Homegoing is the story of two families with very different histories. The families descend from Esi and Effia, two half-sisters who never met. Esi Asara was captured by African slave traders and sold to a white plantation owner in the United States. Effia was the wife of James Collins, Governor of Cape Coast Castle, the notorious real-life slave trading center where Esi was held captive before being sold. Their descendants had wildly different experiences. Esi's family was consigned to slavery for generations and wasn't granted freedom until after the Civil War. Even then, her descendants were subjected to racism, Jim Crow laws, and oppression. Effia's son, on the other hand, enjoyed all the privileges of being a slave trader's son. He was educated in England and married into Asante royalty, but his son James abandoned the family business and returned to the land to work as a humble and unsuccessful farmer. His family seemed cursed, and they were plagued by fire and bad luck for decades. It took seven generations for fortune to smile on Esi's and Effia's descendants. Both Marcus and Marjorie wound up at Stanford, unaware of the link between their families. Over time, the different family lines came to represent two different African experiences: being sold into slavery and being spared. These family histories haunt the characters in Homegoing.
History is one of the most important themes in Homegoing. Gyasi uses both families to explore the dark history of slavery, delving into the horrors of the African slave trade, the antebellum South, and life during segregation in the United States. Each character in the novel comes to represent a different period of time, and their lives stand in for experiences shared by many Africans and African Americans: working in coal mines, suffering years of bad harvests, and contending with their tragic family histories. Yaw Agyekum, one of Effia's descendants, complicates the theme with a single sentence: "History is Storytelling." He teaches his students that history is told by the victors; to truly understand history, one must look for the voices of the losers and the oppressed. In many ways, this novel is an attempt to fill in that lost history by telling the stories of non-whites and slaves. Gyasi does an admirable job of weaving together these forgotten yet essential stories.
Slavery is central to the plot of the novel. Both families are affected by the evils of slavery, albeit in very different ways. Esi is sold into slavery as a young woman, and her daughter and great-grandson are both born into slavery. Effia marries a slave trader, and her son and grandson benefit from their increased social status—that is, until her grandson decides to leave the family business. If not for the fact that Effia's village cooperated with the slavers, her entire family might very well have been captured and sold into slavery, just like Esi's. Instead, the two families' experiences diverged in the first chapters of the novel and didn't come back together again until the final chapter. Effia's and Esi's descendants were forced to contend with the history of slavery and racism in their past.
Race and Racism
Given that the fourteen main characters are all either African or African American, it should come as no surprise that race and racism are central themes of the novel. Early on, a divide between black and white characters appeared, separating the Africans from the white colonists, missionaries, and slave traders. Though many white men married African women and had mixed-race children, this color divide remained firm, and the resulting racial hierarchy still exists today, though in a less immediately obvious form. The novel showcases a long history of oppression: When the slave trade was outlawed, slaves were traded illegally. When slavery was abolished, the Thirteenth Amendment was used to strip African Americans of their rights and throw them into jail on trumped up charges. Jim Crow laws and segregation ensured that black people in the South would be oppressed for generations to come. Marjorie and Marcus, the newest members of their family lines, succeeded in spite of this racism, attending Stanford and presumably going on to successful lives.
Effia's descendants are associated with fire. Fire in this context symbolizes destruction and despair, not passion and energy. Fire dried up Baaba's milk, making it difficult for her to feed an infant Effia. Fire killed all of Akua's children but Yaw. Effia's descendants carried the main symbol of fire, her black necklace, with them through the generations, passing it down to Marjorie and then Marcus. Fire thus came to represent both the curse on Effia's family and the dark history their families had to face in order to heal.
(The entire section is 781 words.)