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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi, Pt. 2

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins.

Here, we revisit the presentation by Ivie Orobaton, Researcher and Exhibition Specialist for the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, about collection items related to the novel Homegoing. Discussion questions for the novel can be found here.

[This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first part here.]

We would like to thank the Capitol Hill Community Foundation and the Junior League of Washington for their generous support of this program.

Who tells history: Hamlet

Character costumes from Hamlet. Hamlet [costumes for 10 of the characters] [graphic]. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File S528h1 no.147 (size L)

Many of Shakespeare’s plays do not include a narrator as part of the cast. Instead, the movement of the plot is driven by the characters. When performed, the play comes alive, drawing in the audience with the unfolding drama on a human scale. In Hamlet, the lack of a narrator enhances the uncertainty and rage expressed by the main character, Hamlet, as the audience can see the tensions unfolding, rather than this tension being conveyed passively through narration.

This form of active storytelling is used to great effect in Homegoing, where stories are told by the descendants of Maame. These stories have the same effect as Shakespearean plays when the large and often complicated history of slavery is brought to a human level. Through the interactions of the characters, we come to understand the humanness of this complicated history from participation in the slave trade, to interracial marriage, to present day struggles with identity. Structuring the novel into two parts delineates a key moment of change from slavery to emancipation. Gyasi fleshed out these before and after comparisons by illustrating the ongoing racism, disenfranchising, and oppression of Africans and African-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Race and Racialization: Othello

Playbill of Ira Aldridge appearance as Othello from Covent Gardens. Ira Aldridge’s first appearance at Covent Gardens in the role of Othello – a play bill dated 1833 plus 2 small engraved portraits and an article in German. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File A365.5 no.5

In The tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, Shakespeare challenges his audience to confront the xenophobia and racial biases within Tudor England. During this period, whiteness was associated with purity and social status upheld racial difference. In the play, Shakespeare explores anxieties around race across all the characters from internal pondering to overt racism. Throughout the play Othello is rarely called by his given name, rather he is referred to as “the Moor” or “black Othello”—or compared to an animal. This racism extended to the casting of Othello. In 1833, Ira Aldridge was the first Black man to be cast in the role. Traditionally white actors in blackface performed the part. Aldridge’s performance was not well received by the theater-going public, who criticized his race and his limited experience on stage. He played the part for only two shows before it was canceled. It wasn’t until 1930 when Paul Robeson played the title character, was there a successful run of Othello with a Black man in the role. The choice to feature a Black man playing a Black character allowed the actor to imbue the role with truth and lived experience that is unmatched by white actor.

[See a costume sketch for Paul Robeson as Othello]

Kinship across the diaspora

This well-worn tiered skirt with a delicate floral pattern has been passed down through the generations of the Galloway-Hunt family. Given the style of the skirt and its many alterations, the skirt was likely sewn in the early 1870s by the unidentified enslaved mother of Mollie Johnson in Macon, Georgia. The skirt was passed down the maternal line, each generation making additions and alterations. In the wake of the dislocation of slavery, enslaved people created kinship networks of either chosen or blood relations as family members died or were sold elsewhere. Seemingly generic objects carry memories of the past and comfort for the future. The black stones given to Effia and Esi, and passed through the generations, speak to the enduring love and power of family. The black stone was a comfort and grounded the wearer in their heritage as the past becomes the present.

Hand-made skirt worn by enslaved ancestor of Janett Sharee Galloway. Skirt worn by an enslaved ancestor of Janett Sharee Galloway. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Duality of the Ocean: Phillis Wheatley Peters

[See linocut of Phillis Wheatley Peters by Elizabeth Catlett here]

The linocut of Phillis Wheatley Peters is part of a narrative series titled “The Black Women” by Elizabeth Catlett, printed in 1989. In the foreground of the print is the iconic image of Phillis Wheatley Peters sitting at her desk with quill in hand; in the background are three women chained together. Catlett’s inspiration for this series honor and elevate, “the history and strength of all kinds of Black women. Working women, country women, great women in the history of the United States.” The use of ink and graphite creates a high contrast between the silhouettes of the women.  The stark white contrast draws the eye to the faces of the chained women and the paper and quill poised mid script. The history of slavery often privileges the male experience. In Homegoing, Gyasi brings the female experience to bear, creating a nuanced and equitable portrayal of slavery and its enduring legacies.

Phillis Wheatley Peters was a renowned poet in 18th -century America and England. In her poems, she drew upon classical and neoclassical references and evoked biblical symbolism to address slavery. Wheatley Peters often referenced the sea or water in her poems, as in “On Being Brought to America from Africa,” published in 1773.  Wheatley spoke of the redemptive power of Christianity but also drew upon her experience of being enslaved and trafficked across the Atlantic from West Africa. One of her most radical poems is “Ocean,” where she expresses overt abolitionist ideals through the metaphor of the ocean and its unrelenting power. In the culminating scene, Gyasi, like Wheatley Peters, draws upon the ocean when reconnecting genealogical lines, as Marcus and Marjorie wade together in the water and Marjorie gives Marcus the stone and says, “welcome home” (Gyasi, 300). In the scene the ocean carried the weight of its history of the slave trade but also a place of comfort and welcoming—the enduring power of kinship.

We are living through the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Every generation before and after our present day will encounter some iteration of these oppressive systems. While we carry our history, we are not defined by it. The resiliency of humanity offers hope and change, as it is people that make history.

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