Bingo Square Round 2: Underrepresented
I expected that this novel would be good given faintingviolet’s review, but it completely surpassed those expectations. I was completely blown away by this novel, and how elegantly Gyasi plotted this family epic, showing how the slave trade shaped two different countries.
I have read books and novels that addressed the experiences of men and women stolen from their homes who survived the Middle Passage and were forced into the United States slavery system. I’ve read about sharecropping, prison labor, the Great Migration and Civil Rights. I have also read novels that talked about the loss of the old ways in Africa (okay, mostly Nigeria) due to the white missionaries and influences, and the aftereffects decades later. I have never read a novel that included all of these topics as well as perspectives from the Africans participating and gaining from the slave trade.
I think most of us know that whites did use the assistance of Africans in capturing men and women to feed to the slave markets. However, it’s also a topic I always feel a bit weird about because usually the only people that bring it up seem to be whites on the internet trying to downplay the evils and responsibility of white people in regards to slavery and the slave trade saying things like, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad/they weren’t that complicit because the tribes already practiced slavery in Africa.” As a result, a topic that could potentially be interesting ends up being one I haven’t actively explored since I don’t want to be lumped in with the people that try to alleviate one group’s guilt and responsibility because others were doing it, too. I quite appreciated the fact that the novel grappled with that part of Ghana’s history while showing the repercussions of the slave trade on both those who stayed behind and those who were stolen. The British were certainly always willing to play the tribes against each other so it could certainly seem that the choice was either to be a participant in the trade and profit, or to be a target, left weak from lack of wealth and weapons.
Gyasi explores these two vastly different experiences by following two half sisters who share a mother. The sisters are from different tribes and don’t know each other – only one of them grew up with her mother. Effia’s family is from a village that trades with the whites and ends up married to one of the white slavers. Esi’s family is also from an area that profits from the slave trade but at some point, one tribe appears to offer their partners a better price or a better alliance, and her village is raided, leading Esi to the dungeons of the same Castle that her sister lives in.
From here, the novel follows their descendants, alternating between Effia’s relations on the Gold Coast and Esi’s in the United States, each generation having one vignette or chapter devoted to them per side. Descendants on both sides of the ocean lose touch with their history, but for Effia’s side, it is a combination of family secrets and cutting ties with the past as well as some misfortune – basically, somewhat normal things (I personally couldn’t tell you much about my family past my grandparents). In the case of the generations that follow Esi, it is because over and over again, families are ripped apart and lose their connections before they are old enough to learn their history. Each time it seems like something might be looking up, Gyasi reminds the reader of the harm inflicted on the African-American community, and how society found new ways to disenfranchise and exploit. You think you’re a freeman in the North? With the Fugitive Slave Act, immoral white men can claim and you sell you down the river – it’s not that hard to destroy papers after all. Slavery’s over? Well, it’s easy enough to convict someone for a very long time for a very minor offense and lease them to coal mining – breaking up the community over and over again.
However, history left its marks on Ghana as well. From the personal family tragedies to the time under British rule, Effia’s descendants struggle very much to find their place. There is certainly a suggestion that the family is cursed or unlucky due to something in their lineage though what something might be is lost to them as generations pass.
Also, I can’t believe this was a first novel, and that Gyasi was only 26 when it was released. Multigenerational stories can easily fall into clichés but this novel was so moving and thoughtful, each character felt so real. Every little detail that was revealed to explain the fate of previous characters added poignancy, making me appreciate the moments when some characters found moments of happiness and peace – the chapters on Ness, H and, to a lesser extent, Kojo had me completely hooked.
Bingo Square: Underrepresented