“Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi

I’m late to the party with this one. Very, very late. I almost always buy critically-acclaimed books by Black authors immediately, or within a couple weeks of their release. First because I’m just happy they exist in the world, and second, because I want to support Black art in all its forms. And since I can’t (yet) afford art from Kehinde Wiley or Derrick Adams, I buy books.

‘Homegoing’ wasn’t on my list of eager-to-read, to be honest, so it sat there for a long time. I have trouble with books that depict slavery, or the abduction of African people from the Continent, their journey through the Middle Passage and the untold horrors they were subjected to as enslaved people. But, after circling this one for about two years, I finally decided to listen to it on Audible. Let me start with this: the narrator is exceptional. He easily sildes in and out of accents and eras without getting in the way of the story, dramatizes well without being over-the-top, and absolutely transports the listener to a new place.

As for the story … Someone told me it took more than a decade for the author to complete it. I can see why. In a thirteen-hour listen, the author managed to touch on just about every theme and issue that helps tell a complete story of what the scramble for Africa by Europeans meant to people of African descent there and around the world. Following the lineage of two half-sisters, one whose descendants remained on the Continent, and the other who was stolen away to the Americas, Yaa Gyasi tells the story of colonialism, slavery, the loss of parents, of language of culture, the cynical use of Christianity to further enslave and placate a people, the Reconstruction, the Nadir. She also tells of racism, of classism within the Black community, of colorism, the Great Migration, the ravage of drugs on Black families, the struggle of the Black artist to survive while practicing his art, of mothers to raise children without their men, of children to raise themselves after slavery, of Black women to protect themselves from the sexual violence of white men and Black men as well, the lure of passing (as white) for some Blacks, and of the foundation of the modern prison industrial complex … I swear, she got all of that in here, but grounded every single lesson in well-crafted, three-dimensional and unforgettable characters. My heart ached while listening to this book, but it also made me swell with pride for coming from such resilient and beautiful people.

Of all the characters that resonated (and there were so many), the one that stayed with me was Sam, the slave who when brought from the Continent could not be “tamed” or compelled to speak English; who raged and resisted until his “owner” (people can’t ‘own’ people, not really. We know this, right?) gave him a woman (Ness) to make him more manageable. It didn’t work, until Sam eventually does something that she takes the blame for, and she (and he) are brutally whipped for it. He watches her suffer because of him, and speaks his first English words: “I’m sorry.” From then on, they bond over their pain, and then in other ways as well. Eventually, he learns and speaks new English words to her; among them “love.”

What eventually convinces Sam to temper his rage at being stolen from his home is when his woman, Ness, gives birth to their son. Family and human connection is his turning point, not the lash of a whip. I tell you I just about bawled my eyes out during that part of the book. Because love and compassion were, at the end of the day what made Sam control his anger, and because it spoke to the letting go of grief at the loss of so much more than most of us have lost—a home, a language, a people, a culture. Except, of course, we have lost those things, haven’t we?

But there was more like that, a lot more. This book is not for the feint of heart and I won’t lie, it will hurt your very soul. But it’ll feed your soul as well. It definitely did mine. Highly recommended.