Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: Introduction

Yaa Gyasi’s 2016 novel Homegoing is one of my favorite books to teach. Not only is it well written and engaging, but it covers so many aspects of African-American and Ghanaian history that reading it is a historical education that’s hard to beat. The novel has also appeared as a suggestion for Question 3 on the AP Lit exam (2018, 2021), only one of many reasons it’s a good choice for AP English Literature.

I have been teaching Homegoing for the last three years—this year will be my fourth. I contend that you have to teach something at least twice before you hit your stride, and my experience with this book has been the same. I love this book so much that I have tended to over-teach it (in a recent post I described developing a vision board to help me target what’s critical). The students are generally with me until about the last 1/4 to 1/3 of the book, and after that point, I’ve made them tired. This year, I am making a more concerted effort to assign it in chunks. I’ll report on the results.

To introduce my students to this novel, I begin with a pedagogical tool I use frequently (at least once a week or more): journaling. I ask students to journal on the following question: What do you know about the Slave Trade/Triangle Trade? I give students a few minutes to think and write, and then we share out. Students have usually learned a good deal in their history classes. Next, I show them this clip of President Obama and Anderson Cooper touring the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

We discuss the video; specifically, I like to ask:

  • What resonated most for you?
  • What did you know about castles like this before?
  • What are you curious about? (I list student questions and remind them to write them down.)

Students may have learned a great deal about the Slave Trade or Triangle Trade, but they have rarely ever heard of the slave castles, like the Cape Coast Castle. They tend to be quite surprised they exist. Following our discussion of the Cape Coast Castle, I like to read this article from The Atlantic about inherited trauma. Most of my students have learned about genetics in biology, and many of them have taken or take advanced biology classes (such as AP Biology) concurrently with my class, so they usually have a lot to say about this article. My experience has been that students tend to think it’s interesting but do not completely buy the argument that trauma can be inherited. I engage them in a discussion of the article by asking questions such as the following:

  • What is your reaction to this article?
  • Do you want to argue with any of the conclusions?
  • What are you curious about?

After discussing the article we watch this clip of Yaa Gyasi reading from Homegoing:

I explain to students that in a very real way, the experience of reading this book will be like Marcus’s experience. One of the characters in the book will say, “[T]he one who has the power… Gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you figure that out, you must find that story, too” (226-227).

After that, I usually point out the family tree at the beginning of the book and explain that we will be following the history of a family ripped in half by history. One branch of the family will remain in what is known today as Ghana and experience many of that country’s historical events, while the other branch will be enslaved and taken to the United States and experience many of that country’s historical events. Each chapter is devoted to a different character in the family. 

I am using digital notebooks for the first time this year, and I will most likely introduce students to their notebooks. They previously kept a notebook for Song of Solomon, so it shouldn’t take too long to explain each section and how students might use it. Digital notebooks should be a post all by themselves, but essentially I use this template from Slides Mania with 7 tabs labeled as follows: 

  • Response Log: for in-class journals.
  • Favorite Quotes: students can annotate their books, too, but copying the quotes out into their notes means less flipping when they’re looking for quotes later.
  • Characters: Notes on characters’ descriptions, growth, connections to others, etc.
  • Scene Studies: a close analysis of a scene.
  • MOWAW: Meaning of the work as a whole; they typically need a lot of guidance with the section, but essentially, this is where they analyze thematic elements.
  • Supporting materials: mostly embedded videos that will enhance students’ understanding of the novel.
  • Writing: a place for students to capture their writing ideas.

This notebook structure was taken from Roy Smith’s presentation at last summer’s Mosaic conference. I used it with great success when I taught Song of Solomon this year. With that notebook, I had two categories for characters: major characters and minor characters. The response log and favorite quotes were in the same section. Students suggested they be separated in future notebooks (they also requested digital notebooks for the other books we study this year).

Sometimes, when time allows, I like to start reading a novel together as a way to end the class, but this introduction typically takes a class period for me (my classes are 70 minutes).

I find this introduction helps prepare students for the novel’s setting and gives them a feel for what they will read. The article on inherited trauma primes them to think about how the intergenerational trauma of racism, colonialism, and slavery impacts this family, and it gives us an argument we can return to as the characters’ stories unfold, particularly as many characters will be cut off from their family history, either because of slavery or the characters’ choices. 

I warn students that this novel will be hard in the beginning. I don’t mean that the writing is difficult to parse but that it will discuss traumatic events unflinchingly. They might be tempted to stop. But the ending is joyous and redemptive, and if they stick with it, they will find the experience of reading it rewarding. 

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