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The Folger Spotlight

Collection Connections: 'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi

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 first of a two-part series. Read the second 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.

Book summary

 Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (2016) traces the lives of two half-sisters in the Gold Coast. One is free and lives at the Cape Castle married to an Englishman. The other is enslaved and imprisoned at the Cape Castle. Gyasi masterfully explores the impact of enslavement and slave trade across eight generations of descendants from the American plantations to our current time.

Africa Before and After 1492: Othello

Map illustrating the West coast of Africa, 1556. Primo Terzo volvme delle navigationi et viaggi by Giovani Battista Ramusio, 1556. Folger Shakespeare Library: G159.R2 1554 Cage v.3 (folio)

The trans-Saharan overland trade network connected Africa to the global economy. Camel drawn caravans crisscrossed the desert from sub-Saharan to west Africa to ports along the Mediterranean transporting gold, salt rock, copper, and ivory among other goods. The abundance of gold and the unmatched demand enriched many African kingdoms like the Soninke Empire of Ghana and the kingdom of Mali, ruled by Mansa Musa. A network of traders in North Africa delivered highly sought-after gold and ivory into Europe. The gold was minted into coins and used to embellish religious and luxury goods. Ivory was carved into statuette, other devotional objects and common goods.

Trading posts along overland trade routes moved to the African coast as Europeans shifted to maritime routes. Permanent trading posts, like Elmina and the Gold Coast Castle in Ghana, were established by the British, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and French. These sites were highly contested as European powers sought exclusive trading rights with various African Kingdoms. Elmina castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482, was the first trading post established by a European power in Africa. As mapping, navigation and sailing vessels improved, European trading zones were established along the entire African coastline.

As a result of these profitable trade networks, people of African descent immigrated to important commercial cities like London and occupied positions in all levels of society. During the Tudor Era – 1485-1603 – slavery was not tied to race, nor was it hereditary. Othello began life as an enslaved person. Prior to his marriage to Desdemona, he declared himself free and his status within the Venetian army provided social protection and standing. Despite of his race, Othello worked through the ranks of the Venetian army to become a General, due to his skill and leadership. Even though he occupied a position of power, he was still treated as an outsider and denigrated because of the color of his skin.

The Trans-Atlantic and Domestic Slave Trade

Manilla currency used by European powers along the West coast of Africa. British Manilla. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Broadside for an auction of enslaved persons with notations. Broadside for an auction of enslaved persons at the Charleston courthouse. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The first voyages of slave ships to the Americas with African captives sailed from Cape Verde and São Tomé islands for Spanish colonies in the Americas. However, the Portuguese had already begun to import slaves to their colony São Tomé and Príncipe along the west-central coast of Africa. As European powers like the British, French and Dutch began their colonial expansions, the demand for enslaved laborers was immense. Large plantations were established in the Americas to produce raw materials for refinement in European factories. Depending on the climate and size of the planation, enslaved people cultivated crops like sugar cane, indigo and tobacco. Over the period of slavery, 12.5 million Africans – women, men and children – embarked on the trans-Atlantic voyage; only 10.7 million arrived at their final destination.

As the slave trade expanded along the African coast and into the African interior, European powers used heavy metal bracelets, or manillas, as currency. In West Africa, per 15th century accounts, an enslaved male was worth 12 to 15 manillas.  Due to the high demand of captive labor in the Americas and West Indies, the price for an enslaved person increased to 50 manillas by the 16th century. In 1808, the American government abolished international slave trading, other governments followed suit, however the ban had little impact as illegal slaving voyages continued. With the ban in effect slave holding nations like America and Brazil utilized and grew their domestic slave trade. In America, major cities along the eastern coast like Virginia trafficked enslaved people across the south and southwest.  Cities like New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston were also major slave trading hubs in the deep south.

The Slave Trade and Moral Corruption: King Lear

Frontispiece from the History of King Lear. The History of King Lear…by William Shakespeare, 1794. Folger Shakespeare Library: PR3291 H64

At the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, Europeans and Africans had an established trading relationship.  Goods like gold, ivory and spices were exchanged for manufactured materials and weaponry like guns and munitions. The spread of colonialism along the African coast and into the Americas created an endless demand for cheap labor, and trade in human captives spread deeper into the hinterland. Relations with African leaders became strained as the immense wealth generated through the slave trade created a cycle of violence and instability across the continent as the enslaved were marched and boarded onto ships with unknown destinations. Most slaves never returned home. Europeans misrepresented their intentions with African rulers as they developed what would be the global slave trade. In the play King Lear, Shakespeare cautions the audience against performative love as Goneril and Regan misrepresent their intentions, praising Lear to gain control of his kingdom. Cordelia refused to perform her love for her father and was banished for it. Only after Lear had parceled out his kingdom did he realize his mistake. Like Goneril and Regan, Europeans mispresented their intentions with African rulers.  Entering into the racialized slave trade bought social and political instability as kingdoms and rulers fell under the burden of slave trading and colonization.

Look out for the second part of this exploration of Homegoing to be published later this week.

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