Effia is born on the night of a raging fire in Fanteland. As she grows up, her mother, Baaba, is cruel to her and abuses her, while her father, Cobbe, is kind. When Effia turns twelve, she begins to blossom into a young woman. She hopes to marry the next chief of the village, but Baaba has other plans for her. She tells Effia to hide her blood, and then contrives to have her marry a British man named James Collins who is the newly appointed governor of the Cape Coast Castle. Before Effia is married, Baaba gives her a black stone pendant—a piece of her mother. Effia and James Collins are then married and develop sincere affection for each other when she moves into the Castle. However, she quickly discovers that there are women in the dungeons being traded as slaves. Though she is horrified, she knows she cannot go back to her village, and only returns years later when she hears her father is dying. When Effia is at her father’s deathbed, her brother, Fiifi, reveals that she is not actually Baaba’s daughter. Her real mother, Maame, had been a house girl for Cobbe, and ran away the night Effia was born. The black stone from Baaba is really from Maame.
Meanwhile, Esi is trapped in the women’s dungeon in the Cape Coast Castle. Soldiers come and go, groping the women and taking away their children. Esi was born in Asanteland to a respected warrior, Kwame Asare. The Asantes had been raiding other villages for years, capturing prisoners and taking them as slaves and servants. Her mother, Maame, took one of these prisoners as a house girl, but the girl (Abronoma) was not very skilled at housework and was often beaten. Esi felt bad for her, and agreed to send a message to her father, telling him where she was. One night, Abronoma’s father and other warriors attacked the village, but Maame was too afraid to run. She gave Esi a black stone, and Esi ran away. She was quickly captured and taken to the Castle, made to walk for days with little water and food. Back in the dungeon, a soldier pulls her out and rapes her before returning her to the prison. Days later, Esi and the other women are taken onto a ship, but she loses her stone in the dungeon.
Quey, Effia’s son, is back in his mother’s village in order to make a deal regarding slave prices. Quey had been a lonely child, always feeling that he wasn’t white or black. He made friends with a boy named Cudjo from another village, but when his father, James Collins, saw how close the two boys were, he sent Quey to school in London. Quey returned after his father’s death, but still felt his father’s disappointment. Quey doesn’t want to participate in the slave trade but also doesn’t want to be seen as weak. When his Uncle Fiifi captures Nana Yaa, the daughter of an Asante king, to strengthen their political union, Quey agrees to marry her.
Ness, Esi’s daughter, is working on Thomas Allan Stockham’s Alabama plantation. She doesn’t speak to her fellow slaves much, as her mother had been a solid, quiet woman with a hard heart. However, Ness does find a soft spot for a young, motherless girl named Pinky, who refuses to speak. One day, the master’s son tries to get Pinky to speak and threatens to beat her, but Ness stops him. As Ness awaits her punishment for speaking out, she thinks about how she ended up there. At her prior plantation, she and another slave named Sam had been married. After the birth of their son, Kojo, they tried to escape with a woman named Aku. One night, when Ness gave Kojo to Aku to hold, Ness and Sam were caught by their former master (whom they refer to as the Devil), but Aku and Kojo were able to escape. Ness had then been whipped until she couldn’t stand, and Sam had been hanged. Back in the present, Ness only hopes that her son is okay.
James (Quey’s son), Quey, and Nana Yaa travel to Asanteland for her father’s funeral, where James meets a girl named Akosua who refuses to shake his hand because his family takes part in the slave trade. He finds her fascinating but knows that he would never be able to marry her. Still, he promises that if she waits for him, he will come back for her. When he returns to Fanteland, he is married to another woman but refuses to consummate their marriage while he plots to get back to Akosua. He fakes his death in a battle and walks back to Asanteland, where Akosua is waiting for him.
Jo (Kojo), Ness’s son, works in Baltimore on ships, having escaped with Ma Aku from slavery as a baby. He and his wife, Anna, who is also free, have six children and a seventh (whom they call H) on the way. Jo is afraid of the law enforcement in the city and constantly worried that he will be re-enslaved. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, the Fugitive Slave Act passes, meaning that if Jo is found out as a runaway, he can be sent back to the South to work on a plantation. One day, his wife does not return home. He looks for her for days, to no avail, until a young boy says that he saw a white man take her into his carriage. Ten years pass, and Jo moves up to New York as more states start to secede, and the Civil War brews.
Abena, James’s daughter, is twenty-five years old and still unmarried. She is in love with a man named Ohene Nyarko, who cannot marry her until the harvest is good, but they still begin an affair. When the harvests in the village continue to be bad, they blame Abena for witchcraft. Ohene travels to another city and acquires a cocoa plant, which grows well, but he promises the man he buys it from that he will marry his daughter in return. Abena, now pregnant, refuses to wait any longer for him and travels back to the heart of Asanteland to seek out the missionary church there.
Jo and Anna’s son, H, was born on a plantation. His mother killed herself before he was born, so he had to be cut out of her stomach. Although he was freed after the war, he is quickly imprisoned for looking at a white woman and sold to the mining system. He works in brutal conditions for nine years before obtaining freedom again and then works in the mines as a free laborer. He joins a union, strikes for better conditions, and reunites with his woman, Ethe.
Akua, Abena’s daughter, grows up in the missionary church, where she’s made to feel like a sinner and a heathen. She leaves the church to marry Asamoah, but visions of a firewoman with two children plague her. She cannot sleep, and one night she sets their hut on fire, killing two of her daughters and scarring her infant son, Yaw.
Willie, H’s daughter, marries a light-skinned boy named Robert Clifton when she is young, and the two move up to Harlem with their son, Carson. Robert has an easier time getting jobs, but he often loses them when people find out that he is not white. Willie cleans houses, but at night she works at a jazz club. While cleaning the bathroom at the club one night, she runs into Robert, who is with two of his white co-workers. Realizing that they are married, the two white men force Robert to violate Willie for their own enjoyment. Robert leaves that night, and Willie tries to restart her life with another man named Eli.
Yaw, Akua’s son, teaches history at an all-boys Roman Catholic high school. He is passionate about securing Ghanaian independence and resents his mother, because her actions left him with a severe facial burn. He gets a house girl named Esther, who convinces him to go to see his mother. The two are able to reconcile as Akua explains the evil that plagues their family history and that haunted her.
Sonny (Carson’s nickname) grows up resentful of Willie because she refuses to speak about Robert. He joins the Civil Rights movement and finds himself in and out of jail for marching. One day, he goes to a jazz club and becomes taken with a singer named Amani. Amani introduces him to dope, and Sonny quickly becomes addicted. His mother stops speaking to him until he resolves to get clean.
Marjorie, Yaw and Esther’s daughter, is born in Ghana but grows up in Alabama. She has trouble making friends in high school because the white students think she is black, while the black students think she sounds and acts like a white girl. Thus, she spends most of her time reading and writing, and dates a white boy named Graham before his father puts an end to their relationship. She goes back to Ghana every summer to visit her grandmother Akua, with whom she is very close.
The final chapter in the novel focuses on Marcus, Sonny and Amani’s son. Marcus is getting his Ph.D. in sociology from Stanford. He focuses his studies on the convict leasing system that condemned his great grandfather H, but he quickly realizes that there are many more subjects surrounding systematic oppression in America that he wants to discuss. While at Stanford, he meets Marjorie, who is also a graduate student. The two become friends, taking a trip to Birmingham together and then a trip to Ghana. In Ghana, Marcus and Marjorie are both struck by their mutual history at the Cape Coast Castle. They run into the water together on the beach, and Marjorie gives him the stone necklace that she inherited from her grandmother. She welcomes him home in a final act of reconciliation between the two families.