Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: The Uses and Manipulation of Bodies

“… teachers are very serious because they do all their work with their minds and so sometimes they have to be reminded that they must use their bodies.”
-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

There was a day in June, this past summer when white flakes began falling, slowly, from the sky. They covered my beard and crept along my tired arms. I was on a break from a busy day of lifting filters into steel brackets where they could filter the dust-filled factory air. The white flakes crawled up and down my body. I spent my break watching cigarette smoke cradle these living flakes and researching aphids.

Aphids are small insects that begin consuming crops as soon as they fall onto them. This makes them a nightmare for farmers, but there is a byproduct released by aphids that provides nourishment for some species of ants. The ants surround a plant with aphids and feed off the honeydew that they release. The most interesting bit of this relationship is the change in the honeydew production of the “farmed” aphid. When a multitude of ants is guarding their bodies, aphids begin to produce higher amounts of honeydew.

I think about the freedom of an aphid’s body, and it reminds me of the different states of being a human body goes through depending on the environment. In Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing, she explores the different states of the body by exploring a Ghanaian family tree from the early Asante/British slave trade to present time. Gyasi investigates the effect slavery, work, and love have on a body.

The British colonizer is at the beginning of Gyasi’s novel. They come into a village and begin business. While this is happening, we follow a woman named Effia who lives with her father, a well-respected warrior, and his first wife, Baaba. While the white men survey the wealth this country holds, Effia gets her first period, “…two days after her fifteenth birthday, the blood came. It was not the powerful rush of ocean waves that she had expected…, but rather a simple trickle” (10). The change in her body means she can now be married, and having caught the eye of the village chief, her chances for a good life are high. Despite this, she is told to hide this by Baaba.

The forced hiding of an important event serves the larger plan Baaba has for Effia’s body. By keeping Effia from marrying the chief, Baaba is able to get rid of the daughter she holds in contempt. The manipulation of Effia’s body mirrors the white man’s manipulation. By using tribes to attack other tribes, the British kept tight control of the colonized peoples’ bodies. The colonization of these bodies led to wars based on British profit. The manipulation of Effia’s body leads to Baaba profiting. When the white men survey the village, one soldier notices Effia, and Baaba succeeds in altering Effia’s future. Now, Effia’s body is sold to a man she doesn’t know because he has a love for her beauty, and Baaba gets paid. The relationship, born from a lie, is an example of how love, and a lack of it, affects the body.

Effia begins her life in the Cape Coast Castle with a discovery of people being stowed for sale in the dungeons. She is disgusted and lets her new husband know, but he shuts her down quickly with his hands, “…just by the faint push of his fingers on her lips, [she knew] he was a man capable of hurting, that she should be glad to be on one side of meanness and not the other” (17). The act of laying hands onto Effia’s mouth to silence her is similar to the white man’s way of keeping the tribes quiet and working for them. When James shows Effia that he can harm her easily, she begins to assume a wife’s role and even begins to feel love for him. He uses his body to create fear in her, but he also tends to her and is monogamous, which she is not used to seeing. The chance to not have to share his body with another woman makes Effia appreciate her situation and begin to fall in love with him regardless of the evils he and his men are committing in the dungeon. James is, in one moment, a soothing presence for her. While, in another moment, he may show his ability to harm her.

In an article about the body as property, Courtney S. Campbell talks about the “property paradigm.” This is the idea that the body is private property, but the property is able to change hands. Effia is transferred by Baaba, acquired by James, and manipulated by the lifestyle of the castle. Her body moves and moves, then settles in a place where she can be manipulated with little effort. And, despite this, she is able to find ways to maintain some kind of agency with her body.

When James approaches Effia about having children, she is nervous about failing. It is very true that she is scared because she doesn’t want to disappoint him, but I think Effia wants to have a child with him. The ability to conceive would make Baaba wrong about her curse, and Effia is able to take control of the moment they work on conception together, “She was the one who laid her body down. She was the one who lifted her skirt” (18). In this moment, she is able to take some control back. Before this scene, we get to see her be empowered by advice from Adwoa—another Fante woman married to a British soldier. Adwoa explains to Effia that she has to take the power by making the man feel like he is in control. Adwoa gives Effia roots to put under the bed, tells her to be like an animal, and tells her, “Really, [you are] king and queen and everything in between. Tonight, we will make you live up to your title, Beauty” (21). A fellow woman empowers Effia, and the power seeps into her body, spreading, eradicating the hold anxiety of fertility and James had on her. Being able to speak in Fante about fertility rituals gives Effia agency in a love life she was forced into.

I sat outside of the Bowling Green Assembly plant ten minutes past my scheduled break to watch the small insects’ white bodies contrast against the artery-blood red ink that sat permanently under the skin stretched across my flexor carpi radialis and pronator teres. I looked around at the tired faces of the workers smoking their cigarettes and drinking their energy drinks. In that moment, I saw blue-collar workers who spend hours serving a larger entity, enjoying a small sliver of time.

Gyasi explores the different natures of work and its effects on the body with her chapter on Yaw. Thinking of the sins of the white man and the sins of his mother, Yaw is left in a state of constant pondering and stillness. He teaches in the day and writes at night and stays angry through it all, “The longer he looked at himself in a mirror, the longer he lived alone, the longer the country he loved stayed under colonial rule, the angrier he became” (232). This passage is full of passiveness. Yaw studies his deformity—the burn scar on his face left by his mother—and meditates on it like he meditates on his study of history. Yaw uses his academic prowess as a way to excuse his lack of action. While he talks about politics, teaches alternative viewpoints of history, and works on his book; he hides in the city away from his roots. He is unwilling to face his own history and lets his work become an excuse for it.

The epigraph of this essay is what Esther, Yaw’s maid, tells him the first day she is employed. She says something that begins a shift in Yaw, but she also does something. She takes him from his office to the market. Esther, being a person who has always done physical work, understands the importance of it for the mind. She uses the words “have to” and “must use” to describe the needs of the body of a teacher who is isolated with a book. On the trip to the market, there is a small moment when Yaw watches a father and son make drums. Esther asks him if he plays, and he says he never learned (231). Yaw is enthralled by an instrument that is integral to the music of his country like he is enthralled by the struggle of his country. When he studies the drum in the market, he is brought closer to the people he is fighting for than when he is studying books about them. This market excursion brings him closer to understanding his body and the bodies of his kinfolk. Yaw’s body, having been separate from physical struggle, easily drifts into a state of still rage and lonesomeness.

Yaw’s state of being changes with the entrance of Esther. Not only does he begin to connect with the fight against colonialism on a more visceral level, he now has a fellow human who cares for him on a level he hasn’t had before. All of this leads him to do what he needs to in order to effectively do his work; see his mother. The trip Yaw and Esther take to Edweso is what reminds Yaw that he “must use” his body. He sits with his mother and hears the story of how he got his scar, and he hears his mother’s perspective of the world. Yaw, having been disgusted with his burn scar, sees his mother’s scarred hands, “[Akua] held her hands out to him, and he looked at them carefully. He recognized her skin in his own” (242). The realization of being of a similar body creates tenderness in Yaw, who had hardened himself against those who have wronged him. He has a reference for his body when he sees his mother. His ability to connect to the history of his body begins to cleanse him of the passive rage he held so dear; it turns into active emotions of love for his mother and his people.

In an article by Ella Keren dealing with Ghanaian academic historiography, a connection is to be made to Yaw’s work as a historian in Homegoing. Keren, early in the article, talks about the fear in Ghanaian academia of talking about the slave trade:

African societies still attach a stigma to slavery and to slave ancestry. These sensitivities help to explain why African historians have been reluctant to confront subjects such as the slave trade, which are likely to raise questions about internal slavery. (976)

While Yaw isn’t concerned with internal slavery specifically, there is a similar character trait of shame when it comes to his history. He is ashamed of the scar he bears and his mother for half of his life, and it damages his ability to use his body for the important work that is his book. He feels inadequate and separate until he sees the bodies of his people in motion, and he is able to see where his own body comes from.

When I read about the aphid farms that ants maintain, I was saddened that these beautiful, chaotic, destructive creatures were so easily put into order. The aphids, as I mentioned before, are affected by being put to work by outside forces. Their bodies produce no longer for their own sake but the sake of another. Thinking this, I watched as the workers flicked their cigarette butts and brushed ash and aphids off of their dirty faces, arms, and legs. Then, they walked—with four hours left in a twelve-hour shift, with their heads bowed under the weight of work—back through double doors leading into the factory. Aphids are a foreboding example of what can happen to the worker. The use of the body is healthy for humans, but when the ants are pushing your aphid body to its breaking point, it’s time to use your body as just that—yours.

In the chapter of Homegoing dealing with H, there are bosses who fetishize his body and lord their power over it. When H is transferred from the local jail to a coal mine, he is put on an auctioneer’s block to have his body studied and judged, “The pit boss whistled. He got out of his chair and circled H. He grabbed H’s arm, and H lunged at him before his shackles stopped him” (160). The pit boss and the jailer treat H as an object to profit off. This is a moment of true profit for the pit boss; he is getting free, expendable labor without rights. H’s body ceases to belong to him when the pit boss gets away from H’s murderous hands. When H realizes he can’t break free from the chains, he throws himself into the work to cope—being resigned to work regardless of his own body’s needs.

H resigns to the work and becomes one of the greatest miners at the work camp. He is able to do his own load and, oftentimes, more. While he is in chains, he protests through his ability to be a hard worker. The bosses chain H to a white man who lets racial slurs fall from his tongue, but H keeps at his work regardless. The white man is unable to do his share, so H picks up his partner’s shovel, “Wordlessly, H had taken up Thomas’s shovel. With his own shovel in one hand and Thomas’s shovel in another, H had filled both men’s quotas, the pit boss watching all the while” (163). With this feat of strength, H shows that he is more than a piece of flesh meant for work. While he is using his body to work for a slave master, he is also using his body to protect a man who had just used a slur to describe him. Compassion and willpower fuel H to do something that the pit boss responds to with, “Ain’t no man ever shoveled double handed before” (163). H would have been whipped along with Thomas if Thomas failed to fill his quota, so it’s possible to argue compassion was not a part of H’s action, but bodies working together breeds community, and H’s cooperative action illustrates that community the bosses attempt to squash.

Once free from the mines that used his body for their gain, H moves to Pratt city where he can become a free laborer. The fight for rights of the body doesn’t end with his freedom. Once working in Pratt city, H finds himself under similar bosses, but with a community behind him. The community H becomes involved with is the union. At the union meeting that fosters a strike, H is the one who holds the attention of his union brothers. People voice their concerns about the mechanics of a strike, and H gets in an argument with a white man about the likelihood of the white bosses listening to black folk (172). The conversation H has with his union brother ends in unity through their bodies:

“We gotta work together now,” the white man said. “Same as in the mine. We can’t be one way down there and another way up here.”

No one spoke. They all just turned to watched H, see what he would say or do. Everyone had heard the story of the time he’d picked up that second shovel.

Finally he nodded, and the next day the strike began. (172)

The connection that inspires the strike is between two men who have been pitted against each other by the people above them. There is a recognition that, despite the differences in race, they all work with their torn hands and hard bulging flesh for less than they deserve. The bosses attempt to use race to keep the poor workers fighting each other, but the bosses fail to understand that working alongside a fellow feeling body breeds empathy, sympathy, and a dangerous community.

An article written by Stephen P. Garvey titled Freeing Prisoners’ Labor argues for a system where convicts are made to work for private companies as part of their sentence. His argument sounds like the pit bosses from Homegoing escaped the novel and were horrified that white businessmen weren’t allowed unpaid labor. Now, Garvey worked at Cornell and has written books on criminology, so I may be unequipped to argue against him. But, much like Esther’s comments to Yaw dealing with the use of the body, I think Garvey needs to connect with the prisoners instead of penitentiary statistics. Garvey argues that prisoner labor left an enduring mark on the New South, what Garvey fails to mention is the effect that the system has on individual bodies. When H is shoveling coal, he isn’t thinking about his crimes; he is thinking about how he can get back at the people that put him there.

I walked into the factory after watching aphids perform their descending dance. I continued to think about how aphid bodies are exploited in relation to the exploitation of human bodies. I saw aphid workers fasten rotators, pistons, and windshields to a welded chassis of a car made for the ant bosses who stood guard over their concrete farm. I watched as the aphid workers lined up at the time-clock to begin their ascent away from ant bosses; an ascent that would take their bodies to a place where they would be able to create for themselves.

Now, I sit here. Thinking still of the falling white flakes that swept worries away from people who have and always will work with their bodies. Yaa Gyasi created a picture of a family full of people whose bodies were transferred, acquired, and manipulated by a group of colonizing ants. Through the stories of Effia, Yaw, and H, the exploitation and reclamation of bodies is painted as a constant, but rewarding, struggle against powers that attempt to harvest honeydew from capillaries in hands, arteries in thighs, and muscle mass lining shoulders.


Works Cited
Campbell, Courtney. “Body, Self, and the Property Paradigm.” The Hastings Center Report, Vol. 22, No. 5, 1992, pp. 34-42. Web.

Garvey, Stephen. “Freeing Prisoners’ Labor.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 50, No. 2, 1998, pp. 339-398. Web.

Gyasi, Yaa. Homegoing. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

Keren, Ella. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade in Ghanaian Academic Historiography: History, Memory, and Power.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 4, 2009, pp. 975-1000. Web.

Salazar, Adrián. “Aggressive mimicry coexists with mutualism in an aphid.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 112, No. 4, 2015, pp. 1101-6. Web.

Devin Beach

Devin Beach lives in Nashville, Tennessee where he works as a janitor. In his spare time Devin writes poetry, an occasional piece of prose, and drinks beer. Devin Beach earned his Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing from Western Kentucky University.