If “Roots” is the story of a single family lineage, “Homegoing” follows a family split in two by slavery. Effia the Beauty, who marries James, an English slave trader, represents one branch, which remains in Ghana, while her half sister Esi is sold into slavery and transplanted in the United States. And while “Roots” suggests that there is power in reclaiming your own history and remembering your traditions, “Homegoing” implies that some things will remain unknowable. By the time the two lineages in Gyasi’s novel re-converge, we know that the two young people who meet on Stanford’s campus share a heritage, even though they never will.
“Homegoing” is, to Gyasi’s credit, more interested in raising difficult questions than offering pat answers. Slavery marks her characters not merely because some of them are sold, whipped, stolen from freedom back into slavery, licensed as convicts, discriminated against in employment and housing and felled by drug addiction in America. They come from families that participated in the slave trade, and struggle with their own guilt and ambiguity over their participation in a business that leads families to scar their children so they will be harder to sell.
James, who descends from Effia’s line of the family, falls in love with Akosua, who initially rejects him because of his family’s involvement with the slave trade. “The Asante had power from capturing slaves,” James thinks after their first meeting. “The Fante had protection from trading them. If the girl could not shake his hand, then surely she could never touch her own.”
None of this absolves white people from their sins as slave traders, slave owners, colonial overseers and the beneficiary of generations of inequality in the United States. But it is an uneasy reminder that when you dig into the past, you don’t always find heroism. Sometimes, you discover complicity.
And you don’t always find easy solutions, either. Marcus, who is descended from Esi, finds himself overwhelmed by the way different parts of history connect to and implicate each other. Gyasi writes:
Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction— the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the ’60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the ’80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Stanford University. And if he slammed the book down, then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.
As Effia put it long ago in Ghana, “In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”
Marcus is what H once dreamed that the son of his friend could be, “a new kind of black man altogether, one who got to use his mind.” But being allowed to work with his mind, rather than his body doesn’t mean that Marcus alone can untangle the heavy burden of history, assigning blame and responsibility and figuring out how to move forward.
And in the end, it’s a visceral, physical experience, the feel of ocean water on the coast of Ghana, and the weight of a pendant on his chest that lifts Marcus up, at least for a moment. The work will be waiting for him, and for the rest of us.