“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man.” –Ma Aku, from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing’s beautiful journey widens the canvas of history and offers me another chance to consider a world that I am not the center of. Yaa Gyasi’s novel connects generational stories from the heart of West Africa to America and back — with a long view of history. I loved reading it, and was affected by it in ways that are worth reflecting on: taking a wider view of history allows us to decenter ourselves.
Realizing the world doesn’t revolve around me is a continuously repeatable step toward greater maturity. On a familial level these steps bring joy to a parent, like when a twenty-year old comes home for dinner and, with their sudsy hands in the sink, thanks you for cooking it. When I myself was a twenty-year old I travelled outside my own continent and naively realized one late November, along with other exchange students at a lonely restaurant in Southern Spain, that the whole world didn’t celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. Likewise, much of my writing has tracked such steps on a religious level, as I’ve come to see that not all Christians read the Bible the same way, nor do all people view God with the same (if any) level of certainty.
The circle broadens as we learn this “de-centering” lesson again and again. Many are continuing these steps outward with a growing awareness that our very in-country neighbors carry a different ancestral history, often at odds with the one we were taught. Today, June Nineteenth, “Juneteenth”, celebrates a step toward human freedom that has rarely been considered on July Fourth. The newness of this National Holiday speaks to the need for further de-centering, and I’ll use the opportunity to reflect on where I find myself – and where I don’t – in the novel Homegoing.
A Long View of History
“Homegoing follows the parallel paths of two sisters and their descendants through eight generations from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem.” (from the book cover) The book is centered in West Africa, and even after crossing the ocean, we feel – we remember – the fabric of life there. Giving the reader enough time to explore the deep family, community, and faith roots in African society – letting our eyes adjust to it and get comfortable there – makes the arrival of Europeans, slavery, and Christianity all the more startling. It’s out of place and coercive. The long-view storytelling in Homegoing ushers this awareness straight to our being. Its telling is a gentle and effective way to help a white American Christian see that the world doesn’t revolve around me or my culture.
There are many stories about people coming out of slavery – some are coming to brighter light today with the newly pronounced national holiday of Juneteenth (see 12 things you might not know about Juneteenth). The timeline of most freedom stories begin only a few years beforehand – capturing the atrocities of slavery, then quickly moving to escape or emancipation. The movie Harriet was a beautiful example of this and I recommend it.
What’s different about Homegoing is the way life is centered in Africa for decades before the interruption of slavery enters. We see extended families working the land for sustenance. We see generational marriages births and deaths – including polygamy, vegetable dowries, full-week funereal dancing and more. Gyasi doesn’t settle for overly simplistic garden of Eden stories but instead captures the complex challenges of humanity. There are ongoing wars between tribes that include the practice of capturing and conscripting each other, as it benefitted the tribe, although the resultant servant hood is a far cry from what American slavery became.
Then the Europeans arrive with slavery in one hand and Christianity in the other. People are displaced, languages forgotten, religions dismissed. As time goes by and oceans are crossed, families try to pass on their native language and traditions to children whose sense of place is being erased like chalkboards, soon to be over-written with a new religion, new last names, and another culture’s sense of place.
The Beauty of Story
Besides being a beautiful novel with a unique timeline approach, Gyasi’s novel spoke to me in several ways, and I recommend it highly.
- The most salient is simply the Beauty of Story. Non-fiction books about history or race may have made me feel smarter, or indeed increased my knowledge, but there is nothing like story to embed empathy and understanding. (The biography All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung affected me in much the same way. ) Young characters throughout Homegoing ask to hear the same stories over and over, treasuring family history and soaking in implicit morals without explicit lessons. This too is a cultural difference I can learn from.
- Knowing our history shapes how we view ourselves. As Homegoing fast forwards to the enslaved generations, we see characters struggle with belonging to two worlds. While earlier characters clearly remember their prior world and fight to keep its memory alive, later characters must wrestle to connect with their inherited – but unremembered – roots, all while fighting off an identity put onto them by others. As reviewer Isabel Wilkerson writes, “Gyasi evokes what was lost to those who were sold away — the sense of individual and collective identity, a wealth of rituals and customs they’d be whipped for trying to retain in America.” Simply cut off from familial languages, personal histories are reduced to the few stories an enslaved mother passes to her children – if they were lucky enough to stay together.
I’m increasingly appreciative of my visit to Scotland to visit relatives, seeing family tombstones and churches, memorizing family trees, even meeting a white-haired lady at a church coffee hour who remembered my dad as a young lad. However subtly, it forms a base of my identity. In contrast, nearly all of those brought to America in chains have had such possibilities wiped out. How does this affect one’s identity?
- Choose a wider timeframe for history’s camera. To dig deeper, ask who is writing the history and how it benefits them? When looking at a moment in time, ask what came before that? And before that? How did we get here? Growing up, my main education about race relations in the U.S. started in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. A very short timespan indeed, and of course, “Martin Luther King Jr. solved all that,” was too simplistic an answer. As my circle broadened, my awareness expanded to the Jim Crow era, monument building, redlining, and the difference in treatment returning soldiers experienced after fighting abroad for the United States. Gyasi’s book is again widening the frame: start at the beginning and the story makes more sense.
Bible readers will appreciate that their story doesn’t begin in Egypt under Pharoah’s whip. Identities of both God and humans are formed in the beauty of those early chapters of Genesis, of creation and the un-intruded garden, and echo all the way through to the last chapters of Revelation, when the river of life is said to be restored. Homegoing does the same: offers a sweeping view of strong community and rich family ties that gives a sense of place. The interruptions are harsh, but are seen through the eyes of family rather than academia or politics. The ideal of “Home” remains throughout – tying communities together through the centuries, and grounding the soul in its place of belonging.
- De-centering is good for everybody. One of the fears I’ve experienced, and I think many white (in particular, men) have, is that of losing my voice. If every person is given a microphone, we wonder, will I become irrelevant, unheard, unneeded? But of course this is not the case. Each of us are still here in this conversation, it’s just not centered around me. Through centuries of art, writing, music, leadership, history, and religion being curated by white men, we’ve become so used to the ease of participation that it can feel jarring to share the stage. But as we expand our reading lists, our listening, our watching, and so on, we (and now I’m just talking to the white men) find there is so much we’ve been missing out on. So much. And this is not just better for someone else, it’s better for all of us. How much better are families, organizations, churches, workplaces, and nations, when everyone has a say, when we don’t organize to the advantage of one particular demographic? If we have a stage, no matter how small, it’s our job to share it. And while I’m making the case that it’s the right thing to do, in the end it also makes things better for you.
You Are Here Now
Part of maturing is seeing that our map of the universe started with a “You Are Here Now” bright red pin at the center, and built out from there. Shedding that myopia is part of growing as individuals; I pray that we will also do so as a community, forming a culture that, like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, honestly looks at the long view of history, accepts what was missing, and finds a way forward.
Though a bedrock belief for centuries, it turns out the sun was not revolving around the earth. And yet the planet has still managed to evolve without being the center of attention – can we can humans do the same?