In 1977 Alex Haley’s Roots premiered on television and it was an epic event watched by an unprecedented 85% of television households. Statistics show that my family along with 130 to 140 million Americans (more than half the U.S. population) watched at least part of the series. I had not read the best-selling book and I would assume that very few of the young television viewers had read it either. However, this powerful adaptation of the novel was a heart-wrenching history lesson for me. It was my first experience of racism in my all white New England prep school.
My middle school history teacher, Professor Carlson, was considered a rebel not only because he took off his jacket and loosened his tie during class but because his unorthodox teaching methods were not easy to quantify by the administration or the parents. He created scenarios to force us to think and we actively played out political strategies, diplomacy dilemmas, and social experiments. I will never forget the uproar when he assigned us all to watch Roots. Parents wanted to censor what their children watched and demanded he rescind the requirement, which he was forced to do in order to keep his job. In hindsight, this enabled Mr. Carlson to teach us a far more valuable lesson about ignorance, fear, censorship and racism.
I have selected Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi as the September Book of the Month as it is the first novel that matured and deepened the emotions sparked by Roots during my adolescence. Unlike the sprawling 1000 page book by Haley, subtitled the Saga of an American Family, Gyasi quietly and deftly follows two branches of a family. Two half sisters raised in different villages in Ghana unbeknownst to each other end up in the Cape Coast Castle at the same time. However, one sister Effia is married to a British Governor and lives in luxury while her sister Esi, who was captured and sold, was suffering in the dungeon below.
Gyasi only gives one glimpse of each generation. She alternates between Effia’s descendents in Ghana and Esi’s in America after she is shipped across the sea into slavery. From the first pages you are aware that each of them is on the brink of an unfathomed destiny. The beauty of the narrative is that even though we spend only a brief time with each character, time and place are evoked quickly and vividly. This talented debut author distills each of their experiences down to their emotional truth and essential humanity.
One of the character’s life work is a book titled from a Ghanaian proverb, “The Ruin of a Nation Begins in the Homes of Its People.” True to this proverb, this novel showed me the deep and complex roots of evil. The character that truly touched my heart was Akua, known as the Crazy Woman of Edweso. She says to her son, “ No one forgets they were once captive, even if they are now free.” In seventh grade, history was about others, but that is no longer true. Homegoing poignantly shows the burns and scars on all of our souls.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.
Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. She lives in Berkeley, California.