“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”.
This Akan Proverb is the way author Yaa Gyasi begins her debut novel, a heart wrenching multi-generational story that follows the lineage of two sisters from Ghana in the 18th century. One is sold into slavery in America and the other remains in Ghana. Each chapter follows one of their descendants and brings us to a new time in history: slavery, the Civil War, the Anglo-Assante war, the Great Migration, Jim Crow, Ghanaian independence, the Civil Rights Movement, and the “War on Drugs,” until we are in the present day.
Gyasi gives her readers a gift, the knowledge of ancestral history, which is something that neither half of the characters in this book nor most Black descendants of slaves in this country have. Many of the characters suffer from the pain of looking at their family from the outside, the forest too dense, unable to tell where they come from, unable to see their own role. Through forced displacement, slavery and colonization, Black people have been deprived of our history, roots, and identity. Generational trauma follows and accumulates in each descendent, until we in the modern day are carrying the pain of all our ancestors before us.
Marcus, a character from the last chapter of the book in the present days sums it up well as he is attempting to research his own history.
“Originally, he’d wanted to focus his work on the convict leasing system that had stolen years off of his great-grandpa H’s life, but the deeper into the research he got, the bigger the project got. How could he talk about Great-Grandpa H’s story without also talking about his grandma Willie and the millions of other black people who had migrated north, fleeing Jim Crow? And if he mentioned the Great Migration, he’d have to talk about the cities that took that flock in. He’d have to talk about Harlem. And how could he talk about Harlem without mentioning his father’s heroin addiction— the stints in prison, the criminal record? And if he was going to talk about heroin in Harlem in the ’60s, wouldn’t he also have to talk about crack everywhere in the ’80s? And if he wrote about crack, he’d inevitably be writing, too, about the “war on drugs.” And if he started talking about the war on drugs, he’d be talking about how nearly half of the black men he grew up with were on their way either into or out of what had become the harshest prison system in the world. And if he talked about why friends from his hood were doing five-year bids for possession of marijuana when nearly all the white people he’d gone to college with smoked it openly every day, he’d get so angry that he’d slam the research book on the table of the beautiful but deadly silent Lane Reading Room of Green Library of Stanford University. 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.”
After reading this book, I was left thinking of those that came before me. How many names will we never know? How many faces have returned to the earth that we will never see? How many wishes whispered into the wind that we will never hear? I’m reminded of the sacrifices made, lineages torn, hearts broken, tears shed, for us to be where we are standing today. This book shows us the ways in which history marks us. Not knowing your ancestry, or not having pride in your roots, is a tool of white subjugation. We know our ancestors suffered, but we know also that they were strong and resilient, or we would not be here. Their lives had love and joy too; they were artists, philosophers, storytellers, and healers. We truly are our ancestors’ wildest dreams, what they thought about when the world seemed impossible.
At the end of the book, we follow Marcus as he returns to the shores of Ghana, where unknown to him, his ancestors were sold as slaves. In that moment, Gyasi is telling us that in the end, we do all find our way home.
To sum up the Black experience of over 200 years and 7 generations in 300 pages is not an easy feat. However, Gyasi is able to do just that in an incredibly beautiful way. She delicately weaves symbolism throughout the stories that encapsulates the Black experience in a way that can only be described through sensations, rather than words. I fell in love with each character, felt their pain and their joy, learned more about them with each passing generation, and however tragic their stories, I found comfort in the knowledge that with their descendants, their spirits found peace.
Miranda is a community organizer, musician and activist living in Washington D.C. As a child of immigrants from Palestine and Zimbabwe, she is passionate about indigenous sovereignty, and racial and environmental justice. She believes that art is a beautiful tool to cultivate joy, and as a means of resistance.