They took them out into the light. The scent of ocean water hit her nose. The taste of salt clung to her throat. The soldiers marched them down to an open door that led to sand and water, and they all began to walk out onto it.
Before Esi left, the one called Governor looked at her and smiled. It was a kind smile, pitying, but true. But for the rest of her life Esi would see a smile on a white face and remember the one the soldier gave her before taking her to his quarters, how white men smiling just meant more evil was coming with the next wave.
This passage is one of many that spoke to me deep down in my heart and soul from Yaa Gyasi’s powerful book, Homegoing. This is a novel that should be part of every school’s reading curriculum, along with other classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Bluest Eye and The Souls of Black Folk. Ms. Gyasi has taken the story of slavery and its after effects and made it into a sweeping multi-generational tome that kept me riveted and broke my heart as I read each page.
The novel begins with two African sisters born of fire, whose lives take very different paths. Effia, also known as Beauty, is tricked into marrying a British soldier, who makes a deal with the Asante tribe to buy slaves. Effia and her husband live in Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are kept in the dungeon down below. Unbeknownst to Effia, a sister she will never know named Esi is in that very dungeon, waiting to be shipped to America after her tribe is betrayed by her naïve act of kindness. As their lives move forward, both women are affected by the empire that was slavery, for both good and ill.
Homegoing is one of only three books I have actually hugged to myself after reading. The story explores not only the lives of Effia, Esi and their descendants, but also the lives of Blacks before, during and after slavery. Ms. Gyasi uses her words to openly and honestly talk about how deeply entrenched slavery and its after effects are in American culture. Violence, racism, segregation, colorism, racial profiling, miseducation and a host of other horrors and terrors against Blacks have been staples of our country since its inception. Slavery was, and still is, a burden this country continues to bear, benefiting whites in every aspect of their lives while stomping on the backs of blacks and other people of color to no end. With each chapter, Ms. Gyasi examines how black women are usually the ones left with the weight of it all, caring for their children, their men, their neighbors without taking time to care for themselves. That is a burden we still carry today, as we are constantly abused, disrespected and ignored. But within those pages is also hope: for our lives, our freedoms, our bodies. Ms. Gyasi holds nothing back, challenging readers to look and really see what it means to be Black.
I cannot say that I was not at times exceedingly angry while reading Homegoing. Many of the injustices the characters were faced with still exist today. One particular passage struck me in a way that speaks to the times we live in now:
“Boy look atcha,” his cellmate said, his gaze so spiteful now that H grew suddenly, inexplicably afraid of the smaller, older man. “Don’t matter if you was or wasn’t. All they gotta do is say you was. That’s all they gotta do. You think cuz you all big and muscled up, you safe? Naw, dem white folks can’t stand the sight of you. Walkin round free as can be. Don’t nobody want to see a black man look like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.” He rested his head against the cell wall and closed his eyes for a second. “How old you was when the war ended?”
H tried to count back, but he’d never been very good at numbers, and the Civil War was so long ago that the numbers climbed higher than H could reach. “Not sure. ‘Bout thirteen, I reckon.” he said.
“Mm-hmm. See, that’s what I thought. You was young. Slavery ain’t nothin’ but a dot in your eye, huh? If nobody tell you, I’ma tell you. War may be over but it ain’t ended.”
No truer words have ever been spoken.
I implore my readers of this website to read this novel. Will it be an easy read? Absolutely not, as it is unflinching in its portrayal of the black experience over many generations. But you will be unable, and I hope, unwilling, to put this book down before you get to the end. I wholeheartedly recommend Homegoing and look forward to reading more work by Yaa Gyasi.