One of the peculiar aspects of American slavery is how much we know and how much we willfully forget. Despite the vast body of historical research, works of fiction still inform most of what we understand (and misunderstand) about the grisly institution.
Alex Haley’s “Roots” — revived this season for another TV generation — gave millions of Americans their most visceral, sympathetic experience of slavery. Toni Morrison’s masterpiece, “Beloved,” seared into our imagination the grotesque distortions of antebellum life. And now, Yaa Gyasi’s rich debut novel, “Homegoing,” confronts us with the involvement of Africans in the enslavement of their own people.
Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of 2, has spoken of Ghanaians’ “complicity” with the British slave trade. That characterization should make us squirm not least because it’s an argument used by Southern apologists eager to dilute the unique horror of American slavery: Everybody was doing it; even Africans were doing it!
But, of course, that isn’t at all Gyasi’s point. She’s merely asking us to consider the tangled chains of moral responsibility that hang on our history. This is one of the many issues that “Homegoing” explores so powerfully.
The story begins in Ghana’s coastal Fanteland in the mid-1700s with two beautiful half sisters who don’t know of each other. Effia is 15 years old when she attracts the attention of James Collins, the newly appointed British governor. Collins pays Effia’s father 30 pounds and takes Effia to the Cape Coast Castle.
While she enjoys the upper floors of the governor’s mansion, her half sister, Esi, also 15, finds herself trapped below in a dungeon among slaves awaiting transport to the New World. As hell’s anteroom fills up with bodies and waste, the survivors are regularly beaten and raped.
“James never spoke to Effia about the slaves they kept in the dungeon,” Gyasi writes, and Effia feigns oblivion. “She had never thought of what James must think every time he saw them. If he went into the dungeons and saw women who reminded him of her, who looked like her and smelled like her. If he came back to her haunted by what he saw.”
The villagers have a saying about separated sisters: “They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.” The pond, in this case, is the Atlantic Ocean, and from Effia and Esi eventually grow “two branches split from the same tree.”
Chapter by chapter, the book moves back and forth between them and their respective continents, jumping ahead a generation each time. That structure — essentially a novel in linked stories — places extraordinary demands on Gyasi. Each chapter must immediately introduce a new setting and new characters making fresh claims on our engagement. (The family tree at the front of the book is an invaluable reader’s crutch.)
But the speed with which Gyasi sweeps across the decades isn’t confusing so much as dazzling, creating a kind of time-elapsed photo of black lives in America and in the motherland. It’s no criticism of the latter chapters to say that the earlier ones are particularly haunting.
To some extent, this reflects the unusual subject matter of these stories set during the first infernal arrangements between the British and the natives along Ghana’s coast. If some tribes and clever tribal leaders profited by turning over black flesh, Gyasi also encourages us to consider what choice the Africans ultimately had to refuse their determined and technologically advanced business partners from the West. This paradox is embodied in the life of Quey, the biracial son of Effia and Gov. Collins.
“Like the other half-caste children,” Gyasi writes, “he could not fully claim either half of himself, neither his father’s whiteness nor his mother’s blackness. Neither England nor the Gold Coast.”
Nevertheless, because of his status — complicated further by his secret homosexuality — Quey finds himself working as a slaver’s representative, charged with persuading his uncle to sell human chattel only to his company. It’s a devastating story that manages to capture the degradations of slavery among the enslaved and the enslavers.
The chapters set in America involve more familiar events, perhaps, but are no less moving. “Kojo” opens on the eve of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. The story that unfolds conveys both the intense thrill of free blacks in Baltimore and the unimaginable terror of losing one’s liberty — or one’s family members — at any moment.
In this episode and all the others, there’s a courageous lack of sentimentality, an absolute refusal to allow good and evil to be distributed along color lines. Although most of the characters in “Homegoing” are black, the whites and Africans who populate this world are equally capable of kindness and nobility, savagery and weakness.
Gyasi, who is just 26 and reportedly received more than $1 million for this book, has developed a style agile enough to reflect the remarkable range of her first novel. As she moves across the centuries, from old and new Ghana and to pre-Civil War Alabama and modern-day Palo Alto, Calif., her prose modulates subtly according to time and setting: The 18th-century chapters resonate with the tones of legend, while the contemporary chapters shine with clear-eyed realism.
And somehow all this takes place in the miraculous efficiency of just 300 pages. During a chapter set in the mid-20th century, a teacher in Ghana tells his students, “We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth?”
Gyasi has found several of those suppressed people and given them voices that are truly captivating.
“Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi (Knopf; 305 pages; $26.95)