Homegoing by the Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, is the powerful tale of the experiences two half sisters and their progeny have on opposite sides of the Atlantic. By assigning each chapter to a different character, Gyasi creatively discusses the historical/ongoing effects and complexities of European— specifically British— colonialism in Africa, and the Transatlantic slave trade in both the Americas and Africa. She also deals with topics of identity and sexuality; the power of familial, personal, and socio-cultural expectations/obligations; as well as the use role agency plays in all of this.
The book begins with the story of the ethnically Fante Effia, who was seemingly cursed by a raging fire which took place near her father’s compound on the night she was born (mid-1700s). From the very beginning it is clear that she would never have a loving relationship with her mother Baaba, who was unnecessarily cruel, if not outright abusive. For the most part Baaba’s mistreatment stops once Effia starts to receive potential suitors, the most notable among them being the future chief of their village Abeeku Badu. Despite both Effia and her father’s approval of the prospective union, Baaba’s machinations lead to a marriage between her daughter and the new British governor of the Cape Coast Castle— James Collins.
Right before the wedding, Baaba presents Effia with a black stone pendant. Soon after her wedding, Effia realizes that James works as a slaver. Initially disgusted by his profession, she— like many of the other “wenches”— quickly decides to turn a blind eye, eventually focusing her attention on creating a family with her husband, who she ultimately grows quite fond of. After much trial and error she becomes pregnant, and it is then that she hears of her father’s impending death. She returns to her village for the first time, her father dies the day she arrives. There, her brother Fiifi informs her that she is not Maame’s biological daughter, but rather the product of her father’s rape of a previous house girl (which explains a lot).
We are then introduced to Effia’s Asante half sister Esi, who grew up with loving parents— Big Man Kwame Asare and his third wife Maame— and an almost perfect childhood. Problems arose when her father brought her mother a captive to serve as a house girl. After receiving a particularly hard beating from Big Man, Esi took pity on the young girl (whose name was Abronoma) and did her the favor of sending a message to her father. One night, Abronoma’s father and his people attacked. Maame refused to run, preferring probable death over re-enslavement, and gave Esi a stone just like the one Effia received. Despite her attempts, Esi ends up captive and taken to Cape Coast Castle, where she is kept in a dark dungeon filled to the brim with other women who are sometimes stacked on top of each other. They are forced to live in their own waste, and to make matters worse Esi gets raped by one of the white men a few days before being put on a slave ship, losing her stone in the process.
In the third chapter the author deals with issues of self acceptance, belonging, and identity (specifically sexual and racial) from the perspective of James and Effia’s son Quey. He was raised in Cape Coast Castle never feeling truly black or white, and without many friends, until he met Cudjo the son of a chief/business partner of his father. They became fast friends, and as he got older, Quey began to have quasi-erotic thoughts about his pal. When Quey was almost fourteen, his father found them nearly kissing after a wrestling match, so he sent Cudjo home and shipped Quey off to England. Years later he returns to the Castle and somewhat reluctantly takes on an active role in the slave trade as a liaison between his mother’s village and the British. As his only heir, Fiifi attempts to secure Quey’s future power/safety by kidnapping Asantehene Osei Bonsu’s daughter Nana Yaa by arranging a marriage between them. Quey clearly saw his sexual proclivities as a form of “weakness”, so he decides to marry Nana Yaa.
Next we come across Esi’s daughter Ness who was a slave in the southern United States. Separated from her mother at an early age, she moved around and ended up in Alabama. While at a previous plantation, her master “the Devil” married her to an obstinate Nigerian slave named Sam, who initially refused to learn english. They eventually fell in love and had a son. While at church, Ness met a Twi speaking slave named Aku who told her she could help her escape. The four of them set off on their journey but the Devil soon caught up to them, and in an attempt to save the others, Ness exposed herself. Sadly Sam had the same idea and she was forced to watch his execution.
It’s 1824, and Quey, Nana Yaa, and their son James head to Kumasi for Osei Bonsu’s funeral. There, James meets a girl named Akosua, who he’s instantly attracted to. She challenges him and makes him think about his role in the supposedly abolished slave trade. He decides he wants no part in it, and wants to marry Akosua. Sadly he has already betrothed to Abeeku Badu’s daughter Amma Atta who he cannot stand, so he tells Akosua to wait for him. James returns to his village and marries Amma Atta, yet he is unable to consummate their marriage. Through the help of a witch, and the powers that be, he is able to fake his death and finally marry Akosua.
Chapter six is dedicated to Ness’s son Kojo (Jo) who was raised by Aku, and works on boats. They are living as Freedmen and at age 19, Jo falls in love and marries Ana and they have many children. Life seems great until the second round of the Fugitive Slave act passes in 1850 jeopardizing their freedom. Despite being legitimately free, Ana— who is pregnant with their eighth child “H”— gets taken and presumably sold back into slavery. Kojo never recovers from this, moves to Harlem, and the chapter ends with the secession of South Carolina.
Part one ends with James’s daughter Abena, who at age twenty-five is still unmarried. As a youth, she broke all cultural protocol and had premarital sex with her best friend Ohene Nyarko. Still friends, he takes her to the Asante capital Kumasi. On the way back they sleep together again, starting a long term affair, which only continues because he promises to marry her. The village finds out and when years of bad crops pass, they blame Abena. Ohene brings the successful cacao to their village and ends up breaking his promise to a now pregnant Abena who leaves for a christian mission in Kumasi.