#Longreads from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah

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 (one 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:

Don’t let the green grass fool you: The Roots are one of the most respected hip-hop acts in the world; why can’t they leave the sad stuff alone?
In one night, an 18 year old Ghansah told two lies that may have helped to jumpstart her career in the music industry and as a writer. The first lie, told to her mother, was that the place she was meeting The Roots manager, Richard Nichols at was a performance arts space rather than a bar. Later on, in an attempt to impress Nichols, she claimed that her writing had been published. It’s not clear whether or not her publication claim was necessary but Nichols was indeed impressed that she was a writer. She eventually went on to work with the band.

While Don’t let the green grass fool you… is part personal, the piece, as a whole, is a response to critics who have suggested that The Roots’ latest release, undun, is proof of the group’s creative immobility. The Roots still want to talk about the violence associated with black life in the U.S. but folks aren’t on that anymore. As a white DJ/promoter explained to Ghansah “hip hop is about making people dance… Black people need to dance, that is how to deal with poverty, you gotta uplift yourself.” Now, The Roots have made creative missteps throughout the years and Ghansah acknowledges some of these but ultimately her article asks readers to consider how we’ve reached a point where art that discusses the loss of black life in the U.S. has been rendered passé.

He Shall Overcome: Jay-Z is $450M Beyond the Marcy Projects. Where Does He Go From Here?
I anticipated that this might be some scathing critique of Jay-Z, the capitalist (so I was excited to read it). While Ghansah does present some of the shady realities of Jay-Z’s come up, she doesn’t do so in a harsh manner. Her style (which I also noticed while reading her piece on The Roots) is both direct and subtle; she leads you to the most complete picture of her subject with a clear, confident tone but leaves you without a heavy-handed conclusion.

In the same way that she reached out to Greg Tate to explore some of her thinking around black masculinity and homicide for her piece on The Roots, He Shall Overcome… includes a conversation with the late historian Dr. Manning Marable. After being asked to reflect on Jay-Z’s self-described complex social and economic beliefs (he was once called out for wearing a diamond chain atop a shirt emblazoned with an image of Ché Guevara), Marable responds with what Ghansah summarizes as the failure of “black capitalism”:

The more successful you are, you will ultimately get bought out by larger white-owned companies.  And that has historically always been the case. The wealthiest black capitalists in the United States would be Robert and Shelia Johnson [founders of BET], but they don’t even own their own company anymore. They got bought out. Even for them, their strategy has resulted in a loss of black ownership. And that is the irony of it.

So a scathing critique of Jay-Z may not exactly be a punch up (at least not all the way up).

The Art of Fiction No. 210, Samuel R. Delany
This was my introduction to Samuel Delany, a black writer who has published several novels, most of which are in the speculative fiction genre. Delany is brilliant in his responses during the interview. I’m convinced that some of his work, especially as he describes the creation of Atlantis Model: 1924, may be difficult to read. In Ghansah’s interview with Delany, she asks him to name some of his ill-read books.  The question is in response to an idea Delany has described elsewhere, that the works we find challenging to read rather than the ones we “read thoroughly…and with our full attention” are the ones that influence our creativity; these are the “ill-read.” He responds to her question by listing a few books that have occupied that space for him and elaborates on the relationship between the “ill-read” and our creativity:

When such books influence you, if that’s the proper word for what I’m ­describing, it’s what you imagine they do that they don’t do that you yourself then try to effect in your own work—that, to me, is what’s important. What these books actually accomplish is very important, of course! But the whole set of things they might have accomplished expands your own palette of aesthetic possibilities in the ways that, should you undertake them, will be your offering on the altar of originality.

Now off to try that Kendrick piece again.

(More of Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s work can be found here. And an interview with Ghansah on Radio Dispatch can be listened to here.)

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