Last year I visited Elmina Castle, a slave fortress on the coast of Ghana. It’s a beautiful white-washed building, very similar in style to Cape Coast Castle, the slave fortress where Yaa Gyasi sets key pieces of action in Homegoing. The castles are two of about 40 such structures that were built along the Ghanaian coastline by Europeans. They were trading posts that became holding prisons for millions of West African slaves who were then shipped off to the Caribbean, the US and South America.
The structures are huge. They dominate the coastline. Markets and towns would have grown up around them, like the town of Elmina that sprouted up around Elmina castle. It is impossible that the locals did not know what the primary trade from these castles was. Did it trouble them? Why was the trade in African bodies accepted? Gyasi takes us aside, sits us down, and says, ‘let me a paint you a picture, let me show you how the system worked.’
“By the time Esi turned 12 their small village had won more than 55 wars under Big Man’s leadership. The spoils of these wars could be seen as the warriors carried them back, shimmering gold and colourful textiles in large tan sacks, captives in iron cages.”
In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi presents am 18th century Ghana where slavery was a vital and ordinary part of the economy. The novel opens with the story of two sisters, Effia the Beauty, who marries the English governor of Cape Coast Castle, and Esi, who is sold into slavery and sent to the US.
Esi is Asante. Her tribe have gained wealth and power by attacking Northern villages and taking the survivors as slaves. She has grown up used to the sight of captured Africans used as manual labour in her village, or locked up in cages waiting to be transported on. The slave trade does not trouble her until it becomes her own fate.
Effia is Fante. Her tribe act as brokers, selling the slaves the Asante have captured to the Europeans in return for money and protection.
A character in Homegoing compares the constant warring among the Gold Coast tribes to a groundnut soup. “The Asantes, were the broth, and his father’s people, the Fantes, were the groundnuts, and the many other nations that began at the edge of the Atlantic and moved up through the bushland into the North made up the meat and pepper and vegetables. This pot was already full to the brim before the white men came and added fire. Now it was all the Gold Coast people could do to keep from boiling over again and again and again.”
Often when we talk of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we speak of the European countries and the part they played, the profits they reaped. But for Gyasi the white characters are peripheral. She imagines what could have motivated the African chiefs to trade in black bodies. And her conclusions are tragically mundane. Money. Power. Status. Legacy.
Effia’s brother, the Big Man of his village, tells his nephew: “I will make sure you become a very powerful man, so that even after the white men have all gone from this Gold Coast – and believe me, they will go – you will still matter long after the Castle walls have crumbled.”
He discusses slave price negotiations with the calm serenity of a rich man watching the stock market. “You want to pay more for slaves, pay more, but know that the Dutch will also pay more, and the Portuguese and even the pirates will pay more too. And while you are all shouting about how much better you are than the others, I will be sitting quietly in my compound, eating my fufu and waiting for the price I think is right.”
There is no consideration, no contemplation of the humanity of the people being sold. They are just product. Like timber.
Effia moves into the Cape Coast slave castle and lives comfortably on the upper floors ignoring the smells and cries that drift up from the dungeons. When she meets with the other African ‘wives’ in the Castle, they talk carefully around their situation. “There are people down there,” one of the wives acknowledges, “There are women down there who look like us, and our husbands must learn to tell the difference.”
Those sold to the Europeans are ‘other’. Tribes with other languages and other customs. There is no sense of loyalty or kinship amongst the Africans of the Gold Coast. This is somewhat understandable, nobody expects the Spanish and the Russians to feel kinship. But there is a huge gulf between not calling your neighbour your brother and not recognising their humanity at all.
Gyasi also includes some voices of dissent. The King’s son who runs away so that he will not have to inherit the bloody trade of his forefathers. The girl who refuses to shake a Prince’s hand because she does not touch slavers. She explains: “Everyone is part of this. Asante, Fante, Ga, British, Dutch and American. It is how we are all taught to think. But I do not want to think this way. When my brothers and the other people were taken, my village mourned as we redoubled our military efforts. And what does that say? We avenge lost lives by taking more? It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Yet, for the dissenters, it is hard to fight what has been normalised. Honour and respect in African families are bound up in following the elders, and when the elders are ensnared in the ugliness of trading slaves, how do you break away? Gyasi offers us characters who sacrifice everything to try. However, her central position is that slavery on the Gold Coast did not happen to Africa. There was full and enthusiastic participation from Africans at every level of society.
Homegoing is epic. It stretches from the 1760s through to the present day, it follows the children of Effia and Esi from slavery through to Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Great Migration, civil rights, redlining, the crack epidemic, modern inequality. The scale is breath-taking.
And what we see through these years, is how slavery scored its mark on each generation, almost extracted a payment from the descendants of the African chiefs who sold others to enrich themselves.
Towards the end of the novel, in heroin-ridden Harlem, a Jazz singer going by the Swahili name Amani tells a man flirting with her that “I ain’t into all that Nation of Islam and Back to Africa business…We can’t go back, can we?” She explains, “We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is it.” And she sweeps a hand out to indicate the grimy New York streets.
I think Gyasi’s book adds to a vital conversation. We need to talk about African complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. There cannot be reconciliation, forgiveness and healing until there is acknowledgement of the wrong that was done and repentance. Black people in the diaspora, many of whose ancestors were stolen from land that was theirs and cast away, deserve to be enthusiastically invited back. So they know they are welcome.
2019 marks 400 years since the first ship of African slaves docked in the US. To commemorate it, Ghana has named 2019 a year of return. Ghana’s President, Akufo-Addo has said, Ghana will open its “arms even wider to welcome home our brothers and sisters in what will become a birthright journey home for the global African family.”
There are many ways to go home. Yaa Gyasi’s beautiful novel is a step on one path.