»»» Possible Spoilers Ahead «««
“We believe the one who has the power. He’s 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 clear yet still imperfect picture” (227).
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi weaves a multigenerational tale addressing the history, colonialism, and slavery of Ghana and America by following the stories of two half-sisters. One sister “marries” a white British slave trader because her tribe and family are in the business of selling their African brethren. The other sister is sold as a slave and ends up in America. Each chapter introduces us to a new descendent and a new struggle. Gyasi gives us a glimpse of each person’s life and their hardships. We meet Ness who tries to run away from her slaveowner and ends up captured; but secures freedom for her son, who in turn never knows his mother and grows up as a free man. Across the ocean, we are introduced to James, an Asante, who leaves the bloodstained wealth of his tribe to marry a poor girl whom he loves.
Gyasi’s narrative allows you to only have a portion of each person’s story. There is no end, no closure for some of these characters and that is one of the important lessons of her book. One of the great tragedies of slavery is how much history was lost. Descendants of slaves can only trace themselves back to a certain point – a point in which they were sold, traded, or an ancestor was killed. It is a haunting quality that aches in the minds of people of color today. Imagine being a child with brown skin having to listen, around Thanksgiving, as your white counterparts brag about being able to trace themselves back to the Mayflower or back to George Washington. There is a whole race of people in America who are excluded from that pride because their heritage leads them to slave ships, African slavers, and white slave traders. When white people boast about being able to trace their lineage back to the Mayflower, are they also sorry if they can trace their lineage back to the Confederacy?
This book makes you take a hard look at what being Black was and is like. Gyasi holds you captive in a slaves’ dungeon, sells you in the South, helps you run away from a cruel white master, urges you to leave your Asante lands and tribal wealth, makes you fight in the Civil War, gets you arrested by implementing the black codes, kills you at the hands of a white missionary, forms a union for Black workers, makes you a teacher of your colonizer’s language and religion, helps you escape the Jim Crow South, takes you to Harlem where you are forced to face colorism and the limitations of being too black and not black enough, through the doping and drug-addicted 80s, makes you live in Alabama, all the way to making you a college graduate and becoming your ancestor’s wildest dreams.
The narratives of these characters leaves you longing to learn more, but the point of the book is not to tell you each character’s life story. It is to build on the shared experiences of pain, regret, terror, ignorance, assimilation, pride and strength until what is forged is Black healing- American and African. The reconciliation of the history of colonialism and slavery, and what was lost by the atrocities of the slave trade births a healing that comes regardless of whether you can pinpoint where that pain started. It is a concept that eludes most people today unless you study Black history and Black writings. This is the great achievement of Gyasi’s book: it takes centuries of pain and history, and condenses it into 300 pages using stories that bring to life the subjugation, humiliation, pain, and terror of Black people based on the history of colonialism and slavery, without you having to be well-read and learned in Black history. If all you know about the Civil Rights Movement is that MLK had a dream, if you never cared to read Malcolm X, if you never asked yourself why Confederate statutes exist, if you simply never found it relevant to understand Black Lives Matter; then this is the book for you. It will open you up to centuries of pain and leave you with unfinished stories that have you longing to find out why? When? How come? How could this happen? And hopefully, that will lead you to other books on the history of race in America, which in turn will lead you to understand the current events around race and culture.
A few non-fiction recommendations:
•·• Letters from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King
•·• The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
•·• The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
•·• The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
•·• Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi
•·• Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
•·• When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson
•·• Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
•·• Beloved by Toni Morrison
•·• Half of the Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
•·• Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
•·• Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
“If we go to the white man for school, if we just learned the way the white man wants us to learn. We will come back and build the country the white man wants us to build. One that continues to serve them. We will never be free” (223).
“Sonny would tell Marcus about how America used to lock up black men off the sidewalks for labor or how redlining kept banks from investing in black neighborhoods, preventing mortgages or business loans. So was it a wonder the prisons were still full of them? Was it a wonder that the ghetto was the ghetto? There were things that he used to talk about that Marcus never saw in his history books, but that later, when he got to college, he learned to be true. He learned that his father’s mind was a brilliant mind, but it was trapped underneath something” (285).
“…but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project. How could he talk about Great-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 and Harlem in the 60’s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the 80’s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the ‘war on drugs’. And if he started talking 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 what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood we’re 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 gets so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table…And all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they would think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that justified putting his Great-Grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was” (289).
“How could he explain that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American dream, but by mere chance. He had only heard tell of his great-grandpa H from Ma Willie, but those stories were enough to make him weep and to fill him with pride. Two-Shovel H they had called him. But what had they called his father or his father before him? What of the mothers? They have been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point” (296).
I’m pairing this book with Dogfish Head’s Romantic Chemistry IPA. I chose this beer because the fruity notes of mango and apricot, ginger and the hoppy finish worked well together. The blend of fruity and hoppy seemed like the perfect combination for this book, bitter but with an underlying sweetness.