“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”- Akua, Homegoing
In 2012, I chose to study abroad in Ghana because I wanted to learn about myself and because I also (desperately) wanted a chance to pass.
To my dismay,
attending a predominately white college had shifted something inside of me.
At every turn, I was hyper aware of my blackness and traumatized by how inhumane whiteness could be. To protect myself, I wanted to get out, at least for a while. Deciding to double major in Africana Studies impacted my decision to live in Ghana as well. My studies taught me that Africans were transported and enslaved, the most, from countries in West Africa. More specifically, Ghana. It seemed to be an act of poetic justice to go back “home,” and so I did.
The relationship with “home” though was not what I anticipated. In fact, my experience was beautiful, complicated, joyful, and painful–just like the lives of the characters in Homegoing.
What I appreciated most about the novel was how it captured disruption. Homegoing showcased how slavery interrupted so many families, and killed and displaced so many Africans around the world. Because of slavery, two sisters–Effia and Esi’s–, lives were changed. Their lives were changed and the lives of the people they gave birth to and so on. I’ve never seen this generational lineage of disruption and displacement in fiction before. Not in a way that displays what slavery did to those in Ghana and abroad.
Homegoing set off my nostalgia.
The novel made me remember how naive I was to think I could go back to Ghana and fit in. The novel also helped me recall how happy I was to be there.
Still, much like the nature of reality checks–for every time I passed in Ghana or did something that made the natives believe I was Ghanaian, I also failed. Gave myself away. I am dark skin and that worked for a time, until I learned my hair was all wrong. My locs made natives call me “Rasta,” and they saw me not as a Ghanaian, but as a Jamaican. On movies I saw African women walk around with Sarongs wrapped around their bodies. Because of this, one day, I wore my own wrap to school.
I walked two miles from my home to the school building.
I passed my homestay sister and 100 other people as they stared. It was strange but I didn’t understand why, until an assistant at my school pulled me aside. My wrap and how I wore it, mirrored that of a Ghanaian woman about to bathe. It turned out that I got the context of the wrap all wrong and had made a fool of myself in the process. I cried an ugly cry and lamented at why no one, including my homestay sister who I had known for months, said anything.
It was a lesson of how out of place I was.
Worse, I found that DuBois’s theory of Double Consciousness had followed me from America. Back in the states I constantly reconciled, or at least tried to reconcile, being black, a descendant of slaves, and American. Back in Ghana I had to constantly reconcile the same. Still, despite my slip-ups, Ghanaians were good to me. Sometimes when they saw me they exclaimed in joy, “Akwaaba”–You are welcome. They hugged, laughed, and examined me. I looked so much like their people. I was their people and they were happy to have me home, they said. On these days, I could have stayed in Ghana forever.
However moments like those were short-lived. I experienced a constant juxtaposition of reality. On the one hand, while everything about my essence seemed Ghanaian, I had lost a language. I could not speak Fante and Twi. Unlike the Ghanaians who stayed away from the Elmina Slave Dungeons, and sold trinkets and souvenirs before the entrance, I felt a deep desire and acted on said desire to visit the dungeon and take the tour. This qualified me as a tourist. Thus, I found myself struggling again with wanting to learn and understand but also wanting to fit in and be as Ghanaian as everyone said I was.
However, no matter my efforts, I seemed to always miss the mark.
While in Ghana, I was ever reminded that Ghana was not my home. Home was where I had to rush back to, two weeks earlier than planned, when my grandmother lost her battle with cancer.
Moreover, the truth was, my experience left me simultaneously ready to go home and unready. There was so much I was leaving behind and so much I was going back to. I now had family in two countries and I wouldn’t have had to leave if, generations ago, my family had been one of the ones untouched by white greed and African complicity. Ghana would be my home if my family’s life wasn’t interrupted. Reading Homegoing threw me because against all odds and how deeply complicated families are, Yaa Gyasi captured these truths in her novel.
As an African-American reader, I was deeply jolted by how, after time, Esi’s family–who was Effia’s family–forgot how African they were. After a while no one knew what tribe they were from, knew Fante or Twi, or even identified as Ghanaian. Slavery, grief, drugs, and becoming African-American wiped their memories clean. I resonated with this amnesia and it felt like a punch in the gut. I saw and see myself and my family in these fictional characters.
When the novel ended with Marjorie and Marcus sitting in the ocean in Ghana during a visit, I cried. For before I left Ghana, I did the same. I sat in the water with Mama Imahkus of One Africa where she baptized me and told me I was obliged to remember my ancestors.
I vividly remember how the waves hit the rocks surrounding us as I stared at the Elmina Slave Dungeon.
When I was in the water, at her insistence, a scream escaped my lungs and kept escaping. I screamed at my grandmother’s death and screamed at how traumatizing and rewarding being (back) in Ghana was. Screamed at how deeply I wanted a home outside of America and how, for once, I just wanted to belong. Really belong. No racism, no police brutality, no warring reality of double consciousness. I, above all, certainly did not want anything more to do with the crazy ass white kids at the College of Wooster. Or, anywhere else for that matter. I screamed because I will never, ever completely fit. But, then again, does anyone displaced ever fit the same again?
Homegoing took me there.
This novel did exactly what great fiction and storytelling is supposed to do.
I got to the end of the book and felt a sister-scream rise like it once did when I was in Ghana. Because, damn.
In all, I’ll never be the same after visiting Ghana in 2012 and finishing Homegoing now, five years later.
I’ll probably also never get this African and American thing completely down, either.
I’ve marveled at the Door of Return in Benin. I’ve experienced being taken in–by native West Africans–,with open arms but I’ve also been shut out. On the one hand I have been made to feel like an imposter when I take pride in being African without fully knowing what that means or ever being able to know what it means. While, on the other, I am considered right on track and smart to insist on remembering where my family comes from.
Homegoing provoked me to admit that I feel blessed and cursed by this dual reality. Thus, while I am thankful for the survival of my family, I am sad that we are missing pertinent information about who we are.
I wish it were different. Wish I didn’t have to bank on going to Heaven to meet and know the whole of my family and history. But, such are the consequences of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. God, help us.
But, how about you Wordies? Have you lived in another country? Ever visited countries in Africa or West Africa and had a similar or different experience?
Leave your comments below.