Black Gold of the Sun
by Ekow Eshun
Reviewed by Jessica Martell, UNC at Chapel Hill
Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun details the journey of the London-born author’s return to Ghana, his ancestral home. After increasingly intense nightmares and feelings of isolation in Britain, Eshun decides to visit the country of his familial origins to hunt for a more stable sense of personal identity. Alternating between the narration of his itinerary and flashbacks to his childhood in Britain, Eshun struggles with a discovery about his lineage that threatens his already precarious sense of identity.
Black Gold of the Sun is a travel book in the sense that a journey is at its core, but it is more conspicuously a memoir in its meditations on the search for the lost self. Most centrally, Eshun grapples with a DuBoisian kind of “double-consciousness,” the ability to stand “inside and outside the white world at the same time” (214). In the book’s first chapter, Eshun recalls stories that his grandfather Joseph told him about a family friend named William Sekyi. Both men lived in Ghana in the first half of the twentieth century. While Joseph stayed in Cape Coast to teach school and support a variety of businesses, Sekyi sailed to England to study law at University College, London. Always a man who “questioned the link between civilization and colonialism” (21), his experience of three years of English racism—especially when his ship capsized on the voyage home—“radicalized” him into dropping his Anglicized name and abandoning the use of English in public (22-3). As much as he hated London, explains Eshun, the European pretensions of the Cape Coast aristocracy remained the primary target of Sekyi’s anger.
Yet, the author continues, in embracing his Africaness, Sekyi never fully rejected the West. All of Sekyi’s critics were regularly confounded by his love of cigars and Wagner; his own son called him an “outstanding example of a tragic and unresolved conflict…” (qtd. in 24). But Eshun seems envious of this man, writing that Sekyi “perceived no contradiction in his character. Identity, he believed, was fluid not fixed…” (24). This is a worldview that he also sees his grandfather embracing, and to some extent, his cousin Kobby, who takes our astonished author out for a night of drinking and clubbing in Accra that could have taken place in London. Eshun is adept at noticing threads that run through both English and Ghananian cultures, observing that Transatlantic black cultures seem eager to consume constructed versions of themselves, for instance. But he never seems comfortable weaving them into a coherent, albeit hybrid, version of identity. People like Sekyi and Joseph, Eshun suggests, did not feel the same anxiety as he does about being from two places at once.
Eshun’s prose is often elegant. His use of imagery is particularly impressive, like when he is riding in the backseat of an embassy car as a child with his head on his father’s lap, listening to the “subterranean echoes of his belly” (89); or when he arrives at the town of Elmina and is greeted with the sight of a giant dead mollusk spread on the street “like an afterbirth” (103). The birth image, presented just before he visits the building that stands at the heart of the Ghananian slave trade, nicely foreshadows the emergence of a terrible new knowledge of slavery, one that he uses to imagine what it was like to walk past the Point of No Return, board a slave ship, and feel it turn, he writes, “away from the known world, as it seems in the blindness of the hold” (109).
Eshun is a proficient, and at times graceful, storyteller, but the book suffers from moments in which conventional narrativity is imposed upon what should have been left a bit messier. The book seems geared to a wide audience, and the plan may have been to reinforce its emotional agenda, but the result is a work that occasionally feels staged. The book is at its stiffest when Eshun attempts to imagine the inner lives of historical figures. As a narrator, he has a tendency to present speculations about long dead people as truth, giving the impression that he has not considered how much he may be projecting his own concerns onto the lives of others.
At the slave trade landmark Elmina, for example, he considers the life of Jacobus Capitein, a freed slave who was educated in Holland, wrote scholarship in support of slavery, and then returned to Ghana to bring civilization to the natives. Weaving Capitein into his own mission, Eshun asks, “Is it possible to reclaim the past? Or do we remain wanderers even after our return? This is what Jacobus Capitein, vicar of Elmina castle, must have asked himself time and again when he gazed out from the castle walls” (110). Here he creates an imaginary monologue for Capitein in an effort to invent a parallel quest, as though he does not want to be alone on his. But it should be enough that Eshun himself is asking these questions. His pilgrimage does not need a precedent in order to be valuable.
He also tries to find a model in Richard Wright’s 1953 trip to Ghana, and his speculation on Wright’s death has the same ring of narrative opportunism as his treatment of Capitein: “Stripped of hope after returning from Ghana, did his heart give out having endured all it could bear?” (175). Perhaps Wright’s trip was not a cathartic experience, but he certainly continued to raise political awareness of third world issues in his later works. Eshun’s mission to find, or to create, a more autonomous self is not helped by seeing his own image in everyone that he reads. The effect of this tendency is fragmentation, splitting the self into pieces and inserting them into other parts of history.
Eshun seems disinterested in whether or not his experiences in Ghana are authentic experiences of its local culture. But this sticky point is a special liability of the travel narrative. Discoveries are presented in chronological proximity to a trip, but it is important to remember that they are often artificial constructions. The most effective travel writing minimizes this impression. Some of Eshun’s observations on race and culture connect nicely to the narrated travel events, but others seem imposed, imported from another mindset. That is not to say that the book does not fulfill other functions as a memoir. It does meditate on ideas that had remained erroneously absent from consideration before his trip; and at times, it does this quite stylishly. But the book is more convincing as an exploration of character, not of place. Ghana remains beyond our comprehension, a nation seen only through the eyes of a visitor.
Eshun sets up multiple frameworks from which he could have found meaning: most obviously through travel, but also in his treatment of historical events, of the works of African American activists like DuBois and Wright, of his brother’s writings on science fiction, even of the confessional narrative. Yet he finds blocking figures in each of these means of exploration, leaving the project of the book essentially unfinished. It is as if the Western self refuses to dissolve, remaining robust throughout a journey in which some form of fluidity, some demonstrable interest in trying on parts of other identities, would have helped resolve some of the ambiguities that remain for the reader at the book’s close.
Eshun returns to London and, without explanation, ends the book in Grenada with a story of rebel slaves committing suicide to escape French soldiers. The final two pages of the novel are like a foreign object stuck into an organic whole, aptly representing the inability of the work to present a complete vision, either of crisis or resolution.