Reading Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing at the time of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s deaths was surreal, as if I was looking at the lives of these two black men from a generational perspective, with Gyasi’s historical fiction lens.
Over the weekend, protests across the country and around the world erupted as yet again, the lives of black people were taken by the police. Both deaths were captured on video, making their demise even more infuriating. We were witnesses to the violence wrought by the state and to the brutality of white supremacy.
And still — after Alton, after Philando (and after Tamir, Rekia, Trayvon) — we are still faced with questions like: but don’t #AllLivesMatter?
If there is anything that Gyasi’s book offers, it’s precisely every counter argument and every explanation possible to explain why #AllLivesMatter is problematic. It all goes back to something that Homegoing explores: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The book centers around the lives of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, and their offspring. From the Gold Coast to Alabama to Harlem and back, from the 1600s to presumably present time, Gyasi explores the lives of generations of Ghanians.
We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.
When Esi was kidnapped and imprisoned in an infamous dungeon in the Gold Coast, along with other women so they can be put into ships and sold as slaves, can claims to #AllLivesMatter still be valid? As she struggled to remember life in her village with her father, being in the forest, surrounded by the warmth and comfort of a family that all of us deserve, she was fighting against the reality of her conditions inside the Cape Castle dungeon.
The new women were brought in, and some were wailing so hard that the soldiers smacked them unconscious. They were piled on top of the other women, their bodies deadweight. When the smacked ones came to, there were no more tears. Essay could feel the woman on top of her peeing. Urine traveled between both of their legs.
When Kojo, whose caretaker Ma Aku fled and escaped to Baltimore with him so he can live as a freeman (he was also Esi’s grandson), heard about how the South enacted a law that required the police to arrest any alleged runaway slaves in the North, and whose pregnant wife Anna suddenly disappears without a trace, will we not stand by our black brothers and sisters? The pain of not knowing what happened to one’s wife, and not knowing if she gave birth at all because of a racist law that insists on enslaving black people is pain felt throughout generations.
Jo had been a slave once. He was only a baby then, and yet every time he saw a slave in Baltimore, he felt like he remembered. Every time Jo saw a slave in Baltimore, he saw himself, saw what his life would have been like had Ma Aku not taken him to freedom. His free papers named him Kojo Freeman. Free man. Half the ex-slaves in Baltimore had the name. Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth.
When Akua, Effia’s descendant, is called the Crazy Woman by people from her husband’s village keeps dreaming about fire, after finding out that her own mother who sought refuge at a British missionary was forcibly drowned and burned, will we not march in the streets demanding an end to white supremacy? Akua dreamt about a firewoman who led her to the blue-green seas, where their ancestors’ spirits continued to live.
For Akua, prayer was a frenzied chant, a language for those desires of the heart that even the mind did not recognize were there. It was the scraping up of the clay floor into her dark palms. It was the crouching in the shadow of the room. It was the one-syllable word that escaped her lips over and over and over again. Fire. Fire. Fire.
As an immigrant, it can sometimes be hard to understand the need to be in solidarity with black people when you have your own issues, your own trauma. The beauty of Gyasi’s book is that it brings to light — however harsh and painful it can be — the truths and the stories of black folks. It weaves a thread between colonialism, imperialism, racism and all forms of violence that black folks face to this day, bearing the weight and the gravity of their struggle.
As with every book I read, there is always an insurmountable amount of wisdom and perspective gained. Gyasi’s is no different. The richness of the text, the fullness of the characters, the depth of the history of the lives of black folks provide a political and historical lens that calls for action.
Esi’s words in the book ring true to this day:
“You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
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Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.