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Reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

by Sonja Franeta

I’ve been reading instead of demonstrating. It’s not that I’ve missed it but I am getting older. My way is reading and writing now, and some teaching. Demonstrating is for the young. I want to offer my thoughts in this time of Black Lives Matter and Covid-19 in the form of a review of a tremendously wonderful book by Yaa Gyasi called Homegoing. It is so worth reading—for everyone. I hope you read it—a journey through time and ancestors, a chronicle of connection.

First I want to say thank you to Yaa Gyasi for this book. (I don’t know if I pronounce your name correctly in my mind but I try. I have years of experience teaching immigrants with all kinds of names in my classes. I learned from them.) Inspired by Toni Morrison, Yaa was only 26 when she wrote this wise novel—her first. She had gone to visit her birthplace in Ghana and felt compelled to write. Raised in Huntsville Alabama, she knew what it was like to be black in the South. The truth about the slave trade and the effects on her culture and people in writing came through her, a prodigy.

I’m sure she knew a teacher like the one in her novel who asked Marjorie to write a poem about “being African-American.” Marjorie said, “ But I am not African American.” The teacher taught: “Here, in this country, it doesn’t matter where you came from first to the white people running things. You’re here now and here black is black is black.”

I immediately thought of my student from Senegal years ago in Oakland California. Her family had immigrated (I think through a lottery) and she had great dreams. My student wanted to become a doctor. She was doing well in English but she told me she was not doing well in other classes. She feared prejudice because she was black. She would not be able to progress in America and achieve her dream. She was considered African American because she was black, but she was not. Far from uniting her with brothers and sisters in Oakland, racism was even dividing them. She did not have the same history as other black people, yet she was discriminated against the same way. I told her that not only black people but immigrants were discriminated against in the U.S. contrary to the myths that ran around the world. She told me other stories—of her brother who was a security guard and the troubles he had with racism. The desire to be in America was for a better future, a better life. What she was suffering was far more complex. I so wanted her to have her dream of being a doctor. I lost touch and I feared she dropped the idea.

In Homegoing we read of two sisters, one who is enslaved as a wife to a British white slaver in Ghana (18th century) and the other who is sent to the U.S. on a slave ship. The book is a cultural journey through time and through these two destinies and the women's progeny, in Ghana and in the U.S.A. A beautiful and true book, a fiercely real and fiercely tender book, a book of water and fire. You will know and feel much more when you finish this book. You will become a better person.

This is why it is worth reading. It is also worth demonstrating and dying. We can’t fear death. All of what is happening is life and death. Listen to the old wise woman: “What have I told you about death?”

“Old Lady said that only bodies died. Spirits wandered. They found Asamando, or they didn’t. They stayed with their descendants to guide them through life, to comfort them, sometimes to scare them into waking from their fog of unloving, unliving.”

Yaa Gyasi’s wisdom is in her stories. This book is a testament to storytelling, a subtle and true analysis of the impact of imperialism and colonization. A deeper understanding of this I received through these stories.

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© 2015 by Sonja Franeta