This month's “Cardinal Pick” drew inspiration from one of my English classes. My goal for this column was to spend attention solely on women of color, because I wanted to create a space where the voices of these writers could be heard.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to venture to the shelf in my room that contains endless books. But, a serendipitous moment occurred in my African American Literature class, where I had the privilege to read “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi.
Gyasi’s debut novel delves into the lingering effects of slavery and West Africa’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Tracing the descendants of one woman across seven generations, it contemplates the consequences of slavery on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist that helped diversify the canon of American literature."
The highly acclaimed historical fiction book was published in 2016, receiving the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book. Yaa Gyasi is a Ghanaian-American novelist that helped diversify the canon of American literature.
Prompted by a friend to visit the Cape Coast Castle, Gyasi found her inspiration between the luxurious upper levels — for colonists and local families — and the dungeons below where the slaves were contained. She stated, “I just found it really interesting to think about how there were people walking around upstairs who were unaware of what was to become of the people living downstairs.”
Born in Ghana yet raised in Alabama, the unique personal experiences of Gyasi’s life enabled her to comprehend the legacy of slavery. In an interview, she related, “You know, coming from a country, Ghana, that had a role in slavery, and then ending up in a place where slavery is still so strongly felt institutionally, as racism is still so strongly felt. The irony of that wasn’t lost on me.”
“Homegoing” follows the tale of Effia and Esi, two half-sisters unknown to each other who are born into the Fante and Asante tribes of 18th-century Ghana. Despite different villages and ethnic groups, they have the same mother, Maame. Each subsequent chapter alternates between their families’ lineage. Effia’s descendants remain in Africa while Esi is enslaved by an American planter.
"The novel’s title originates from an old African-American tradition marking the going home of a deceased person, which allows the enslaved soul to return to Africa."
The novel’s title originates from an old African-American tradition marking the going home of a deceased person, which allows the enslaved soul to return to Africa. The opposing lives of the African and African-American lineage shapes the arc where it is Gyasi who accomplishes her own homegoing.
This novel is rooted in original sin from a curse that creates vast repercussions for the Asante woman’s descendants. One character discloses, “Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your home.” The structure looms like the curse of African families exploited by — and at times exploiting — the slave trade, tracing back 300 years.
The unhealed wounds of slavery serve as persistent memories that are raw and revolve around this empathetic novel. The heart of this book contains families, loss, love, memory and roots. It unfolds through self-contained stories shifting between the familial bonds in West Africa and America, each character a new branch of the broken family tree.
"Both branches of the family suffer from different forms of oppression."
Old characters appear in dreams or retellings as the legacy of this family moves from Cape Coast to Kumasi to Baltimore to Harlem: Both branches of the family suffer from different forms of oppression. Effia’s side endures war with the British, resulting in colonization, while Esi’s side undergoes slavery, Civil War, lynchings and the Jim Crow era.
The West African chapters contain a multilayered humanity, evoking the emotions of what was lost to those who were kidnapped and sold. For example, the sense of individual and collective identity, a plethora of customs and traditions that were oppressed in America.
Identity and intimacy are wrapped within language emphasizing the importance of family and heritage. When an employer tells his servant, “We hear enough English here,” which enables her to break into Twi with relief, or when Esi tries to teach her daughter, Ness, their native tongue but receives five lashes for every Twi word the girl speaks.
"The American chapters contain harrowing scenes — vivid whippings, torture, condemnation to coal mines. Even freedom contains fear."
The American chapters contain harrowing scenes — vivid whippings, torture, condemnation to coal mines. Even freedom contains fear.
One section details the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act, where any black person in the North were at risk to kidnapping and re-enslavement. Kojo recalls “the days of running through forests and living under floorboards” to escape the bondage, as well as the practice of showing their papers to any white person “without any back talk, always silently.”
Lost heritage is prominent within the characters in America. They are mistreated because of their race and simultaneously alienated from their roots due to geographical separation, the anonymity of slavery and the loss of familial tales.
"The use of Gyasi's structure emphasizes that racism has not disappeaared but merely become institutionalized."
Gyasi’s use of genealogy to be chronological creates a direct, unbroken line from the original trauma of slavery in their family to present day. The use of her structure emphasizes that racism has not disappeared but merely become institutionalized.
Akua, one of Effia’s descendants, speaks across eras and oceans of how the curse of enslavement is “like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and outs the rest in the water thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”
“Homegoing” is a beautiful work of art that contains a passionate message and cold reality. Gyasi evokes a berth of emotions by informing us of the historical way the world functions. This story’s power gives a platform and voice to these horrors not to prevent dehumanization but rather to give back the humanity that was taken from them.
It is easy to become despondent over these topics or dissuaded from truly diving head first into a novel assigned in class. However, “Homegoing” is a breath of fresh air from the monotonous — it’s honest, raw and powerful.
I encourage all to give this novel a chance because it contains a voice that needs to be heard.
Final Grade: A
Lauren Souza is a literature columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of her work, click here.