I struggle with reading long pieces online. When everyone was hyping that piece on Kendrick Lamar in the LA Review of Books, I attempted to read it a couple of times before giving up. Each time, I made it to somewhere around the 10th paragraph and I don’t ever remember checking the byline. Last week I discovered Transition Magazine’s archives (their full archives can be found here). Skimming the list, a piece entitled My Mother’s House caught my eye. The one-line description read: “Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah reverses the Great Migration, going south with her fiancé to find and lose her way among the ghosts of family graves.” My curiosity was piqued. A Ghanaian (isn’t Ghansah Ghanaian? well I suppose she could have got the name through a naming ceremony) writing about her mother at a time that I’m trying to do the same; and somehow the southern U.S. (where I was born and raised) is involved.
The piece proved to be evocative on all of these points. Ghansah is in fact a Ghanaian name, one that the author inherited, not through a rites of passage program, but from her father. From the essay, I deduced that her parents probably met in Philadelphia — the city her mother moved to after leaving her childhood home of Alexandria, Louisiana. Here is where I feel limited. I don’t know that I can appropriately capture the excitement I felt when I first saw the name “Alexandria” on my screen.
Just last summer, I took a trip with my mother to Alexandria, Louisiana. It was our first time back in well over two decades. I had no memories of the place and was hoping to create some, and at the same time, hoping the trip would help extract some of my mother’s more positive ones. If she had any, they were buried so far below in that time when she was both new to motherhood and to America. It had been nearly 10 years since she left Ghana for the United States, yet I don’t think the permanence of her move had been realized. Her pregnancy with me was not easy. My energetic sister was nearly two, my father struggled to find work, and I resisted leaving her womb even as we surpassed 37 weeks. Ten months pregnant and filled with frustration, my mother drove herself to her obstetrician one afternoon. Upon her arrival at the hospital (named after the patron saint of immigrants), I conceded. My mother gave birth without my father present (as she did for all of her pregnancies). No matter the marriage certificate nor the wedding ring (that she’d bought herself), she was a single black woman. When I came out not quite right, the nurses questioned my mother about her use of illicit drugs. This was what I knew of Alexandria for most of my life; it was a place where the racism was far from subtle. Even as I planned last summer’s trip, my mother, who insisted that I could not go alone, warned “I heard they buried a black man alive there not too long ago.”
But our story is for another time and space.
After I finished My Mother’s House, I read three other pieces from Ghansah that not only challenged my patience for reading long pieces online, but also taught me a few lessons in storytelling: Continue reading