Four policemen put H in chains, against his futile protests. He rattles the bars of his cell, while his cellmate tells him to stop or they might kill him. H asks what his crime was; his cellmate explains that they said he was “studyin’ a white woman” named Cora Hobbs. H says he wasn’t, but his cellmate says that it doesn’t matter whether he was or wasn’t. He says that even though slavery and the war have ended, the struggles are far from over.
H thinks about the day the war had ended, when he was about thirteen. He had left his master’s plantation and walked from Georgia to Alabama. He was happy to be free, but it hadn’t lasted long. H spends the next four days in the county jail. They won’t tell him his charge, only that he has to pay ten dollars by the end of the night. But he doesn’t have money or family.
Not only is the culture still steeped in racism, but it is also still present in its legal systems, as it is completely unjust to not tell someone what they are being tried for. Additionally, H continues the trend of characters losing more and more of their connection to their families and their heritage.
H had been eighteen when he met Ethe. His relationship with her had been his longest relationship with anyone. He thinks about calling her, but she hasn’t spoken to him since he’d said another woman’s name by mistake. He also worries that if she came to the jail, she would be taken into a back room by the policemen and told there are other ways to pay a fine, which he had heard happened before.
What H describes is yet another way in which women are targeted for both their race and gender, as they are expected to perform sexual acts in order to free their husbands or family members from jail.
Unable to pay the fine, the next day—in July 1880—H is chained to ten other men and sold by the state of Alabama to work in the coal mines. One of the men he is chained to is really no more than a boy of twelve who pees himself as he is pushed in front of the pit boss. H is sold for nineteen dollars a month, while he struggles against his shackles and shouts that he is a free man.
The convict leasing system, as Marcus describes later in the novel, is in many ways simply an extension of slavery, as men are imprisoned on imaginary charges, sold to the state, and then made to work for free in brutal conditions for years.
The first thousand pounds of coal are hardest to shovel, and H spends hours and days on his knees. His arms burn, but he knows the pain is only one thing that can kill him—the warden had also whipped a man until he died, and the mines have sometimes collapsed, burying prisoners alive. Dust explosions could also wipe out men by the hundreds.
The brutality H describes here contains a lot of similarities to some of the descriptions Gyasi includes in Ness’s chapter when she describes life on the plantation known as “Hell,” as H similarly fears being brutally whipped or killed.
H can hardly remember being free, and he tries to remember Ethe. The convicts in the mines are almost all like him: former slaves. Occasionally one of the wardens would bring in a white man, who would protest being chained to a black man until he realized that he needed the other convicts down there in the mines.
The fact that most of the people H works with are also former slaves confirms how this system of imprisonment and forced labor is racially biased, as black men are the ones predominantly sold into it.
At one point, H is partnered with a white man named Thomas whose arms start shaking so badly he can’t lift the shovel during his first week. H takes up Thomas’s shovel and fills both men’s quotas, shoveling with both hands. The next day, H can’t feel his arms, and he tells his friend Joecy that he doesn’t want to die.
Despite the fact that white people are the reason that H is in the mines in the first place, H still helps Thomas because he refuses to condemn another person to death. This later earns him a respected reputation amongst the other people working in the mines.
That morning, H is partnered with Thomas again. He tries to lift his shovel but can’t. Joecy, his partner Bull, and Thomas all start to shovel a pile for H’s quota. At the end of the day, Thomas thanks him for his help from the day before.
In return for his kindness, the other prisoners begin to help H as well, fostering a newfound cooperation that extends into the union that H eventually joins that includes both white and black workers.
Thomas asks H about his name. H explains that his mother, Anna, called him H before she gave birth. She then killed herself, and the owners of the plantation had to cut him out of her stomach before she died. Thomas doesn’t respond. A month later, Thomas dies of tuberculosis.
H’s story reveals Anna’s fate, and also confirms how he had lost his family, his heritage, and thus his identity entirely—so much so that he doesn’t even have a full name.
H shovels his last thousand pounds of coal in 1889. He thinks about going home, but he doesn’t really know where home is. He walks as far as he can and enters the first bar he sees with black people. He starts speaking to a woman named Dinah who is visiting Birmingham.
Even when H is released from prison, he has a hard time finding a place or people to anchor him. The only real connection he has to others is through the color of his skin.
Another man joins their conversation, saying that H looks really strong. The man asks him to roll up his sleeve. H rolls it up to show his muscle, but then the man notices something else. He tugs on H’s sleeve, and his whole shirt falls apart, revealing the fresh whip scars on his back. The man tells Dinah that H is one of the convicts from the mines. Dinah goes to stand on the other side of the bar.
Like Ness had been at the plantations, it is a brutal kind of irony that H is punished and judged because of an unjust system. Though he did not deserve the scars on his back, they still prevent him from making friends and connecting to people.
H moves to Pratt City, a town made up of ex-cons. He meets up with Joecy, who had also moved out to Pratt City. Joecy tells H to try to contact Ethe, and asks his son Lil Joe to write a letter for H, but H refuses. The next morning, H goes with Joecy and gets a job working in a mine as a free laborer.
Here, Gyasi subtly marks the progression of time and society. Most slaves did not know how to read and write, but Joecy’s son, Lil Joe, demonstrates generational progress when he is able to write Ethe a letter.
Life in Pratt City is unlike anything H had experienced before, with black and white people living next door to each other. H gets paid sometimes forty dollars in a single month. He moves in with Joecy and his wife Jane for a bit before starting to build his own house. When Joecy asks him to join the union, H is nervous about it, but relents.
H starts to become more optimistic about the future and the potential for progress because he now has the freedom to create a new life for himself. He saves money, plans for a family, and join a union to fight for better working conditions.
H sits in the back at his first union meeting, while a doctor explains some of the negative side effects of being in the mines, like black lung. The doctor says that they should fight for shorter hours and better ventilation, but H says that they should be fighting for more money. The doctor counters that mining could be safer than it is, and that lives are worth fighting for, too.
The doctor’s explanation demonstrates how, even with freedom, people can still be locked into poor systems. As H is only able to take up a difficult trade like working in the mines, he shortens his life because of the terrible working conditions, meaning that he then will have fewer years to support his family.
H starts to feel very aware of his own mortality and the kind of life he is building for himself. After the meeting, he coughs and coughs as he walks to Joecy’s house. He asks Lil Joe to write a letter for him, telling Ethe that he is free and in Pratt City.
Now afraid of the time and the life that has been taken from him, H focuses on building a family so that a future generation might be able to benefit from his hard work.
At the next union meeting, a white member says that they should strike. H, who has become more vocal at the meetings, explains that white people barely listen to black people, and that no one would pay attention. The white union member says that they have to work together. H agrees to the strike.
Spurred by their collaboration in the mines, the white and black union members collectively fight for better rights, in a way still confirming H’s fear that the white mine owners in power will listen more readily to the white union workers.
The next day, the union members give their bosses a list of demands, but the bosses simply answer that free miners can be easily replaced by convicts. The next week, a carriage of black convicts appears, all under the age of sixteen. H worries that they are arresting more people simply to get more workers.
As H watches the new carriage with black convicts arrive, it only confirms the idea that he and the other black men in the mines were jailed and convicted of fake crimes so that the bosses would gain cheap labor.
The members make signs and picket outside the mines. H sees one boy pee himself waiting for the mine shaft before trying to run away. A gunshot quickly goes off. The people on strike break the line, swarming the white bosses. H grabs a man by the throat and holds him over the mine pit. He stops himself from throwing the man down.
This is one of a few instances of violent death in the novel, and like Sam’s death, it comes as a direct result of longstanding systematic oppression and contains a total disregard for the life of a young black man.
After six months, the bosses give in to paying fifty cents more. After the union meeting where the raise is announced, H returns home to find Ethe waiting for him, cooking greens. She says that when she received his letter, she let two months go by thinking about what she wanted to do. She tells him how upset she’d been when he’d called her by another woman’s name, and didn’t know what to do when she found out he’d been locked up for a crime he didn’t commit.
Names have an important recurrence throughout the book. For characters like Ness, Jo (Kojo), H, and Willie, their names symbolize their attachment or distance from their culture and help to define their identity. This means that for Ethe, to be called by a different name represents a taking away of her own identity.
H doesn’t respond, simply taking Ethe’s body in his arms as she cooks. She doesn’t give in so easily. She doesn’t lean into him until the pot has been scraped clean.
Ethe’s actions contain a sense of forgiveness, but she still maintains agency. The pot being scraped clean also symbolizes here a starting over for H, and a new path to a family.