Parallels: A Big Read Exhibition

By Andrew Silagi

This past Tuesday, November 7, The Big Read Lakeshore hosted an enriching and engaging event at the Kruizenga Art Museum on Hope College’s campus. The event had a total of eleven participants.  This event began with a welcome by student intern Addie Wilcox and a short talk by museum curator Charles Mason on the new exhibit curated specifically for this year’s Big Read selection, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Mason discussed the exhibit, entitled “Parallels: A Big Read Exhibition”, which includes six pairs of artworks from African and African-American artists, respectively. 

Mason explained his vision for the exhibit was to mirror the two sides of the narrative Gyasi tells in Homegoing. Some of the works showcased in these pairs were grouped together based on medium such as an African-American quilt and cloth blankets or ceramic pieces from both groups. Other pieces were paired for more thematic reasons. One notable example of these pairings is the central pairing, which connected the African and African-American sides of slavery through a photograph of someone from the U.S. entering the Cape Coast Castle back in Ghana, and a picture portraying the complicitness West Africans had in the slave trade. This pairing is fascinating because of its emphasis on both Europeans and Africans’ guilt in creating a lucrative slave trade. 

After Mason introduced the exhibit, a fellow Hope student, Charles Keegan, and I led a discussion on the connections between the book and art exhibit. Many of the discussion questions addressed the symbols of the book as well as symbols from the participants’ own family histories and how particular objects can have significant family meaning. Participants brought stories about their unique families and where they find home and true connection. Some of the most thought-provoking topics discussed were the ideas of lost or compromised cultural or ethnic identities as well as heirlooms without any identification to show its history or attachment to the past. Charles Keegan gave a story of his black sister’s adoption and how she has felt isolated and singled out for much of her life, though she has been able to come more into her own as she has started college. 

Overall, the event was successful. It reminded me of the beautiful relationship art and words have and how they can enhance stories together in a particular way that they lack on their own. While one is immediate, the other is gradual, and a combination of both of these methods of taking in a piece of work can be equally enriching. The Kruizenga Art Museum will hold this exclusive Big Read exhibit until December 16, and it is a great companion piece to Homegoing—be sure to check it out!

Dr. Cole and Dr. Johnson on the Importance of Stories

By Natalie Glover

On Monday, Oct 30, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore had its kickoff event! Hope Professors Dr. Ernest Cole (English) and Dr. Fred Johnson (History) shared their ideas surrounding the importance of stories and how this topic relates to the Big Read Book, “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi. Dr. Johnson’s lecture focused on the history of slavery and power in the United States and Dr. Cole’s lecture emphasized both his connection to Africa and the importance of personal histories. 

Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Homegoing” explores the complex topics of familial ties that span across countries and experiences. The professors at the Big Read Kickoff Event provided their perspectives on these ideas. Dr. Johnson talked about the history of America and the impact of the tyrannical presence of slavery. Dr. Johnson emphasized that this racism continues to persist throughout the years, pointing to groups such as the KKK. Johnson stated, “just because it’s homegrown, doesn’t mean it’s any less tyrannical.” Dr. Johnson ended his talk by sharing a profound story about his experience in Liberia, where he saw African people crying and saying that “one of the stolen ones has been returned to us.” He claimed that in that moment, three hundred years of separation closed, and he was able to fully understand the themes of “Homegoing.” 

Dr. Cole provided a different perspective on these topics and emphasized the importance of personal stories. Dr. Cole stated that he is the sum of two historical and cultural identities: African and African American. He said, “I am my story. My story matters,” and went on to explain that to challenge his story is to “interrogate the legitimacy” of his existence. Dr. Cole explored the concept of power and how our histories are inevitably missing certain stories because of those who were oppressed in the past. Dr. Cole ended his talk by emphasizing the interconnectedness of the Black community, saying that Africans and African Americans are two members of one family who are separated by time and history. 

If you were at this event, it was impossible to ignore the weight of the speaker’s stories. The moments after their sentences were often filled with the “mmms” and “ahhs” of understanding, and other times they were completely silent as people let the words seep into their hearts and souls. This was a perfect event to kick off the Big Read program. We were able to hear two different perspectives: African American and African, historical and personal. Yet both lenses led us to the same conclusion: stories are vital to our existence. They allow us to look back, look forward, and fully absorb the present. I look forward to continuing to experience the Big Read Program and hope that many others can understand and appreciate the importance of stories.

Natalie Glover is a junior at Hope College, majoring in Secondary English Education with minor in ESL, and is a member of the Big Read Team.

Get Ready for This Year’s Events!

This year’s NEA Big Read Lakeshore is already underway with multiple events around the region, but it is only a few days before its formal beginning! 

The kickoff event will be on October 30, where Dr. Ernest Cole, Chair of the Hope College English Department, and Dr. Fred Johnson from the History department, will speak on the reasons to read this year’s Big Read selection, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a novel surrounding the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on both Ghana and the United States from the 18th-century to modern day. Though Homegoing is the central read of this year’s program, there are a handful of other selections that fit well for younger readers as well, including The Door of No Return by Kwame Alexander and New Kid by Jerry Craft for middle grade readers and Change Sings and The More We Get Together for early readers. These books all touch on themes of home, belonging, and racial equality and justice in the United States. Events for the Big Read will take place until November 21, and these include a plethora of different events in Muskegon, Ottawa, and Allegan counties. 

These events range from author visits, to theatrical and musical performances, to looking at literature critically. 

Yaa Gyasi is visiting Hope College on Monday, November 13 at 7:00 PM in the Jack H. Miller Concert Hall. Jerry Craft will also be at the Jack H. Miller Concert Hall on Tuesday, November 14 at 9:00 AM, as well as at the Frauenthal Center in Muskegon on Tuesday at 7:00 PM and Herrick North Branch Library in Holland on Wednesday, November 15 at 6:00 PM. Linda Lowry will be giving a lecture on Monday, November 20 at 7:00 PM in Graves Hall. 

Other than these author visits, Hope College’s Strike Time Dance Company will be performing a theatrical dance rendition of Change Sings at Hope College in the Dow Center (studio 207) on Saturday, November 4 at 10:00 AM, as well as another performance at White Lake Community Library at 12:00 PM. 

These are just some of the amazing events part of this year’s Big Read, and we would encourage you to check them all out on the website! We look forward to seeing you at these events!

Why Read Graphic Novels?

By Hannah Lever

The tenth annual NEA Big Read is about to begin! But something is different this year. For the first time ever, one of the chosen books is a graphic novel!

The Middle Read book this year is New Kid by Jerry Craft. Published in 2019, it is the first graphic novel to win a John Newbery Medal. It is a wonderful novel for young readers to hold their hand as they enter into the terrifying world of middle school and as they experience feeling new and different, and hopefully, after reading the novel, see that maybe middle school isn’t as terrifying as they once thought. New Kid not only shows the tumultuous experiences of middle school, but also thoughtfully unpacks how race and class can influence these experiences for kids and those who perceive them. Ultimately, it is a story of growing up, fitting in, and learning how to find what we believe.  

When I ask teachers what they think of graphic novels, they will often hesitate for a moment before saying that their students love them, and graphic novels are an excellent way to get struggling readers to finish a book. When I ask my fellow future teachers, they also hesitate to formulate a response that uses all the dense vocabulary we use, but in fewer words; they tell me that graphic novels can be a good tool in the classroom, just not in their classroom, and certainly not in their lesson plans. When I ask my mom, who has had to wrestle three daughters with ADHD into tolerating reading, she does not hesitate and says what most of us are thinking: “Graphic novels aren’t real reading.”  Perhaps you are thinking the same. 

When many people think of graphic novels, they envision superheroes or action adventures with entire pages dedicated to sound effects. Those are indeed graphic novels, but they are also other kinds of graphic novels. Graphic novels can be entertaining adventures, but they are also award winning memoirs. Like any type of art, graphic novels have a variety of intentions and audiences, because they are not a genre, but a medium. The graphic novel that many point to as proof of the medium’s worth is Maus by Art Spiegelman which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. New Kid won both a Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award, two of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature. According to the experts, we should read graphic novels. But, we can not rely solely on experts to decide what counts as real reading, and not everything that is worth reading needs a stamp of approval. 

A common critique of graphic novels is that readers get through them incredibly quickly, maybe even in under an hour. To be completely honest, I finished reading New Kid in an afternoon and my seventh-grade sister finished it in two days (during that afternoon, I did not touch my phone once). My little sister can not sit still under any circumstances and she did not sit still while reading New Kid (graphic novels are good, but they’re not miracles), but she did not put the book down, despite her fidgeting and pacing. Two skills are required to read graphic novels. Despite popular belief, the pictures do not make the words easier to read and the words do not make the pictures unnecessary. Both elements come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. A graphic novel asks the reader to use both reading and visual comprehension skills, and doing both tasks at once is challenging enough to keep readers engaged, but neither skill is overworked so readers do not tire easily. Still, there is a persistent belief that pictures are proof of a simple story. The reality is that graphic novels and comics use pictures intentionally—there is a specific language in the illustrations, and when a reader is mindful of what they are seeing, it is incredibly rewarding to learn this language. As movies, TV shows, and online video take up more space in the media landscape, we need mediums that demand us to develop visual literacy skills. We need to think just as deeply about what we see and hear as what we read, and graphic novels can be the first step in developing that practice. 

Finishing a book quickly is not a con; rather, this builds confidence in new readers, and every reader loves the satisfaction of finishing a book and craving more of it. Because graphic novels can be finished quickly, they are often reread which allows for a greater depth of understanding. Small details, subtext, and finer style details jump out on a second read or viewing of any text. Many traditional novels are worth rereading, but few people feel they have the time, even if it is a worthwhile practice. Ideally, young readers of graphic novels will build the habit of rereading, and as they diversify their reading they will apply this habit to other texts. Graphic novels have the potential for making the next generation of readers ones who allow books to live in their minds, not just on their shelves.

I have asked teachers and parents about what they think of graphic novels, but I also asked students what they think. When I ask kids about the graphic novel in their hands, their faces light up, even as the older teens try to hide their excitement. One student told me he had read the graphic novel at least five times, the evidence of his statement in the broken spine and torn pages. Another student opened her book to show me an illustration that looked just like her—everything about the character’s posture, expression, and something indescribable in the art spoke to what she was feeling. Older students told me that nonfiction graphic novels helped them “really get” history better than any textbook. 

So why should we read graphic novels? We should read graphic novels because they are highly regarded in the literary community; have meaningful storylines, themes, and character development; and offer a different way to tell a story. But don’t stop there—we should read graphic novels because students today love them and are excited to read them.

Hannah Lever is an senior at Hope College studying English secondary education and has been an avid reader of all things, especially comics and graphic novels for as long as she could read.

Behind the Book: Akua and Willie

The War of the Golden Stool

As we look into Akua’s and Willie’s stories in Homegoing, we enter the 20th century. In Africa, the political scene was once again changing. After the Anglo-Ashanti wars at the end of the 19th century the British tried to remain in control by appointing colonial administrators who would work with their colonies in West Africa.

However, the peace did not stay for long. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Frederick Hodgson, a British colonial administrator who was the governor of the British Gold Coast stirred up more trouble with the Asante people. He began to put into place policies and demands that disrespected the Asante people and caused more issues between the groups. In March of 1900, he gave a speech in Kumasi in which he told Asante leaders that their king Prempeh I would not be released from his exile. He then proceeded to further insult the leaders by demanding that they bring him the Golden Stool as he believed that with his power, he should be allowed to sit on it.

What is the Golden Stool?

The Golden Stool was the most important artifact in Asante culture. According to the legend, a priest had taken it down from heaven given it to the first Asante ruler as a sign of the spirit and unity of the nation. It was seen as the soul of the nation and even the kings were not allowed to sit on it. It also was not allowed to touch the ground and had its own throne. When the new kings were appointed, they were carried over the stool without actually touching it. It was seen as a live deity and was even consulted during times of war. The continued success and heritage of the Asante people was connected to the stool, and without it, they feared the loss of the very heart of their people.

Hodgson saw it solely for its symbol of governing power, but it was much more than just that. For the white foreigner to keep their king from them and demand such an atrocious act was seen as a great insult and threat to their people.

The Beginnings of the War

After leaving Kumasi, the Asante leaders immediately began to prepare for war. The Asante Queen mother Yaa Asantewaa railed her people, and they launched a surprise attack on the British fort at Kumasi.

The Asante warriors trapped the British inside the fort and cut off their food, water, and communication. After weeks of the siege, it became clear that the Asante people would not let up, and the British began to look for other options. Food and water were quickly running out and there were numerous sick and injured soldiers that needed supplies they were not able to get. Hodgens and a few healthy men were able to escape to the coast to rally up a relief army of around 1,000 soldiers from various British units and police forces across West Africa. They began a march back but met resistance at several forts allied with the Asante people. Even with another big defeat at the Battle of Kokofu, the British still had an upper hand when it came to equipment and training and eventually gained control on the war.

The Asante empire was annexed into the British Empire but continued to mostly ignore colonial authority and rule over themselves. More importantly, they were able to keep the Golden Stool out of the hands of the British. These battles became known as the War of the Golden Stool or the Yaa Asantewaa War. The victory of keeping the Golden Stool also came with a high cost as their main leaders and chiefs, including Yaa Asantewaa, were arrested and exiled for 25 years. Casualties on the Asante side ended up at around 2,000, and the British side also suffered 1,000 casualties. Both sides ended up with more fatalities in this six-month time span than all the Anglo-Ashanti wars combined.

This war is much longer and complicated than I could quickly summarize, but if you are interested in finding out more, check out this two-part episode from History of Africa that goes into more detail on this war.

While this war led to losses on both sides, it brought together the Asante people, and this unity allowed them to keep forms of freedom and independence, even while technically under British control.

Early Harlem History

Over in America, we get to see Willie’s story and her experience in early 1900s Harlem. Harlem is a part of Manhattan in New York City, New York that has held an important place in history over many different time periods. At this point we are in the early 1900s in America, and this is when Harlem really begins to become a crucial part of history, especially for its black community. There had been black residents in Harlem since the 1600s, but in the early 1900s there were tens of thousands. There had been a mass migration to this part of the city after an economic crash. Most of the growth in Harlem can be credited to the Great Migration. Crash Course has a great video that you can watch that talks a bit more about what the Great Migration is and how it affected American demographics going forward.

Harlem grew a lot from the migration from the south, but also because of the oppertunities the area gave even fellow New Yorkers. Black New Yorkers faced a hard time to find new places to live after a large economic crash, but black real estate entrepreneurs like Phillip Payton Jr. and his company the Afro-American Realty Company soon took this as an opportunity to bring more people to Harlem.

In areas like Harlem, people could find a wider variety of jobs, better education for their kids, and find a black community. As the community there began to grow, it encouraged more black people to move there as it got a reputation for being a safe place where you could get involved in many different areas of life and work. In 1910, a census showed that around 10% of central Harlem was black, but after all these factors combined, it jumped up to 70% by 1930.

This photo from the New York Public Library shows life at a Harlem Tenement in 1935.

This growth was not met without resistance. As the black community grew in Harlem, many white families began to move out to get away. Between 1920 and 1930 almost 120,000 white people left the neighborhood. While this led to a lack of diversity and other socio-economic issues, it also opened the way for the growth of black communities in Harlem. Other resistance came from white residents who made packs not to sell to or rent to black people, but this soon faded as they failed to find anyone to rent or buy the properties.

As the black population in Harlem grew, so did the organizations made to support the black community. Many movements and a variety of artist began to rise up in Halem and this gave birth to many of the famous people and works of art that we think of when it comes to the Harlem Renaissance.

Both of these stories are setting up the scene for important social and political movements that shaped the lives for the upcoming generation of Homegoing. Yaw and Sonny will be up next, and we will get to dive into some of these issues a bit more.

Bursting Our Own Bubbles: The Importance of Reading Fiction Together

By Andrew Silagi 

When I first saw the Barbie movie this summer, I was expecting the film to have a lot of commentary on women in the United States. After watching the film, I remember wrestling with the film and what it says about the role of fiction. Fiction is not like editorials: it is not meant to outright say the opinions of the author on a particular issue. Instead, through a captivating story, the creator has the ability to challenge the reader or viewer and get him or her to think about the topic in a new way. Lifelike characters and vivid descriptions of conflict and relationships often bring urgent and underrepresented issues to the forefront of society’s discourse because of fiction. 

At their best, these stories refrain from telling those who engage with them how or what to think but instead compel them simply to think deeply and uncomfortably about these issues. Barbie, a good example of this, brought debates specifically on the modern feminist movement into conversation in a new way through the tools of humor and satire. Often, the best part of watching films like Barbie for me is the conversation that I can have with my friends about the issues discussed in the movie, which serves as a time to honestly opine and wrestle with our gut reactions and thoughtful observations.

While the video medium has taken over much of the creative appetite for the younger generations, written fiction is a necessity that we continue to try to encourage young people to enjoy. In a country that often struggles with a lack of civil discourse, reading, particularly in community, is a beacon of light. 

For the past nine years, the NEA Big Read Lakeshore has realized that this is true not only for the nation, but specifically for West Michigan as well. This year, the selected books press into challenging topics and allow us to come together to deal with these issues together. Despite the ideological tension in West Michigan, the power of reading, especially reading fiction, has the power to bring communities into honest and humble conversation surrounding the powerful stories that are told by humans. 

Two of the selected Big Read books for 2023 exemplify this notion masterfully. The Middle Read book, New Kid by Jerry Craft, through colorful and clever illustrations, tells the story of a young black student’s experience transferring to a majority-white private middle school. Craft weaves together universal experiences of struggling to find friends at a new school with specific struggles like being one of the only students from one’s ethnic and economic background there. 

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, the selected book for the Big Read 2023, does something similar with the issue of the generational trauma and disparity brought about by the trans-atlantic slave trade. The author creates a detailed story of two half-sisters and the way the slave trade completely changed not only their lives, but the trajectory of their entire lineage.

While both of the issues tackled by New Kid and Homegoing are uncomfortable and will garner plenty of different opinions, one must have the humility to dive headfirst into these enriching discussions. Reading these books is beneficial to anyone in West Michigan, and instead of staying isolated by themselves or in their ideological bubbles, the NEA Big Read initiative gives us the unique opportunity to honestly wrestle with these topics in a community that values hard conversations and the sometimes uncomfortable observations about our own biases and shortcomings. 

The best art does not necessarily affirm the views we already have but instead challenges us to rethink these perspectives and listen to those of others. Jerry Craft helps us see both the universality and uniqueness of one black boy’s experience with middle school in New Kid in an accessible graphic novel format. In Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi does not tell us what to think; rather, she encourages us through the beautiful medium of fiction to think in a new way at a long-examined issue in our nation’s history.

Andrew Silagi is a Senior at Hope College studying Secondary English and History Education. He is a section leader in Chapel Choir, a member of the improv team Vanderprov, and a member of the Emmaus Scholars, among other things. He enjoys rollerblading and asking big questions in his free time. He is also a member of the Big Read team.

Behind the Book: Abena and H

We have officially hit the second half of the book with this section! This week we are going to focus on events and culture around the section of Abena, daughter of James Richard Collins and Akosua Mensah as well as the section on H, the son of Kojo Freeman and Anna Foster.

Two of the things that stuck out to me in these sections was the vital part of farming in Akan cultures and the affect the 13th amendment’s exception clause had in continuing a new form of slavery.

Farming in Akan Cultures

Abena’s section of Homegoing gives us a view of agriculture in the late 1800s in West Africa. While we have seen that Akan people have various jobs, agriculture was vital to their culture. In smaller villages like Abena’s, most people would grow at least some crops for subsistence farming, while others may produce a lot to sell at markets or use in a trade. Two important crops mentioned in this section are yams and cocoa.


Throughout this story, we can see that yams were very important to the livelihood of many people of this time. Besides being a staple in their diets, yams also held cultural and ceremonial significance. If you have read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, you might have noticed the similarities between the two regarding the connections between yams and good/ bad luck or being a respected person.

Now, if you are like me, this whole time, you might have been imagining a sweet potato whenever the word yam came up. While “yam” and “sweet potato” can sometimes be used interchangeably in the United States, they are very different foods and are unrelated in food groups. Yams are a tuber with rough skin and white flesh. They are best suited to tropical or subtropical environments and can be grown easily in many parts of Africa.

In America, however, they didn’t have as much luck. When slavers brought them along on ships to America, farmers found it much harder to grow them, and the practice died out. Because yams were such a big part of West African diets, many enslaved Africans turned instead to sweet potatoes as they could substitute them without losing too much of the original recipes.

Yams are still so crucial to the West African culture and diet that there are festivals dedicated to them in parts of Nigeria and Ghana. Even the word yam can be traced back to the phrase “to eat” in many West African dialects. Certain types of yams are drought-resistant, and people can store them for a long time, making them an essential food group to fall back on in bad farming years.


In this section, we also see the introduction of cocoa plants to West Africa. While cocoa is a large part of West Africa today, they are not native to that part of the world. Cocoa plants are native to tropical rainforests in Central and South America. European colonists brought cocoa to West Africa, hoping to get more money from their African colonies. After some research and experimentation by botanists in colonial Africa, cocoa showed great potential in the climate.

Cocoa had already become very popular in the Americas, and it was a steady business for the Europeans to depend on the colonies to grow cash crops like this. Colonial governments and later independent African governments realized the potential of the market and encouraged cocoa cultivation as a means of economic development. They provided incentives to farmers to promote cocoa production.

While cocoa farming started as a means for the European colonists to get more money out of African colonies, it ended up boosting the economy throughout West Africa and remains one of the most important exports in countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Today, these two countries dominate the cocoa industry and produce more than half of the world’s cocoa.

If you are interested to see more about how cocoa is grown, check out this video from Science Channel on how they are made!

The Continuation of Slavery Through Prison

Moving on to H’s story in America, we see one of the next significant struggles coming out of the Civil War. While the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, it also protected it in some ways. A clause in the amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This clause, commonly referred to as the “exception clause,” permits slavery and involuntary servitude as a form of punishment for individuals convicted of a crime. While the slavery that Americans were used to had been outlawed, this loophole was exploited to allow a new form of slavery to continue.

After the abolishment of slavery, a new set of laws called the black codes were implemented to control the newly freed black people. These laws included things like punishment for a black person being too close to a white person in public, walking “without purpose,” walking next to railroad tracks, or assembling after dark. These new laws and many others were used as an excuse to arrest innocent black people and throw them in jail. From there, two routes were usually taken.

Because the abolition of slavery meant working shortages in the South, a significant gap now needed to be filled. Plantation owners and other company owners were given the option to “lease” convicts to work in these positions. They no longer “owned” these workers, which often made things worse as they also had no incentive to keep the workers alive. Conditions for these workers were horrific, and many died before they could complete their sentences.

Another way convicted people were put to work was in chain gangs. While not necessarily leased out for long periods to a specific person, the convicted would have to work long hours while being chained to other workers in chains weighing up to 20 pounds. The work was often physically demanding and dangerous, and being chained to others hardly helped. This practice was widespread in the United States until the 1950s.

Even today, we are seeing the fallout of some of these practices. Debates are going on right now about the use of prison labor and the privatization of prisons. Advocacy groups and activists have argued that these practices disproportionately affect marginalized communities and perpetuate a cycle of inequality. Efforts to reform the criminal justice system, address racial disparities, and advocate for the rights of incarcerated individuals are still going on right now and show how much effect history has had on the present.

I hope learning more about these topics helps you take on a deeper understanding of Homegoing! If you have any questions or comments on our next section, Akua and Willie, let us know!

Behind the Book: James and Kojo

This week we move into the third generation in the Big Read book Homegoing. We follow the stories of James, the son of Quey Collins and Nana Yaa Yeboah, as well as Kojo, the son of Ness Stockham and Sam.

This generation gives us a glimpse into events that span from 1824 until 1860. At this point in history, the Gold Coast was facing the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and the United States was feeling tensions that would eventually lead to The American Civil War.

The history and culture that these characters are experiencing may be unfamiliar to us, so here are some things that might help you understand these characters and their settings a bit better!

Death and Funerals in Asante Culture

Death and funeral traditions play a large part in our section from James. To better understand why funerals are so important to the Asante people, we’ll need to take a deeper look into their culture again.

Asante tradition views funerals as a time for celebration and honor rather than a sad memorial of passing. Part of this is because of their views on death. To Asante people, death is strictly a physical thing. They believe that the body has died but that their loved one’s spirit lives on. Their spirit goes to their supreme god and must account for its acts on Earth and is able to join the rest of the ancestors. Funerals play a part in both helping their loved one move on to this new existence and to honor their ancestors, which is important part of their culture.

Asante funerals include several unique factors due to their beliefs in death. Food and drink offerings, dancing, mourning clothes, and items buried with the deceased to help them along their journey give us glimpses of their beliefs.

To the Asante people, funerals are more of a festival. They are very important social gatherings, and the community sees it as quite rude if family or friends fail to show up. Asante people still carry out some of the traditions mentioned in the book in funerals today, like this one from a few years ago. The audio on this video is not very good, but it gives a glimpse into some of the cultural practices that are still alive today.

This video shows some of the music, dancing, traditional clothing, gift giving, and even the handshake line Gyasi talks about in James’ section in Homegoing.

The Anglo-Ashanti Wars

In this section, there is also mention of a war between the Asante people and a dual army of the Fante people and the English. This was most likely one of the five conflicts that make up the Anglo-Ashanti Wars. These wars spanned from 1824 to 1900 between the Asante Empire and the British empire and its allies. While there were victories on both sides, wins for the British in the last two battles gave them the upper hand and led to the dissolving of the Asante Empire.

While these battles were fought for a variety of reasons and each side had varying motivations for getting involved, these wars show how the state of the relationship between these Akan communities really diminished. A lot of this was due to issues related to the slave trade and pent-up animosity over the constant stealing and selling of each other’s peoples. Britain got involved for economic and social reasons, but their hand in the slave trade also played a large part. At this point, Britain had already banned slave trading in 1807 and later abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire in 1833. Yet they were still solidly attached to Africa, and this led to more problems in the following years.

If you are interested in learning more background and specifics on this, check out this podcast by Turn of the Century which goes deeper into the cause and effect of these wars.

The Fugitive Slave Laws

Making a switch over to the American side of things, we are getting closer to The American Civil War and get to look at some of biggest contributors to the state of America at this time.

The Fugitive Slave Act was originally put into action by Congress in 1793 as a clause in the Constitution. The original clause allowed local governments to capture and return runaway slaves to their owners. It also imposed a penalty on anyone who helped them escape or harbored them while they were a fugitive. When a catcher or owner captured someone who was suspected of being a runaway slave, the suspect and owner (or stand in) would have to appear before a judge and show some sort of proof that the accused was their property and that they had a right to take them away.

Many states didn’t like this act from the beginning and enacted a series of “Personal Liberty Laws” which gave options of trial by jury and gave more protections for free blacks, who were often kidnapped and sold into slavery (similar to the true story in 12 Years a Slave).

The New Fugitive Slave Act

By 1850, many Northern states pretty much ignored the Fugitive Slave laws or even worked against them. Many southern states were threatening secession at this point, and to keep the nation together, Henry Clay helped create the Compromise of 1850. Part of the compromise to appease the southern states was to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act by forcing the northern states to follow it or face serious consequences. It also now denied the right to testify for yourself or have the opportunity for a trial with a jury. If anyone refused to honor the law or tried to help a fugitive slave, they would now face double the fine at $1,000 and 6 months in jail.

This was a harsh blow to abolitionists, freemen, and enslaved people as it cut into so much of what they had spent years fighting for. The added measures led to abuse of the law and defeated its original purpose. However, this corruption led to more people joining the abolitionist movement and strengthened the Underground Railroad. Northern states began enacting more personal-liberty laws and came together to fight back against corruption in their courtrooms.

Unfortunately, these positive actions only strengthen the Southerns States’ resolve to succeed, and the failure of the Northern States to stick to these stricter measures were listed as some of the greivances and reasons for succession for states like South Carolina.

Hopefully you learned something new through this blog, and if you have any questions or ideas, we’d love to hear them!


Behind the Book: Quey and Ness

Our second generation in Homegoing begins splitting these stories between North America and Africa. In this section, we meet Quey, the son of Effia and James Collins, and we meet Ness, the daughter of Esi and an unknown father. The split in these stories also means the background to these stories requires a bit of knowledge of both West African and American history and traditions.

Here are some things I had questions about that might help you gain insight into these two stories (but no spoilers)!


Homegoing mentions fufu in this section, and it sounded familiar to me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. Fufu, also spelled foofoo, foufou, or ‘fufuo, comes from a Twi word that means “to mash or mix,” which is pretty accurate to how people make it!

The Akan people traditionally made it with cassava root, yams, or other various starchy ingredients, depending on what was available when and where people made it. The starch is heated with a bit of water and then pounded with a pestle and mortar until it reaches a doughy consistency. While I haven’t had the opportunity to try it, it is said to taste somewhat like a mix between regular mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes. Because of its mild taste, it is often paired with a stew or soup. To eat fufu, you scoop up a bit and roll it into a small ball. Then after you make a slight indentation with your thumb, you use that ball to scoop up whatever soup or stew you have chosen to eat with it. Instead of chewing on fufu, you just swallow it!

There are several variations of fufu today, partially because it traveled with slavery to places like the Caribbean, where the recipe changed based on what was available to the people there. While the nutritional value changed with what ingredients were used, it was usually a food high in calories and carbs, providing lots of energy and nutrition in smaller portions.

If you are interested in making fufu yourself, here is a recipe for yam fufu to try!

Matrilineal Society

In Western culture, we might be more familiar with a patrilineal view of our families. Patrilineal descent means property, titles, and last names transfer from the father to the children. Throughout history, we see examples ranging from personal items to finances to whole companies or kingdoms handed down from the father to the (usually) oldest son. While we might still get things like our last name from our fathers, we are more used to a bilateral society where both sides of your family are important to you.

In Akan tradition, however, this is not the case. The Akan people live in an area south of the equator in Africa, also sometimes known as the matrilineal belt. Their beliefs and traditions follow a matrilineal system where inheritance and family follow the women more than the men. If you want more examples of these differences, check out this article, “Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession.

Because it was a polygamous society, it was customary for each man to have several wives. As the children grew up, they were associated with their mothers instead of their fathers because it helped narrow down what section of the family they were really from. Matrilineal succession doesn’t mean that they had a matriarchy where the women ruled over men, but that in family matters, your mother and her family are more important than your father and his family.

There is also a belief that you come from your mother’s flesh but only your father’s spirit. While fathers were still an essential part of your life, they believed that your mother’s family was closer to you than your father’s. Because of this, uncles and nephews were seen as a closer male bond than fathers and sons. According to tradition, if you were an Akan man, your priority would be for your nephew, who is your flesh, rather than your son, who is only related to you by spirit.

If you are still a bit confused or want a deeper look into how matrilineal society works, check out this video, Introduction to Matrilineal Descent, that goes more in depth into how this system works.

Ways of Control

When you think of slave owners keeping power over their slaves, you might think of things like whippings, overseers, or other violent, physical ways to keep their spirits down. However, many slave owners also figured out that there were many different ways to keep slaves under control, like controlling food or water portions, religious ceremonies, creating or encouraging divides through class systems among the enslaved people, and creating a reward system where the more quiet, hard-working slaves got better living conditions and some slight freedoms.

Two other methods plantation owners used to try to keep power over their slaves were marriages among their slaves and taking away their culture. They believed that if they married off their men, they would be less likely to rebel or run away because of their families. Marriages among the slaves were also convenient, not just for control but for saving them money. Buying new slaves was expensive, but if they had more being born on their plantations, it was more free labor coming up. Because of this, some plantation owners even offered freedom to enslaved women who could produce 15 children for them. In some places, female slaves were married off and expected to have children around the age of 13. If, for some reason, they didn’t, they were often punished or sold. Once slaves had a spouse or children, the plantation owners could use them as leverage against them, and it was much harder for them to attempt to escape to the North.

Restricting culture, and especially language, was also a common practice. Some places were allowed to keep aspects of their culture, but it would change vastly due to American influences or be used as a fear tactic to keep the slaves in line. Language was one of the first things slave owners tried to get rid of because they didn’t want their slaves to be able to communicate without knowing what they were saying in case of talks of rebellion. This turned out to be a bit difficult on big plantations due to the fact that there were constantly new slaves brought in who then helped keep language and cultural practices alive.

Hopefully, you learned something new or found a resource that was interesting to you! If you have any thoughts or questions on the third generation in Homegoing, James and Kojo, leave a comment, and I will try to bring it up in the next discussion!

A Look Behind the Book: The Akan People and Culture in Homegoing

Our Big Read 2023 season has officially started! If you haven’t seen this year’s selection yet, visit our Big Read website and check them out! We have loved hearing feedback from the community on everyone’s thoughts so far, and we are excited to hear more from you all. Hopefully, you have gotten your hands on a copy of one of the books and have had the opportunity to start reading.

Being both a secondary English education major and a secondary history education minor, I was super excited to start Homegoing and dive more into some stories from these different sections in history. However, as I was reading, a couple of things came up on the historical or cultural side of things that I didn’t know much about. If you are having some similar experiences, don’t worry! This summer, I will focus on each pair in each generation and give you some more background or some cool resources for you to check out. I hope you will find these extra pieces as interesting as I do!

This week I want to focus on Effia and Esi, back in 18th century Ghana. If you haven’t had time to read the first two stories, I will try my hardest to avoid too many spoilers. Feel free to read this blog beforehand to go in with some knowledge, or check back here when you have finished those sections for a deeper look into what you just read.

The Akan People

In these first two stories, we meet characters from the Akan people, who lived in modern-day Ghana, parts of the Ivory Coast, and Togo in West Africa. While the exact history of the Akan people is hard to trace from the beginning, most experts believe that they migrated from the Sahel region and savannas of West Africa. Most of our written history of the Akan people comes from Europeans from the 15th to the 19th centuries when these nations began to trade with various countries. Throughout Homegoing, we will see stories from two Akan groups, the Fante and the Asante.
The Fante (or Fanti) people lived closer to the coast and were the ones who decided what groups could or couldn’t trade due to their trade routes. This power allowed them to prosper by establishing trade between inner Akan groups and Britain and the Netherlands.
The Asante people lived further inland but were very successful trading with the European countries due to their large gold mining industry and powerful military.

The Power of Names

Homegoing uses the name “Asante,” but they are also well known by the name “Ashanti,” which came from British reports where they transcribed different aspects and words as they heard and understood them. The name “Asante” comes from the Twi words ɔsa and nti, which together mean “because of war.” This is a nod to the history of how they became an empire when they rose up and fought against another tribe that had power over them.

Another interesting aspect of names in the Akan tradition is day names. If you visit present-day Ghana, you will still hear people using day names, as it is a tradition that the Akan culture has passed down. Many of the characters at the beginning of this book have common Ghanaian day names, which is another nod to their culture which you may not have noticed.

If you want to read more about day names, check out this article, “The Ghanaian Tradition of Day Names and Everything You Need to Know About it.”

Anansi Myths

Kente cloth is still used in Akan ethic group today

If you have had the chance to read the Anansi myths in an English class (or had the opportunity to take Mrs. Behrendt’s Mythology class at Holland High), then you might have been excited to see an Anansi story mentioned in this section. Anansi is a West African god who takes the form of a spider to teach young generations. He is a “trickster” god who uses his cunning to get what he wants. The Akan people created Anansi folktales and spread them throughout West Africa. The stories are often used to explain why something is the way it is or teach children a moral lesson. In Homegoing, a story of Anansi and the kente cloth is told, and this story is an example of how Akan culture is intermixed into this mythology. If you are interested in hearing another quick Anansi story, check out this one below!

Hopefully you learned something new about the Akan people and their culture! If you come across something that you think we could dive deeper into together, let me know by leaving a comment. Happy reading!