We parents are strange creatures. We know our children from the moment they are born, but they don’t know much about us. So we have to reveal bits and pieces of ourselves over time. In the early years, it’s generally considered safest that our children just see us as mommies and daddies—figureheads, symbols, gods—rather than actual human beings with flaws and, in many cases, troubled pasts. It’s only been a year since I revealed to my two oldest boys, now 7 and 5, that I was adopted. I tried to keep it as casual as I could, but, unsurprisingly, oh the questions, how they flew. Who is your real mommy? (No, we don’t say “real,” we say “birth mother.”) Who is your birth mother? Why was she sick? Where is she now? Are you going to get sick?
Adoption is especially difficult to discuss because it requires that you either reveal a tragedy (like my birth mother, being addicted to drugs and giving up six children to the State of Massachusetts, who would be parceled out among foster homes), or that you veil the tragedy entirely and present the story as one of triumph and joy (lucky Mommy was saved by her adoptive mother and everything worked out just fine, see?). I try to do what most parents do, and leave little breadcrumbs that I’ll follow up on later, as my children get older. For now, my sons simply know that the grandmother they will most likely never have contact with was a sick woman, who made a smart decision when she found homes for her children. They don’t know that most of those homes were temporary and that my siblings suffered a great deal; probably more than I’ll ever know. They don’t know about all the times my birth mother got temporarily clean, and promised to regain custody, failing every time. Right now, it’s too soon to tell them that all adoption narratives begin with a tragedy. Poverty, death, addiction and lack of familial support—these are the reasons we have a [flawed] system in place, to save children like me.
But there are also historical and political elements that rarely come into the conversation, especially when we talk about a certain brokenness that permeates so many black families in America. Among many other things Yaa Gyasi accomplishes in Homegoing, the most powerful debut novel of the year, is a stark reminder that the very concept of “family” has a complex and tragic history for black Americans. Her novel follows two Ghanaian sisters, born of the same mother but different fathers, who experience very different lives: one marries a British slave dealer, the other is sold into slavery. Their paths never cross, but the legacy of their mother, and the families who raised them, become ingrained (sometimes scarred) onto future generations for 300 years.
The first character to arrive in America is Esi, who was torn away from her homeland and family by members of another tribe at war with her own. In 18th century America, there is no concept of family stability for black people who are enslaved. It’s a lesson she passes on to her daughter, Ness, in one of many devastating scenes:
When they sold Ness in 1796, Esi’s lips had stood in that same thin line. Ness could remember reaching out for her mother, flailing her arms and kicking her legs, fighting against the body of the man who’d come to take her away. And, still, Esi’s lips had not moved, her hands had not reached out. She stood there, solid and strong, same as Ness had always known her to be.
Another character we meet later (so as not to spoil I won’t reveal his direct connection to Esi), Kojo, is not raised by his parents, because they were captured during an attempted escape North. His “adopted” mother is Ma Aku, the woman who was carrying him when they ran. His adoption, and the sacrifice that his mother made resulted in a triumph: the first free descendant of Esi in America. And of course, it also signifies the tragedy—two parents who remained in slavery, and were broken by it. Kojo (called Jo), though grateful for the chance to raise his own family in free Baltimore, is like many adopted children. He’s satisfied with his life, grateful for the mother he has and always wondering about his parents and the family history he lost along with them:
Jo used to worry that his family line had been cut off, lost forever. 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. When he felt this way, Ma Aku would hold him against her and instead of stories about family she would tell him stories about nations. The Fantes of the Coast, the Asantes of the Inland, the Akans.
Gyasi has been critiqued for attempting to cover too much ground in her novel. And it’s true that some characters’ authenticity is sacrificed in their stories, as they take us through the Great Migration, Harlem’s burgeoning jazz scene, the heroin and crack epidemic and more. But with each new narrative, Gyasi reflects a world that is authentic, where “family” is not a concept divorced from history and politics but is, in fact, defined by them.
Such a message is surely one of the reasons the young author found a fan and supporter of her work in Ta-Nehisi Coates. In many ways, Homegoing works as a fascinating companion piece to Coates’ 2015 Atlantic cover story: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Like Homegoing, it’s a powerful piece that required me to step back and look at my own birth family more closely—not just as people who I believed failed me in some way, but as people who were also failed by people and systems far more powerful than them. Coates, like Gyasi, does not seek to alleviate individual members of black American families of their own responsibility; the point is to give such families and such responsibilities their full context. In the same way that we cannot fully understand our parents until we know more about the people and the places that raised them, we cannot understand the current state of blacks in America—as individuals and as family members—until we interrogate this country that wrought them.
But there is such shame that comes along with these interrogations—shame amongst black and white Americans—and that shame is just one of many barriers that gets in the way of these conversations. It’s akin to the kind of shame that created a code of silence in West Africa, where talk of the complicity of its people in the slave trade is still a taboo discussion. It’s that taboo which Gyasi challenges, specifically in those chapters set among the Fante and Asante tribes in the 18th century. We meet characters who kidnap members of other tribes, characters desperate to achieve the wealth and power that comes from selling people into slavery, as well as characters who understand, deep down, that there is something horribly wrong with the change that has come to West Africa. These characters are miraculously humanized, as Gyasi makes it clear that they had no way of truly knowing the brutality and terrors that awaited those captives when they crossed the Atlantic. They also had no way of knowing the shame their descendants would feel—even to this day—as a result of their actions. Still, shame, Gyasi appears to suggest, is no excuse for silence, which only begets ignorance where knowledge is needed.
In one the most compelling scenes of Homegoing, a character makes his way back to the village where he was raised, not by his mother, but by a community that stepped in when she had gone mad (haunted by the legacy of the fires and tragedies that defined her people). His mother was also raised by people who were not her biological parents—white missionaries—and over the years she’d seen, both in dreams and in waking hours, more tragedy than perhaps any other character in the book. But she passes along this gift, a message to her son, as precious as the black stone that works as a symbol of lineage and knowledge of self throughout the text:
When someone does wrong, whether it is you or men, whether it is mother or father, whether is it the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest into the water thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free. But, even still, Yaw, you have to let yourself be free.
In 2016, we are still asking whether or not black people can live, work, raise families, thrive and truly be free in America. Can black people redefine family for themselves, after such harrowing adoptive narratives as we have seen; after being victims of countless systems (slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, housing discrimination, state-sanctioned police brutality)? Homegoing suggests that the answer is yes… but. As in yes, but first we must tell our stories and those of our ancestors. We are not a culture that is “finished” with slave narratives; first we must face those responsible for our scars (our very own neighborhoods, our very own politicians, our very own leaders and, sometimes, our very own mothers). And even when we’re not exactly sure where home is (because some of our homes are being stolen by gentrification, or because some of our statuses change so much that we can’t even go home anymore), we must find a way, some way, to return. Because a return home is a return to some semblance of wholeness.
Rebuilding and redefining is more complicated than merely fighting the opposition for freedom, because it also requires that, even as we acknowledge the political and social systems responsible for certain tragedies, we must come to terms with the sins of our own mothers and fathers. It requires the physical, often corporeal fight for freedom, as well as that which often goes unacknowledged—the internal, emotional determination to allow ourselves to be free. Homegoing suggests that, perhaps even more than the physical, there exist emotional legacies of struggle and freedom, which are passed on (whether we have experienced adoption or not) to our descendants—those unknown and yet still known people connected to us by both blood and spirit.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based writer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.