by Yaa Gyasi, 2016
Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: A book of colonial or postcolonial literature.
This is the book that convinced me to forge ahead with the Read Harder Challenge. After hearing so much about it when it was first published, and having wanted to read it since then, I knew it would be the perfect book to fulfill the “a book of colonial or postcolonial literature” task. Of all of the books I had selected, it was the one I wanted to read most and I saved it for last. Given that, it seemed rather silly to not do my best get it done. I’m so glad I did.
Homegoing is the story of two lineages that diverge drastically. It follows Effia and Esi who, unbeknownst to each other, are sisters. When the British arrive in Ghana to expand the slave trade, the two encounter very different fates. Effia is part of the Fante people, who engage in business dealings with the British. They help them capture other Africans to be sold in Europe and America. Esi is part of the Asante people, who are hunted and captured and sold as slaves. While Effia is married off to a British governor and lives in the Cape Coast Castle, Esi is in the dungeon of the very same castle, piled up with other women and left to wallow in their own excrement. Effia is aware that people are being kept below the floors on which she lives, but she does her best to remain in denial of the true nature of her husband’s work. Esi is eventually shipped to America, but not before conceiving a child. From there, the stories take off in their separate directions and we are witness to the development of these families through generations of slavery, oppression, and discrimination.
The novel is told as a series of short stories, each one focusing on one of the sisters’ descendants. Some may find this frustrating, as we never truly get to know the characters, but I found these vignettes into the descendants’ lives to be a perfect way to explore what life for both Africans and African-Americans was like at particular points in time. Effia’s lineage marries into Asante royalty so that the Asante can no longer attack the Fante. Her son, at the behest of his father, goes into the slave trade, even as he is aware of the dangers that await Africans once they are exported from the continent. Her family line eventually distances itself from the responsibilities of both royalty and the slave trade, as her descendants do their best to make lives for themselves. Esi’s descendants feel the harsh burden of slavery, as so many African-Americans still do. Her grandson, known only as “H,” was born to a free woman who had been kidnapped under the guise of the Fugitive Slave Act. We meet H as an adult, having been imprisoned, put in chains, and forced to work in a mine. The Civil War has ended, but “War may be over but it ain’t ended,” a policeman informs him. His daughter Willie moves to Harlem with her light-skinned husband, only to find that many do not look kindly upon a white-passing man with a dark-skinned wife. Although she is in the supposedly more open-minded North, prejudice is just as present as it was in the Alabama home she left behind.
It is perhaps difficult to understand how those like Effia could live in their castles while their brethren suffered beneath them, but Gyasi makes it clear that these women have only a modicum of power above those enslaved. They are not referred to as the “wives” of their husbands, for true wives and real families reside back in England, but their “wenches” – “a word the soldiers used to keep their hands clean so that they would not get in trouble with their god.” Effia’s husband berates her for putting a root under their bed to help her chances of conceiving, claiming that her “voodoo” and “black magic” are not Christian, completely ignoring the irony of his having two wives. One woman named Eccoah bemoans the fact that her husband cannot pronounce her name and wants to call her Emily, a small but meaningful push toward erasing her culture and her being. Effia may be better off than Esi, but she has no more power to change the course of their futures than Esi does. After all, the dealings in human trafficking are not theirs – they are simply pawns in the business dealings of men.
In the end, Homegoing is a thoroughly researched, eloquently written, eminently readable book. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in how slavery drove a wedge between those in America and those who remained in Africa and afforded each vastly different lives. I hope to one day see this book on school curricula, as it serves as a beautiful foray into one of the most haunting ghosts of our nation’s past.