Book Reviews Book Club Books Pop Culture

In the aftermath of BLM Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing” shows us the history we are yet to overcome

A lot of 2020 seems like a bad dream, doesn’t it? It seems like the stuff of literary fiction, that has somehow materialized into real life and we’re being made to live through it since last December. However, some of us need to turn to fiction as a coping mechanism. Or in this case, fiction inspired by reality, such as Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. 

Literary genius has been emerging from Africa for a few years now with writers such as Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; and now Yaa Gyasi, a Ghanaian American writer. Born in Ghana, she truly knows how to weave stories that transport the reader to the exact time and place of her choosing. Her novel Homegoing tells the tale of West Africa’s key role in perpetuating the slave trade over three centuries. It illustrates how the people, especially women, of that time navigated one of history’s greatest injustices.

The novel starts off in late 18th century in an Asante village, part of the Gold Coast which eventually became Ghana. A young girl, Effia is sold by her father to a British slave trader named James – as a bride, not as a slave – and taken to live with him in Cape Coast Castle. The irony is that right under her bridal chambers, are dungeons filled to the brim with slaves, from villages just like Effia’s, waiting to be sent off to the Americas and the Caribbean via the Middle Passage. Among them is Esi Asare, Effia’s 15-year-old half-sister. The story then takes us on a journey as these two women, unknown to each other, embark on their own paths, filled with treachery, heart-wrenching tribulations and secrets.

The book is almost impossible to put down, but most importantly it’s impossible to forget.

The element that makes it unique is the fact that Yaa Gyasi intertwines reality with spirituality, everyday life with the occult. She beautifully introduces common beliefs and fables told by the people in Effia’s village, and how they impact the lives of people as they accept the reality of losing their loved ones to slavery.

I especially took to this book, because I find African mysticism so unique and still an element we know so little about.

The sheer empathetic tone of this novel draws you into a point where you’re feeling the ache of the sisters and wishing that things, weren’t as they were, then or now. The subjugation told from the point of view of two women enduring entirely separate experiences is exceptionally interesting. It also highlights the fact that we, as humans, use stories to not only escape reality but also to understand it.

To me, what makes African writers so unique is that not only are the backdrops not mainstream, but their word crafting is so visceral. You’re drawn into each moment to a point where you’re feeling what the characters are feeling.

Some quotes from the book that particularly stood out were: “Tell a lie long enough and it will turn to truth” and “History is storytelling”. These two lines beautifully give the gist of what the novel is about: how 2 women and their trials shape the future of many, and how we must learn from our past. These quotes are also an on-point illustration of the events of today as we swing back and forth on major issues like racism, classism or sexism. These have existed for centuries and are still as unresolved and painful as ever.

The title of the book, Homegoing, originates from African-American traditions of a person’s death signifying a return ‘home’. This encapsulates the novel quite beautifully because it speaks of the millions of lives that have departed but left behind scars we are yet to heal from.

I believe this novel attracted so much attention because of its transcendence and relevance even today. As we navigate the pandemic crisis and the movements that are finally finding a voice, such as Black Lives Matter and women’s rights, it’s interesting to turn to history as told by a unique voice. Yes, it may be intertwined in a fictional story, but the baseline truth remains very vital and imminent. The fact that many antislavery laws have been passed doesn’t mean that subjugation has stopped being a reality.

To be able to hear unique voices and to peek into the minds of those who lived through hell, makes one realize that there are so many stories we are yet to hear, understand and correct. Homegoing is just one glimpse into the lessons we should have learnt but somehow still haven’t.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

Culture Life

The divide within the African diaspora won’t get us anywhere

When I was in elementary school,  another Black student told me that she and her family were simply ‘African’ and not ‘African American’ because her ancestors had never been enslaved. If you thought I, a fellow Black woman, was confused at that moment, imagine how puzzled our predominantly white classmates, who had already mentally grouped this Black girl and me as the same person, were.

I initially failed to understand what this student meant by her separation between recent African immigrants and North American Black descendants of the enslaved. But as I learned more about our history, over time, I began to comprehend what she meant. Throughout my life, this discourse would come up again and again.

Although we look the same in everyone else’s eyes, there’s still an “otherness” in our history and culture that, oftentimes, separates us.

I’ve been told by recent African immigrants that because I am a descendant of slavery, my ancestors and I are weak, whereas Africans are stronger because they had the choice to come to this country. I’ve heard Black slave descendants use coded language when referring to Africans, saying things that allude to them being “unkempt” and “savage”. I’ve seen them question recent immigrants’ intelligence, talk down to them, or insult their beauty.

I’ve felt this divide within our community and I’ve seen it with my own eyes.


But recently, the world has experienced a global reckoning that criticizes the ways in which we approach race, culture, and ethnicity. Since the inhumane death of George Floyd on Memorial Day of this year, industries across all boards have had their historic dirty laundry with racism, colorism, and sexism aired out for the world to see as the public has assertively held them more accountable than ever.

With this, I’ve taken the time to truly question my nationality within this country, and have further understood the power of unity within the African diaspora through identification.

First, it’s important to understand where the ill-feelings between us comes from. The tension and animosity between Africans and descendants of the enslaved in North America are traced back to both group’s individual experiences with migration, slavery, and colonialism. 


The Atlantic slave trade stripped enslaved Africans of our culture and left us to recreate a completely new one, which many present-day Black Americans identify with. And whether we understand it or not, American Black culture today has strong and direct influences from slavery that those who were never enslaved in America may not be familiar with.

African empires and kingdoms have had their own relationships with slavery but with completely different meanings. Writers Daivi Rodima-Taylor and Zadi Zokou describe it as “local socio-cultural patterns of clientage and adoptive kinship rather than a large-scale commercial enterprise.”

Africa, which is the second-largest and oldest continent in the world, has many different unique cultures within it too. Like anywhere, Africa’s complicated history has similarly been processed into a unique modern-day culture that African Americans just may not understand.

Our cultural differences are at the forefront when associating with each other. On both ends, there’s an attitude of othering and criticizing.

And despite completing an ancestry test that told me exactly where in Africa my ancestors are from, I still am confused culturally as to where and who I should identify with. It feels like a bridge that will never be crossed and something that slavery has taken from me forever.

If I’ve learned anything from the recent reignition of civil rights discussion though, it’s that the diaspora’s otherness won’t make us any better as we exist in this country together. When looking at each other internally, we may notice our differences, but to anyone else, we are simply Black.

It isn’t the slave descendants’ fault that they were forced to assimilate. But it also shouldn’t be pushed upon recent African immigrants to assimilate if they do not choose to. There is no blame to be given to those of us that are non-consensual foreigners to this land. We shouldn’t side-eye each other because we are unfamiliar with each other’s culture.

There’s no easy solution and even I don’t have the answers to this age-old discourse in the slightest. But in this introspective time for the world, I’ve rethought my identity and nationality.

For myself, as an American descendant of the enslaved, I hope to only be referred to as Black. I’ve made this decision because of the danger and separation that I think the identification of ‘African American’ holds within our community.

When we separate African Americans from African immigrants, we, in a way, recognize slavery as the qualification to be a *true* Black American. But slavery is not the sole definition of what makes me who I am. It creates a false qualification that is unattainable for African immigrants. ‘African American’ also does not include the entirety of the diaspora. I think of the term as a way to further push this “otherness” narrative and it can separate us from the diversity within our community, rather than embracing it.

So no, the other classmate in my elementary school may not have identified herself as African American, but now I don’t either. I’m Black (with a capital ‘B’) whose ancestors came from Africa. Slavery may have reinterpreted my culture, but it does not define the legitimacy of myself as a Black woman in America.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

Gender & Identity Life

I never saw my best friend’s true identity until I decided to photograph her – then everything changed

Often we think that art’s power comes only in its final form when it reaches an audience. But I’m here to tell you that the creation of art in itself can be a powerful conversation.

I discovered this when photographing my friend, Amena.

She and I were in an art gallery when I saw a set of photographs by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew that struck me. They were images depicting Indian and Native American people with titles that played on these words and stereotypes, like “American Indian” and “Indian American.”

I immediately pointed the photos out to Amena, and she stood stunned at the beautiful captures. We immediately came to the same conclusion that this was her, but with the titles “American African” and “African American.”

That’s when I knew I had to photograph her.

Amena is my best friend of twelve years. We had seen each other at our highest, lowest, and weirdest moments. And a lot of our lowest moments stemmed from conflict of identity.

Hers specifically was that she is Sudanese, which means she is black and Arab.

As she describes it, “I always have to give the whole history of what Afro-Arab means. It’s hard to identify as Afro-Arab with both Arabs and black Americans.

When I exist as both and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both groups. I can never comfortably label myself as one thing because either I’m uncomfortable with narrowing my complex identity or because they’re skeptical and feel like there’s more to the story that they are entitled to know.”

[bctt tweet=”When I exist as and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I had heard some of the comments she’d received.

A black girl told Amena that she wasn’t black because she didn’t “act black.” Yet she’d feel prominently black when Arabs would think it was cute to use the n word in front of her or when people would say that all black men look like her brother and father.

Amena had to wade through several questions, labels, and hurtful comments that I couldn’t fully grasp until we talked about them frankly, primarily over FaceTime conversations at 2 a.m.

Some of the most prominent moments of conversation came when producing these pictures.

Property of Talah Bakdash

I’d photographed Amena before, but she was always just a model for whatever assignment I had for my photography class. This was different.

This was a piece about her and dug directly into the hurt she had experienced the past couple of years and was finally overcoming. Because of this, I knew I couldn’t just be the artist in this situation. I had to let her take control of certain things. While I had an image of what I wanted to portray, it was her who had final say, because these were her stories, and it was my role to listen.

Property of Talah Bakdash

However, I’m not here to talk about her identity, how much I understand what it’s like to be in her position (I don’t), and the history of it all.

I’m here to talk about art. Specifically, the conversations held behind the making of this piece of art.

Property of Talah Bakdash

Photography takes meticulous effort and planning. We were inspired by Mathew’s use of stereotype to get her point across, and we thought we should utilize it, too. We had to talk through how a stereotypical black and stereotypical African person would dress and pose, what setting they would be in, etc. Throughout this process, I learned about the two cultures and Amena’s relationship to each.

One moment I remember clearly is sitting in the car, prepping to take the “American African” photos. She was removing her makeup while I was Googling images of Sudanese henna. She pulled a sharpie out of nowhere and immediately started drawing on her hand the henna design I found.

Then we ran into the field and she showed me typical Sudanese poses.

Property of Talah Bakdash

The actual photo shoot was a rush to catch the sunlight, so we didn’t think about the photos we were producing until after they had been produced. When we saw them, it was kind of shocking.

Neither of the two photographs we consulted looked like Amena. That was precisely the point.

[bctt tweet=”Neither of the two women photographed looked like Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]

We worked hard to exaggerate the stereotypical images of each identity, that we lost sight as to how fabricated they were.

Yet, as we took the photos, I could see parts of Amena in each of the identities. None of the images perfectly matched the stereotype, since she was the subject, and she herself did not fully match either stereotype.

Property of Talah Bakdash

With the “African American” photos, she dressed stereotypically black, but she was wearing a hijab. We don’t think of hijabs when we think of black Americans, but black Muslims exist, and Amena is one of them. To further push that point, she chose to wear a shirt with Muhammad Ali, an icon to both blacks and Muslims.

With the “American African” photos, she was clearly not in Sudan, but the closest thing you get to Sudan in Kansas. We don’t associate America’s heartland with Africans, but again, Sudanese Americans exist, and Amena is one of them.

[bctt tweet=”I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply I see her as Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply see her as Amena, my intelligent, obnoxious (sorry, Amena), genuine, and loud friend. This photo shoot demonstrated how real those boxes were in a way our FaceTime conversations couldn’t.

Property of Talah Bakdash

On her end, she agreed to the photo shoot because she has a hard time putting her identity into words, and this was the opportunity to visually express it with someone she trusted. She says that this was a reminder that she doesn’t fit perfectly into either mold and that she doesn’t have to, while still allowing herself to appreciate aspects of each.

I’m sure there are different reactions to these photographs based on what each viewer carries with them, and I encourage that.

But it’s important to remember that it isn’t just the conversations that result from finished art that is important, but also the ones that create art. Difficult ones. Ones inspired from other conversations. Ones that lead to images that might not even be that impressive, but may touch someone else in the world who needed to overhear it.

In creation, there is a conversation, which can help promote a mending of our humanity.

Fashion Weddings

31 beautiful Muslim weddings that will hit you right in the feels

Sometimes, there’s nothing better than looking through incredible wedding photos, and seeing different cultures and traditions collide in the most beautiful way.

I couldn’t help but put together a list of some of the most amazing Muslim couples I saw – full wedding attire and all. The rest I’ll leave up to you.

1. This oh-so-lovely couple.

2. Can someone stop us from swooning?

3. Such joy!

4. Absolutely flawless.

5. We’re dying.

6. They’re absolutely glowing.

7. This. Everything about this.

8. This couple is stunning.

9. Beautiful!

10. The sun’s light can’t distract us from their happiness.

11. This couple is literally on cloud nine.

12. I’m not crying, you’re crying!

13. What a beautiful bride!

14. Such a blessed couple.

15. What happiness truly looks like.

16. The love!

17. What an awesome shot.

18. Dying of the beauty!

19. This couple defies all boundaries.

20. Her dress is to die-for.

21. Drop-dead gorgeous couple.

22. This SUPER stylish couple.

23. #GOALS

24. What sweetness.

25. Happiness is universal.

26. The details are totally intricate.

27. Who said you have to dress in white?

28. What happiness!

29. The joy is totally infectious!

30. They’re absolutely smoldering.

31. The background, that’s completely changing our wedding aesthetic.

Race The World Inequality

Here’s why the “Roots” remake hit home for me

When I saw the advertisements that claimed “a new vision” when creating a reboot of the classic miniseries, Roots, I was a bit skeptical. If the product isn’t good, “a new vision” usually equates with “a new version of what you love that we didn’t have to make.” And if the product doesn’t maintain the intentions of the original, “a new vision” translates to “a white people remake.”

However, neither of that was the case in this rendition of Roots on the History Channel. This new version does have a particular vision in representing the variety of African and African American culture and the traumas of slavery without stealing the spotlight and hype of the 1977 version. Moreover, to my surprise, there is a more diverse set of producers and directors on this project compared to the 1977 version. A lot of thought was placed into the 2016 rendition of Roots, and it shows.

So let’s talk about this first episode.

Alex Haley (played by Laurence Fishburne) narrates how Kunta Kinte (played by Malachi Kirby) grew up in the Mandinka village of Juffre, Gambia, before being captured into slavery and placed in Virginia. Despite being uprooted from his home, Kunta Kinte tries to maintain his culture and name, despite being almost beaten to death for not referring to himself as his new name given by his slave owner’s wife (played by Katie McGuiness): Toby.

We’re in this age of TV and film production where everything has to be fast-paced in order for it to make it more exhilarating. The cinematography between the scenes and flashbacks of Juffre, Gambia and the scenes of Kunta Kinte’s enslavement in Virginia provide a great visual contrast that we don’t see often in media depictions of slavery. The scenes in Juffre are full of light; the ship and Virginia area are dark and gloomy. It’s also necessary that there be more graphic depictions of slavery in this rendition (e.g. the sleeping in their own blood and vomit on the ship, the whippings).

A lot of artistic license has been taken into account in this version, but there is a purpose behind it. In the 1977 version, the viewer can only see how slavery affects African men and their viewpoint on their surroundings on the ship, and their resiliency. The only form of acknowledgement of African women’s struggle was rape, and we don’t see a form of resiliency. However, In the 2016 version, the viewer can see African men and women trying to fight back on the ship in response to a woman about to be raped by the captain of the ship. We needed to see equal representation of struggle and strength in that respect.

And I’m not going to lie: it gave me chills to see a black woman stabbing a white man to death in this episode.

The music immediately grabs one’s attention from the beginning of the episode to the end. From the traditional African songs, particularly the songs of prayer to Allah, displaying religious diversity, to the mantra the African men sing on the ship defending their fellow Mandinka sister, to the song Kunta Kinte’s mother sings to him – all of these play a part in setting the emotional atmosphere. 

Fiddler (played by Forrest Whitaker) plays Kunta Kinte’s mother’s song on his violin to the slave owners and the overseer in an effort to help Kunta Kinte escape to freedom. His character stands out to me in this version of Roots, because he is more outspoken here than in the 1977 version. He plays more of an active role in Kunta Kinte’s thirst for freedom, and the viewer can see how he has as much of a valid backstory as Kunta Kinte. Initially, Kunta Kinte doesn’t want Fiddler playing his mother’s song on the violin, because he believes it only belongs to him. However, the song resonates with Fiddler and just as much because it was a song his grandmother used to sing to him before he was sold off into slavery.

We as people may be selfish about the treasures we have in our cultures, but this shows how important it is to preserve our cultures by forming a unit in the backgrounds we share

Kunta Kinte is not the only one who had to go through a name change either. Him being willing to ask Fiddler what his real name is, Henry, before he escapes, is one of the most poignant scenes of the episode. It is touching because every person has their roots that make them who they are, and their roots must be acknowledged. It emphasizes the plight of black people seeking and definitely losing their roots because of the oppression they have faced in slavery.

Of course, this subject is tough to watch. But in order to make people aware of the oppression of black people, and to make people aware of how that oppression rebrands itself today, content like this has to be made.

I’m glad the decision of a reboot of Roots was made.

Gender & Identity Life

Survival in a time of trauma

When I think about the ways our bodies carry trauma, the ways we have survived, I am filled with love. I think of my aunt Aziza in Mogadishu who says even making tea is saving ourselves from war. It’s a warm, brown kind of healing. Does the tea help with the loneliness? With the hurt? She says that black pepper in tea burns all of the sorrow that makes a home in the throat.

Children, particularly daughters, carry a lot of generational hurt. And when this hurt is added to the daily traumas we endure, we become bodies of passed-down sorrow and sadness. We think that this sadness will swallow the entire room. We try to make it more manageable, smaller. We try to hide it. We say “No, no, I’m fine, I’m good,” even when the sadness arrives, threatening to take us under.

The reasons for this grief are never clear. It’s never so blatant, never so willing to reveal itself. And sometimes the body hides these reasons, in the curls of our hair, between fingers, under nails because to unearth where the grief is is to begin healing. Healing is painful – it threatens what we’ve known to be true, it threatens life, it disrupts & interrupts.

I often wonder about how much room we actually have to sit and contemplate our sorrow when we aren’t busy trying to survive. Mother says the day is short and grief can only be hot for so long. I ask her how much silence is sorrow. She says it’s painful to find where it hurts. Our entire house is left searching in dark alleys for what we’ve never seen.

We force the body to take on strength & this pretense harms us too. We are accused of strength even in spaces we call our own – our homes, in the arms of those who know our closest heart. We feign strength in dangerous ways, moulding the body into things it is not. Where did we learn to forget what made the body?

We speak to the ocean too, wondering how much of mother is in the water. I think about my mother’s mother Halima, god rest her soul, who spoke to the ocean in whispers: dotting herself around the Tanzanian coast throughout her life. Perhaps this feeling I have of my lungs being full of water comes from there. We’ll ask the ocean if Dar es Salaam still remembers us.

But usually, we want to ask about the bodies under the sea. I spoke to the ocean the night before last and I wanted to say: the red is showing in your blue. I wanted to say: it is exhausting to have to find the body over and over again. Sometimes, you do not even have the courtesy to return the bodies & we are left mourning air and tinted names. Do you not know of mercy? Have you not been taught? Grown waters like you should know better than to swallow others whole like that.

And we survive, we do, but the sadness has a different face every time: white hands cocked last week, red alarming eyes today. How does sadness keep finding the new body, the body that you carved for yourself out of  loss and loss and loss?

It took a long while before I was able to see that our truest existence doesn’t have to happen outside of sadness – it can happen in sadness, around sadness, in front of sadness.