Black History Month, day 15

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, traces the history of two branches of a family, from the Asante woman Maame through her two daughters, who are unknown to each other, and their descendants in West Africa (mostly Ghana) and the United States. The telling moves forward in time, alternating between the two lines of descent. We the readers are given what the characters themselves can’t access: a view into the characters’ history. As one of them says, “My grandmother used to say we were born of a great fire. I wish I knew what she meant by that.” We know, because the book begins with the fire. But few of us know much about our ancestors’ lives more than a few generations back, if that.

It is a stunningly beautiful book, making it un-put-downable despite the painful subject matter (war, slavery, convict labor, rape, drug addiction . . . ). It manages to be epic in scope despite being only about 300 pages long. Each portrait is so vivid that I wanted to read an entire novel about just that character. Then the story would move on to the next generation, each person’s story both anchored in history and drifting on its own.

How do we go home, if we know so little of our own heritage? For my part, after reading Homegoing, I feel homesick for villages whose names I don’t even know, where ancestors whose names I might be misspelling lived and dreamed and died. Maybe all we can do is learn the history of those regions, those peoples, and imagine the specific stories, as Gyasi does for people with roots in West Africa and everywhere.

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