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Black Gold of the Sun by Ekow Eshun

The Independent, 3 June 2005

Review by Diana Evans

That question – ‘Where are you from?’ – has hounded and perplexed the black diaspora for decades and even centuries. It is a question that is asked everywhere, in conversation and inside the head. It has infinite responses at the same time as having no answer. It’s such a simple, obvious, exhausted question, that to use it as a basis for a memoir about black identity becomes an outrageously brave thing to do.

That question – ‘Where are you from?’ – has hounded and perplexed the black diaspora for decades and even centuries. It is a question that is asked everywhere, in conversation and inside the head. It has infinite responses at the same time as having no answer. It’s such a simple, obvious, exhausted question, that to use it as a basis for a memoir about black identity becomes an outrageously brave thing to do.

Ekow Eshun is black British and grew up in London with his Ghanaian parents. Or, Ekow Eshun is Ghanaian-English and spent three years of his childhood in Accra in Ghana. Or perhaps, Ekow Eshun is from Ghana and grew up in England. Confusion and the complexities of definition are at the heart of this book. Loosely crafted around a trip back to Ghana for the first time since 1974, the former Arena editor and new Artistic Director of the ICA takes us on an honest and moving journey in search of himself. His starting point is this eternal question of origin and home; his attempt to answer it an elegantly rendered reflection of his childhood in London whilst taking giant leaps into black history and his own surprising ancestry.

Eshun’s father worked for the Ghana High Commission and the Eshun family lived a prosperous, rhapsodic life of parties and chauffeurs and pebble-dashed walls in Queensbury. On 4 June 1979 that part of Eshun’s childhood ended with a military coup in Ghana. There were the arrests of Ghana’s former heads of state and then there were deaths. The parties stopped, Eshun’s father left his job and was unemployed for the next five years, the family moved to a less grand row of terraces in neighbouring Kingsbury, and Mrs Eshun became the breadwinner.

Here we see the effects of socio-political crisis on a family conveyed with compassion and startling insight. Mr Eshun takes out his slashed pride on his children and then takes up yoga. The two boys, Ekow and his older brother Kodwo (now a writer and critic), become embroiled in a long, seeping war in their shared bedroom. Eshun’s evocation of boyhood and brotherhood is endearing, a bright yet jaded – partly by racism, partly by a lost glory – place of Beano and Asterix comics, Scalectric train sets and Transformers. The emotional unrest of these years accompany Eshun through university and into a journalism career set against a politically charged backdrop of hip hop lords Public Enemy and the emergence of afro-centrism in the late 1980s.

Eshun does well in managing the many strands of his material. The nostalgic allure of the London passages is contrasted by the reportage of the Ghana trip with its inquisitive lunges into slavery and colonialism. There is the shocking discovery that one of Eshun’s ancestors was a slave trader, and the recounting of the lives of prominent black figures such as W E B Du Bois, and Richard Wright. Eshun’s somewhat melancholic journey through his parents’ country sets off intriguing conflicts around the question of who we really are, what race is, and poses challenges to our own static concept of Africa, suggesting that “even in Africa everyone comes from somewhere else.” Eshun’s failure to find what he is looking for – namely himself – manifests in a mounting and gripping psychological turmoil that has you nodding in agreement or empathy.

Ambitious in scope, impressive in execution and wide in appeal, this is a beautifully written, intellectually vigorous study of belonging. It is the frank and intimate memoir that black Brits may unwittingly have been hoping for, and the wise and crystal-clear account of the perplexities of black identity that a broad readership will find affinity with.

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