Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, Two Forgotten Histories, and 2016 America

In the course of its unique, multi-multi-generational structure, Yaa Gyasi's striking debut novel Homegoing (2016) moves through more than two centuries of both West African and American history. Her characters and communities thus experience a wide range of historical periods and moments, from the more well-known on this side of the Atlantic (the Fugitive Slave Act and its aftermath) to the less familiar here (the 19th century's repeated Anglo-Asante Wars). Since Gyasi stays in each period for roughly one chapter, it is more their interconnected, cumulative effect than any one moment that stands out most for readers.

Yet for this reader and American Studier, there is one chapter and historical setting that Gyasi does conjure with particular potency: the late 19th century convict labor camps and coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama (now part of the city of Birmingham). Gyasi's character H, an escaped slave's son who is himself kidnapped back into slavery (while still in his mother's womb) as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, finds himself in Pratt City when he is convicted of an amorphous crime under the Reconstruction period's Black Codes. After he serves his sentence H remains in the city and the mines, becoming one of the leaders of their fledgling, multi-racial labor movement.

Pratt City's convict labor programs, as well as the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that provided the majority of their populations, form one significant chapter in the long history of what Douglas Blackmon has termed Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War until World War II (2009). Although Blackmon's book won the Pulitzer Prize and was made into that PBS film, I still would argue that few Americans are aware of such post-slavery programs, and of the very literal bondage into which they brought so many African Americans (and other communities, but most especially African Americans) for so long.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued with particular eloquence, without collective national memory of these and many parallel late 19th and 20th century histories it's far easier for Americans to dismiss slavery and communal racial oppression as distant pasts, ones that have very little to do with our 21st century present. Yet as illustrated once again by the return of chain gangs to many contemporary prisons and communities, histories of convict labor driven by legal and institutionalized racism make plain the widespread and enduring presence of racially oppressive social systems in American culture and life. Reading this chapter of Gyasi's novel offers an engaging and immersive way to remind us of those systems and their effects.

That's not the only forgotten history to which Gyasi's chapter connects, however. The multi-racial unity of Pratt City's labor unions is one of a number of such collective efforts in the late 19th century, moments when both struggles for survival and successful examples of solidarity trumped the period's dominant racial narratives and divisions. My verb there was purposefully chosen, for if the newest exemplar of American bigotry and division is to be defeated at the polls later this year, it will require a similarly cross-cultural effort, one in which multiple oppressed yet potent American communities work together to achieve that shared goal.

There's no one formula for such success, although voting will of course be key. Yet voting depends on, and indeed puts into action, knowledge and understanding. And so reading Gyasi's novel might well help us better remember these forgotten American histories, and then perhaps avoid repeating the worst and instead emulating the best of them.