I have read so many novels that are also historical. People love to trace things back in time to see their beginnings, their causes and effects, and to feel some continuity in a constantly changing world. Americans of European descent can mine a rich trove of historical literature that speaks to them.
However, for Americans of African descent the pickin’s are a bit slimmer. We have books that happen in Africa and books that describe various aspects of the fraught history of Africans as slaves and later as citizens of America. There are only a few novels that connect the two, Roots by Alex Haley being the best known of these. In this case, in Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, we get to follow an African family line through a pair of necklaces which have been owned by two sisters with disparate fates.
I don’t believe that white readers are able to experience this novel in as intimate and familiar a way as would an African American reader. Clearly we understand the words, get interested in the characters and wince at the injustice of the struggles, and perhaps even accept blame for the actions of our forebears. We may connect at some level with the idea of being sold into slavery by our own or neighboring people because the appearance of Europeans in Africa was somewhat comparable to what it might be like for aliens to appear in our home town. We can see, in hindsight, what the European drive to colonize did to Western coastal groups in Africa (Ivory Coast, Ghana). Still it is difficult to feel the imprisonment, the terrifying oceanic transport, the slavery, the aftermath of contempt that accompanied freedom. It is, I think, not as visceral an experience to read this book as a European transplant as it is for an African transplant. However, even if the experience is felt at a slight remove by some readers it is still a book well worth reading.
In these days when a white nationalist like Richard Spencer, President of a group called The National Policy Institute (gasp) says things like “As Europeans we are uniquely at the center of world history” and calls white folks, incomprehensibly, the “children of the sun” is cropping up on mainstream news we must insist that people are not ranked in any order – not from brightest to dimmest – not from most deserving to least deserving – not on a scale from best to worst – based on the color of their skin or the continent of their origin. In fact, since slaves were not allowed to read or write and families were often callously separated it seems more accurate to blame any perceived differences between white folks and black folks on the whole experience of slavery than on membership in an ethnic group.
As you can see Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi is a book that inspires lots of internal thought and dialogue about cultures and histories and guilt and pain. And this book ends with hope. It ends with an offspring of two African sisters in a library at Stanford University researching her heritage in order to give the world this important book.