Marcus doesn’t care for water; the ocean had always nauseated him. His father, Sonny, had told him that black people didn’t like water because they were brought over on slave ships. His father had always given him alternative history lessons, bearing a deep-seated hatred of white people.
Sonny’s explanation for Marcus’s fear of water echoes Ma Aku’s explanation to Kojo of why she doesn’t like him working on slave ships. Again, even though Marcus has not experienced these things, he has still inherited some of the associations that his family shared.
Marcus always saw Sonny’s brilliance, but knew that it was “trapped underneath something.” In the mornings when Marcus was young, Sonny would get up and go to the methadone clinic in East Harlem. Marcus saw how important his father’s routine was.
Sonny’s stagnation can be seen in contrast to Yaw’s ability to excel in academia; this fact and the chapters leading up to theirs make it clear that the “something” was systemic racial oppression.
Now getting his Ph.D. in sociology at Stanford, Marcus has been invited to a pool party to celebrate the new millennium. At the party, he lounges on a chair instead of going into the water, making jokes about how he needs a tan. He leaves pretty quickly after arriving.
Marcus’s inherited fear of water then shapes his interactions with his fellow grad students, as he feels uncomfortable at this kind of social event.
Marcus calls Sonny every Sunday, checking in and making sure everything is okay. Sonny tells Marcus his mother, Amani, says hi, even though Marcus knows it’s a lie. Marcus misses Sunday dinners at Willie’s house—he misses Harlem and Willie’s singing.
Marcus’s feelings about missing Sunday dinners not only show the kind of invented family traditions that he, Willie, and Sonny have, but also how important his family’s support has been to him.
After his phone call, Marcus’s friend Diante drags him to an art museum to try to find a girl he had met. Marcus wanders the museum alone, remembering an incident when he was in elementary school and he had lost his class at a museum. An elderly white couple had found him crying, and the man tapped at Marcus’s foot with a cane asking if he was lost. Marcus had gotten scared and wet himself. Diante finds him after a while, saying that the girl isn’t there, and the two leave.
In the same way that Marcus has an inexplicable fear of water, Gyasi implies that the fear that had struck him during this incident at the museum also relates to his family history and their experiences, as this episode has echoes of Tom Jr.’s attempt to beat Pinky in Ness’s chapter and the police officer’s threats to Jo in his chapter.
Marcus returns to his research. He had wanted to focus on the convict leasing system that had cut H’s life short, but the more he researched, the bigger the project got. He wanted to talk about the Great Migration, Jim Crow, Harlem, heroin in the 1960s, crack in the 1980s, and the double standards of the war on drugs. And then he would get so angry that he’d slam the book closed, and everyone would look at him and see “his skin and his anger,” which had been the thing that justified putting H in prison in the first place.
Marcus’s summary of many of the time periods and storylines that have been included in the book, and also the underlying bias that allowed certain events to happen, provide Gyasi with a way of connecting racism’s various throughlines in her novel, and how each person’s experience in a given time period has been affected by the time period before them.
Marcus goes to a party in San Francisco that night with Diante. During the party, Diante sees the girl he had been looking for. He points at her, but Marcus only notices the woman next to her, who has very dark skin and a large afro. Diante and Marcus walk over to the two women, and the girl Diante had met introduces herself as Ki and her friend as Marjorie. Marcus introduces himself.
When Marcus and Marjorie meet, it allows readers to see how each branch of the family tree has been able to come to the same place, but through very different means as they have battled racism, colonialism, and other forms of prejudice in distinctive ways in order to get to where they are.
When Marcus sees Marjorie, he feels as though he has been found. Months pass, and their friendship grows stronger and stronger. Marjorie shows him where her family is from in Ghana, close to the beach. Marcus admits he hates the beach—he’s scared of the water. Marjorie admits that she’s scared of fire.
Marcus and Marjorie’s twin fears recall the associations that each symbol has: fire, the destructive slave trade; water, the separation from one’s heritage and family.
Marcus asks if she goes back to Ghana often. Marjorie admits that she hasn’t been back since her grandmother, Akua, passed away. She then touches her stone necklace, explaining that her grandmother gave it to her. She continues to say that her Twi is so rusty, she’s not sure she could get around Ghana anymore.
Even though Marjorie still has ties to Ghana, when she loses her grandmother and her ability to speak Twi, she finds herself becoming more and more Americanized and worries about losing her heritage.
Marcus spends the rest of the year avoiding his research. He and Marjorie had gone to Pratt City to try to find some more information on his great-grandfather, but he had said that he wanted something that was bigger than one person or one city. He wanted to capture the feeling of history’s impact on him and his family, and how he himself is free only by chance.
Marcus explains that he’s afraid of the ocean because he has no idea where it begins. Marjorie says he would like the beaches in Ghana and suggests that they go together. He agrees.
Again, Marcus’s description relates the ocean to a fear of lost heritage: just as he doesn’t know where the ocean begins, he and his family don’t know the beginning of their own story.
Marjorie and Marcus go to the Cape Coast Castle. The tour guide shows them the church, directly above the dungeons. He explains that many British soldiers married local women, and their children would be taught in the Castle or go to England. The guide shows them the female dungeon, and the path from the dungeon to the beach.
The tour of the Cape Coast Castle returns the reader to the premise of the book: two women who shared a mother, one of whom lived in luxury on the upper floors while another was imprisoned in the dungeons below, and the massive ripple effect that this simple difference had on the heritage of their next six generations.
Marcus feels sick to his stomach and starts to push on the door of the dungeon. He runs out on to the beach. He sees two men building a large fire, cooking fish, and beyond that the ocean. Marjorie catches up to him, asking what’s wrong. She hesitates to come so close to fire, but she joins him at the water’s edge.
Marcus’s anxiety about being in the dungeon again relates to a heritage of associations, as he knows that one of his family members must have been trapped in a dungeon like this. Marcus’s distress also helps Marjorie face her fear of fire as she follows him out onto the beach, demonstrating how they each help each other overcome anxieties that they had inherited.
Then Marjorie runs into the water, and asks Marcus to join her. He does, water crashing all around him. When he lifts his head out of the water, he hears Marjorie laughing and starts to laugh too. When he reaches her, she takes off the black stone necklace and places it around his neck. She says, “welcome home” and swims back to the shore.
The final passage of the book, in which Marjorie helps Marcus overcome his own fear and welcomes him home, represents a final reconciliation between their two families (even if they don’t fully know how close their two families had been). In doing so, Marjorie acknowledges their shared heritage, but also hopes to make amends for the injustice that had befallen Marcus’s family because of her own.