Beginning in the late 1700s, in Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi introduces two half sisters, Effia and Esi. Effia, raised by a Big Man and his wife, is married to a British officer, and is unaware that she has a half sister. Effia’s descendants stay in Africa and participate in the slave trade becoming a dominant family until a chance encounter and a belief in love alters their course. For generations, though, the family felt the specter of evil haunting them since they had been involved in slavery.
Esi herself is the daughter of a Big Man, but her village is attacked by a rival and she is sold into slavery, held in a dungeon in the very castle where Effia lived with her husband. Esi is torn from her roots and rent from her family history, sent to horrors of slavery in the American South. Even after slavery ends, they are afflicted by persecution, discrimination, drug abuse, and a sense of lost history.
Each chapter is told from a different character’s point of view, alternating between the family branches. The book includes a family tree, and often, I don’t refer to these, but in the case of Homegoing, I found myself returning to it again and again.
The narrative is so expansive and sweeping, covering such a wide swath of history, I got very caught up in the story and characters. At times, I wasn’t ready to part with certain characters when their chapters were finished, though their fates were often subsequently revealed. It is quite impressive that Gysai was able to represent so many different periods of history so flawlessly, and I can’t imagine the meticulous research she must have conducted to achieve this.
One of the more interesting chapters to me was about H who escaped one form of slavery only to find himself a victim of another. Once Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, authorities in the south arrested black men on small or bogus charges and levied outrageous fines that they were unable to pay. Instead of being incarcerated, the prison system rented them out as laborers, basically perpetuating the slave system. What I didn’t know about was Pratt City, Alabama, an integrated and generally peaceful city created by former convicts who worked as coal miners.
Gysai introduces several themes in the book, including the long-term generational consequences of slavery, both for those enslaved and those complicit in the trade, including a sense of estrangement from origins and a feeling of being chased by evil. As Marcus, a character from the 2000s who is working on his PhD learns, the issues are so interdependent, from being barred from educational and economic opportunity to drug and alcohol abuse and broken families. The treatment of women, the role of religion, and the bonds of parenthood also run through the novel and show how power can be lost and regained in surprising ways.
Excellently written, brilliantly conceived, and with an important story, Homegoing is worth reading and reflecting on.