Skin Trade

Homegoing BY Yaa Gyasi. New York: Knopf. 320 pages. $26.

The cover of Homegoing

The speakers at the Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists, held in Paris in September 1956, included Richard Wright, Alioune Diop, Léopold Senghor, and Aimé Césaire. James Baldwin was also there, albeit as a journalist. He was taking notes for a report that would be published in Encounter magazine. In this essay, Baldwin noted that the conference, in gathering African and African American writers together, raised a question: “Is it possible to describe as a culture what may simply be, after all, a history of oppression?” Close at the heels of this query came another: “What, beyond the fact that all black men at one time or another left Africa, or have remained there, do they really have in common?”

There were opposing points of view at the conference, but as the debates wore on Baldwin seized on an answer to the above questions. Today, his conclusion might appear flawed because of its faulty diction regarding gender, but it still retains its sad relevance:

What they held in common was their precarious, their unutterably painful relation to the white world. What they held in common was the necessity to remake the world in their own image, to impose this image on the world, and no longer be controlled by the vision of the world, and of themselves, held by other people. What, in sum, black men held in common was their ache to come into the world as men. And this ache united people who might otherwise have been divided as to what a man should be.

In her debut novel, Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi echoes Baldwin’s understanding of a common culture marked by both yearning and pain, in which black people can confront each other across differences and reach a political understanding about what unites them. What distinguishes Gyasi’s presentation of this idea is its scope: She does not present us with a single moment, but rather delivers a multigenerational saga in which two branches of a family, separated by slavery and time, emerge from the murk of history in a romantic embrace.

The novel begins in the mid-eighteenth century in a Fante village in West Africa. Effia the Beauty hopes to marry the man who is next in line to be chief. This man is described as “tall, with skin like the pit of an avocado,” and when he visits the home of Effia’s father one evening, we learn that “Effia had oiled her naked body and put gold in her ears.” The British soldiers have arrived on the coast. There is active trade between them and the tribes. And also marriages. One British soldier, his face as “red as though his neck were a stump on fire,” proposes to a girl in Effia’s village. Effia is next. She is taken from her village to the bed of the British governor. A child is born to Effia in the castle where she now lives. One line of the story advances from there, following Effia’s descendants, primarily in Africa, over the next two and a half centuries.

When Effia arrives at the castle, she makes a discovery. Through the small holes in the floor, she feels a breeze and then hears a cry. Below her are slaves awaiting transfer to the ships that will take them across the Atlantic. Unbeknownst to Effia, her half-sister, Esi, is among those down in the women’s dungeon. The man Effia had once hoped to marry, who becomes the village chief, has participated in the selling of slaves to the British. Effia has only an abstract idea about those beneath her feet, who speak a different dialect: “She had never thought of where they went from there.” With Esi we pick up the second thread of the story, as the novel tells us about her and other slaves and where they are taken: “There was no sunlight. Darkness was day and night and everything in between. Sometimes there were so many bodies stacked into the women’s dungeon that they all had to lie, stomach down, so that women could be stacked on top of them.”

The story of Esi and her descendants is essentially the history of slavery and its aftermath in America: the journey across the ocean, the horrors of plantation life in the South, and the Civil War; and later, the flight from Jim Crow and the migration from the coal mines of Alabama to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem. Homegoing’s structure—with chapters alternating between Africa and America—serves the narrative well. We are reminded of the recent past from which these slaves have been torn, and are always aware of the unforgiving violence of the rupture.

When the novel ends, we are with two young descendants—one from each side of the family. They are Marjorie and Marcus, scholars of African American literature and history in the United States. They are visiting Ghana. They are also in love. Their search for the past is realized, even apotheosized, whether they know this or not, in the form of the novel we are holding in our hands. At one point, Marcus reflects that his research was originally going to focus on the convict-leasing system in the South that had stolen years off of his great-grandfather’s life. But his project kept growing. How could he write about that distant forebear and not also about the more immediate ones who migrated north? The questions, and their connections, kept multiplying. Marcus’s dilemma seems to mirror that of Homegoing’s author. There is no way Gyasi could have achieved her grand ambition without telling all the stories she does—or without abandoning the techniques of scholarship and letting her imagination step in boldly where there might only have been lacunae.

In an important, self-reflexive study of the idea of return, Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman describes arriving in a town in Ghana and being met with cries of “Obruni, obruni.” This name, called out first by giggling children but then by others, as when Hartman goes to the market, translates as “stranger” or “foreigner from across the sea.” But Hartman uses the experience to deliver the following insight about slavery:

The most universal definition of the slave is a stranger. Torn from kin and community, exiled from one’s country, dishonored and violated, the slave defines the position of the outsider. She is the perpetual outcast, the coerced migrant, the foreigner, the shamefaced child in the lineage. Contrary to popular belief, Africans did not sell their brothers and sisters into slavery. They sold strangers: those outside the web of kin and clan relationships, nonmembers of the polity, foreigners and barbarians at the outskirts of their country, and lawbreakers expelled from society.

If the slave is the universal obruni, then granting her a family is a redemptive creative gesture. Hartman goes on to write that “racial solidarity was expressed in the language of kinship because it both evidenced the wound and attempted to heal it.” Gyasi gives to the slave and the ex-slave what has been desired: a traceable family line. “Genealogical trees don’t flourish among slaves,” Frederick Douglass famously remarked, and Homegoing’s imaginative breadth lies in dreaming up a lineage, a continuous history of family, for those who would otherwise be dust.

Each character in the novel, each link in the generational chain, gets roughly twenty pages. The movement between chapters is quick. History is made to hurry along in the novel, so that at times we feel we are flicking past photos in an album. The infant we had left in the previous chapter is a grown man when we encounter him again. The ache we had begun to feel for one character is easily transferred to the next one. The intimacy is only fleeting, true. But it also often feels urgent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his enthusiastic blurb for Homegoing, calls it “an inspiration.” I recently read Coates’s own book Between the World and Me, and because of that, when reading Gyasi’s novel, I thought of the mothers of the young black men slain over the past year or two. What sort of comfort or—to use Coates’s word—inspiration would those mothers find in Homegoing? Writing about the killing of his friend Prince Jones by the police, Coates addresses the plunder and loss of black lives and quickly draws up an inventory of the investments in each one:

Think of all the love poured into him. Think of the tuitions for Montessori and music lessons. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the daycare, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of World Book and Childcraft. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of credit cards charged for vacations. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone.

A heartbreaking list. This is what family means: an enormous accumulation of small and big acts of giving. The long caring. The joy and tedium of birthday parties, more than a genealogy or the record of births and deaths across centuries. And yet, for Coates too, the death of his friend provokes him to think of those who grew up without fathers or were abandoned by them. This will now also be the legacy for the daughter of Prince Jones. Homegoing is a reminder of the tenacity of fathers and mothers who struggle to keep their kin alive. The novel succeeds when it retrieves individual lives from the oblivion mandated by racism and spins the story of the family’s struggle to survive. Not because the family is eternal but the struggle is—the struggle is forever.

Amitava Kumar is the author of the essay collection Lunch with a Bigot (Duke University Press, 2015).