Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review of "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi

In the mid-1700s Effia was the town beauty in the British-run Gold Coast village of west Africa. Though Effia hoped to marry the local chief her mother - who regularly beat and abused Effia - managed to marry her off to James Collins, an English officer who lived in the Gold Coast Castle and ran the local slave trade.

As it turns out Effia's real mother was a housegirl who'd been impregnated by Effia's father. The housegirl ran off to a different village and had another daughter named Esi. Esi was captured by slave traders and imprisoned in the Gold Coast Castle's dungeon.

The half-sisters, unknown to each other, temporarily lived in the same house. Effia had a luxurious life on the upper floors of the Gold Coast Castle while Esi squatted in feces and squalor in the windowless basement, subject to beatings and rape by white officers. After a few months Esi was shipped to America on a slave boat.

Effia had children with James Collins and her descendants, some of whom were educated in the west, lived in Africa. One string of the story follows Effia's family tree in the region that would eventually become Ghana.

Esi was sold into slavery in America, and the other string of the story follows her descendants in the United States.

Effia's family line remained involved with the slave trade. To ensure economic success slavers sowed discord between the local Fante and Asante tribes, who invaded each other's villages and captured people to sell. Eventually, the psychological burden of being a slaver led one of Effia's descendants to fake his death so he could marry the girl he loved rather than the girl chosen for him. Living in a distant village without relatives - in a culture rooted in family - was very difficult. This is just one memorable tale of many as the story weaves through the decline of slavery and Ghana's struggle to obtain independence.

Esi, meanwhile had a terrible life as a slave in the American south, as did her descendants. One son, though, was taken north on the underground railroad and lived free. After a law was passed that required runaway slaves to be returned to the south Esi's grandson, a 'free man', was arrested and sent to work in an Alabama coal mine. Apparently, when coal mines needed more workers the arrest rate shot up. Esi's thread goes through the Civil War, the migration of southern blacks to the north, and the struggle for black power. In one memorable story a dark-skinned woman and light-skinned man got married in the south and moved to Harlem. To the public they looked like a mixed raced couple, which was unacceptable at the time. Eventually the husband, passing as white, left home and wed a white woman.

Both the Ghana and U.S. stories are compelling, and many are heart-rending. For example: In Ghana, a youthful homosexual attraction between two lonely boys was nipped in the bud. Crops failed year after year, causing privation and hunger. A troubled woman haunted by nightmares burned down her hut and killed two of her children, leaving a burned son alive. An unmarried woman waited for years to become the second or third wife of a childhood friend/lover...until he ultimately betrayed her completely. And more.

In America, slaves were whipped mercilessly and worked to death. A black single mother with a wonderful voice cleaned homes while auditioning for Harlem night clubs. But she was 'too black'; clubs would only hire light skinned black singers. In a Huntsville high school a black girl and white boy became close friends. However he couldn't take her to the prom because his family and the school forbid it. And so on.

Eventually, the family sagas come full circle as distant relatives of Effia and Esi, educated and successful, meet in the modern United States.

This is a good book that tells important stories about African history, American history, human nature, the good and evil that reside in people's hearts, and some slow advances of civilization. Highly recommended.

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