekow Eshun - born in London to African-born parents - embarks on a trip to Ghana in search of his roots, and in this rich narrative he evokes both the physical and emotional aspects of his travels. Eshun makes his way to Accra, Ghana's cosmopolitan capital city; to the storied slave forts of Elmina; to the historic warrior kingdom of Asante. He reflects on earlier pilgrims who followed the same path - W. E. B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Malcolm X - and on the millions of slaves shipped to the West from the Ghanaian coast. He recalls the racially charged years of his youth, and he considers the paradoxes and possibilities in contemporary Britain for someone like himself. Finally, he uncovers a long-held secret about his lineage that will compel him to question everything he knows about himself and about where he comes from.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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A black child born in England, Eshun was frequently asked a confounding question: "Where are you from?" For many, such a question prompts a straightforward answer. But Eshun's identity was solidly split between African and European, and not as simple as black and white. Living out his adolescence in socially stratified British society, he regularly found himself an outsider. His Ghanaian parents taught their children both dignity and respect, but following a coup, those lessons prove more difficult as Eshun's father is stripped of his diplomatic position and the family topples from its lofty perch.

At 33, lonely, deeply discontent and haunted by nightmares, Eshun feels a longing for home and journeys to Africa to find it. Though welcomed warmly by the Ghanaian people, he is a stranger there, too, and finds more questions than answers await him. His travels through Ghana are physical, metaphysical, and historical, as he traverses the length of the land he hoped would help forge his identity. What he discovers instead is the history of Africa and the Atlantic slave trade, a tangled mess lived by his own forebears. Thoughtfully written, Eshun's ironic yet heartfelt journey offers a profound exploration of identity, of race, and of "a country remaking itself under the gaze of its elective gods." (Fall 2006 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
Eshun, an African-British author and the artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, ventures from his home to Ghana to explore his heritage. By his early 30s, Eshun still cannot adequately answer the question put to him since his school days in Queensbury: "Where are you from?" He has never felt welcome in England, where his father, a Ghanaian government official, moved the family in 1974. Eshun's memoir focuses on his April 2002 trip to Ghana, on the African Gold Coast, so-called because of the vast stores of gold the Europeans extracted. In fact, the author comes to the painful realization that his ancestral country colluded intimately in the African slave trade, and his own ancestors, both the white Dutchman Joseph de Graft and de Graft's mixed-race son, were slave traders. Eshun carries a frozen idea of provincial Ghana from living there briefly in his youth, and his trip proves an awkward, self-scrutinizing attempt at reconciling the reality of the modern country, built on slavery and scarred by discrepancies in class. Eshun elegantly incorporates stories of previous notable travelers such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright-along with an occasional illustration by Ofili. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A writer born in England in 1968 of Ghanaian parents visits Africa hoping to find the source of his malaise and rage-and a place he might call home. Eshun (director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts) begins this debut work aboard an airplane to Ghana. Although he had lived there in his early childhood, he grew up in England, where he often felt rootless. He writes bitterly about the racism-overt and covert-that he experienced in England. And he recalls with regret a failed relationship with a woman-a relationship that ended, he feels, because he was unwilling to reveal his history. It is a history that has tormented him both in his waking hours and in his dreams. (One great source of unhappiness: His father had served time as a political prisoner in Ghana.) As the author tours Africa, he pauses to tell the history of the region-with sharpest focus on the slave trade. (About halfway through, he hears from a Ghanaian relative some grim, disorienting news about an ancestor.) Touring Ghana, Eshun also discusses his own biography (and those of his parents) and comments on issues that trouble and even haunt him. He is disturbed by some aspects of the country. He sees young people adopting America's hip-hop culture. He sees other youngsters wearing Osama bin Laden T-shirts. He visits a fundamentalist Christian church where a crass minister demands cash from his congregation. He experiences what he calls the "Big Man" psychology of Ghanaian men-a social posture of superiority many adopt with those they believe are below them in the human hierarchy. He sees poverty and hopelessness. Much of the writing is lyrical and deeply personal, though some of the author's epiphanies seem more patentthan revelational (e.g., "[I]t came to me that journeys never truly end"). Thoughtful, evocative and deeply felt, but occasionally lacking freshness.
From the Publisher
“A life-affirming memoir about belonging, identity, and hope.” —Ebony“An impressive debut. . .An unusual memoir in which the personal and the political are entwined with great skill.” —The Times (London)“Leavened with insight, self-awareness, and flashes of humor . . .Eshun is a skilled wordsmith.” —Christian Science Monitor “Refreshing. . .Eshun’s writing is fluid and self-assured. . .his wistfulness and wry sense of humor add to the book’s charm. . .an engaging and eye-opening account of one man’s journey toward self-discovery.” —Black Issues Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375424182
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/6/2006
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Ekow Eshun is a former editor of the British men's magazine Arena and is now artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, where he lives. This is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt

I

'Where are you from?' he said. 'No, where are you really

from?'

It was the businessman who wanted to know. He'd been

slumped beside me with his eyes shut and his mouth open

since we'd left London. As the Boeing 777 dipped towards

Accra he heaved himself up straight.

'Where are you from?' he repeated.

The overhead light glistened off the darkness of his skin.

He wiped the film of sweat from his forehead.

I gave him the usual line.

'My parents are from Ghana, but I was born in Britain.'

In all the times I'd been asked the same question it was

still the best answer I'd come up with. It wasn't a lie. It

just wasn't the whole truth.

'Then you are coming home, my brother,' he said,

leaning across me to empty a miniature of Teacher's Scotch

into the plastic glasses on our foldaway tables.

'Akwaba,' he said, raising his glass. 'Welcome home.'

As we drained the whisky I thought of all the other ways

I could have answered his question.

Where are you from?

I don't know.

That's why I'm on this plane.

That's why I'm going to Ghana.

Because I have no home.

I'd caught the plane that afternoon: a British Airways

flight straight down the Greenwich Meridian line from

Heathrow to Kotoka airport in Accra.

We'd risen above the clouds and, seated over the wing

with the whine of the jet engines in my ears, I'd tried to

concentrate on an anodyne movie about a gang of con

artists breaking into the vault of a Vegas casino, before

giving up to watch the plane's shadow ripple against the

clouds below instead.

At Lagos, the flight made a stopover, and I caught my

first glimpse of Africa since childhood. The sun was low

and from out of the shadows ground crew in blue overalls

hastened across the tarmac. A staircase thunked against

the plane's flank. The doors sighed open. Tropical warmth

filled the cabin. A stewardess with brittle make-up sprayed

gusts of rose-scented insect repellent along the aisle.

'They treat us like animals,' grumbled the businessman.

A line of passengers in heavy cloth robes joined the

plane, haloed with sweat. I compared their faces to mine.

I looked as African as they did. But I didn't know how far

that affinity stretched. Did it reach beneath the skin or did

it end on the surface, in the slant of our eyes and the

fullness of our lips?

It was April 2002, and I was thirty-three years old.

I was flying to Ghana to find out what I was made of.

My name is Ekow Eshun. That's a story in itself.

Ekow means 'born on a Thursday'. The Ghanaian pronunciation

of it is Eh-kor and that would be fine if I'd grown

up there instead of London where, to the ears of friends,

Ehkor became Echo. Throughout my childhood I was

pestered by schoolyard wags who thought it hilarious to

call after me in descending volume: 'Echo, echo, echo.' It

was my first lesson in duality. Who you are is determined

by where you are.

My parents arrived in London from Ghana in 1963. They

never meant to stay. And even though they have spent

most of the past forty years in Britain, Ghana is still their

home. When I was a child growing up in London, its

sounds and smells pervaded our house. Ghana was there

in the hot pepper scent of palm nut soup tickling your

nostrils as you entered the house; the highlife songs rising

from the stereo; the sound of my mother shouting down

a capricious telephone line to her sister in Accra.

But Ghana was their home, not mine. I knew this from

experience.

I was born in 1968 in a red-brick terraced house in

Wembley, north London. I was the youngest of four children.

When I was two my parents moved the family to

Ghana. We lived in Accra for three years. In 1974, we

returned to London. I was five years old. I didn't plan to

go back.

My last sight of the place was a country in meltdown. A

military junta had taken power shortly before we left. I

remembered long speeches by generals on a black-andwhite

television. The hourly price rises for a bag of rice.

Strikes and shortages and demonstrations. What was there

to return to?

I asked myself the question I'd been turning over since

I first booked my flight: why make this trip?

During my late twenties I began to feel I couldn't live

in London any more. The bigotries of the city weighed

down on me. I saw condescension in the eyes of bank

clerks and malign intent in the store detectives watching

me from the end of an aisle. Lynch mobs chased me

through my dreams. I fantasized about taking a machine

gun to the streets.

From the extremity of my mood, I guessed that something

more fundamental was at work than disaffection

with the city. I knew my state of mind wasn't good.

My fantasies were getting more violent. I needed to heal

myself. I started to think about a childhood spent in

London, then Ghana, then London again. Had I lost a part

of myself in that toing and froing? Maybe by returning to

Ghana I could become whole again.

Even though my roots were in Britain it was a white

country, and I'd felt like an outsider there all my life. In

Ghana I'd be another face in the crowd. Anonymity meant

the freedom to be myself, not the product of someone

else's prejudice. I bought a map of the country and studied

its cities and rivers. I plotted a trip from the Atlantic

coastline in the south to the dry north. I wanted to discover

the whole country. I wanted to call it home.

I gave myself five weeks. I'd spend the first two exploring

Accra, the capital. After that I'd travel west along the

shoreline to Elmina, the town where Europeans first settled

on African land in 1482. Then I could visit the neighbouring

town of Cape Coast, Ghana's former capital, where my

parents both grew up. That would take another week. In

the remaining fortnight, I'd start heading north. I'd go to

Kumasi, capital of the old Asante empire, in Ghana's central

region. Then I'd keep going all the way through the arid

northern plains until I reached the border with Burkina

Faso.

By the time I was ready to go it was 2002 - twenty-eight

years since I'd left the country as a child. I was looking for

an antidote to London. I wasn't sure if that was too much

to ask. All I knew was that if Ghana didn't live up to my

hopes I'd have nothing left to hold on to. Then I really

would be lost.

From Lagos the Boeing skirted the African coast.

I peered at the Atlantic, 35,000 feet below. This ocean

had once been scattered with tall ships. Sails taut they had

fought their way to Africa from Venice, Portugal and other

states of Europe. Against the force of the northern trade

winds masts had snapped. Boats had sunk. Men brave and

timid had died. When they eventually succeeded in the

fifteenth century it was no less an accomplishment than

crossing the Sahara or traversing the Arctic. On 19 January

1482, a Portuguese fleet carrying 600 soldiers, masons and

carpenters, holds filled with numbered blocks of granite,

weighed anchor on the Ghanaian shoreline. At the town

of Elmina they built Sa€o Jorge castle, the first permanent

European settlement in Africa.

All along the west coast of Africa, Europe discovered

riches. They named the land as they went - the Grain

Coast, the Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast - and sailed home

borne down with tusks and precious metals and the human

cargo sometimes known as 'black gold'.

Yet the African connection to the western world was

never simply passive. Among the Portuguese crew that

landed at Elmina was the ordinary seaman Cristoforo

Colombo, for instance, who led Europe's discovery of the

Americas ten years later accompanied by his African pilot,

Pedro Nino.

The plane banked towards Kotoka airport and Accra

hove into view, lambent in the falling light. Through the

window I imagined the paths of the sailing ships preserved

in the sea, forming a lattice of wake lines joining Africa,

Europe, America and the Caribbean. It was impossible to

tell where the connections began or ended. The shape of

the continents themselves seemed to blur, as a result of

centuries of commerce and migration, both voluntary and

forced.

Kotoka control tower rose into view. Wheel hatches

creaked open. The past is not history, I thought, as the

plane screamed on to the runway. It beats against the

present like the tide.

It was the smell that I first noticed - like rare orchids or

rotten fruit.

Car horns blared in the distance. The lights of the terminal

glowed across the tarmac. From the doorway of the

aeroplane I followed the other passengers down the steps

into a steam-room heat. I ploughed through customs,

immigration and the scrum of porters wrestling me for my

luggage, until I stood with my back to the airport, facing

Ghana.

And Ghana stared back.

Behind a wire perimeter fence, wives and fathers and

children playing hide-and-seek between the legs of their

parents waited to greet the plane. There were smiles and

waves as they spotted loved ones. None of them was there

for me, but for a moment a wave of happiness engulfed

me as I watched the crowd. Ghana wasn't home, but

perhaps it would be possible for me to feel at home there.

Dragging my suitcase to the first car in a row of blackand-

yellow taxis, I collapsed into the back seat. The cab

shunted into traffic. Accra coalesced around me. The neon

image of a grass-skirted dancer hovered above the roof of

the hotel Shangri-La. Children materialized at traffic lights

selling cigarettes and cellophane bags of iced water. Street

hoardings advertised the virtues of Guinness Foreign Extra

Stout and Richoco chocolate milk. Trucks rumbled by

bearing ecclesiastical slogans above their windscreens such

as 'Forward with God' and 'Shine, Jesus, Shine'. I smelled

diesel fumes and sewage and, as the cab paused at a

junction, the aroma of plantain and peanuts roasting on a

brazier, the memory of which I'd savoured since my last

taste twenty-eight years earlier.

From London, I'd arranged to borrow a house in a suburban

neighbourhood called Upper Heights. It belonged

to my mother's cousin who lived in Nottingham and

spent only holidays there. Apart from Mrs Hagan, the

housekeeper, I would be alone.

Upper Heights was a modern development of trim white

houses built on a hill overlooking the city. Mrs Hagan,

elderly, maternal, solicitious, had laid out a dinner of boiled

yam and fish stew, with sliced mango and small hand-baked

sponge cakes to follow. But the journey had left me exhausted.

All I could do was stab at the food, then drag myself

upstairs, Mrs Hagan clucking after me like a mother hen

in case, as she seemed to think likely, I couldn't make it to

bed before collapsing. Tired as I was, I couldn't sleep.

Accra flickered before my eyelids in a sequence of dazzling

impressions, as if I were gazing up at it on a screen from

the front row of the cinema.

Nothing matches your first sight of a new city. You

approach it with trepidation and its streets embrace you.

The scent of bitumen and hot street food tantalizes your

senses. Vendors and car horns and radios blare an unfamiliar

rhythm. Your heart beats a noisy reply. That first

night I gave up on sleep altogether. I sat on the balcony

outside my bedroom looking at the mystery of the buildings

glimmering in the distance. By contrast to London's

pallor, Accra seemed to sparkle.

If I knew then as much as I do now, it's possible Ghana

might still have appeared to shine. But first impressions

are exactly that. There is an order of fact beneath them

that is inescapable. After the sparkle fades you have to deal

with what's left - whether you like what you see or not.

II

Saturday night on Oxford Street. Bright-eyed girls clung to

the arms of broad-shouldered young men. Thrilled by the

promise of the hours ahead, their eagerness lit the dark.

Couples hailed each other across the street, coalescing into

groups that promenaded arm in arm along the pavement

like a Broadway chorus line.

It was my cousin Kobby who suggested meeting on

Oxford Street. I'd spent four days exploring Accra's markets

and museums. Now I wanted to see it after dark.

'I know the perfect place,' said Kobby over the phone

that afternoon. 'It's the most fashionable street in Accra.'

But as I strolled along the pavement past the brightly lit

bars and the gilded couples, my mind turned to what I'd

read about the fashions of eighteenth-century Accra. How

men of that era liked to tie little gold ingots into their

beards and shave designs for ships or castles into their hair.

And the care with which a woman would prepare herself

each day: rubbing her body with perfumed oil, then mixing

a fine white clay with water for make-up, which she'd press

on to her face and bust with wood blocks shaped like

circles or scimitars. As jewellery, she'd have worn bead

necklaces made from coloured glass and gold bracelets

hung with European coins such as the French louis d'or,

gold rings and an anklet in silver, weighing a pound, on

each foot.

She'd have worn a skirt of imported silk, secured with a

belt decorated with keys and coins so that she jangled as she

walked. Attached to her hair might have been a small gold

bell or the red tail feathers of a grey parrot. In her house she

would have kept a pet civet, and once a week she would use

a small spoon to tap the secretions of its anal gland, which

she would mix with water and dab on her neck as perfume.

During the same period, the secretions of the civet, a

catlike mammal, were also being used by perfumers in

France and England. History is full of unobserved parallels.

It was like that with Kobby and me. He'd come to

London for the first time five years ago in 1997.

'This is your cousin,' said my mother. We'd shaken

hands warily. Given he was a dozen years younger than

me and had grown up a continent away, I wondered what

we'd have in common. But Kobby turned out to be as

hungry for music and movies as any child of the west. At

seventeen, he was devoted to Tupac Shakur and WWF.

I introduced him to Biggie Smalls and to Christopher

Walken in King of New York. In return he offered stories

about the trolls that were said to lurk in Ghana's woods

and the spirits living in the lakes.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2006

    Best book of 2006

    I really love this because it tells about his whole experience of journeys and life of the things he have done in his life. Really would love to read this. Daniel Brooks--- 14

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