An Uneasy Family Tree

Yaw, one of the many characters in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, begins his history class with the words: “History is Storytelling.”

Gyasi—who was born in Ghana, raised in Alabama—gives us a book of stories in this epic debut. Each of the sixteen chapters is named after a different character who all trace their lineage to a woman named Maame, an Asante slave in a Fante household in West Africa. The book moves chronologically through eight generations from the 18th century to the present day, alternating between two bloodlines. Maame has two daughters by different men: Effia (who lives in Asanteland in the interior of what we now call Ghana) and Esi who lives in Fanteland along the coast. They know nothing of each other. Effia is married off to an English official involved in the Atlantic slave trade at Cape Coast Castle. Underneath its whitewashed exterior and palatial rooms lay separate female and male dungeons that African slaves were packed into for weeks before boarding boats to America to work on cotton plantations. This is the fate of young Esi who is captured in a raid on her village.

Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The half sisters and their descendants live very different lives. The strand from Effia stays in Ghana; the strand from Esi unfolds in America. And yet no character has it easy. Gyasi shows how each character and bloodline is implicated in the devastating legacy of slavery. A character reflects: “The Asante had power from capturing slaves. The Fante had protection from trading them.”

With Homegoing, I felt like a student in Yaw’s class. Not a boring class but a riveting, I-want-to-know-more kind of class that often happens when I’m reading fiction and realize I’m also reading history. With each chapter/character, the author takes on multiple Black histories: the African-American slave trade, Britain’s colonization of West Africa and the arrival of Christian missionaries, the Anglo-Asante wars, slavery in the American South, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, also known as the “Bloodhound Law”, convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration of Blacks from the Southern US to the North between 1916 and 1970, the Civil Rights Movement, the heroin and jazz scene in Harlem in the 1960s, the “war on drugs”, and the racism that underlies it all and still exists today. This incredible scope of time, subjects, places, and characters make Homegoing a contemporary classic and a must-read, especially now in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting racial protests.

With each character, I (probably foolishly) hoped, Surely this person will have a better life than their parents. What’s a better life though? Each story had sad parts. Each choice (when there was a choice) had repercussions. Some stories brimmed with sadness. As Gyasi took us through the uneasy family tree, I noticed the racism grew slightly less overt but no less damaging. 

When I was at a North American arts marketing conference in Seattle a couple years ago, I had dinner with a small group of attendees. One woman was Black and had studied Psychology. She told our group she thought all Black people should go to counselling by nature of being Black—to process what their people have been through. I didn’t fully understand her comment at the time but after reading this book, I have a clearer picture.

Yaw goes on to tell his history class:

We believe the one who has the power. He is 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 clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

The last two stories in the book, Marjorie and Marcus, provide the most hope. After just reading through how these modern-day characters came to be, the reader has a deep appreciation that the closing scene ends with laughter—play, even.

In keeping with the theme of split families (“A Tale of Two Sisters” is a moniker that comes to mind), Gyasi pairs each bloodline with a recurring natural symbol: fire on the Fante side, water on the Asante side. The novel begins:

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

From there, the author continues to play with fire and water. How these symbols develop and culminate through her prose is as layered as the family’s storyline. I began to see fire and water imagery everywhere, even in a line like “a wave of missing hit her, separate and sad.” It’s as if Gysai reminds us that the memory of slavery is always present, breaking through the surface, breaking into speech.

While Homegoing‘s subject matter was far from enjoyable, Gyasi’s use of language certainly was. I would read this book a second time to pay more attention to how she connects characters through word choice. In the following examples, the emphasis is mine. 

Yaw’s daughter Marjorie has an Asante name, Abronoma, which means “little dove.” The author writes:

She had always hated it when her father called her Dove. It was her special name, the nickname born with her because of her Asante name, but it had always made Marjorie feel small somehow, young and fragile. She was not small. She was not young, either. 

Later in the book, Gyasi transforms Marjorie’s African name from noun to verb when another character describes Marjorie:

He had learned not to be surprised by how forthcoming she was. How she never gave in to small talk, just dove right into deep waters.

To layer the connection even more, Gyasi has Marjorie enact this metaphor in the closing scene of the book. She dives into the ocean.

Another example of linked language:

Marjorie muses about her parents who are watching a movie:

Maybe her mother was sleeping too, her own head leaning toward Yaw’s, her long box braids a curtain, hiding their faces.

When a character later meets Marjorie at a party, Gyasi writes:

At the mention of her name, Marjorie lifted her head, the curtain of wild hair parting to reveal a lovely face and a beautiful necklace.

Gyasi scatters family clues like Hansel and Gretal, and this reader loved picking them up. Another purpose these language connections have is unifying a book that could be criticized as resembling a collection of short stories more than a novel. I experienced this primarily in the first part of the book, but in part two, more preceding characters are present in various ways, strengthening the book’s cohesiveness. That being said, each character was so richly drawn, I wanted to follow them longer. To achieve this effect sixteen times is no small feat. Gyasi could write sixteen separate books for each character. Yet she provided just enough material to grasp each person’s essence. The choices they made, the choices made for them. Who they love, who they hurt. How they love, how they fight. Their small acts of defiance and compliance. The contradictions of the human heart. Split identities. 

I had the sense Gyasi could have kept writing this story forever. When do you stop a family lineage? When does that better life materialize? It’s what every parent wishes for their child. It’s why there are Black Lives Matter protests. If Gyasi were to continue with this family tree, what would the stories of future descendants say?

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