“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others….But now we come upon the problem of conflicting stories…we believe the one who has the power. He is the one who get to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that you must find that story too. From there you begin to get a clearer picture, yet still imperfect, picture” (Gyasi 226).
These are the words of Yaw, a history teacher in Yaa Gyasi’s brilliant debut novel, Homegoing, as he addresses his students embarking on the study of history in colonial Gold Coast (modern day Ghana). Appearing almost at the end of the book, his words resemble the entire premise of Homegoing and perhaps Gyasi’s project as a Ghanaian-American writer confronting the subject of slavery as a shared history between Ghanaians and African-Americans. Indeed, the uncertainty of history – or is it its unknowability? –is under the microscope throughout this novel. The novel begins with the story of Effia in 1700s Fanteland, the coastal area of Ghana that today is dotted with numerous and immovable forts and castles that once housed human flesh awaiting forced deportation to the New World. Effia’s story is a universal one: of love, the growing pains of teenage years, and marital drama among family members who cannot always agree on whom or what one chooses to love. Relating to the latter, we learn of the close relationship between Effia and her father, Cobbe Otchere, and contrastingly her tumultuous relationship with Baaba, a woman that we believe is her mother.
Cobbe is deeply protective of Effia, perhaps because of his knowledge of the contempt Baaba has towards her. Thus, as per tradition, he patiently awaits for the start of his daughter’s menstruation so that he can give her in marriage to Abeeku Badu, an heir to the throne of a local monarchy. Initially, we believe that it is because Cobbe wants Effia to be economically secure, loved and eventually escape Baaba’s wrath that he so desperately wants her betrothed to a powerful man. But we learn that it is because he does not want his daughter to marry a white man – one of the many "obronis" who have taken residence at Cape Coast Castle, the ‘Big House’ facing the Atlantic Ocean that the local residents see on a daily basis and yet have little idea of what actually goes on there.
Eventually, through Baaba’s shrewd engineering of local customs and manipulation of the young Effia, Effia does not marry Abeeku Badu and instead has to accept the proposal of James Collins, an Englishman working at the Castle who approaches her family for her hand in marriage. As per tradition, Effia moves from her parents’ house to that of her husband’s and it is once Effia enters the Castle that its mystique and the fullness of what it represents and what it is begins to unravel. In the Castle, we learn that although Effia lives comfortably with her husband in a purposely-built apartment overlooking the Atlantic that brings in fresh air, underneath there are also purposely-built rooms which, unlike hers, are neither airy nor welcoming of the dawn of the day. Instead, these are dark dungeons containing innumerable African bodies, cramped on top of each and feeding on their own faces as they await the arrival of The Ship.
The story of what Effia sees, hears and experiences as the wife of a ‘Big Man’ inside the Castle is the foundational narrative that other characters build on throughout the novel. Each chapter, like the first, is named after a character and each character speaks from a different epoch of history – beginning With Effia in 1700s Fanteland to Marjorie, a graduate student in Stanford, California in the new millennium. Unbeknownst to each other, they are all related. But this is not a story of a romantic lineage to an ancestral African past or a traceable African-American history to a glorious past of African Kings and Queens before the arrival of The Ship. No. In the simplest form, Homegoing can be summarized as a story of webbed connections between West Africans and African-Americans as two groups of people who share aspects of culture, traditions and history. But much deeper is the novel’s interrogation, through personal narratives, of how this shared history is both memorialized and articulated differently and how these differences often inform conceptions and misconceptions that African-Americans and West Africans have of each other.
That is, while the novel does not shy away from the fact that Africans did participate in the enterprise of slavery, it refuses a reading that is situated on a binary of good and bad, innocent and villain, or victim and victor. Rather, the interest of Gyasi appears to be providing a holistic perspective, woven together by various narratives, that enable us to understand why people did what they did and how they negotiated the political and economic situations of their societies. For example, in Effia’s story, we understand that some people in her community gravitated towards the Europeans and their unholy endeavor because they believed that trade with them would help strengthen Effia's people against the military prowess of the Asante nation, the powerful inland kingdom of the Gold Coast. Equally, it is also the case that whilst those who traded with the Europeans knew the extent and nature of the business they were involved in, the wider community, like Effia, was oblivious to the dealings inside ‘the Big House’. It was simply where “they” – the Europeans – lived and worked. Owing this, it was not the case that everyone knew of the dirty business of the trade in human flesh and consciously turned a blind eye to it. Nor the idea that the history of West African societies is simply one of subjugation because, as we see from the onset of the novel, trade between African and Europeans took the form of commodities and Europeans initially respected the social and political systems of traditional African societies.
These points are often missing in historical and cultural narratives of the slave trade, particularly as told by Africans in the diaspora, whose experience of slavery and its aftermath in the West often leave them desperately wanting of answers from continental Africans as to how the slave trade started and why it was allowed to go on for so long without their intervention. Famously, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his controversial television series, Wonders of the African World: The Slave Kingdom, concluded after visiting Cape Coast Castle and other sites of memory in Ghana that it because Africans sold other Africans that they are reluctant to speak about the subject of slavery, particularly with those whose very presence compel them to remember. Like so many academics and ordinary people who tour the forts and castles of Ghana daily without properly engaging with the people who lives are within its shadows, West African history, particularly the transatlantic slave trade, is read as a narrative of shame that has induced immutable silence over its people.
My own work on slavery and literature in the work of West Africans and African-American writers was initiated by a frustration of this singular reading of West Africans’ historicization of slavery and the constant comparison between the collective memories of slavery by West Africans and African-Americans. Like Gyasi in Homegoing, I am not moved by a desire to vindicate Africans as participants in the slave trade or to write their innocence as unwilling players coerced into an immoral game by opponents much bigger and better-equipped to play than they were. No. The history that I want to understand and which I believe dignifies the lives of innumerable people who experienced (and still feel) the loss and absence of slavery is the one which reflects on the people at the center of that history. Toni Morrison has long been concerned with the “anonymous people called slaves” and has dedicated her life to making their lives meaningful on the pages of her texts. Morrison's work is a beautiful marriage between history and literature and of facts and fiction that has served to lift the mark of historyless-ness that slavery placed on African-Americans. In 1974 and in celebration of the publication of The Black Book, she wrote that it is because:
Historians must necessarily speak in generalities and must examine recorded sources: statistics on income earned, books by activists and leaders, dates etc…[but] they habitually leave out life lived by everyday people. History for them is what great men have done. But artists don’t have such limitation, and as the truest of historians, they obliged not to ("Behind the Making of the Black Book" 88) [my emphasis].
The power of the artist to go beyond the work of professional historians and to portray an undervalued people is of course demonstrated so powerfully in Beloved. In Beloved are the missing voices and histories of “the people left behind”; the people who also had to endure the pain of loss and live with the absence of loved ones who were abruptly uprooted from their lives without explanation. Surely their pain, like those who made it to the other side of the Atlantic, is as equally unspeakable and as enduring. Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang, a poet and a resident of Cape Coast, once wrote that slavery for Africans who are reminded daily of the history by its physical remnants is like “a living wound under a patchwork of scars.” In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi gently and in a dignified manner undresses this wound to reveal a painful history that is told through the lives of individuals whose stories, which span time and geography, are not all that different.
It is a history that attempts to connect the dots linking Ghanaians to African-Americans and gives a language to an experience and a legacy that resists naming and even language itself. For this I am grateful: since 2008, I have visited Ghana annually and almost every visit my aim has been to tour as many monuments as possible. Almost every time after the tour of the first Castle and on to the second one (usually Elmina), I leave tour guides stranded and confused in dark dungeons as I run out grasping for air and holding my stomach to save myself from a pressure which threatens the end of me. Always a kind and foreign hand finds me outside and asks: “Are you okay? How do you feel? What is wrong?” I have never been able to answer these questions in earnest but these questions often initiate thoughtful conversations between myself and others; people from completely different walks of life, with our only connection being this history that we feel and which we cannot properly name. It is this experience we encounter in Homegoing, a history lesson that impresses on its readers that we must not see West Africans’ and African-Americans’ narratives of slavery as distinct and in conflict with each other, but as a cloth of designs that has been torn and which must necessarily be woven back together for a clearer yet imperfect picture.
Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing: A novel. Alfred Knoff, 2016.
Morrison, Toni. "Behind the Making of the Black Book." Black World/Negro Digest Feb 1974 Feb 1974: 86-90.
[by Portia Owusu]
Portia Owusu is a Fulbright scholar and doctoral student from London, England attending SOAS, University of London. She spent the 2015-2016 school year working with Dr. Maryemma Graham and the Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas as she completed her dissertation.