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Homegoing [Book Review]

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi explores a few themes. The sins of the father/mother affecting the child. And also the experience of living with the aftermath of the slave trade and colonization. The book charts a timeline of the effect of the slave trade on the people that remained in Africa and the enslaved people who were brought to America.

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The book breaks down along two family lines, the Effia Otcher and Esi Asare branches. The Effia Otcher line consists of the descendants who remained in Africa. Unfortunately, I haven’t read a lot of books by African authors or about everyday African people. So it was very new to me to read about everyday African life.

The mention of fufu was intriguing and cool to me because it’s something that my family eats although they’re from the West Indies. It was interesting to read about African traditions and everyday life in an African village. There was insight into growing up as a child in Africa, the rituals surrounding courtship and marriage, and also the lives of married people.

As the generations of Effia’s family progress, there was a backdrop of taking prisoners of war as slaves. Slaves in the African sense seemed quite different from slaves in the American sense. African slaves were prisoners of war who were more like servants who cleaned around the house and performed other chores. It wasn’t a good or great institution. But, it seemed devoid of the dehumanization and brutality that the new form of slavery entailed.

The family moves along but African society also moves through different phases. It starts off around the time when the slave trade is beginning to take hold. Greed and corruption lead to the wholesale kidnapping and selling of people from neighboring villages. Village chiefs become drunk on power and the spoils of their trades.

The African villages are weakened by the end of the slave trade and have to deal with their former European allies becoming an occupying force. Guns, ammunition, and other powerful weapons mean that Europeans no longer have to work with Africans on an equal footing. The African villages lose the ability to self-rule and become subordinate colonies to the Europeans.

I’d read about the American perspective through books about slavery, emancipation, and reconstruction. Yet, I wasn’t aware of the historical timeline within Africa once the slave trade took root. I’d learned about people being enslaved, taken from Africa, and brought to the Americas. But, not the actual effects on Africa during and after the slave trade. There was also a look into missionaries coming into Africa and using religion to aide colonizing the people.

The Esi line consists of the descendants who were enslaved and brought to America. The storyline for that branch was more familiar because I have more knowledge of the Black experience in the Americas. It weaved together the events and social institutions that have affected Black American history.

Each character in the Esi line related to a specific period or major event in the Americas. Esi is the ancestor that was brought to America and represents the original enslaved African. Her daughter represents the first generation of slaves to be born in America that still had some direct ties back to Africa through a parent.

Yet, as the timeline progresses through the institution of slavery, family members are sold away and families are broken up. There isn’t a neat line of connected descendants like the African branch of the family. The American family is unable to stay together so there are some lost links along the way. But, Homegoing did a great job of tying it all together and explaining the precarious family structure of slaves in America.

Homegoing touches on the physical struggle of surviving the Middle Passage. It details Esi’s time spent aboard the slave ship and her confusion about her future and life away from her family and everything she knew. There’s a struggle for individuals to survive in slavery, a physical and spirit breaking institution. But, people are human and need to interact and form connections with others which leads to relationships and children. So, there’s also the struggle to keep families together which was heartbreaking.

Esi’s descendants struggle through slavery. Then experience emancipation only to struggle in a new form of quasi-slavery. Homegoing touches on the wrongful imprisonment of Black men for use as convict labor. A precursor to the prison industrial complex.

There are also the challenges of being Black and living in the Jim Crow South. One descendant moves from the South to the North for greater freedom and opportunities only to find a new set of problems. This character goes on to watch her family break apart. Her husband leaving the family to take advantage of the vices and opportunities offered by the big city. And her son struggling with drug addiction and being an absentee father.

Recommendation

Homegoing is a work of historical fiction but it’s a good jumping off point for venturing into the history of the Black diaspora. If you’re a fan of Roots, you’d also enjoy Homegoing. I’d especially recommend the book for young adults and adults who are trying to get into reading. The book and chapters are quite short which makes it very easy to pick up the book, read a chapter, and put it down. It’s not the kind of book that requires a lot of focused time.

I thought that Homegoing was similar in style and structure to Root by Alex Haley. Both books follow the history of a family from Africa to America. With the primary difference being that Homegoing follows two half-sisters. Also, each generation’s story wraps up in one chapter.

This is the book’s gift and its curse. Homegoing reads as a collection of short stories which makes it a quick and easy read. But, I enjoyed the writing so much that I wanted a lot more. None of the chapters felt long enough. I have a habit of counting down chapters as I get close to the end of a book. And I ended up feeling a bit stressed as I got to the last chapters of this book.

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