Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: The Struggle of Blacks to Find a Place for Themselves in the Western Countries

Man’s identity with respect to its true home has been a critical question and the answers emerged in many ways. The history of mankind is split into many aspects; one of these aspects is the roots a man associates himself with. The estrangement from the true home and self causes traumas for the man who seeks his identity. Home had been a topic on which philosophers never agreed. Till day, the concept of home has never been fully explained with the least variations. Many a philosophers contended the concept of home and propagated that man has no home. However, some say that man carries his home with him wherever he goes. Notwithstanding, this is the beauty of literature that it incorporates and values the conflicting point of views.

The colonial period engendered numerous critical questions which have universal implications. When it comes to the question of racism and the identity that took birth on this crucial question, the colonialism has bleak history. Blacks are the people who suffered the most because of their colour. Of course, the derogatory treatment was not confined to the exploitation of the blacks on account of their colour. The western countries, particularly Britain, France, Portuguese and Span established their hegemony in African countries when they interacted with the blacks shrouding their goals under the mission of civilizing the blacks. They established their castles, interacted with the native black people and started preaching Christianity. The very task, civilizing the uncivilized, assumed the title of the white man’s burden. However, the westerners started to establish their hold through the erection of posts and castles for the purpose of trade. Thus the era of plundering, pillaging and grabbing the natural and human resources of Africa started.

With the interaction of white and blacks, the derogatory treatment and subjugation of the blacks led to the critical racial issues. Black colour was considered a taboo. The colonial ideology corrupted the very human conscience, which gave the whites a license and led them the wholesale exploitation of the blacks worse than animals. They were taken by ships to the western countries. There they were sold like animals and consequently were made to work on plantations, farms and in the mines. This dark era became the basis for the awakening, cultivation and recognition of racial identity among the blacks across the African countries.

The conditions of the slaves that were shipped to the western countries made the lives of those blacks pathetic. They were, of course in a state of exile. The literal use of the world exile is the synonymous of banishment. It is a state in which a person is made to depart from his country. Exile sounds like but is not the same as being a refugee, expatriate or member of a diaspora. In practice, however, these terms overlap and refer to people displaced from their original home. Exile is an air of dwelling in an unknown space with pinching conscious state that one is not at home. The exile is oriented to a distant place and one feels that one does not belong where one lives. Exile is also an orientation to time, knitting one's life story around a central event of banishment and a present condition of absence from one's true home. An implicit travel narrative is central to the identity based and disturbed because of exile; the person in exile remembers the journey incorporating tribulations away from home and nurtures the hopes of returning to one’s true home some day.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a complex, vivid, heart-breaking, hopeful novel that depicts the lives of 7 generations in 2 lines, starting from half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who never meet. Effia and Esi are born respectively into Fante and Asante tribes in the South-Central region of what is now Ghana. The novel portrays the centuries long struggle of blacks to find a place for themselves in the western countries.

Neither Effia nor Esi has any power over her fate, which greatly diverge. Effia’s spiteful step-mother engineers a way to make a profiting deal that involves Effia becoming the consort of Governor James Collins of Cape Coast Castle. Her half-sister has the misfortune of being taken as slave by northerners and sold to the slave traders in Cape Coast Castle. Unknowingly, both sisters share the castle for a short time, Esi living in a disgusting dungeon while Effia occupies Collins’ quarters well above the dungeons. Esi is eventually sent to Alabama by ships where she works as a field slave, thus setting up the dual locales – Ghana and the United States – in which the novel is cast.

The story begins in the mid to late 18th C. and ends in the early years of the 21st C. Each successive chapter describes the story of one individual who represents one generation in the genealogy. The chapters alternate between the genealogical line that remains in Ghana and the one established in the US.

The novel is essentially 14 linked short stories. Each chapter/story introduces the reader not only to a key descendant of the half-sisters, but also, through the descendants, to major historical events and movements in both the Gold Coast/Ghana and the US.

Through the stories set in the US, we witness the brutality of slavery, the degradation of reconstruction, the northern migration of blacks and their continued subjugation by whites, the civil rights era, the despair of ghetto life for poor black males in the 1970s and later, and finally the possibility of upward mobility and independence in the form of the star student, Marcus.

In the Gold Coast/Ghana, the reader is immersed in the vagaries of village life, the wars, instigated largely by the slave trade, which pitted Asantes versus Northerners, Fantes versus Asantes on occasion, and nearby villages against each other. We also learn something about how the slave trade was organized by the British, about the waging of the Ashanti Wars in the 19th C, about the onset of independence from the British, and about the immigrant experience of Ghanaians in the United States. This last experience is poignantly portrayed through the life of Marjorie, who feels neither African-American nor Ghanaian when resident in the US. 

01 August 2022
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