By Shanice Brim
I have often laid in bed at night wondering when my ancestors lost their languages and accents. When was the moment they stopped remembering what their parents looked like? When did they realize they didn’t remember what the word for family was? I also wonder about the ancestors that weren’t captured. When did they forget about the ones who were? When did that stop being a part of the family lore? When did they give up on ever seeing their captured family again? Did they know they were taken overseas? Did they hear rumors about where people were being disappeared to and wonder? I lie awake sometimes wondering if somewhere in Africa I have people in my bloodline who know nothing of me and whom I know nothing of. I wonder if any of them think the same thing about their Black American counterparts.
Sometimes, as a Black American, the history of this country feels too big to capture. Every time you think something is a normal, human interaction you uncover a new chapter of race in America. A swimming pool is not just a swimming pool. A fear of doctors and hospitals is not just a fear of doctors and hospitals. Apartment hunting is not just apartment hunting. These are chapters of a story that began long before you came. For instance, when I was apartment hunting with a friend. I noticed that she would hand me the phone to communicate with leasing offices. She did this knowing that people often perceive me to be white when they hear me over the phone. There are so many chapters in our history that led to that moment alone. Housing discrimination, the FHA, redlining, and predatory lending. . . Sometimes, I feel like a character who has been dropped into the middle of a story and left to figure out what, exactly, in the hell is happening. So many chapters have led up to my arrival and the overall themes have already been laid out and influence every scene of my life. And I’m forever finding new chapters. And just when I’m in the middle of one I find myself in another.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi feels like the unraveling of the chapters of my life. It feels like this huge thing that I'm a part of is less impossible to grasp. Born in Ghana, but raised in Huntsville, Alabama since the age of 9, Gyasi took a trip to the Cape Coast Castle, a slave-trading port and holding place for the enslaved in Ghana. While there she learned that British soldiers often married Ghanaian women and began to wonder just how involved Ghanaians had been in the slave trade. She was struck by how little it was spoken of in Ghana and how unaware people were of the fact that we are still living with the legacy of slavery to this day across the ocean:
“Ghanaians don’t talk about this castle at all. They don’t talk about complicity at all. I asked my parents whether they learned about it at all in school; they don’t really teach it, to my understanding. It is not something I would have been interested in if I had not lived in America or had not grown up in Alabama, where you get to see the result of what all of that is.”
Out of that duality came Homegoing which begins in Ghana with two sisters. One, Effia, is married off to an English slave trader. The other, Esi, is shipped to the United States. From there you get something of an abridged history of colonialism and slave trading as it existed in Africa (Ghana, more specifically) and a history of Black America. Gyasi takes us through these histories by way of Effia and Esi’s descendants. Readers see these pit stops in pivotal historical moments through the eyes of family members in different generations of both families from the moment Esi is captured and shipped to America to her distant grandchild in the present-day. And on the African side of the family, we see Ghana from the moment Effia is married off to a British slave-trader to her distant grandchild in the present day. It’s the most ambitious novel I’ve read since The Brief And Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which is another book that also tells the history of a country via the history of a family.
Homegoing is different. Roxane Gay referred to Homegoing as the ‘strongest case for reparations and Black rage’ she’d read in a long time. I’d have to agree. I've never seen such a detailed telling of the violence and destruction of slavery and colonialism, and their lasting effects on Africa and Black America.
The novel opens with an Akan proverb: “The family is like the forest: if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position.” The prologue is fitting in a country that loves to pretend that it doesn’t know how Black America got to this point. Why this “race stuff” still matters. By the time you finish Homegoing you will understand it perfectly. I have never read something that has so thoroughly illustrated the havoc white supremacy has wrought on Black lives here and abroad. The havoc it still wreaks on Black lives; the families torn apart, the opportunities closed to us, the services never received, the trauma never given a chance to heal, the debts never repaid. It perfectly captures the feeling I’ve always had that from the moment Black Americans stepped on these shores we have never stopped running. We’ve never stopped running from slavery, running from Reconstruction, running from Jim Crow, running from police, running from lynch mobs and burning buildings. Constantly packing up our lives and starting anew. Constantly figuring out how to survive under whatever new form white supremacy has taken.
But as Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his review, Gyasi “does not romanticize.” She is unafraid of talking about the role some Africans played in participating in and profiting off the slave trade and the differing opinions in Africa about that line of work at the time. The Black Americans she depicts are not perfect. They are human beings trying to cope with their situations, and not always coping very well. The relationships are not all healthy and decisions are made that are truly infuriating. This is to say that respectability politics doesn’t play a role in this book in a way that I find refreshing. I never felt the presence of the white gaze in the book. Often when talking about race there is a need to create perfect victims and narratives to elicit sympathy from white spectators. But some of these characters also profit from the buying and selling of other Black people, some of them are terrible parents, some of them have drug issues. They’re human beings instead of saints and there is no attempt by Gyasi to clean anything up or force white readers to empathize with or understand anything. I felt like I was spoken to directly as a member of one of the groups this book is about. It felt like a conversation between Black America and Africa about where we were and where we’ve been since we last saw each other.
By the time I reached Effia and Esi’s present day descendants I felt like I had traveled through my own history. So much of what I’d felt growing up Black in this country made sense. It helped me understand my own family a bit more. It made me want to be gentler to myself and to the people who grew me because we have so much to heal from and have been given so little time to catch our collective breaths. It made me examine my part in this history. But mostly, it made me excited to see what’s next. As the Movement for Black Lives becomes increasingly globalized and the diaspora seeks to repair its disconnections and draw parallels to our respective situations this book feels right on time. It feels like the book we need at this moment. We can stare this history in the face. We can unpack all of it. And we can heal from it. On both sides of the Atlantic. Together.
Shanice Brim is a 25-year-old New Yorker by way of Alabama, New Jersey, and California. She’s an avid reader, Beyoncé enthusiast and fan of the film Clueless.