The Cape Coast Castle in Ghana. Image by The White House Photostream. This file is a work of an employee of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.
Is it possible for our ancestors to continue to influence our lives long after they have died? Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, shows us that our predecessors might be closer to our lives than the number of years separating us might suggest. In Homegoing, each of the characters feels a connection to their ancestors, going all the way back to Maame, but they experience this connection in different ways.
Some of the characters in Homegoing feel this connection through a physical object, namely the black stones of Maame, mother of the estranged half-sisters Esi and Effia. Esi is given her stone right before she is stolen by the slavers, and Effia, who never gets to meet her mother, is given her stone right before she goes to live with her white husband (Gyasi 16). In both cases, the stone is all they have to remember their mother. Effia says that “touching the stone always gave her great comfort” (Gyasi 18). Esi similarly finds the ability to get a glimmer of consolation from the stone. When she is dragged out of the cell, toward an uncertain but extremely dark future in America, she suddenly remembers the stone and shouts “‘No, my stone!’” (Gyasi 49). Her stone is the only tie she has to her old life and her mother, and it helps her maintain her sanity. But, after she loses the stone, she becomes unfeeling, broken. According to Esi’s daughter, Ness, Esi would always say that she was “cursed and sisterless… left without her mother’s stone” (Gyasi 70).
Akua feels a connection to Maame and Effia spiritually, through her visions and dreams. Akua is plagued by a terrible recurring nightmare about a woman made of fire, and so she goes to see the son of a Fetish priest, who tells her that she is seeing visions of the past. He says that “the firewoman was an ancestor come back to visit” and “that the black stone had belonged to her” (Gyasi 241). The priest goes on to say that the firewoman will tell Akua about her past, where she came from (Gyasi 241). It turns out that the firewoman in this recurring dream is actually Maame and that the firewoman’s “fire babies,” who are stolen in the middle of the dream, are Esi and Effia. Through the visions, Akua is able to learn about her family’s history and feels the pain of her progenitor, Maame. She is able to have an intimate connection with her distant ancestor because of her ability to feel “the spirits of our ancestors calling” (Gyasi 268).
Marcus, the subject of the final chapter of Homegoing, has the gift of visions like Akua (Gyasi 290), but he also decides to use the more concrete method of research in order to further explore the connection he feels to his family’s past. Marcus sometimes gets an odd feeling that somehow his family is much smaller than it should be, that there are many more members that just are not present. In the middle of prayer with his family, he “would imagine so hard that at times he thought he could see them. Sometimes in a hut in Africa… or a small, failing farm, around a burning tree or in a classroom” (Gyasi 290). Marcus is actually seeing visions of the lives of the other branch of the family, back in Africa. His feeling that the family is incomplete is derived from the separation of Esi and Effia by the slave trade.
Marcus decides to further explore his inexplicable spiritual link to his family’s past through another method of discovery: research. He communes with his great-grandfather H by visiting H’s old home in Pratt City and he focuses his Ph.D. dissertation on his family’s experiences as black Americans. The visions and stories are not enough for Marcus: “he’d gone about looking for family and searching for answers in a more tangible way, through his research and his writing” (Gyasi 290). He wants physical, tangible, reminders of the existence of his ancestors, like the ruins of the mines at Pratt City, because these make him feel like he is a part of something much older and greater than himself (Gyasi 295).
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “Change is the only constant in life” (King). Indeed, change is so essential to life and so omnipresent that it has been said that history is merely the study of how the world changes over time (“Department of History”). But while the world is transformed over the course of Homegoing, the fact that each generation’s fate is inextricably intertwined with their past does not change.
Knowing where you are going requires a knowledge of where you are and where you have been. For this reason, nearly everyone in Homegoing looks to find a connection to their ancestors, albeit in their own different ways. In the book, connection is felt through a stone, through visions and dreams of the past, through shared pain and fears, through research. A lot changes in two hundred years. But as Marjorie writes in her poem, no matter how much time goes by, “the waters seem different but are same” (Gyasi 282).
Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. Print.
Department of History. “Why Should You Study History?” Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-Madison, https://history.wisc.edu/undergraduate-program/history-careers/why-history/.
King, Lucy. “Who Said Change Is the Only Constant in Life?” Medium, Mindset Matters, 4 Apr. 2019, https://medium.com/mindset-matters/who-said-the-only-constant-in-life-is-change-233fd9e27b87.