Fire and water and history.

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Everyone around me was singing the praises of this book. I have been waiting since mid-August for it to be my turn on the library holds list, and when I went to pick up holds that had already come in, the angel person that was checking them all out for me said “one more just came in! Hot off the presses!” and she went to the back room to retrieve it.

At the beginning of the book there is a family tree. You will want to take a picture of this with your cell phone or print one out to keep as you read. We follow the descendants of two Ghanaian sisters, alternating between the two branches as we are led through not only the personal history of the family, but also world history. One sister is sold into slavery in America, and her branch stretches through black history in America. The other is married to a white, British governor on the Gold Coast and her branch remains in Ghana and we are led through the tribal and political history of Ghana until the very end, when we see a couple move to America but their daughter feels a call to return to Ghana.

There is also a fair sense of mysticism here, which I feel cannot be ignored when considering connections to Africa. The “matriarch” of our story escapes a village by setting a fire, leaving Effia there to be cared for by the father and his other wives. Effia’s descendants dream of fire, one in particular to disastrous consequences. The village the mom becomes a part of afterwards gets raided and her second daughter Esi is stolen and stored in the basement of the governor’s mansion on the Gold Coast (her sister just above married to the governor) and is sent, pregnant as a result of a rape of the soldiers guarding her cell, on a slave ship to America – her descendants afraid of water.

You should read this book for so many reasons. First, the history of a black family struggling in America is personalized and it took even me to places I hadn’t known existed. Second, the story of these two women and their families will keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time. There were several moments when I needed to look at the family tree I had printed out to remind me that everything was going to be okay, that another descendant would be in the next chapter, and not to worry. But maybe the most important reason to read this book is that it will give you a glimpse of African culture, family values, politics, and history as it exists in Ghana. Too many Americans refer to Africa as though it is all one country and continent, like Australia, but it is a shame that we do not appreciate and understand how each of the regions and countries in Africa have grown, changed, found independence (or not), and developed. It’s a small peek, but it is a highly interesting one. I felt the same way about Adiche’s Americanah, only that time I glimpsed Nigeria. There is so much literature out there that can transport you to the countries of Africa through the voices of her children, and you should seek those voices out.

Go listen to Yaa Gyasi’s voice in Homecoming. She will help you travel through time, bring you some comfort and understanding, and remind you that it doesn’t stop where her book ends. There is still work to do, understanding to achieve, and journeys to take.

~Personal note~

I purposefully dog-eared a page in this book because the quote hit me so hard that I had to make sure to share it. In the six days since the world was shaken to its core by our election I have seen well-intentioned white people scramble to find the right things to do, the right things to say. I have seen white people attack black people online because their paltry attempts at support were called into question by those most in need of support and assistance. I have seen white people change their profile pictures to safety pins instead of rainbows or black lives matter, all the while missing the point that I wrote about last week and will reiterate right now: Recognize your privilege, whatever it may be, and use it for good, to help others and not to hide until they come for you. And please trust me when I say that if you are not rich, white, and male they will come for you. The quote below made me think of all the white fragility out there that screams that what they think is right, their symbols and signs and opinions, when in the end we will all need each other to survive this. Let us remember that as we head towards the mine…

Occasionally one of the wardens would bring in a white third-class man. The new prisoner would be chained to a black man, and for the first few minutes all that white prisoner would do was complain. He’d say that he was better than the niggers. He’d beg his white brothers, the wardens, to have mercy on him, spare him from the shame of it all. He’d curse and cry and carry on. And then they would have to go down into the mine, and that white convict would soon learn that if he wanted to live, he would have to put his faith in a black man. – Yaa Gyasi, Homecoming


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