Mapping our way home to our (s)kinfolk
I began writing about Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star, but the well of words for that particular post dried up and another spring opened up inside my soul. With that post I set out to write about romantic love in contemporary New York, a love that crosses divisions between 2 very different and surprisingly interconnected immigrant communities, Korean Americans and Haitian Americans. But the words that came alive within me, were for a different story, and a different kind of love, a love of skinfolk and kinfolk, a love of coming home to ourselves, a love for, to and from Africa and the African Diaspora.
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing a diaspora love letter to our intertwined histories
As a 1st gen. African growing up outside the continent, estranged by way of peculiar circumstances from my mother tongue and ancestral community, I read novels by people of African descent as a way of mapping out the historical, psychological, relational and political landscapes of the many communal branches and vines that grew out of Africa decades and centuries before me, which are ever present and organically evolving around me, and which inform and permeates my today and tomorrow.
Sometimes that means I read African literature such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, about traditional communities and old superstitions violently giving way to the pervasive forces of colonialism, European modernism and Empire Christian theology. Sometimes that means I read Afro-Caribbean literature such as Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, about mother-daughter relationships, lesbianism, family haunts and leaving home. Sometimes that means I read African American literature such as The Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, about infidelity, the story seen from the eyes of the secret child, father-daughter relationships and the sins we inherit from those who came before us. Sometimes that means I read Black British literature such as The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna, about human obsession, the need for forgiveness, the all pervasive power of trauma, the destructive power of secrets and the politics of love.
What is common for most of my African and African diaspora reads, is that they usually concern themselves with local stories tied to a few specific point in history, only touching the national, ethnic, cultural, spiritual and linguistic crisscrossing of their characters genealogy in passing. It is a disservice to not offer more depth to a novel, to not explore the incredible ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity within the various African descended communities around the world.
Homegoing is such a story, about our intertwined family tree, and what an epic and marvelous journey it takes you on.
A story of Redemption for Us who forgot we are kin
The narrational structure of the story is built like a DNA string, following the stories of the two half-sisters Effia and Esi and their descendants from the times of the early slave trade to modern day Africa and America. The two sisters only indirectly cross paths with each other - one married against her will to a wealthy European slave trader and the other to be sold into bondage by the same man - making it clear from the onset of the novel how painfully close to each other yet already deeply scarred by separation we were at the beginning of what would become the centuries long Transatlantic slave trade.
One chapter gives us a glimpse into a dark chapter of Effia’s story, the next follows with a glimpse into Esi’s story, the next Effia’s first descendants through whom we learn of Effia’s fate, then a chapter about Esi’s first descendants story. The sensation this switch between two branches of a common tree is fascinating, and so bittersweet, as we are given glimpse after glimpse into different epochs of upheaval on the African continent and in the United States. The two sisters were marked in supernatural ways by the elements water and fire, and were each given one half of the same necklace by their mother, something they pass on to their descendants, though the necklace gets lost in the nick of time on Esi’s side.
Our histories our backbones
What made me cry was the deep resounding remember us, remember us, remember us! And we are here, we are here, we are here! I kept on hearing while reading the stories of each descendants, who through their trials and tribulations did not have the privilege of leaning on to their ancestral stories to draw strength from past ages’ triumphs. One of the lingering horrors of the slave trade and slavery, is the broken ancestral lineages. The breaking up of African families, nations and language communities and in order to break the newly enslaved people’s will and diminish any change of a shared community, language, shared identity, shared stories, shared pride, was a common practice of the slave owners.
This one touched me deeply and reminded me of Ryan Coogler’s the Black Panther movie where a half Wakandan Half African American boy wonders about his estranged kin from the Mother continent. The young Eric asks his father something like this: how come they can’t find us, is it because they don’t know where we are? And follows it up with a horrified: Maybe it’s them who have gotten lost and that’s why they can’t find us!
African Americans have been referred to as the Lost tribe at times, though not necessarily more lost than their other New World kin who shared similar predicaments and violent journeys into unknown lands: Afro Latinxs and Afro Caribbeans. Looking back to young Eric’s question and exclamation, who is lost, who is damaged? The one who was sold, was rejected or was kidnapped, or the one who sold, who rejected, who was stolen from? Is there any redemption and salvation left for the Africans of the Continent and the those who were violently torn off and shipped into the New World?
Homegoing as a place of healing
The answer is multifaceted and still in the making. Both parties suffered, both parties suffer, and the echoes of past trauma still inform the interactions of the present day descendants of Africa and its diaspora communities. International political and cultural movements such as pan-Africanism, Negritude, Afropunk and Afrofuturism are some of the instruments of healing and of re-imagining a painful but common past in order to embrace a complicated present and dream of a compassionate future.
We may not understand the pain of being abandoned to the sea, nor the pain of being occupied by foreign powers, but we can have compassion for all the many branches who are part of the same tree, and supported by the same roots.
The novel does not per say directly express this point, but does offer us a vision: that our paths will cross each other and perhaps even lead us to the mother continent. Though we might not know it, the act of creating friendships between members from Africa and the African diaspora, and even stepping on ancestral, yet unfamiliar soil, these acts alone offer a path forward to a time where our many fragmented stories once more join into one multidimensional family tree.