Homegoing’s premise explores African and African-American heritage and culture through a period of several centuries, as the book follows the descendants of Effia and Esi, two daughters of an Asante woman (from the Ashanti region of Ghana) named Maame. Each woman represents one of these two cultures, and how the disastrous consequences of European colonialism and American slavery changed and defined them. Effia marries a colonial British official named James Collins and stays on the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana); Esi is captured and sold into slavery in America. This chance difference between their fates leads to a stark contrast in the lives of six generations of their descendants. Over the book’s fourteen chapters, each of which focuses on a different descendant of these two women, Gyasi shows how cultural heritage is the crux of a person’s identity as each of the characters must grapple with their place inside the culture of their parents and the society around them.
Effia and James Collins’ descendants largely remain on the Gold Coast, but their mixed heritage causes many generations to be haunted by European culture and colonization as they try to remain true to their African cultural heritage. Quey, Effia and James Collins’ son, struggles with the fact that he is biracial. Although Effia has taught him her native language, Quey is schooled in England, which makes him feel as though he lives between two worlds. He takes part in his father’s slave trading even though he does not approve of it because he wants to make his father proud, and he wants to be seen as strong. However, this leads to an identity crisis for many of his family members. James, Quey’s son, has the opposite path. He rejects the work of his father and grandfather and aims to reclaim his African cultural heritage by faking his death in a battle and going to live in a different village that does not participate in the slave trade. Thus, his desire to stay true to his African heritage defines his morality and his identity. James’s descendants continue to work to maintain their independence from the British because they feel it is necessary to reject that part of their history. James’s granddaughter, Akua, is plagued by this legacy to the point that she tries to kill her own children by setting her hut on fire in madness. This act then leads her son and his daughter, Yaw and Marjorie, to move to the United States in an attempt to escape this rigid cycle of guilt. Yet in the United States, Marjorie sees how her blackness is defined very differently because she does not have the same cultural inheritance of African-Americans who have lived in America for generations. When she returns to Ghana at the end of the novel, she feels at home again because doesn’t have to define herself against the African-American experience or white experience. Being back in Ghana makes her feel at ease because the culture is so integral to her sense of identity.
Esi’s family in America is also haunted by the effects of colonialism when she is shipped to America. However, instead of trying to regain their African culture, they are forced to forge a new kind of cultural heritage because so much of it has been taken away due to slavery. Esi, who is sent on a slave ship to Alabama, begins a cycle in which many of her descendants are ripped away from their parents and lose any connection to their heritage. This is symbolized by Esi’s loss of the black stone that her mother gave her. Esi’s daughter, Ness, then starts to lose her mother’s language. By the time Ness has her own child, Kojo, his family history is all but lost because his parents send him away with another woman to try and escape slavery when he is a baby. Kojo’s son, known only as H, becomes even more removed from his culture, as Kojo’s wife is kidnapped and re-enslaved when she is pregnant with H, and he never knows his father. At this point in the novel, a shift starts to happen: when H’s daughter Willie moves to Harlem, she begins to see how black people in America are creating their own communities and new forms of culture through jazz and art. This culture is created less from a shared African heritage and more by a shared heritage of being black in the United States. When the novel reaches Willie’s grandson, Marcus, he is deeply rooted in America and invested in learning about his own history when he pursues higher education at Stanford. However, even though his deepest roots lie in Ghana, he knows that he is as much a product of American institutions: the slave trade, sharecropping, the convict-leasing system that had ruined H’s life. He sees through his studies how this collective cultural struggle has shaped his identity and the identity of those around him.
Ultimately, Homegoing examines the many differences between the two branches of a single family tree. Even though Effia and Esi come from the same background, the differences in how their heritage has been shaped comes to define them and their descendants. While one side of the family attempts to separate itself from European culture, the other is forced to confront a lack of heritage and forge a new culture of its own. Yet, in reuniting Marcus and Marjorie (the last descendants of each branch) in Ghana at the end of the book, Gyasi provides a bit of hope for some kind of future union between African and African-American heritage. Even if their experiences have differed greatly, Marcus and Marjorie recognize that they do have an intertwined history and a shared foundation.
Heritage and Identity ThemeTracker
Heritage and Identity Quotes in Homegoing
Quey had wanted to cry but that desire embarrassed him. He knew that he was one of the half-caste children of the Castle, and, like the other half-caste children, 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.
“There's more at stake here than just slavery, my brother. It's a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.”
“That was my father and grandfather's work. It is not mine.” He didn’t add that because of their work, he didn’t have to work, but instead could live off the family name and power.
He loved the look of those boats, loved that his hands helped build and maintain them, but Ma Aku always said it was bad juju, him and all the other freed Negroes working on ships. She said there was something evil about them building up the things that had brought them to America in the first place, the very things that had tried to drag them under.
He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them.
An unmarried twenty-five-year-old woman was unheard of, in her village or any other on this continent or the next. But there were only a few men in her village, and none of them wanted to take a chance with Unlucky's daughter.
In her dreams the fire was shaped like a woman holding two babies to her heart. The firewoman would carry these two little girls with her all the way to the woods of the Inland and then the babies would vanish, and the firewoman’s sadness would send orange and red and hints of blue swarming every tree and every bush in sight.
“You are a sinner and a heathen,” he said. Akua nodded. The teachers had told them this before. “Your mother had no husband when she came here to me, pregnant, begging for help. I helped her because that is what God would have wanted me to do. But she was a sinner and a heathen, like you.”
“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others […] We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story.”
“What I know now my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home. I'm sorry you have suffered.”
He was mad at her because he didn’t have a father, and she was mad at him because he’d become as absent as his own.
“We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.” She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.
Her father had told her that the necklace was a part of their family history and she was to never take it off, never give it away. Now it reflected the ocean water before them, gold waves shimmering in the black stone.
And if he slammed the book down, then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.
How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance.