HOMEGOING - Yaa Gyasi

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“How many times could he pick himself up off the dirty floor of a jail cell? How many hours could he spend marching? How many bruises could he collect from the police? How many letters to the mayor, governor, president could he send? How many more days would it take to get something to change? Would America be any different, or would it mostly be the same?”

It isn’t often that a book functions as entertainment, history lesson, and emotional pilgrimage as willingly and thoroughly as Homegoing. The sheer scope of this story is breathtakingly enormous, spanning seven generations of a family, torn apart, living mirrored lives. There are some chapters of this book that I’ve seen before, heard before - not in way that suggests lack of imagination or invention on the author’s part, but because they are so deeply embedded within the African, within the Caribbean, within the black cultural tradition: they felt warm, familiar, like home. Or they felt barbed, and tear-stained, like bitter anguish - also like home. Gyasi is an expert storyteller, weaving together bright hues of truths we know and can recognize with the darker shades that are recounted less, taught in fewer classrooms. All together, they create a vivid, breathing tapestry: one story, their story - yet, all of our stories - that gleams golden and pure as the sun, and just as undeniable.

The book begins with Effia, daughter of Cobbe, who also sired Esi, Effia’s half sister. These sisters are never to meet, but through their progeny, we watch their history unfold. Each chapter tells the story of the successive generation: crucial decisions, marriages, births, deaths - falling in love, making banku, being sold into slavery, braiding someone's hair - the banal and the momentous alike, the miniscule and giant moments that comprise a life. No matter how much we are given, it never feels like enough, each chapter ending with the finality of a heavy jaw snapping shut, rendering a story in-progress a mere memory, somehow both light and heavy in its floating ephemera. It’s a testament to Gyasi’s form: the way we must reconcile ourselves with losing family, losing memories with each generation even as we are introduced to new ones, our sense of loss mingling with ever-present hesitant curiosity. At times, I felt almost winded as I raced through the pages, desperate to reach a conclusion to the current story, only to remember, yet again, that there was no conclusion - no, only continuation, as the story pressed on through the eyes of that character's grandchild, and their child, and their child’s child. It’s discovering door after door after window in room after room after room and never thinking to turn back around to the first. It’s an endless, grueling, archeological dig, one that stretches and widens exponentially as you press deeper into rich dark earth.

Homegoing employs the use of dichotomies to bring us to its resolution: two sisters; north and south; black and white; fire and water. And within this conceit, or perhaps, despite of it, we are witness to the myriad ways these dichotomies bend and blend, overturning our assumptions and wreaking fresh havoc on our expectations. Liberation is not a mere result of unshackling chains. Race is not a simple question of whose sperm and which egg. Gyasi’s writing style is akin to pouring water from one bucket into another, and into another, and yet another. Perhaps the buckets appear the same, maybe we’re taught in elementary school that their differences are negligible. Nonetheless, the water you end up with is radically different from the original. Discerning which bucket contributed which attribute to the water is a painstaking, arduous task - and often, seemingly impossible.

Gyasi, with Homegoing, does this work anyway.

We cannot unspool the current state of black America from the tightly woven threads of sharecropping and Jim Crow; we cannot separate the hues of colonialism and forced religion if we are to clearly see the color of self-hatred, of respectability. The slave trade, redlining, the prison industrial complex, the dissolution of the black family - these are not disparate issues, existing in a vacuum; they are irrevocably intertwined with our history, much of which has been lost, forgotten, incinerated, drowned. Homegoing is more than a sad story that echoes those of our grandparents and great-grandparents'. It offers a lens and incredible insight to the questions we’re still - still! - demanding answers to today. 

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Alfred A. Knopf (division of Penguin Random House), New York, NY, 2016.

 

WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN - Kaitlyn Greenidge

This is the #WellReadBlackGirl book club selection for April. Don't miss out - sign up for the newsletter here!

“Of course it doesn’t make any sense,” she told us. “Nothing about racism makes sense. If it made sense, it would mean it was real, it was the truth.”

I succeeded in avoiding any spoilers for this book, and boy, am I glad that I did. Even in trying to describe it to my husband, I can feel my summary falling woefully short. It isn't an easy novel to explain. The titular character is a chimp with abandonment issues, who connects with humans more than other members of his species, despite their fundamental differences. This is a running theme in the novel; the struggle to find your tribe, your people, and even harder than that, maintain it, and how relentlessly wearying that pursuit can be. Every character is searching for a place to belong, a person to belong to. Whether they find it is debatable. And even if they have, what have they lost in the discovery?

Truth be told, the premise made - still makes - me uncomfortable. But I enjoyed that discomfort. It meant that I couldn't engage with the plot on autopilot. That I was being forced to witness, and thus, contemplate parallels I've always found repulsive and degrading - it brought a more complicated humanity to the characters who espouse those beliefs, albeit intentionally or unintentionally. It is infuriating and embarrassing, and yet you have to find the dignity and strength to press on, because what other choice is there?

One of the most important things Mumma drilled into me was never to let a white person think that they knew you. In Spring City, Mumma and Pop and all the other Stars and Saturnites were planets, possessing deep and mysterious seas, complicated deserts, forests of of knowledge and pain. But step across the border into Courtland County and they were little more than rocks, pebbles really, to the white people that lived there. Small and insignificant, without the weight or density to command even the smallest orbit. Mumma told me that this underestimation was an advantage. It meant you could do things white people would never even know about. Your invisibility was your power.

The Freeman family - Laurel, Charles, and their daughters Charlotte and Callie - are chosen to participate in a groundbreaking scientific study at a research facility in a very white suburb of Boston. They are assigned a chimp, Charlie, and charged with not only helping him assimilate into their family, but learn how to speak sign language. It's a study many years in the making after several failed attempts, and the anticipation surrounding the experiment is palpable - or incredibly awkward, depending on which Freeman you're talking to. What follows is a tale that feels rooted in (dubious) science, laced with the potential for tragedy, but periodically adopts the whimsy of a children's cartoon: days and nights spent feeding and dressing Charlie, who grins and screams and clings to his new mother;  raucous family dinners; the myriad tiny indignities of living in such intimate quarters with a wild animal.

Greenidge doesn’t shy away from the heavy racial implications of this experiment, but she draws the line at crafting a plot that droops too low beneath the weight of its own righteousness. Her characters are human first, however flawed, misled, or desperately lonely they might be. We change points of view often; we make leaps through time and place. While this story feels in no way incomplete, there is much we are not privy to; answers to questions we are not aware of the need to ask. I felt a peculiar distance from her characters, only able to just make out a quirk of their brow or a curl of their lip before they were obscured again, as if behind a translucent film, a jungle brush. They are still somewhat mysterious to me, these Freemans, and I like them that way. Greenidge doesn’t reduce them to hapless victims; easy specimens. They have interiority, depth, purpose. And they are not ours to own.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill (division of Workman Publishing), New York, NY, 2016.