There is a deeply painful moment in Ekow Eshun's travel narrative Black Gold of the Sun when the London-born, young black protagonist goes to Ghana. It is important to note that this journey to his parents' home country is taken in a profoundly unromantic fashion (Who can forget Du Bois's rhapsodies on Africa?). Despite the hardship of his journey, Eshun hopes that he might be able to come to some kind of understanding of his black self when placed in the midst of other African bodies: that he would no longer feel like an exotic; that his feelings of being an outsider in the West and his search for a definable identity would come to an end when he could see similarities between himself and the people of Ghana.
Instead, like Richard Wright in Black Power who despairs over the alienation he felt while traveling amongst the people of the Gold Coast in the 1950's, Eshun's feelings of disconnectedness and exile only become more pronounced the longer he stays in Ghana. The worst incident, however, occurs when he finds out that one of his ancestors had been a Dutch slave trader and that for two generations his family had participated in the slave trade on the West African coast. "The shock is physical. You feel winded" (141). He recognizes that his family had also had a hand in sowing the seeds of racism that now refuse him a place in the West. Even worse, he wonders if his own critical judgments of the behavior of modern Ghanaians is predicated on a Western upbringing that has rubbed off its racist prejudices on him. Richard Wright, too, had wondered about the proclivities of an "African personality" that were deeply repulsive to his American self.
"Does living in a white country make you, in some way, white?" asks Eshun (197). He refers to the unrelenting racism minorities experience that makes people like himself--assimilated, upwardly mobile, and articulate in the language of the master races--understand the position of the dominant class in certain pathologically sensitive ways. Such an adoption of mainstream cultural values, whether critical or not, comes at a price. For the assimilationist is convinced of his own lack. Like Eshun, and Wright decades before him, the outsider believes in the humanist values expressed in the rational argument as to why people like him are despised by the larger culture. He hears the "Go Home" cries as those of the ignorant and hasty in the community. He is hopeful that once he has proven himself to be hardworking, likeable, and willing to become one of them, he would be accepted. The danger of such thinking involves the process of assimilation itself. For in signing up for the change, one also begins to believe in the essentialized notions of race.
Eshun's question undergirds the work of many of the modern Tamil Dalit writers I translate. (The Dalits are the so-called "untouchable" castes in India and the diaspora.) The Tamil Dalit poet N.T. Rajkumar, yoking together history, desire, and the black body in a culture (both Indian and Western) that sees the dark-skinned body as representative only of violence and rarely of aesthetic beauty, writes,
To tell the history
I haven't finished counting the
Violent kisses you gave me
O My Dark one.
However playful, Rajkumar accepts the qualities attributed to the dark body. Eshun is not alone in wondering about the ways one assumes the value system of the majority culture. (1) For in order to belong, to be assimilated in such a way that one could benefit from being an insider, the Black/Dalit adopts discourses and practices that are "always already" there as Foucault calls it. This process of change is relentlessly one way--as testified to by writers as different as Richard Wright and the postcolonial writer Salman Rushdie. (2) There is no going back. In a personal interview, the Tamil Dalit writer Bama admits that when her autobiographical novel Karukku ("The Dried Palmyra Leaf") came out, there was such anger amongst her village community (most of whom were illiterate and unable to read her book and yet saw her act of writing for a reading public that was mostly non-Dalit as a deep betrayal) that her father warned her to stay away. …