When I read the feature about Homegoing in Stylist magazine last year, I tore out the page as a reminder to get the book. I misplaced the page and months past… During a random clear out, the page floated down from my top shelf and in an act of spontaneity I went straight online and bought it! I think it was a sign, that the page came floating down from above lol.
I can’t believe this is Yaa Gyasi’s first book, the intricate research underpinning this novel is evident and impressive. Starting in 1700s Ghana, Homegoing travels the lives and lineage of two sisters (Effia and Esi) engulfed in the horrific mire of slavery, civil rights and freedom. This isn’t just another ‘slavery book’; Gyasi honestly depicts the role Africans played in the slave trade without diluting the brutality inflicted by Europeans.
Part of me wanted to read this book because it was set in Ghana, where my family is from. In 2004 I went to Cape Coast castle in Ghana which was one of the main slave ports of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Even then I could feel the heaviness of the lead-filled air in the dungeons. The tour continued, and we were taken to the church which sat on top of the dungeons. I was speechless as I walked in…a church sitting on top of the chained slaves ‘living’ in their own excrement.
I was intrigued to see how the lives of these two sisters would unfold. The story flows onto dissect the complexities of amalgamated families; the love and damage they inflict upon each other. At one point both sisters ‘lived’ in Cape Coast castle in starkly opposite conditions. Inevitably there is a mixed-raced character, the son of Effia and James (a British slave trader stationed at Cape Coast Castle) – Quey. Trying to deal with his own conflicts, Quey takes his destiny into his own hands and convolutes the family tree even further.
Across the three hundred years the novel covers, psychological and emotional knots of slavery, the raging wars between the Asante, Fante tribes and British colonisers, then flows into the realities of black life in America. From slavery on the hot plantations of Alabama, to the jazz clubs and crack epidemics of New York. The beginning of the end occurs in swanky art galleries and elitist halls of higher education. Homegoing makes history palpable in the present and is a prime example of they saying [paraphrased] we do not know were we are going unless we know where we are from.
Despite the sombre backdrop of slavery, this book took me on a rollercoaster of emotions. From the subtle expressions of love in the ugliest circumstances that made me smile to the vivid descriptions of brutality that made my stomach churn. Homegoing is a profound read that can capture anyone of any background, among the various themes throughout the novel is a tale of family. Intricately and intelligently written by first time author Yaa Gyasi, born in Ghana and raised in Alabama, USA. Homegoing is a must read and is available on Amazon.
The family is like the forest; if you are outside it is dense; if you are inside you see that each tree has its own position Akan proverb
Some of the most talked about films this new year are unlikely to put you in a jovial mood; the big screen has illuminated the darkness of slavery and the struggles endured even after black people were supposed to be free. I wonder if there is another agenda apart from that these stories need to be told, as to why such films have been released in close succession or if it’s just coincidence?
After Quentin Tarantino’s international success Django Unchanied, I’ve continued to follow big screen releases depicting injustices experienced when you have melanin in your skin. I went to the White House with The Butler and walked the freedom road with Mandela. Watching the latter, I saw how liberating the power of forgiveness can be but also how necessary it is to understand how your enemies think. I’ve already said how I felt when arguably the biggest icon of the century passed away in my post, Mandela – Finally retired from retirement, but watching the film a few weeks later (I must say, Naomie Harris’ performance was overlooked at the big award shows; although she was honoured at the Capri-Hollywood Film Festival), it was just sad. Among the charismatic speeches, the harmonising protest songs and the courage of black South Africans, Nelson Mandela’s life was very lonely. I guess it was like that for most of the freedom fighters. No amount of Nobel Peace Prizes can compensate for 27 years in captivity.
I am yet to see the 9x Oscar nominated 12 Years A Slave, I’m trying to put it off for as long as possible because I know it will be depressing. The fact that these stories are based to true events makes them even harder to digest. I am happy at the exposure black actors are receiving (hoping this wont just be a flash in the pan); it’s important for everyone not just black people for these stories to be told. We are all aware of intimate accounts of the Holocaust, I read the Diary of Anne Frank at school but was taught nothing about slavery, the Civil Rights movement, Africa’s fight for independence from colonial rule, the uprisings in the Caribbean etc. Black history was not taught in my school and I grew up in London, the most ethnically diverse region in the UK. Side note – it’s time for black actors to receive accolades for roles other than when they play drug dealers, maids and slaves, but let me not digress.
This is not a game of who suffered the most, Blacks or Jews? But it’s interesting that one of the longest periods of human atrocity after the death and resurrection of Christ isn’t taught widely in British schools. Slavery was a significant chunk of world history. Slavery gave the world some of the most iconic buildings, while making the West and Arab countries rich beyond their wildest dreams. During the release of his critically acclaimed film, Steve McQueen has called for slavery to be taught in British schools. I agree to some extent, but think black history not just slavery should be taught! Why? You may ask; well Britain played a significant part in the transatlantic slave trade, with Liverpool (previously holding the title of ‘City of Culture’ and home to the International Slavery Museum, the first of its kind in the UK) dominating in the transit of slaves. It’s estimated that during the twenty years before the abolition of the slave trade around 75% of all European slave ships left from Liverpool to collect slaves. Currently millions of black people of African, Caribbean and South American descent live in Britain and so do their children. It’s important for them to identify with their history. A poignant quote from the trailer of George Clooney’s new film, The Monuments Men, is one of many on how our past is key to our very existence.
“You can wipe out a whole generation, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, destroy their achievements, it’s as if they never existed”.
The psychological wounds of slavery haven’t healed completely, so the way in which it is taught should be conducted intelligently. Learning about Africa BEFORE the slave trade is just as important as the most infamous period in the continent’s history, and will fill black children with a sense of perspective and pride rather than feeling constantly ashamed about their history in a classroom full of friends. The facts about Africans being very skilled in astronomy, mathematics, architecture (underground churches) among other subject areas which are rarely attributed to them and having organised kingdoms such as that of Mali, Benin and the Asante shouldn’t be left to collect dust. Any man, woman or child can learn valuable lessons from black history; lessons of ingenuity, forgiveness, tenacity, love, greed, hatred, fear, strength and the human spirit. It’s 2014, it’s time black history is taught in British schools; ignoring the subject as if it isn’t relevant does more harm than good.
After opening in August 2007, over a million people have walked back into history at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK. The vision for the museum stated on its website reads:
“The transatlantic slave trade was the greatest forced migration in history. And yet the story of the mass enslavement of Africans by Europeans is one of resilience and survival against all the odds, and is a testament to the unquenchable nature of the human spirit.
In 1994, National Museums Liverpool opened the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, the first of its kind in the world. This gallery has achieved huge visitor numbers and impact, but there is now a pressing need to tell a bigger story because of its relevance to contemporary issues that face us all.
Our vision is to create a major new International Slavery Museum to promote the understanding of transatlantic slavery and its enduring impact. Our aim is to address ignorance and misunderstanding by looking at the deep and permanent impact of slavery and the slave trade on Africa, South America, the USA, the Caribbean and Western Europe. Thus we will increase our understanding of the world around us.”
Dr David Fleming, OBE.
The 2014 Oscars are on 2nd March, with 12 Years A Slave receiving 9 nominations, including Best Director for Steve McQueen. McQueen is the 3rd black person to be nominated for this category after John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) and Lee Daniels (Precious). If he wins, the London-born Grenadian will make history! Watch this space…
So, I am sure you all saw the UK’s Channel 4 interview with film director Quinten Tarintino (QT), if not click here or find it on You Tube. Either way you have to see it! I thought it was quite funny. There is no doubt that QT films are unique; he has created a brand so you know what to expect when witnessing his work. Besides letting you know that he will ‘shut your butt down!’ QT welcomes the debate/controversy that his latest film ‘Django Unchained’ has garnered, and there has been a lot! Django Unchained is not officially released in the UK (January 18th 2013) but in a few days the British public will able to gallop through the convoluted corridors of Quinten Tarintino’s imagination. At a post-Christmas house-warming, a friend of mine asked me if I will watch the film; at that point I wasn’t sure but after watching QT’s interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4, I probably will. I know that I’ll find it hard to watch, as any film depicting any facet of slavery does hit a raw nerve but I want to see QT’s version of events. There are two main controversial aspects of the film, which has already made over $100 million in the US and is predicted to be QT’s highest grossing film ever (who said slavery doesn’t pay?!). Critics say, there is something for everyone to hate in this film, but two aspects stand out – the use of the word ‘nigger’ and the sale of action figure dolls of the characters on Amazon US for $299 (here is the link). Now, you could argue that this film is just a fantasy so what is wrong with having action figures? Afterall, marketing of this kind has been done for several films in the past. QT did say that he created Django Unchained so that African-American men would have a hero, who takes revenge on white racists.
Black History Month (BHM) in the UK was initiated by Ghanaian Akyaaba Addai Sebbo. As part of this educational period, I went to Leytonstone Library, east London for a short film screening, ‘I’m an African’ by Alfred Mante of www.narrowpathfilms.co.uk.
The documentary has anecdotal tales of young British-born Africans in London. It also touches on how people of African and Caribbean descent perceive themselves and divisions between the two communities, in London especially. It’s believed that once upon a time, children of African parents were ashamed to be associated with the continent, especially with negative images of a starved and ravaged Africa often shown in the media. The film screening was well attended by an audience which was not exclusively black, and triggered a lively debate at the end.
During slavery and Africa’s colonial period Europeans had a strategy to stay on top of the game, ‘divide and rule’ (Yes, the same term that got Cambridge educated MP Diane Abbott, into hot water!):
From the Latin ‘Divide et impera’. Win by getting one’s opponents to fight among themselves. This expression appeared in the English language from the 1600s (dictionary.reference.com)
A combination of political, military and economic strategies that aim to gain and maintain power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into chunks that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. In order to rule securely, don’t allow alliances of your enemies (wiktionary)