Sunday, June 12, 2016

African and African American tensions

In a recent review of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing in The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson gives voice to the sometimes whispered tensions between Africans and African Americans.

While Wilkerson offers many praises of the book, she also notes that Gyasi more impressively presents West Africans than she does African Americans. "In the first, magical half of the novel," writes Wilkerson, "Gyasi walks assuredly through the terrain of Alex Haley, Solomon ­Northup and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history." However, "the spell breaks," explains Wilkerson, as Gyasi depicts present-day African Americans. 

According to Wilkerson, "More disappointingly, the lyricism and depth of the scenes in West Africa give way to the coarser language and surface descriptions of life in America." As one example, Wilkerson points out that Gyasi juxtaposes a studious first-generation, African girl with an African American girl who appears adverse to educational pursuits. "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," writes Wilkerson.

Months ago, I wrote about the deep investments that Knopf, Gyasi's publisher, was putting into the novel. So far, the reviews and extensive coverage of Homegoing suggest that those investments are paying off. The commentary on the novel has largely been positive.  

Yet, Wilkerson's review does raise some concerns about Gyasi's presentation of black folks on this side of the Atlantic: "On the whole, African-Americans are shown as passive, boats buffeted by the currents. Rarely do we see the richness of their lives."  

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