“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.