“Theirs was the kind of life that did not guarantee living.” Moving forward in time from generation to generation among the same families—Ken Follett style—HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi narrates the early slave trade powered by the British and powerful South African tribes to the reality of the black experience in America today.
This line describes the evolution of American slavery with a punch:
They would just trade one type of shackles for another, trade physical ones that wrapped around wrists and ankles for the invisible ones that wrapped around the mind.
In the beginning of the story, both sides—the South African tribes that captured slaves from the north and the British who bought and transported them to America and elsewhere—engaged in their evil undertaking as if the humans traded were any other commodity. The interaction between the two cultures was more of curiosity than disdain:
The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.
The power shift is felt first and most horrifically by those enslaved, but ultimately the Africans complicit find the British have taken more than their enemies. For those trafficked to America, abuse and inhumanity remain, even as the civil war concludes and laws and popular rhetoric suggest past wrongs have been righted.
In a dialogue between a disappointed mother to her son, Gyasi writes:
You keep doin’ what you doin’ and the white man don’t got to do it no more. He ain’t got to sell you or put you in a coal mine to own you. He’ll own you just as is, and he’ll say you the one who did it. He’ll say it’s your fault.
The novel is work, requiring readers’ full attention to follow the connections and lineage between characters while also absorbing details and present-day consequences of historical happenings that are unimaginable.
In reward for this effort, Yaa Gasi got in my head, pushing me to further examine my lens and perspective.
We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must 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 get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
Indeed we must. HOMEGOING captured me and I highly recommend it.
After working for years in technology, Abby turned to writing, and in 2017 her debut novel, I LIKED MY LIFE, was published by St. Martin’s Press. She’s also a human rights advocate, and when she’s not busy watching “the comedy show that is her children,” she manages to find time for one of her favorite activities, reading. Visit Abby’s website.