Friday, November 15, 2013

Ghana: "Black Gold of the Sun" by Ekow Eshun

Ekow Eshun traveled to Ghana, land of his parents and where he lived for a short time as a young child. His book Black Gold of the Sun is his memoir, including that journey and the experiences leading up to it. We learn of what he endured as the sole African boy in his suburban London school  and of his family's heritage in Ghana. We all have a family story; his is particularly relevant to life in our times, whether in the U.K. or the U.S.

In the course of his journey, he visits the capital of Accra, coastal communities including Cape Coast and Elmina, and the interior along the western side, including a stop near a wildlife park, and then north to the border with Burkina Faso. He writes directly and honestly of his observations and experiences in city and countryside, resort or uncomfortable lodging. He doesn't sugar-coat his experiences at all nor does he over-dramatize.

Not surprisingly, a main theme in his explorations is slavery. Some examples from the text:

"At twelve years old, my ambition was to become an astronaut. But I had another, less lofty aim. I wanted to be recognized for myself instead of simply as my father's son or, at school, as representative of All the Black People in the World" (p. 91).

"Reading yet another call for black people to 'know their past' made me think of Ghana, where seventy-five different languages were spoken by a collection of ethnic groups who'd spent most of their history at war with each other. Then I tried to multiply those divisions across the fifty-four countries and 800 million inhabitants of this huge continent" (p. 102).

"The oldest and largest of the European forts, Elmina [on the coast], marked the epicentre of the slave trade in Ghana. The castle was the reason I'd travelled to Elmina. I wanted to see the site of slavery for myself." (p. 107)

Centuries before the awful "Atlantic Trade," Eshun writes that in Ghana,

"Owning slaves was a symbol of power. Rich noblemen kept them by the hundred to farm their land, defend their homes and bear their children. In Asante during the eighteenth century, a third of the population was made up of slaves. They provided the army. They worked the fields and the gold mines....Under Asante law, a female slave could marry her master or her master's son....Their children would be born free, and it was forbidden for any citizen to disclose the family background of another....the descendants of slaves could find themselves fully integrated into Asante society."  (p. 137)

"Africans sold Africans by choice, because they stood to gain from it. For centuries they'd practised a trade between themselves that was similar to serfdom. Perhaps, when the Europeans arrived, they imagined that Atlantic slavery was just an extension of that system." (p 140)

And for me, a thought-provoking statement that will spur me to do more research about slavery in various culture. Eshun writes,

"The advent of white people introduced the ideology of race to slavery. Europe justified its brutality on the basis of its 'natural' superiority to black people. In doing so, they set in place a notion of genetic inequality that still remains central to white self-belief."  (p. 141)

I despair some days about the extent to which so many people still believe in genetic inequality, despite repeated demonstrations from science, humanities, philosophy, religion and other fields that the notion is just flat wrong. I am curious about whether it is only a European notion. I've read hints that there might be beliefs in genetic superiority in at least some Asian cultures. More reading ahead.

Black Gold of the Sun is a fascinating combination of travelogue and consciousness raising book. I recommend it to anyone.

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