Someone has robbed the boat that Jo is working on, which means that the police will come searching the boat and asking the ship workers about it. Jo has been working on ships in Fell’s Point for two years and has never caused any trouble, but he is still jumpy around the police.
Even though Jo has escaped slavery, racism is still a part of his everyday life. He and the other black men working on the ships are the first people questioned about the robbery, and his jumpiness around the police will be passed on to many of his descendants as well.
Jo asks his friend, Poot, to cover for him, and Jo jumps off the boat. As he looks at the Chesapeake Bay, he’s reminded how much he loves the boats, even if Ma Aku always says that there’s something evil about him and other freed slaves working on the things that had brought them to America in the first place.
Jo walks down the street, knowing that he should go help his pregnant wife, Anna, at her cleaning job. But he takes a moment to appreciate Baltimore and his freedom in it. Jo had only known the South from the stories Ma Aku told, and he couldn’t miss what he didn’t know.
Again, because of Jo’s disconnection from his family early in his life, he loses the negative associations with the South. However, throughout his chapter, he still feels the fallout of being a runaway slave.
Jo then swings by the Mathison house, where Anna and Ma Aku are cleaning. He buys a flower for his wife on the way. She greets him at the door and he kisses her, rubbing her stomach. When he was seven, Jo had asked Ma Aku what to do when you like a girl. She had said in the Gold Coast, a boy would go to the girl’s father with an offering. The next Sunday, Jo had brought Anna’s father a frog that he’d caught, and they’d been kicked out of the congregation for witchcraft.
Although what Jo and Ma Aku experience at the church isn’t the same thing as colonization, there are echoes of what happens on the Gold Coast as Christianity starts to spread, particularly in the chapter after this one. This serves as another way that Jo and Ma Aku are distanced from their heritage.
When Jo had seen Anna for the first time, walking on the street, he had been mesmerized by her body. He had gone up to her and asked if he could walk with her, and they had walked the whole length of Baltimore together.
The gender stereotypes persist regardless of the society in which the characters live. Though Jo can choose his wife himself, this has only created different kinds of sexist requirements for a partner.
The house that Anna and Ma Aku are cleaning belongs to an old white family, and it had once been a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is two stories and has ten rooms, which takes several hours to clean. As Jo cleans, he can hear Mr. Mathison and other abolitionists talking in the drawing room. They’re saying that they need to make sure there are more emancipated slaves in Baltimore.
Tracking the jobs that the female characters in America have demonstrates the slow but steady progress in the society. Whereas before Ness and Margaret had been slaves, now the job is largely unchanged, but they are no longer unpaid laborers. Still, they work for a wealthy white family.
When Jo had first heard them speak this way years prior, he had been heartened by their words. But as the years went on, he knew that these people could only do so much.
Even though the Mathison’s support the abolition of slavery, the country as a whole is deeply divided on the issue and even after its abolition, racism maintained a strong presence in American systems.
Jo, Anna, and Ma Aku return to their apartment. Inside, their seven kids are playing. Each child’s name starts with a different letter of the alphabet, A through G, and so Anna has lovingly started referring to the new baby as H, as a placeholder name.
H’s placeholder name is symbolic of his loss of his family and his heritage. His name will soon be the only remnant of his family that he will ever have.
Jo strives to be a good father, because he knows that his father never got the chance. He gets to know his children well and promises Anna that he will always be there for her.
Like Effia, Jo sees his children as an opportunity to build a better family and better relationships than he had with his parents, Ness and Sam.
Jo and Anna get all of the kids to sleep. As Anna undresses, Jo tells her that the police had come by the boat that day. Anna asks if it scared him; he tells her nothing scares him. They kiss and begin to make love, their room separated by a curtain. He thinks about how much he loves holding her.
Even though Jo is terrified by the police and other law enforcement officials, he still wants to project an exterior of strength in order to comfort Anna.
The next morning, Jo goes back to work. Poot tells him that the police asked the usual questions, but they think they found the man who robbed the boat. Poot had been born free, and had worked on ships his whole life. Jo had come up under Poot, and knew everything there was to know about ships because of it. Once, Poot had even saved his job, putting out a fire that Jo had started, which threatened to take down the entire boat.
The fire, just like in the chapters with the family members on the Gold Coast, represents destruction and despair, and also the legacy of slavery. Just like the fire, slavery threatens to return to take Jo’s job and the life that he has built for himself and his family.
Towards the end of the day, Jo sees Anna on the dock, which is odd because he usually finishes his work day before she does. She tells him that Mr. Mathison is asking for him to come to the house immediately. At the house, Mr. Mathison greets him and Anna, calling him by his full name, Kojo.
The fact that Mr. Mathison calls Jo by his full name demonstrates a respect for his culture and heritage—in contrast with, for example, “The Devil” in earlier chapters who would not let Esi name her daughter Maame.
Mr. Mathison tells Jo that there’s a new law being drafted by the South that would require law enforcement to arrest any runaway slave in the North and send them back, no matter how long ago they escaped. Mr. Mathison says that he is concerned for Jo and Ma Aku. He suggests that they move farther north, to New York or Canada.
This law, the Fugitive Slave Act, is a historical reminder that even though there were avenues available for slaves to become legally free, there was still a lot of codified racism written into the laws, because it does not allow for equal or sustained freedom.
Later that night, Jo explains what Mr. Mathison said. He knows that Ma Aku would never leave Baltimore, and Anna is too pregnant to move. He decides to keep his family there, even though he worries for himself and his family.
The Fugitive Slave Act caused many people to move north in “The Great Migration,” but that in and of itself was evidence of the racism in the South, which literally forced black people out of it so that they might remain free.
The next day, Jo asks Poot if he would leave Baltimore. Poot says no, claiming that Baltimore is a great city to be a black man in: there are black porters and teachers, and builders, and a person doesn’t have to be a servant. Most other people stay in Baltimore as well, tired of running.
Poot’s explanation reveals his belief that progress lies not only in becoming a free person, but allowing people to have jobs that value them instead of simply being paid servants. That progress would not come for Jo’s family for several generations.
Baby H continues to grow. Jo’s oldest daughter, Agnes, gets a cleaning job at the Methodist church. Two weeks later, the pastor’s son Timmy comes by the docks to ask Jo for Agnes’s hand in marriage.
Due to an intersection of both racist and sexist stereotypes, the women in the family are only able to get cleaning jobs.
Jo had been to church only once since the day he and Ma Aku were kicked out for witchcraft—the day of his own wedding. They day they were kicked out, he had cried because the pastor had said they were practicing “African witchcraft,” and it was the first time he had felt shame. Ma Aku had grown angry with him, saying that the people in the church had simply chosen the white man’s god, but that that is not the only option. The people in the church think witches are bad, she explained, because white people had said so. Jo had stopped crying.
Ma Aku’s explanation reveals a more complicated type of colonization that had not only happened on the Gold Coast, but had also happened in America: the spread and adoption of Christianity. Even though many people chose to practice the religion, many others didn’t or weren’t given another option because they had been forcibly removed from their heritage.
Jo agrees to let Timmy marry Agnes. They marry the next month, the morning the Fugitive Slave Act passes. Just as the ceremony finishes, a little boy runs by the door shouting that the law has passed. A few people squirm in their seats and one person leaves. A collective sense of fear starts to grow.
This law is an uncomfortable, anxiety-inducing development. Even though there were avenues available for slaves to become legally free, the Fugitive Slave Act is evidence of codified racism written into the laws.
Within a few weeks, people start to move up to Canada by the hundreds. Mathison tells Jo to always carry his free papers. In the mornings, Jo makes the children practice showing their free papers to law enforcement officials. The children laugh about this at first, and Jo grows more afraid. Anna, who is due any day, tells Jo that he is worrying too much; no one is looking for them.
As “The Great Migration” begins, so does Jo’s fear of law enforcement and other officials. Jo’s conversation here even echoes modern fears of black parents in having to teach their children what to do if they are confronted by police officers.
Then one day, Anna doesn’t come home. Jo asks Ma Aku where she is, and she says that Anna was going to pick up sardines before coming home. Jo looks for her all over town. He knocks on Mr. Mathison’s door, who says that he will start looking for her.
In this episode in which Anna disappears, readers can see how even the fear of being targeted due to one’s race also serves as its own form of anxiety and oppression.
Timmy draws a picture of Anna, and the next day Jo carries it around with him, asking everyone he meets if they have seen her, but no one has. He grows more and more frantic, desperately asking a white woman on the street if she has seen Anna. An officer then comes up to him, grabbing him away from the woman. Jo says that his wife is missing, showing him the picture. The officer snatches the picture from him and asks to take it. Jo says it’s the only one he has, and the officer tears it up.
As Jo becomes frantic, he starts to forget some of the basic survival techniques that he has internalized. It is more evidence of the society’s prejudice that Jo cannot ask a white woman that he does not know a question, even if it is regarding the safety and well-being of his wife. It is assumed, instead, that he is causing trouble.
The officer asks if he’s a runaway. Jo starts to shake, and says that he was born free in Baltimore. The officer tells him to go home, and Jo sits on the ground, trembling.
This exchange with the police officer displays more of the society’s prejudice. While Jo needs the police officer’s help to find his wife, instead the police officer threatens him and his well-being because of his race.
Mr. Mathison finds a boy who says he saw a white man take a pregnant woman into his carriage. Jo assumes that they sold her. Mathison says that they don’t know that, but his voice seems unsure. Back at home, Ma Aku tells Jo that he’ll make it through this.
The irony of Anna’s kidnapping is that even though the Fugitive Slave Act had made Jo fear for himself, the law was then used in a much more sinister way, enslaving a person who was legally free.
Jo crawls into bed with Ma Aku, resting his head on her as he had done when he was a boy, crying for Sam and Ness. Even then, Jo had seen that he would never truly know who his people were. When he felt this way, Ma Aku would tell him stories about the people on the Gold Coast.
By juxtaposing Jo’s need for comfort regarding Anna and his need for comfort regarding the loss of his parents and heritage, Gyasi illuminates how these losses are borne of the same system, and how difficult it is for Jo to escape that system fully, even though he was able to leave the plantation.
Ten years pass. Ma Aku dies, Agnes has three children, and the other kids have since married or moved out. Jo is still depressed, seeing Anna everywhere. He goes to New York, unable to look at a boat. One December day, he goes to his usual bar. A man next to him says that South Carolina seceded that morning and that war is coming. Jo had been hearing of war for years, and so the man’s words don’t matter to him much.
As a result of Anna’s kidnapping, Jo becomes disconsolate. His inability to look at a boat also ties back to the institution of slavery, as Ma Aku had hinted at earlier, and how one can draw a line from slavery to Anna’s capture to Jo’s depression, and his lack of optimism surrounding the future.