Author Yaa Gyasi has crafted one of the most emotionally heart-wrenching books I’ve encountered in a long while, not because the structure of the novel is unique or unexpected, but because the topic—slavery and its long shadow—is handled in unexpected and often lyrical ways. As one of the most celebrated books of the past year, Homegoing is a remarkable debut novel that left me breathless, unwilling to put the book down and yet alternating between anger and tears.
The novel begins with the story of two half sisters who live in Ghana, one who is Fante and the other Asante, and their paths diverge as one, Effia, is married to a white man, the acting governor at Cape Coast Castle, a central staging zone for slaves being sent to the Americas and the other, Esi, is captured in a raid and being held at the Castle awaiting her deportation and a life-time of enslavement at the hands of white men.
The story follows the family history of these two women down the generations, beginning in the 1770s reaching through time until today but unlike other slave narratives that progress over a long-span, Gyasi has covered new ground, avoiding the expected tromp through the Civil War, for example, and instead going into the less-often discussed areas of African American history, such as the prison convict system instituted during the Jim Crow era, which was another form of slavery but by a different name.
While I have studied and read about Africans brought to the Americas and enslaved, I have given little thought to those left behind in their home country who were complicit in the slave system, kidnapping and selling their fellow Africans to Europeans for profit and protection. It is easy to assume that these people had it better or easier than those transported the thousands of miles under brutal conditions but while the experience was different, it was, perhaps, no better, at least in the long term. And this is one of the highlights of Gyasi’s book in that it forced me to confront these assumptions. Slavery was a terrible system, whether you were the one enslaved or the one doing the enslavement. Whiteness or collusion with whites offered definite privileges but came at a cost; guilt, for example, that haunted the people involved.
The book takes a long view of history, illustrating how current racial problems have deep roots, some going all the way back to the 1700s. Race relations in the U.S. will never be settled until these problems are addressed, brought out into the public and acknowledged in some meaningful way. Pretending that slavery, and all its variations after it became technically illegal, did not exist has created a sore that cannot heal. At least not until Americans accept their role in this crime. We are all complicit and the weight of the sin still weighs on our collective souls.
For more reading in this area, see Phillis Wheatley’s poems: https://www.poemhunter.com/phillis-wheatley/
Wheatley was born in Africa around 1753, kidnapped, and brought to Boston. She was a house slave but was educated by her owners and became a poet. She is the first African American slave to publish a book.
There is also Olaudah Equiano’s account, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789): http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/equiano1/menu.html. Equiano was also kidnapped as a child, sold into slavery, and transported to the Americas.
And consider Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a book that Yaa Gyasi said inspired her years before she began working on Homegoing.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this novel . . .