“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
– Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
Homegoing is a celebration of the complexity of legacy. One woman, two daughters, and the 14 separate stories that spread out in tragic and epic glory along a landscape that spans decades and continents. I am using this one as my coming of age story for my reading challenge, but it’s so much more than that. It’s coming of ages. It’s the gathered strength that is passed down from generation to generation, a growth of spirit that comes with inherited wisdom and perseverance.
Homegoing is a family saga that exists as a collection of chronological stories. Two half sisters, Effia and Esi, born of the same mother in different parts of Ghana in the 1700’s, grow up only knowing of one another but never meeting. Separately, their families grow in successive lines over the decades, some remaining in Ghana but others making their way to the United States on slave ships bound for the plantations. Each chapter follows a different descendant of each sister, alternating between the two, until readers have grown to know seven generations of one family.
Frankly, I can’t applaud this book enough. I’m not even sure where to start. This is the debut novel by Ghanian-American author, Yaa Gyasi. It has a well-earned 4.46 average rating on goodreads, and there are loads of reasons. This book is remarkable, authentic, and unflinching. The writing is superb, and each story flows into the next one with effortless ease. Thematically, this novel explores so much, from the multi-layered evils of the slave trade during its early years in Africa to the evils of systemic racism in the United States at the end of the 20th century, encompassing everything in between. Each story could be its own book, but I realize that’s not really the point.
Particularly compelling to me was the story of H, a free black man in the South following emancipation of the slaves, who finds himself imprisoned on a bogus charge and sent down into the mines to once again be forced into slave labor. After serving his sentence, he begins a life of advocacy as a union man, fighting for the rights of mine workers. His story, one of resilience and courage, shows a common story arc of the times. His story reminded me of the old song, “Chain Gang,” by Sam Cooke, an anthem for the wearied prisoner, many having done nothing to earn their sentence of grueling, often fatal, work, simply because of the color of their skin. If you’ve never heard this song, take a break and have a listen. It’s also a beautiful piece of history and another amazing example of how music has been a source of advocacy for many years, songwriters and artists using the power of melody and poetry molded together to move the listener and bring light to important issues. The next time you hear someone say a singer should just shut up and sing, remind them of that.
Now let’s circle back around to that point I was talking about. Recently, my father has discovered the incredible thrill that comes from ancestry research, and he’s found some amazing things, to be sure. But my family is white. My ancestors were, for the most part, extremely important on paper, hailing from England and Scotland and coming to America in time to stand beside Washington while he fought for freedom from British rule. They were powerful, brave, and, in some instances, flat out famous. My family lineage in many areas is extremely easy to trace, and that is a privilege that I’ve been afforded by the color of my skin. Is the story of my famous great-somethingorother-grandfather whose birthright as a white man of notoriety granted him all manner of luxuries any more impressive than that of the slave woman who climbed down from a tree as she fled her shackles, condemning herself once again to a life of torment for the sake of saving her child from the same fate? I would argue the latter is much more impressive. That woman sought and received no glory. She had no countrymen alongside her sharing in a collective courage that would ensure victory. What awaited her was worse than nothingness, but she still fought even though she would never learn the fate of her child. And her descendants will never hear her story, because her name was stolen from her. The names of so many people were stolen, their voices and silent cries muffled by the hands across their mouths and the whips at their backs. Their legacies were erased by the people who held the pen that wrote history.
Thanks to authors like Yaa Gyasi, those people have a story, and it’s immensely beautiful. Her book shows the tapestry of time, the complete picture of a family who will never know each other’s separate pain, but they will feel the immensity of the gift of life that flows through each of them as every generation finds a greater sense of peace than the one before. That’s really all I feel the need to say about this book. It’s beautifully written, extremely important, and it has cemented its place as a literary masterpiece for years to come. 5 Stars!
Published June 7 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 1101947136. Hardcover. 305 pages. This page contains affiliate links. I receive a commission for any purchases made through my site.