Homegoing (Book Review)

Tracing 300 years of a family split between Africa and America 

Homegoing was published in 2016 and was written by Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi. The story follows the family lines of two half sisters born in Ghana who never know one another- one is sold into slavery and shipped to America, and the other remains in Africa. The book traces the next 300 years of the two family lines- alternating throughout the book from Africa to America. Though you meet many characters throughout the generations of family members, each new featured character immediately draws you in, and you trust Gyasi’s storytelling powers almost immediately.

The novel is presented in chronological order, with alternating chapters in America and Africa. The fourth generation in the African story line follows a man named James.

“James knew the British had been inciting tribal wars for years, knowing that whatever captives were taken from these wars for would be sold to them for trade. His mother always said that the Gold Coast was like a pot of groundnut soup. Her people, the Asantes, were the broth, and his father’s people, the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the bushland into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep it from boiling over again and again and again.”

James, who sees how his ancestors have been complicit in the slave trade, and ends up moving away from his family’s previous roles in leadership.

“The British were no longer selling slaves to America, but slavery had not ended, and his father did not seem to think that it would end. They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind,” James narrates.

In America, paralleling James’ generation, Jo is living a life as an escaped slave in America. Jo’s adopted mother, who carried him to freedom along the underground railroad, speaks to his African heritage when he is made fun of at school.

“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when hsas the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was realaly good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”

Back in Africa a few generations later, Yaw is teaching his students in Ghana, he explains:

“‘We believe the ones who have the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.'”

During the same generation in the US- Harlem in the 1960s- Sonny is addicted to heroin along with having three children from three different women he can’t help support, his mom tells:

“You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine or own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.”

Marcus, Sonny’s child, grows up to be a professor and we meet him as he is writing his graduate thesis:

“Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction- the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the ’60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the ’80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitable be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started writing about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table… and then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.”

Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, is a modern literature must-read which traces roots from 300 years of undertold history and culture. A book review does not do it justice- you should probably just go pick up the book today.

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