Looking for myself
The Guardian, Saturday 9 July 2005
Ekow Eshun’s book comes in reaction to the pervasiveness of British racism, his brush with mental ill health – six times more prevalent among black people in Britain than in the white population – the respite he found in hard work and his resulting elevation to editor of Arena magazine, TV pundit and, most recently, artistic director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He is part of a new and startlingly successful generation of black British personalities in the arts, alongside the Turner prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili, who has designed the jacket for Black Gold of the Sun.
For my money, bombing around Africa for five weeks – on foot, by bicycle, car, bus and taxi – only to find that the children see you as burenyi (white) seems the least interesting part of this fascinatingly personal excursion. Any of my generation of English Africans (for want of a better term) could have told him about being black in England and white in Africa. But, like Black Prophet, his biblically-driven Ghanaian beach rasta, we, too, would probably have ended up telling him what to think instead of letting him frame his own questions and find his own answers. There is no template, as he says, to being English or African: you make it up as you go along. This is a journey everyone has to make for themselves.
What he finds, in a childhood, adolescence and early adulthood detained in England by Ghana’s 1974 coup – memories interwoven with the episodic account of his return to Africa – is a story of the refugee’s distress: banging his head against the wall as a child, suffering outrageously racist taunts, being given detention in school for “too much lip”. He settles some scores, although names have been changed “to protect the innocent and the guilty”. While the racism and much else is familiar to me, what is not is the depth of his unhappiness.
A large part of Eshun’s obvious alienation stems not from the “facts” of his dual heritage but from what he calls their “sensibility”. His response to the effects of being exiled from Ghana and being black in Britain was to blank them out, to shut down emotionally, operate on the surface and prevent anyone getting close enough to pop the question: “Where are you really from?”
The loss, of course, is to himself, to the unresponsive, unknown “me” of his search. But its consequences follow him on his trip to Africa in a sense of persistent, unhinging dread. He fears the return of himself as “other” – as black man, as burenyi, as Englishman, as racist, as a potential assassin, the executor of his dreams. Eshun describes the effect of this systematic self-effacement, the hollowing out of public persona and private sensibility, as “the deadpanning of identity”.
Interestingly, Deadpan (1997) is a short film produced by another contemporary black British artist and Turner prize- winner, Steve McQueen, who takes the place of Buster Keaton in a well-known visual gag – the side of a building falls over on top of him. Luckily for both, they happen to be standing on the one spot where a loft window space falls through them, leaving their character untouched, disturbed by nothing more than wind and dust. Apart from the fact that it really does takes courage to let a building fall on top of you and not flinch, the update makes a number of subtle points about the shift in the meaning of the gag once a black man has stepped into the frame.
The deadpanning of identity may well be the cost for Eshun and McQueen’s generation of fitting themselves into the frame of British institutional and cultural life, but both writer and artist appear to be tackling that danger head on. If this characterises a moment of change for black British artists and writers, it is very welcome.
Black Gold of the Sun has a lot to say about the history and experience of being black, particularly in relation to the Atlantic slave trade. The “black gold” of the title refers to slaves, and slavery is still, it seems, the bedrock of any consciousness of being black.
Searching for a way to communicate how he feels at the end of the book, Eshun reaches initially for the concept of “double consciousness” from a seminal work on the impact of race prejudice, WEB du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Happily, he comes across a first edition in the library of Du Bois’s old house in Accra. “Being black”, echoes Eshun, “means standing both inside and outside society: seeing the world as white people do while reaching out to touch it as a black person.” That does sound good, but I don’t buy its return to the comfortable fixities of black and white. Time has moved on.
Much better is the way that he becomes reconciled, ostensibly to his older brother, Kodwo, but also to his own questioning search for a language adequate to feeling. For me the most moving, lucid and intimately focused passage in the book is when the brothers meet and exchange confidences after a long estrangement. Their shared language, drawn from the super-hero comics, sci-fi books and records of their youth, spins around a discussion of Kodwo’s book, Black Atlantic Futurism. It is dedicated, as is this book, to the shared experience of the young Eshuns: “It’s about us … The New Mutants are the outcasts. They don’t fit in because they’re too thoughtful for their own good. They don’t have the street smartness society expects from its black kids.” Like slaves, like American musician Sun Ra, like children wrenched from their lives in Ghana, in the end, the Eshuns, too, were “abducted by aliens”.