Homegoing, a debut novel by Yaa Gyasi (2016), explores the unhealed wounds of slavery, compellingly rendered through several hundred years, seven generations, fourteen characters over a span of two continents. The title, “Homegoing,”comes from an old African-American belief that death allowed an en- slaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa.
The saga, which is conveyed in interlinked stories, follows two African tribes connected by half-sisters unknown to each other. One sister becomes a part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while the other grows up in Africa.
The narrative has a distinctively feminine and African-based voice, making it a thought-provoking read, particularly to an American audience.
As an example, she de- scribes the sensitivity that comes from caring for someone as if it’s: An unapologetic, unquestioning love like that of the stray dog that follows the man home from work every evening, happy, simply, to be allowed to walk nearby. She describes The Castle’s interior, a place where slaves were kept prior to their trans-Atlantic voyage to the Americas as such: There was no sunlight. Darkness was day and night and everything in between.
According to a blurb on the cover by The Christian Science Monitor, Gyasi has “a poet’s ability to paint a scene with a handful of phrases.”
Homegoing’s chapter structure reminded me of There There by Tommy Orange (2019), reviewed in SQ News August 2019, where each chapter is an experience of a character. Orange shaped the storyline in the characters’ desire to arrive at a place they all had in common, but Gyasi chapters are a character’s experience that lasts a generation. Each of Gyasi’s chapters also ties historical relevance to events, examples include: what it was like for African tribes to trade slaves to the English; how blacks lived through the convict lease laws after the Civil War; what it means to be a sharecropper; the reasoning behind The Great Migration; Africa’s decolonization efforts.
Gyasi’s narratives interject a subtle sense of cruelty into how a racist society drains the life out of Black people; meanwhile, the desire of Black people to live peacefully and on its own terms is never lost.
(Editor’s note: The saga of Black people striving for meaningful existence was told in The Southern Phoenix, Rosemary Jenkins (2017), reviewed in SQ News February 2018, an historical novel that examined The Great Migration and its connection to civil-rights.)
Both novels point out what happened during the height of Jim Crow when Blacks left the south, headed north and west to leave the direct and deadly racism of the south, only to land in a place where to the sophisticated and subtle racism of the rest of America still existed—it’s called “unconscious bias” today.
Gyasi’s characters reveal the emotional toll The Great Mi- gration had on Black Ameri- cans as keenly shown in Wil- lie’s take on getting out of the south:
The first inhale of Harlem air was clean, no coal dust traveling in through the nose to hit the back of the throat, to taste. Just breathing felt exciting.
Gyasi’s description of European treatment of Africans and its reconciliation through Christian forgiveness is particularly insightful:
Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.
Two thought-provoking chapters: Yaw addresses inter- generational trauma from an American perspective while Akua addresses the topic from an African perspective.
Gyasi does not leave out the “Back to Africa” movement. In the chapter titled, Marcus she describes African-based slave history as follows:
The dirty skeleton of a long-past shame that held the place together began to show itself in blackening concrete, rusty- hinged doors.
In spite of the acute pain and sadness threaded through each chapter, Gyasi finds a way to tie things together in a satisfying ending of an epic tale of struggle and triumph.