2019 Reading List: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

The second book selected for the MarketSpace book club was a novel titled, Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. My co-worker who put this book on the list couldn’t remember where she’d heard about it, and after reading the synopsis online, the group was a little skeptical. But I told them at the very least we can all attempt to read it and if we don’t like it, we just stop. I’ve done that before.

So I downloaded the library book onto my Kindle, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to put this book down. The chapters are longer, so that also makes it hard to find a stopping point, but I just didn’t want to.

I will try to make my own summary of the book a little more intriguing than the book jacket.

This is the story of a family tree. The family tree begins with two sisters, born of the same mother, different fathers, and they are actually born in different African villages and have no idea the other exists. The first sister, Effia, is born into a family where the woman she believes is her mother hates her and beats her and eventually connives to marry her off to a white British man who lives in the Castle. The British are there for the slave trade, though this village isn’t aware of that yet. Effia lives in luxury in the Castle as a wench and has a son with her new husband.

Meanwhile, the second sister, Esi, grows up as the daughter of a Big Man in a different village. No one knows her mother is a common house girl. In the beginning she actually seems to have the better life, but perhaps just a better young childhood. But then she is captured by a warring tribe and is sold as a slave to the British in the Castle. She is held there in the dungeons, unbeknownst her her, just below her sister’s feet.

The sisters’ mother had given them each a black stone, which they try to keep with them, but only Effia is able to hold on to the stone and pass it on to her family.

From here, the book alternates chapters down the lineage of each of the sisters.

On Effia’s side, we read of her son Quey, his son James, his daughter Abena, her daughter Akua, her son Yaw, and his daughter Margerie. This side of the family tree remained in Africa until Yaw moved to the U.S. late in his life with his wife and daughter, Margerie.

On Esi’s side, her family is born into slavery and survives life on U.S. southern plantations, lives through emancipation, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, and the racism of Harlem. We read of her daughter Ness, her son Kojo, his son H, his daughter Willie, her son Sonny, and his son Marcus.

Reading about the lineage of these two sisters made me wonder about my own ancestry. I really don’t have much background that I can remember about where my grandparents, great-grandparents and so on came from or what their experiences were.

The book covered so much history and explained so much about many different time periods and cultures.

There were quotes from the book, lines that a character said, that had such depth and meaning, transcending the moment of the story and offering up insight that lives on.

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.

Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.

There should be no room in your life for regret. If in the moment of doing you felt clarify, you felt certainty, then why feel regret later?

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.

How could he explain to Marjorie that what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, and he, and everyone else, existed in it – not apart from it, but inside of it. How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance.

They had been products of their time, and walking in Birmingham now, Marcus was an accumulation of these times. That was the point.

I love the idea that life is so dependent on chance. That there are things in our lives that we have no control over. Things have happened because of the circumstances that came before and more circumstances that came before that. We are a product of everything that has come before us, whether we recognize that or not. We can feel like we have all the power and make all the choices, but the opportunities to have power or choices in the first place is a result of decisions and happenstance that is completely out of our control.

The final characters, Marcus and Marjorie, would never have been where they were, had it not been for every character and every chapter before them. Their stories started with Effia and Esi. They ended up in two completely different places because each sister’s life went a different direction. Had the sisters been together, this whole novel would have been completely different.

 

I jotted down a cliff-notes memo for each character. There may be spoilers, so if you’re planning to read this, you may want to skip this.

But either way, I feel this was an amazing book, and an important one. Well worth reading.

Effia– She thought her mother was Baaba, but she wasn’t. Effia never knew her true mother. Baaba didn’t love her and beat her. Effia grew up in the village but was married off to a white man in the Castle and lived there.

Quey – Effia’s son. He was born in the Castle, was close to realizing he was gay, but when father caught him, he was sent to England to be educated. Later, he goes to the village to be a Big Man as part of political power move. He must marry a Chief’s daughter for a treaty.

James – Quey’s son. He knew his dad was trading slaves and didn’t want to be a part of that, so he ran off to a village after his great-grandfather (Effia’s father) died. He faked his death to marry a village girl and became a farmer.

Abena – James’ daughter. Her father’s farm didn’t produce well so the village thought she and her family were cursed. She didn’t marry, but she was in love with her childhood friend. He kept promising to marry her, but married another in return for cocoa beans instead. Abena and he continued to have an affair and eventually she left to go to a larger village where there was a Missionary.

Akua – Abena’s daughter. Abena dropped her off at a Missionary school before she died. Akua grew up in school, married Asamoah and had nightmares about fire and a firewoman. She was called Crazy Woman. She burned her house down, her kids inside. Her husband only saved one child. She burned her hands.

Yaw – Akua’s son. He was badly burned in the fire as a child. He left his family as soon as he could.  He became a teacher. No one married him. He eventually got a house girl and on a trip back to visit his mother, they fell in love. They got married.

Margerie – Yaw’s daughter. She grew up in Alabama after Yaw moved the family to the U.S. She visited her grandmother, Akua, in Ghana every summer and loved it there. She went to grad school at Stanford and met Marcus.

Ness – Esi’s daughter. She was born into slavery in the U.S. and was forced to marry Sam in the Devil’s Hell plantation. They fell in love and tried to escape with their son, but were caught. She sent son on with the woman leading them. Sam was lynched and she was whipped so badly she had scars all over her body. Sold to a nicer plantation but could only be a field slave.

Kojo – Ness’s son. He’d escaped slavery as a baby and grew up in Baltimore. He worked on ships in the bay and had a wife and seven children. His wife, pregnant, was taken away back to slavery.

H – Kojo’s son. Born in slavery in the south. Mother died after his birth by suicide. H was freed but he was put in jail and then put to work in the mines as a convict. He finished his sentence and lived in Pratt City with other ex cons. Led the miner’s union and married old girlfriend.

Willie – H’s daughter. She grew up in Pratt City but moved to Harlem with her husband and baby. Husband looked too white, hard to find jobs. He acted like a white man and she left him or kicked him out, or both. Her child was a tough one to raise. She met another man and had another baby.

Sonny (Carson) – Willie’s son. He didn’t know his dad growing up, he slept around, had a bunch of kids, but couldn’t afford child support for any. He tried to work for the NAACP to improve black lives. He had no money, so quit and got into drugs with a woman. He had a baby, but turned his life around and became a good dad.

Marcus – Sonny’s son. He went to Stanford for school and met Marjorie. They went to Ghana so Marjorie could show him her home country and they toured the Castle. They faced their fears. Full circle, Marjorie says, “Welcome home.”

 

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