Teaching Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: The Final Four Chapters

Homegoing

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.

Some things I like to point out: Queen Elizabeth II appears in the video. This history isn’t that long ago—the same monarch is on the throne (true, she is the longest-serving English monarch, but it still offers important perspective). 

A student pointed out a couple of years back that E. T. Mensah’s highlife song in celebration of Ghana’s independence sounds like “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. It truly does, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Musical plagiarism happens all the time, and White artists have certainly stolen from Black artists (looking at you, Led Zeppelin). “Ring of Fire” was released after “Ghana Freedom.” Aside from that fact, I can’t say for sure what happened because I could find no evidence that Johnny Cash was inspired by the song.

It becomes clear in Yaw’s chapter that Akua is having real visions. She was troubled by the “Firewoman,” her ancestor Maame, when Yaw was a baby, but now she has visions of a cocoa farm and the Cape Coast. I like to ask students what they think is happening with this character. 

This year, when students come in to discuss Sonny’s chapter, I plan to play this song, which I have somehow come to associate with Sonny for reasons I’m not sure about, unless it’s just that Coltrane’s story reminds me of Sonny’s.

Sonny returns to The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. DuBois. I didn’t read this book until college, and I suspect not many high school students have read or are familiar with it, so I do a little teaching on the book and its legacy. I share Du Bois’s argument from the book that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” I like to ask students about their impressions of this argument before sharing a follow-up argument by critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo, who says in an article entitled “The Souls of White Folk: Critical Pedagogy, Whiteness Studies, and Globalization Discourse” (Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 5.1, 2002) that “The problem of the twenty-first century is the global color line.” In other words, racism is a global problem. Do students believe Leonardo’s argument will prove as true as Du Bois’s has? Based on what evidence?

I also share Du Bois’s definition of “double-consciousness”:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

From The Souls of Black Folk

To help students understand the impact of W. E. B. Du Bois, I share this quote from Manning Marable about the legacy of The Souls of Black Folk.

Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. “Souls” justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how “race” is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as “whiteness studies” a century later.

I also like to share reviews of the book (sources follow the quotes). All of these quotes generate some good discussion.

This book is dangerous for the Negro to read, for it will only incite discontent and fill his imagination with things that do not exist, or things that should not bear upon his mind.—The Nashville Banner

A review of [the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau] from the negro point of view, even the Northern negro’s point of view, must have its value to any unprejudiced student—still more, perhaps, for the prejudiced who is yet willing to be a student.—The New York Times

The boycott of the buses in Montgomery had many roots . . . but none more important than this little book of essays published more than half a century ago.—Saunders Redding, introduction to 1961 edition of The Souls of Black Folk

I point out that W. E. B. Du Bois was a leader of the Pan-African movement, a worldwide movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all people of African descent. He actually died in the capital of Ghana, Accra. In a way, this book is an argument for Pan-Africanism. After learning all of this about Du Bois, I like to ask students, what do you think it says about Sonny that he returns to this book over and over again?

Another interesting connection I point out is that Sonny’s real name is Carson (and his father is Robert). Robert “Sonny” Carson was a civil rights activist. His story was made into a movie called The Education of Sonny Carson in 1974. I also believe Gyasi was alluding to a short story by James Baldwin called “Sonny’s Blues” about two brothers; the Sonny of the title is a jazz musician with heroin addiction. This year, my students will read Baldwin’s story and decide for themselves whether or not the connection is more than a coincidence.

Sonny is involved in the Civil Rights Movement and makes allusions to riding in the back of the bus, marching, the NAACP. However, when trying to help a family in his capacity as a member of the NAACP, he is profoundly impacted by a boy’s accusation, “You can’t do a single thing, can you?” (pp. 246-247). In fact, he winds up leaving the Movement and spirals into heroin abuse. I share an opinion piece from The New York Times, “The End of Black Harlem,” with students because I see a connection between Sonny’s futile attempts to help the boy and his family and a remark that the author of this article captures when talking with a couple of boys about gentrification.

But even then, a few boys passing by on their bikes understood what was at stake. As we chanted, “Save Harlem now!” one of them inquired, “Why are y’all yelling that?” We explained that the city was encouraging housing on the historic, retail-centered 125th Street, as well as taller buildings. Housing’s good, in theory, but because the median income in Harlem is less than $37,000 a year, many of these new apartments would be too expensive for those of us who already live here.

Hearing this, making a quick calculation, one boy in glasses shot back at his companions, “You see, I told you they didn’t plant those trees for us.”

The city where I teach and live is undergoing gentrification, so I like to make connections to what is happening right in our school’s neighborhood and beyond. Worcester’s “renaissance” has included a burgeoning nightlife, an array of hip restaurants, road construction to make the city easier to navigate (and more aesthetically appealing), and a new baseball stadium for the Worcester Red Sox, the AAA team for the Boston Red Sox.

Sonny meets the woman who ultimately becomes Marcus’s mother, Amani Zulema. During one memorable scene, she sings the song below from Porgy and Bess. I like to play this clip for students and ask them if they see any parallels between the scene and the relationship between Sonny and Amani.

Just as we saw with Yaw, Sonny appears to reconcile with his family. I ask students if they’re familiar with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. If so, I ask them to explain it; if not, I explain it. Is Sonny like the Prodigal Son? As with Yaw, we see the family beginning to heal and find a way to forgive and unite.

Marjorie and Marcus’s chapters end the novel and reunite the two separated lines in the family tree. Marjorie’s story is the most autobiographical chapter, as Gyasi emigrated to the United States as a child and lived in Alabama. Gyasi said

I came from a country that had involvement in the slave trade, then I end up in a place where the effects of slavery are still so strongly felt, and it’s something that wasn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I was sort of unconsciously navigating my entire childhood, going home to Ghanaian parents and being told all the ways that I wasn’t African American, then leaving my house and being African American to the rest of the world, and trying to figure out what that meant for me, and what that meant for my brothers. And all of that is in this book—questions of identity, questions of identity as it pertains to ethnicity and race and country and all of those things are in here. I think if I hadn’t grown up in Alabama, I don’t know that I would have had the same kinds of questions.

It might be interesting to share that quote with students and have them reflect on Gyasi’s inspiration for the novel. On the other hand, Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Sons, found a scene in Marjorie’s chapter jarring. I like to pull this quote from her review of the book and ask students to wrestle with what Wilkerson is saying. Does she make a good case? Do you want to agree/disagree/qualify?

[T]here is a jarring moment when the last of the West African line, a young girl named Marjorie, immigrates to America with her parents, [actually, Marjorie was born in America] settling in Huntsville, Ala. (as did Gyasi’s family). There, she learns that the people who look like her “were not the same kind of black that she was.” The only African-American student we meet is a girl named Tisha, who ridicules the studious Ghanaian. “Why you reading that book?” Tisha asks her. When Marjorie stammers that she has to read it for class, Tisha makes fun of her. “I have to read it for class,” Tisha says, mimicking her accent. “You sound like a white girl.” It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché—that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education—in a work of such beauty.

Later, Marjorie’s teacher sees her reading The Lord of the Flies and asks her about it: “But do you love it? Do you feel it inside you?” I like to have a conversation with students about why she asks that question. What books do you feel inside you? Marjorie later finds the books that she feels inside herself. When Marcus meets her, she has majored in African and African American Literature.

On pp. 289-290, Marcus expresses frustration over how his research is going (he is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Stanford). I suggest spending time unpacking that passage and its significance with students. After meeting Marjorie, Marcus travels to Ghana and sees the Cape Coast Castle. He is overwhelmed. The symbols of water and fire appear again as Marcus and Marjorie grapple with their respective (inherited?) fears. Marjorie gives Marcus the stone necklace that has come down her family’s line from Effia and says to Marcus, “Welcome home.”

Marcus’s chapter might also be paired with Clint Smith’s poem “What the Ocean Said to the Black Boy” from his collection Counting Descent.

I like to show students this clip of Don Lemon’s visit to the Cape Coast Castle with his mother, which has echoes of this scene between Marcus and Marjorie.

via ytCropper

Finally, I like to ask students to consider this quote from Leilani Clark’s book review of Homegoing at KQED:

Until every American embarks on a major soul-searching about the venal, sordid racial history of the United States, and their own position in relation to it, the bloodshed, tears, and anger will keep on. Let Homegoing be an inspiration to begin that process.

This novel is the centerpiece of a unit on Home and Family in my AP Lit course. The unit revolves around the following essential questions:

  • What makes a house a home?
  • How do our families and homes make us who we are?
  • What keeps families together? What drives them apart?

For a culminating assessment, I ask students to create a one-pager, and I have included some of my students’ work from last year below. My students will also do a Q3 timed writing, which I will not grade, and a Socratic seminar after Part One of the novel. I will check their digital notebooks frequently and give them small grades for that assignment that might add up to a quiz grade, as I did with Song of Solomon. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have in the comments, and also feel free to share your ideas for teaching Homegoing. I hope the series of blog posts on teaching this novel have been helpful.

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