My Life Is a Result of the Legacy of Colonialism
In her memoir, Nadia Owusu, a Ghanian-Armenian-American, examines the aftershocks of her global upbringing
I first read Nadia Owusu’s debut memoir Aftershocks in June, as the United States—led by the white nationalist backed Republican administration—was several months into a still ongoing unchecked global pandemic which was disproportionately killing Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous Americans. Protests for racial justice sparked by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many others were taking place worldwide, even as white women like me were weaponizing the police against people who identified as Black and Brown. As a seventh-generation Mississippian descended from slave owners who now lives in a blue bubble, I was craving a book that would help me make sense of both America and the world right now.
I found it in Aftershocks, which among other topics, explores the impact of colonialism and anti-Blackness worldwide. Owusu had a global upbringing, following her father, a Ghanian civil servant with the United Nations, across Africa and Europe, before settling in the United States for college. In Aftershocks, Owusu explores the mental breakdown she faced in the aftermath of complicated revelations about her father’s death. Along the way she wrestles with her own search for identity, reckoning with her early abandonment by her mother, whose family escaped the Armenian genocide, the problematic legacy of being descended from Ashanti royalty, and exploring what it’s like to live in America’s highly individualistic society when one is rooted in Ghana’s collectivist culture.
Owusu, who is associate director of the economic racial justice organization Living Cities, is a winner of a 2019 Whiting Award. Her lyric essay, So Devilish A Fire, won the Atlas Review’s chapbook contest. Owusu and I spoke in early December and discussed global anti-Blackness, grappling with colonialism’s legacy, and rewriting narratives about mental health.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: I originally read this book this summer at the height of the protests for Black lives. You took part in the protests in New York City. How did you feel marching, knowing you had just finished a book which in part addressed global anti-Blackness?
Nadia Owusu: Given how hard this year has been, it made so much sense that this was the moment that the uprising happened, because the reasons that Black people are impacted disproportionately by COVID, dying disproportionately—as are Native American and Brown communities—are very connected to global anti-Blackness and colonialism. These issues on the surface might seem coincidental, living through this moment of global pandemic and uprising, but I think those things can’t be more deeply connected, that in the midst of the global pandemic and the disproportionate impact on communities of color, you have the ongoing violence against Black people. It was not surprising that this was a significant moment in the movement for Black lives which has been ongoing and has been building for many years. At the same time, I think the thing that is significant is that until now white people could choose not to see, and now they could no longer.
I felt a lot of grief in terms of seeing the ongoing violence against Black people with all the loss we are experiencing already. At the same time I found a lot of hope in the radical reimagination that has been part of the movement in terms of calling out what we actually need. What we need is to actively dismantle the existing systems and create new ones. There is nothing individual Black people can do to change the systems, which are built on existing stories about who we are that are not true. It really is going to take large systemic change in order to shift the disproportionate outcomes.
Having spent all these years thinking and writing about these questions, and also in my day job working to close racial income and wealth gaps, it was a moment of deep reflection. How do I continue to interrogate myself? Although I am American, I didn’t grow up here and my Black history is not African American here. What is my role as an artist and an activist and an organizer?
DS: You write about colonial mentality and dealing with anti-Blackness at an early age, and having a father who actively taught you about Ghana and your family, yet also recognizing that colonial mentality was a fault line in the African body. How has this shaped your worldview and your writing?
NO: My life is a result of that legacy of colonialism, even the fact that my father’s siblings went to the U.K. for their education and settled there. It shaped my father’s choices as far as coming to the U.K. and going to university in the States. I literally would not exist had the world not been shaped in a different way, but that’s why that history felt important for me to reckon with.
For Black people across the diaspora, the stories that are told about African histories and about Blackness and what our own Blackness means have been in many ways codified into the way the world is organized. It was literally the law of the land in many places in terms of what opportunities we had and didn’t have, which shaped how our families lived in the world. I think we don’t talk enough about that, which is why this most recent movement—the uprisings for Black lives and the clear pro-Black stance that people are taking—is an act of revision and correction against the stories, which, whether we like it or not, are in the groundwater, and everyone white and Black have been drinking our entire lives.
We live inside these stories. We are not always able to see them and I think at the same time they are doing a lot of destruction in Black people’s lives and in our bodies and in ourselves. I think the undoing of that in myself is going to be a lifelong project.
DS: How does coming from a collectivist culture influence how you operate in America’s highly individualistic culture? I know you studied urban planning. How does this inform your work?
NO: I struggle with American rugged individualism. This is probably in part due to my upbringing. Trying to explain to my family in Ghana why Americans won’t wear masks is confusing. “It’s because of their freedoms.” “Freedom to do what? Kill people?” It doesn’t compute. It’s a very different worldview. Whether we like it or not we’re all, and not just human beings, every living being on this planet is linked.
In terms of my work, that is a barrier I am constantly pushing against, because a lot of the solutions that are proposed in terms of policy have individualism baked in them. There are a lot of solutions that are proposed around supporting entrepreneurs of color, and I think those are positive things to do, but they are very focused on the individual, not so much addressing the broader system and the way we all live in community with each other. From an urban planning perspective, the focus on single family homes as opposed to affordable housing that is more communal and the zoning laws that privilege wealthier people who can afford single family homes, all of that is connected to that philosophy of individualism and its really hard because that’s what people aspire to.
If we actually shifted our idea about what’s possible when we care for each other differently and organize ourselves in society to live differently and organize ourselves to live more communally, I think there are different and more beautiful possibilities that can open up, but there is a lot of dissonance.
DS: This book deals with the aftershocks of the death of your father as well revelations in the aftermath of his death. It also deals with maternal abandonment and a family legacy of abandonment. Did writing help resolve conflicting feelings?
NO: I started writing pieces of this book just for myself to work through some of those questions and feelings. I was coming out of a long period of depression and felt like I had avoided looking at those questions too closely most of my life. It was a personal project. Because I have always been a writer, I have always been someone who understands how I think through writing.
Looking at the more personal aspects of my mom leaving and my dad dying and trying to contextualize our lives and their choices led me to do greater research about the history of the places they came from and their families. That also expanded my understanding of how my life was shaped and in ways that were positive and deepened my empathy.
Because I grew up outside of my parents’ cultures, those were histories I was not familiar with. To reconnect with my ancestry and my homelands felt in some ways like writing myself home.
DS: You did an incredible job illustrating how mental health was viewed in your family as well as the culture at large, and also illustrating how in your family it was your job to keep it together. You wrote about a mental breakdown, which is typically taboo, and healing through art. Can you discuss writing about this?
NO: I think in many cultures, many of us grew up hearing this message that you cannot show weakness. There is a narrative that depression, grief, or mental illness is weakness. I think that for Black people and for Black women in particular, you do not show weakness, you have to work twice as hard for half as much.
In my family, I felt a great deal of responsibility for holding the family together. It’s a lot of pressure to carry, particularly when I didn’t have a lot of examples in my life of how to deal with grief, depression, and anxiety that I was facing, so I tried to power through it for a very long time. What I was trying to write against was that message that mental illness was a form of weakness. We hear these stories in the Black community, that mental illness does not exist, that only white people have time to indulge themselves. I think those are really harmful messages and I understand why they came to be, it’s a product of white supremacy.
It felt really important to me to be honest. I wanted to write from inside the breakdown. I wanted to show what it feels like and present what it can feel like if we internalise different stories that are not so fear based, and that are kind and loving to ourselves and allow ourselves the space to breathe, so it doesn’t compound itself the way it did in my experience.
Art might not be sufficient in terms of healing, but I do think that the stories we tell are important in terms of what help we are willing to seek. I wasn’t willing to seek any help because of the stories I had internalized. I think it is important to use art to write ourselves different stories that we believe in, so that we can get ourselves the help and the community that we need in order to heal ourselves.