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 own home.
I relate to the world through books. In light of the recent election, I’ve tried to figure out what to read to help me understand what happened. As I bulk up my reading list with political treatises, calls to action and historical reviews, this book was already on my nightstand. It was the book for discussion at my library’s book group this month and it was perhaps more timely than expected when selected over the summer.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi tells two parallel stories of a family tree starting in Ghana; one sister is sold into slavery and taken to the American south, the other sister is married off to a white colonialist in their native home. Each chapter tells the story of the next generation until at the end when the two branches of the family tree meet again in “current day” to bring the story full circle. The timing of the novel is a bit off (I stuck to thinking about each chapter as taking place in a vague time period and not worrying if characters were still alive that probably should not have been) but I think Gyasi wanted to make sure certain generations were in place for certain events such as Birmingham coal mining by prisoners and the unionization of the mines later in the South or in Ghana, the conflicts of colonialism over time as well as the overarching evil of slavery that threads through both storylines. The stories are all powerful (some stronger than others as often happens when your chapters are basically vignettes that could stand on their own). I would also note Gyasi is strongest in her African chapters; her American chapters could sometimes feel like they are out of Hollywood’s central casting. I did wonder a bit if that may have been slightly intentional; that she was using the stereotype as a sort of shorthand and that the reader could then fill in the character blanks as a sort of self-examination. But that could be years of readers’ response theory rearing its head.
For me, the American chapters definitely held up an ugly mirror. For one, several are set in Harlem, in the north. In fact, the family is part of the Great Migration of African American families to the north during the early 1900s. Now, in school, growing up in the northeast, I think we’re taught a quiet sort of pride in that. We were “better”; we weren’t “racist” because African Americans could make a life for themselves in the North. It is a way, I see now, we comfort ourselves. The north could be, often was, just as bad. I liked that Gyasi did not sugarcoat Harlem of the 1920s. The lead character in that chapter wanted to be a jazz singer and was told continually she was too dark to make it big, no matter her talent. Her husband, light skinned enough to pass as white, leaves her and starts a family with a white woman. It made me reflect on how I was taught about African American history growing up in a almost all white northern suburb. I definitely had guilt and shame but was comforted again with this idea that we were “better” than the south. Later history classes corrected me on that and Gyasi makes a powerful statement about it here by illustrating it but not overtly addressing it. In light of recent events, I think perhaps the comforting message of high school history class had stuck with me more than I thought. I also find, living in the south now, that I cling to my northeastern identity more and more. In a sense, willfully other-ing myself at times as a comfort. Gyasi doesn’t let you do that in this read; we are all culprits. We all allowed this to happen and we are all tainted by the history of slavery and what it led to, both in the Americas and in Africa.
Gyasi is also touching on other aspects; I think she is saying some powerful things about masculinity, both white and black. A particularly heartbreaking chapter features a gay man deciding to follow the standard path open to him; marrying the woman his uncle arranges for him. She touches on social class and how that intersects with race and gender as well. From an artistic perspective, she’s also just telling a fascinating story of one family and its parallel branches and doing it with lyrical language. Her African chapters especially paint a vivid picture of the time periods she is capturing. The book very helpfully comes with a family tree in the front so the reader can keep track of where in the family they are as the book progresses.
While I have been adding lots of non-fiction to my reading list lately to help me understand our new world, this book reminds me why fiction is always my favorite. It can bring to light the world we inhabit in much truer ways sometimes that simply recounting the facts.