Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: “James”-“Abena”


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.

In my previous post, I discussed approaches to the first four chapters of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. In this post, I’ll describe my approach to teaching the remaining chapters of Part One of the novel: “James,” “Kojo,” and “Abena.” This section is one of my favorite parts because there is so much history to share with students.

It’s been my experience that most of the history students learn from these three chapters is new to them. On a literary level, it’s interesting to contrast James and Abena with their forebears, Quey and Effia, while Kojo’s story explores the impact of slavery on families.

James’s chapter opens as his grandfather, the actual historical figure Osei Bonsu, has died. Osei Bonsu was Asantehene, King of the Asante, from 1804 to 1824. Thus, this chapter can be definitively dated from 1824. This chapter alludes to a theory that the British killed Osei Bonsu in retaliation for the death of Sir Charles MacCarthy, a British military governor. The history behind the opening pages of this chapter is fascinating. MacCarthy died on January 21, 1824, during a war with the Asante. MacCarthy’s force numbered 6,000 soldiers, but he divided it into four columns. The column under his direct command numbered only 500. The Asante forces numbered 10,000. When the battle started on January 20, MacCarthy’s other columns were miles away and no help. MacCarthy ordered his musicians to play “God Save the King,” thinking it would scare the Asante away. Needless to say, that didn’t work. The British soldiers mostly held their own until their ammunition ran out. MacCarthy called up his reserve ammunition, only to find macaroni instead of bullets! You can’t make this stuff up. The Asante overran the British force; there were only 20 survivors. MacCarthy was killed, his heart was eaten, and his skull was later rimmed with gold and turned into a drinking cup used by Asante rulers. It’s interesting to discuss what Gyasi accomplishes by including this historical event and actual historical figures at this point in the story. While there is not a record (that I could find) that Osei Bonsu had a daughter named Nana Yaa, as Asantehene, and a Big Man, he would have had multiple wives and possibly dozens of children, so Gyasi’s choice to invent Nana Yaa was a logical way to connect her characters to historical figures.

James reflects on a previous trip to Kumasi, the capital of the Asante, when he played with his cousin Kwame and nearly set fire to the room where the Golden Stool is kept. I like to show students this Khan Academy video about the Golden Stool because it explains its importance to the Asante very well.

This video also discusses an artifact, a two-headed crocodile that joins at the stomach. The video’s narrators, Dr. Peri Klemm and Dr. Beth Harris, explain that the crocodile relates to a proverb that a family shares a stomach. They say that “your essence, your connection, your belly is connected to your family” and that “if you go off on your own, you’re really not going to get very far in life.” Students quickly relate this proverb to James, who decides to leave his Fante village, fake his death, and join his true love Akosua. They are happy together, but James is so unsuccessful that the villagers where they settle call him “Unlucky.” James makes a very different choice from his father Quey, who buries his dreams and desires and enters into the family business of the slave trade and marries Nana Yaa at his uncle’s behest. Comparing and contrasting James and his father makes for an interesting discussion.

Kojo’s chapter offers an opportunity to discuss the impact of the Fugitive Slave Act. Kojo’s status is uncertain, as he is technically not free. His wife, Anna, however, is free and has papers attesting to this fact. All of their children would have also been free, as children’s status was the same as the mother’s. However, it is Anna, not Kojo, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Her story is similar in some respects to that of Solomon Northrup’s. The film Twelve Years a Slave is just old enough now that most of my students tend not to have seen it. If you would like your students to explore Solomon Northrup’s writing, his book is in the public domain. I like to show them this featurette about the film and have a discussion about parallels between Anna’s fate and Solomon Northrup’s.

We also discover at the beginning of Kojo’s chapter that he and Ma Aku are still together. They have formed a bond similar to that of mother and son—at first out of necessity, at least on Kojo’s part, and later out of love. This video explains how enslaved people created families comprised of “fictive kin” under similar circumstances (note: a White character uses the n-word in this video).

Many of the chapters about Esi’s descendants explore the impact of slavery on families, but this chapter is particularly wrenching because the family lived freely and happily, and Anna’s enslavement destroys the family.

James’s daughter Abena’s story closes out Part One of the novel. Abena is James and Akosua’s only child. She enters into an extramarital relationship with Ohene Nyarko, who promises to marry her, but ultimately does not keep his word. Abena and Ohene travel to Kumasi together, and Abena sees the Golden Stool, a sight that moves her inexpressibly. I like to ask students if they have any similar stories of visiting a place that felt sacred or seeing a thing that felt sacred (such as a monument, work of art, etc.). I invite them to share their stories. I often tell my story of seeing a Van Gogh self-portrait in person. 

While in Kumasi, a man about James’s age sees Abena and thinks she is James for a moment. He’s wearing kente, and Abena tells Ohene that he must be a royal. I like to ask students how she figures this out; it’s a good close reading exercise. Ohene jokes, “If he is a royal, then you are a royal too” (139). The irony is that he’s correct: both the man and Abena are royal, though neither Abena or Ohene know this because James obscured his family history from his daughter. I believe the man is probably James’ cousin Kwame based on his description. Both James and Kwame would be royal because they are the grandsons of Osei Bonsu are are related to the Asantehene at the time the chapter is set: Kwaku Dua I. Kwaku Dua I would be Abena’s first cousin twice removed, as the two previous Asantehenes, Osei Bonsu and Osei Yaw Akoto were his uncles. His mother was their sister. This family tree will help.

Ohene Nyarko brings cocoa plants to the village in a story reminiscent of the legend surrounding Ghana’s cultivation of cocoa: “in 1879 a native of Mampong (also in Akwapim) brought back pods from Fernando Po (an island off the Cameroons) where he had been working, and raised a few trees which he planted on his farm near that village.” Cocoa is now Ghana’s dominant crop. It’s also produced with child labor and contributes to environmental issues such as deforestation, though initiatives are underway to alleviate both problems. You may want to bring these issues into the conversation about this chapter.

Abena’s chapter closes Part One, and this year, my students will create Socratic seminar questions on Part One using the Question Formulation Technique. I like to discuss why Gyasi chooses to end Part One with Abena’s chapter rather than H’s, which might be the more natural division in some respects. Why does this chapter feel more like a “transition” than H’s chapter?

I mentioned in my previous post that my students will be using a digital notebook to track their understanding and analysis of Homegoing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t share the hyperdoc resource that Scott Bayer and Joel Garza created.