Yaa Gyasi

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Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Colonization Theme Icon
Family and Progress Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Homegoing, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon

Racism plays a major role in Homegoing for both sides of the book’s family tree, but it most strongly affects Esi’s descendants as they are subjected to a series of racist institutions in America. At the beginning of the novel, racism serves as the backbone of (and one of the many justifications for) slavery in America, but when slavery is abolished, racism continues to fester. One of the main goals of the novel is to illustrate the brutal lineage of American racism, and how it becomes codified in both political and social structures like job access and the prison system.

The chapters involving Esi and her daughter, Ness, demonstrate how racism is used to justify brutal acts of violence and enslavement. Esi is captured on the heels of a battle between her village and another village that is working with the British, and she is placed in a woman’s prison. There, Esi and the other women are treated as subhuman because of their race: she describes how a soldier who rapes her looks at her in disgust afterward as if “her body was his shame.” This disgust is amplified in America: Esi’s daughter, Ness, and the other slaves at the Stockham family’s plantation are treated like objects rather than people. She is beaten and forced to “marry” another slave named Sam, being treated almost like an animal. When she and Sam are caught trying to escape this brutal treatment, she is whipped until she cannot move and forced to watch as Sam is hanged. White plantation owners view their slaves as disposable, a view based solely on skin color.

Even after slavery, racism infiltrates other American institutions, which allows the oppression of African-Americans to continue. Kojo, Ness’s son, escapes slavery, but still lives in constant fear that he and his children will be recaptured and re-enslaved as the Civil War brews in America and the Fugitive Slave Act passes. The Great Migration begins, as people feel so unsafe as to need to move north in order to continue to feel free. But before Kojo and his family can leave, his pregnant wife, Anna, is kidnapped. Their son, known only as H, also endures a version of modified slavery known as the convict-lease system. H is imprisoned for nine years for “studyin’ a white woman” and is leased to work in a coal mine while carrying out his sentence, where he faces a constant fear of death or brutal beatings. His daughter, Willie, and her son, Sonny, also bear the brunt of racist systems, even after they travel north to live in Harlem. Willie’s first husband, Robert, is only able to get a job because he is light-skinned, but he eventually leaves her for a white woman. Willie is left with very few job prospects as a black woman, and she eventually takes to cleaning houses. Sonny, grows up in and out of a bad school system, and eventually comes to believe that he can’t make something of himself. When he works at a jazz club, he becomes addicted to heroin, forcing him even deeper into a downward spiral. Racism thus serves as a constant weight, dragging the characters down and preventing them from gaining opportunity.

At the end of the novel, Sonny’s son, Marcus, is able to look back at this history and trace this thread of oppression, and how it had affected him and his family in large and small ways. Marcus is writing his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford, which had originally focused on the convict-lease system. However, Marcus feels he can’t properly grapple with the convict-lease system without also exploring the consequences on the Great Migration, the cities like Harlem to which black people flocked, and the drug addictions borne in those cities like the one his father had—and also how in the present, his white peers can smoke marijuana openly every day while many of his black friends are serving five-year-sentences for the same crime. As Marcus describes how angry his research makes him, he also notes how his anger would have been used to justify the very racism that caused all of these issues in the first place. Marcus sees some of his own experiences as products of the racism that affected his family. He relates his fear of water to his family’s having been shipped over from Ghana for the slave system. In another example, he is lost at a museum as a young boy when a white man taps at him with a cane. Without knowing why, he is immediately fearful. These examples serve as ways in which large forms of oppression have been inherited by younger generations, even if they don’t necessarily know why—history still informs their thoughts and feelings.

Because Homegoing spans over several generations, the book is extremely effective in demonstrating the lasting legacy of racism in the United States. As characters face near-constant oppression, it becomes clear how the results of obstacles faced by one character are then passed down to that character’s children. Gyasi uses this compounded sense of limitation to remind readers that even though slavery ended centuries ago, the effects of its underlying cause, racism, are still very much a part of society today.

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Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression appears in each chapter of Homegoing. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression Quotes in Homegoing

Below you will find the important quotes in Homegoing related to the theme of Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression.
Part 1: Effia Quotes

The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand.

Related Characters: Effia, James Collins, Adwoa
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Esi Quotes

“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

Related Characters: Maame (speaker), Esi, Abronoma, Kwame Asare / Big Man
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

When he had finished, he looked horrified, disgusted with her. As though he were the one who had had something taken from him. As though he were the one who had been violated.

Related Characters: Esi
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Quey Quotes

Quey had wanted to cry but that desire embarrassed him. He knew that he was one of the half-caste children of the Castle, and, like the other half-caste children, he could not fully claim either half of himself, neither his father's whiteness nor his mother’s blackness. Neither England nor the Gold Coast.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

This was how they lived there, in the bush: Eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. Quey would never go to Cudjo's village. He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.

Related Characters: Effia, Quey, James Collins, Nana Yaa, Cudjo Sackee, Fiifi
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Ness Quotes

“I did it,” Ness says. She has spent the night hidden in the left corner of the room, watching this man she's been told is her husband become the animal he's been told that he is.

Related Characters: Ness (speaker), Marcus, Sam, The Devil
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: James Quotes

“There's more at stake here than just slavery, my brother. It's a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.”

Related Characters: Quey (speaker), James, Nana Yaa
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

“That was my father and grandfather's work. It is not mine.” He didn’t add that because of their work, he didn’t have to work, but instead could live off the family name and power.

Related Characters: James (speaker), Quey, James Collins, Akosua, Amma Atta
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 1: Kojo Quotes

He loved the look of those boats, loved that his hands helped build and maintain them, but Ma Aku always said it was bad juju, him and all the other freed Negroes working on ships. She said there was something evil about them building up the things that had brought them to America in the first place, the very things that had tried to drag them under.

Related Characters: Kojo / Jo, Ma Aku, Anna
Related Symbols: Water and Boats
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

He would never truly know who his people were, and who their people were before them, and if there were stories to be heard about where he had come from, he would never hear them.

Related Characters: Esi, Ness, Kojo / Jo, Ma Aku, Sam, Anna
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: H Quotes

Mm-hmm. See, that's what I thought. You was young. Slavery ain’t nothin’ but a dot in your eye, huh? If nobody tell you, I’ma tell you. War may be over but it ain’t ended.

Related Characters: H
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Akua Quotes

In her dreams the fire was shaped like a woman holding two babies to her heart. The firewoman would carry these two little girls with her all the way to the woods of the Inland and then the babies would vanish, and the firewoman’s sadness would send orange and red and hints of blue swarming every tree and every bush in sight.

Related Characters: Effia, Esi, Akua / Crazy Woman , Maame
Related Symbols: Fire
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Willie Quotes

How she could put his skin to good use, be less cautious if she were him. If she could, she would put her voice in his body, in his skin.

Related Characters: Willie, Carson / Sonny, Robert Clifton
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Yaw Quotes

“This is the problem of history. We cannot know that which we were not there to see and hear and experience for ourselves. We must rely upon the words of others […] We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story.”

Related Characters: Yaw (speaker), Esi, Ness
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:

“What I know now my son: Evil begets evil. It grows. It transmutes, so that sometimes you cannot see that the evil in the world began as the evil in your own home. I'm sorry you have suffered.”

Related Characters: Akua / Crazy Woman (speaker), Yaw, Marjorie, Marcus
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Sonny Quotes

He was mad at her because he didn’t have a father, and she was mad at him because he’d become as absent as his own.

Related Characters: Willie, Carson / Sonny, Robert Clifton
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

“We can’t go back to something we ain’t never been to in the first place. It ain’t ours anymore. This is.” She swept her hand in front of her, as though she were trying to catch all of Harlem in it, all of New York, all of America.

Related Characters: Amani Zulema (speaker), Carson / Sonny
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Marjorie Quotes

As a last defense, Marjorie had heard him tell the principal that she was “not like other black girls.” And, somehow, that had been worse. She had already given him up.

Related Characters: Marjorie, Graham
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: Marcus Quotes

And if he slammed the book down, then everyone in the room would stare and all they would see would be his skin and his anger, and they’d think they knew something about him, and it would be the same something that had justified putting his great-grandpa H in prison, only it would be different too, less obvious than it once was.

Related Characters: H, Marcus
Page Number: 289-290
Explanation and Analysis:

How could he explain to Marjorie that he wasn’t supposed to be here? Alive. Free. That the fact that he had been born, that he wasn’t in a jail cell somewhere, was not by dint of his pulling himself up by the bootstraps, not by hard work or belief in the American Dream, but by mere chance.

Related Characters: Effia, Esi, Marjorie, Marcus
Page Number: 296
Explanation and Analysis:

“Here,” Marjorie said. “Have it.” She lifted the stone from her neck, and placed it around Marcus’s. “Welcome home.”

Related Characters: Marjorie (speaker), Marcus
Related Symbols: Black Stones, Water and Boats
Page Number: 300
Explanation and Analysis: