By Hannah Lever
I was fortunate enough to be involved in four different community discussions of the 2023 Big Read novel Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi. I attended discussions at HASP, Third Reformed Church, Warner Norcross and Judd law firm, and Freedom Village, all of which granted different insights into the novel as well as how community discussions can benefit individuals as well as communities as a whole. While I have a lot of experience with literature discussions with teens and children, I had very little with adults before the Big Read, but what I’ve taken from this experience is that literacy is an ongoing skill and we can always be life long learners.
When I went to the discussion at the law firm, I was apprehensive because everyone in attendance was older than me. How much could I, as a college student, provide in terms of intellectual insight give to lawyers and paralegals? The discussion was fascinating to listen to because the professional setting brought insight that I hadn’t heard from other discussions with my peers. The people in attendance at this book club mostly focused on a larger—broad, but vague—application of the themes of the novel. Something that I kept coming back to was that this discussion was completely voluntary, which added a level of energy that I don’t always see from high schoolers. I did add a few points of discussion at the book club and despite being the youngest, people still responded well and respectfully. In many ways, young people underestimate what they have to offer to broader conversations. We all read the same book and live in the same world, in the same way I valued their older professional perspective, they valued mine.
HASP was a fascinating discussion because many of the elderly people used outdated language to discuss race, but they were incredibly honest about the way the world has changed in their time. One woman mentioned to me and our small discussion group that she remembered when she first saw a Black man in an advertisement and how it shifted her perspective of the world and made her more aware of biases in the world. I think everyone in society harbors biases and behaviors that need to be changed, but younger people are so caught up in trying to be perceived as good people that they can’t be honest about their biases. We need to voice our discomforts and biases so that they can be constructively corrected. When these older people were honest about the way the world used to be and the way they used to be, I became more aware of how recent changes in society are and how much still needs to be done, and that older generations are still willing to do the work. This is why I was really excited to go to the Freedom Village discussion because this older perspective helps create a meaningful timescale of how issues of race and its effects are still fresh wounds, but it also bridges the generational gap. I think there’s an us vs them mentality between younger generations and older generations, but if we approach people with intellectual curiosity, we can learn a lot from each other. And what was so exciting about these discussions is that I felt heard by the older people in the discussions and they seemed just as interested in what I had to say as I did them. A lot of people in my generation are too ready to dismiss the voices of older generations, believing that they are holding us back, but in many ways older generations are what propel us forward when we truly listen to each other.
I really enjoyed leading the Homegoing discussion at Third Reform Church. I’m unsure if it was an official Big Read event, but it was part of the church’s justice committee initiative. We were able to dig really deep into the history of racism in the United States as well as the effects Christianity has had on it and its role in colonialism. I was really disappointed this didn’t come up in any other discussion, but it was an incredibly interesting conversation. The devastating effects of missionary work in the periphery nation-states is something seldom talked about and it’s something that Christians don’t want to hear because we believe that saving a soul is the most important thing a person can do. But the way missionary work was done in Africa, as Homegoing painstakingly showed, and in other colonies was not saving souls, but erasing cultures and ruining lives. So it was very refreshing to have such an honest conversation with other Christians about it. We also got to talk about the good work that churches did for African Americans in America as well as the flip side that churches are some of the most racially segregated places. Discussions in different areas of the community about the same topic, highlight how much we have in common as well as our differences. Discussing the same book across the community does not mean we all have to approach the book in the same way, rather we can all see ourselves and our communities within the community in the text.