Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: H, Akua, and Willie


One of my favorite things about teaching Homegoing is the redemptive arc of the narrative. If this book has a thesis, I would argue that it can be found in Yaw’s chapter, when he is teaching his students that those who have the power control the narrative and that it’s essential to seek out the stories that have been suppressed. I like to ask students to journal on this topic: How is Yaa Gyasi’s novel a response to Yaw’s argument about history on pp. 224-227?

I find Yaw’s story incredibly moving. I have yet to read of his reunion with and forgiveness of his mother Akua without crying. I like to ask students if they are beginning to notice a shift—is the family starting to reconcile at this stage in the book? Yaw and Sonny are the first two characters whose children know their grandparents (at least since James knew Effia). This shift to reconciliation and healing is important.

Yaw’s story takes place in the years right before Ghana’s independence. The Big Six are mentioned in the chapter, so I like to share a little bit of the history that occurs right after the chapter with students. I show students this clip about Ghanaian independence.

I said in my previous post that the chapters about James, Kojo, and Abena are some of my favorite parts of the book. Well, the chapters about H, Akua, and Willie are my real favorite, favorite parts. In fact, Willie’s chapter might be my favorite chapter in the book, and I have some great resources for you in this post.

Kojo and Anna’s son H becomes mired in the convict leasing system in Alabama. The first time I taught this novel, my students were stunned to learn about convict leasing. When I teach H’s story, I like to use primary sources. I have developed a lesson for the Right Question Institute using primary source images, but I teach this chapter slightly differently after some trial and error. I think using the question formulation technique with primary sources is a great lesson. However, instead of doing an entire QFT, I show students images of leased convicts and ask them two of my favorite standby questions: What do you notice? What do you wonder? This slide deck includes the images I use (you should be able to see it and make a copy for your use).

H reminds me of the legendary John Henry. John Henry beats a steam-powered drill and digs a tunnel through a mountain using two hammers. Similarly, H picks up the shovel of a flagging fellow coal miner and does the work of two men, earning the nickname “Two-Shovel H.” I like to show students a Disney short on the legendary John Henry. This film used to be available on Netflix, but the best option I could find is to purchase it on Amazon (if you have Prime) for $2.99 if you want to use it. Note: That link is an affiliate link, and if you follow it and make a purchase, I earn a tiny commission. You can also purchase or rent it from other streaming services for a similar price. I’m not sure why it’s not on Disney Plus, which would be the natural option. I do think it’s worthwhile to show the film; my experience with students is that they are unfamiliar with the John Henry story, and I like for them to get the allusion Gyasi is making.

One fascinating primary source document I like to include in our conversation about H is a treatise written by John T. Milner entitled White Men of Alabama Stand Together. Milner had been an enslaver and later ran Milner Coal and Railroad Lines. He was an advocate of convict leasing and could have been the man who owned the coal mine where H worked. I discovered his treatise when I found this lesson plan, which I have also embedded below in case the link breaks sometime in the future (some of the links in the lesson’s PDF already no longer work; I can’t do anything about that, I’m sorry). You can now find the Slavery by Another Name website at this link (as of this writing).

You can also find letters by Ezekiel Archey, who is mentioned in this lesson plan, at the Alabama Department of Archives and History website.

The way I use these sources is to ask students to read Milner’s treatise and respond—what would they say to Milner if they could speak to him?

Using primary sources has been critical to teaching H’s story, and my experience has been that the students are at their most engaged for this lesson. They have told me in the past that they learned a lot from H’s story.

I find Akua’s story captivating. Gyasi brings back the fire symbolism. Once again, her characters find themselves entangled in historical events. As James Baldwin remarked, “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.” Akua witnesses the defeat of the Asante Empire. Prempeh I, the Asantehene, is taken captive and exiled. His mother, Yaa Asantewaa’s rousing speech advocating for the women to join the fight (if the men are going to give up) is captured in the chapter and in this video that I like to share with students.

If you want to explore the colonial mindset, a good poem to pair with this chapter is Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”

Importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, Akua will be one of the few characters in Effia’s line who will know her grandchild. The only other character in this line who does is Effia herself. Many characters in this family line decide to leave their family behind. However, students likely will not guess this might be the case when they read Akua’s chapter.

Willie’s chapter offers opportunities to discuss the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, and “passing.” Nella Larson’s novel Passing was recently made into a feature film, and you might want to show students the trailer. Depending on the time you have available, you could even pair the texts (either Larson’s novel or the film and Homegoing).

In any case, the concept of “passing” is important to discuss when teaching this chapter, as Willie’s husband Robert chooses to abandon her and their son, Sonny, in order to pass for White. Colorism drives Willie and Robert apart and also prevents Willie from pursuing her dream of singing. Willie is extremely talented, but she can’t pass the “paper-bag test”—her skin is darker than a brown paper bag. 

I like to review the Harlem Renaissance with students, too, even if they’re familiar with it. There are many great resources, but this year, I will probably use this Crash Course Black History video hosted by Clint Smith.

I have researched the song Willie sings, “I Shall Wear a Crown,” and the only song I can find with that lyric dates from the 1980s. I have concluded that it’s probably the song that Yaa Gyasi is referring to, and perhaps she made a mistake about how old it is (it does sound like an old gospel tune). I like to play this choir singing it at Aretha Franklin’s funeral for students. Get tissues before you watch. This is incredible.

I can’t prove this is the same song that Yaa Gyasi means, or even if Yaa Gyasi is referring to an actual song, but I still think it works as a resource to share with students. If you like, you can also share this version by Yolanda DeBerry.

Zacardi Cortez also sang this song at George Floyd’s funeral (homegoing).

Sharing any of these versions of “I Shall Wear a Crown” offers an excellent opportunity to discuss the novel’s title. I wait to explain what a homegoing service is until this point in the book. Willie sings “I Shall Wear a Crown” at H’s homegoing service, and it is frequently sung at homegoing services (as you can see above). You might find an obituary to share that mentions a “homegoing service” as well.

The term “homegoing” has its origins in the myth of the flying Africans that Toni Morrison weaves into her novel Song of Solomon. She speaks about the myth in this video.

This myth has its origins in the story of the Igbo Landing. Virginia Hamilton retells the story of the Flying Africans in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales.

My students have already studied Song of Solomon, so I will remind them of this story, but we will not revisit these materials. However, if your students are not familiar with the origin of the term “homegoing,” the idea that originally, enslaved people went back home to Africa when they died—which evolved into going home to Heaven—you might wish to share these resources with them.

Yaa Gyasi’s book could be the centerpiece of an entire course. There is so much to unpack with students. Tomorrow, I’ll share my final post in this series on teaching the last four chapters of Homegoing. If you missed the previous posts, you can access them right here:

4 thoughts on “Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: H, Akua, and Willie”

  1. You have posted some incredible resources. Thank you. Invaluable. I’m teaching this book to college prep seniors, and it’s the book all year they’ve engaged with.

    1. Thank you, Jennifer! I am so glad. I agree that students engage with this book more than most any other book I’ve ever taught. I’m familiar with your school! I’ve visited for a GISA conference in the past.

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