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Ghana’s Dark Past

No debate at all: Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is impressive, impassioned, and utterly original—all the more so because the Ghanaian born (but American raised writer) was twenty-six years old when she finished her novel. Certainly, it will be a choice for book clubs around the country and taught in progressive schools as a window on slavery and its aftermath, especially on Ghanaians who were complicit with the British in raiding neighboring areas of what was once called the Gold Coast and then selling their captives to European slavers. It’s not a pretty picture, and Gyasi has taken a bold stance, pointing her finger at her ancestors and their participation in her birth country’s slave trade. We are accustomed to regarding white people as the true monsters of the slave trade, not Africans. One thing is clear about Gyasi’s account: both Africans and Europeans paid a terrible price for what they undertook for greed.

The story begins in 1763 and concludes soon after the year 2000. Stretched in-between those two dates are nine or more generations of Ghanaians and the descendants—both in Africa and the United States—of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, daughters of the patriarch, Cobbe Otcher. Effia was married to James Collins, the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle. She was barely fifteen years and an incredible beauty. Collins had another wife and children back in England. They are less important in Effia’s future than what she will quickly learn are the prisoners in the lower level of the castle, the “cargo” that will be shipped out to the New World as slaves. Ironically, mixed in that human cargo is her half-sister, Esi, who was raped by a white slaver and then tossed among the several hundred Africans on top of one another in the castle’s dungeon, awaiting shipment to the West. That’s the ugly opening of Gyasi’s powerful story, fleshed out with horrifying details of the slave business in the eighteenth century, the stench created by cargo regarded as sources of profit rather than as human beings. Gyasi is unsparing in her details, especially the treatment of female slaves. Enough to make you gag.

There are moments in the story of the descendants of these two half-sisters when life is not quite so bleak. Mostly, we read the account of what happens to one person from each homegoinggeneration on one side of the dual genealogy and then we skip to the other, rarely returning to any of these characters. And we slowly move beyond the actual years of slavery to its aftermath. Fortunately, there is a helpful genealogy at the beginning of the novel. In the African sections of the story, there is continued warfare between Ghana’s two major ethnic groups, the Fante and the Ashanti, and the on-going wars with the British. In the American sections, slavery will eventually end but be replaced by the equally debilitating Jim Crow years, with subsequent sections describing life in Harlem during the 1920s, then the Civil Rights era and its aftermath. Ghana will move from colonialism to independence, but always the stain of the slave trade is visible in the lives of Gyasi’s characters.

Two sections will suffice to illustrate the scope of Gyasi’s imaginative narration. The first involves Esi’s grandson, Kojo, who has worked in the Baltimore shipyards for sixteen years or more. He has forged papers saying that he is a freeman and believes that he and his mother who both fled the South all those years ago are safe. Kojo, also known as Jo, has been aided by abolitionists, who have helped him get a job. Furthermore, he’s married to a black woman who was born in the North, and they have a child. But then things suddenly change with talk of the Fugitive Slave Bill. Jo “couldn’t imagine who would be looking for him or Ma Aku after all of these years. Jo didn’t even know the name or the face of his old master,” who he has been told had died. Thus, Jo believes that if the bill is passed, no one will come looking for him. He doesn’t see any reason to leave Baltimore and flee to Canada. Then the unexpected takes place, after the passing of the bill. It’s Anna, his wife, along with their baby, who is kidnapped by the enforcers, whisked away and never seen again.

A second moving section of the story involves a character also known as James, the grandson of James Collins, and thus a man of visible mixed race. He lived some of his life in England, and when he returned to Ghana, he wanted to get as far away from his family on the coast as possible. So he moved inland and became a farmer, in spite of being unwelcomed because of the color of his skin. But he was never successful as a farmer and quickly dubbed “Unlucky.” Worse, when drought came, the villagers blamed it on him. But James refused to see himself as unlucky. As he said to his daughter, “My father was a slaver, a very wealthy man. When I decided to leave Fantaland, it was because I did not want to take part in the work my family had done. I wanted to work for myself. I see how these townspeople call me Unlucky, but every season I feel lucky to have this land, to do this honorable work, not the shameful work of my family.” He chose the price of dignity, and won the respect of his family.

In spite of harrowing scenes, of degradation (especially of Esi’s descendants in America), of humiliations and abuse, Gyasi wants her readers to understand that past actions have to be acknowledged if any sense of dignity can be attained. That is true of James/Unlucky already mentioned. But, it’s a woman—late in the story—who speaks of cleansing and healing, after the sins of the father (and of a nation) have been exorcised. She tells her son, Yaw, “There is evil in our lineage. There are people who have done wrong because they could not see the result of the wrong…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.”

And then, she remarks about the horrible legacy of slavery: “When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or the two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts 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. But, even still…you have to let yourself be free.”

The parallel stories on two continents are totally convincing, rife with humanity and memorable characters even though individual sections of the book sometimes give the impression that Homegoing is more collection of short stories than a novel. But that is not so because the narrative slowly moves toward fusion, bringing the two lineages together. That’s implied by Gyasi’s title, Homegoing, of course, and all I will reveal is my deep satisfaction from having read a story so personalized, so urgent and timely, especially for today’s readers and the many who do not seem to understand why African Americans are so conflicted.

Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing

Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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