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.
Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression ThemeTracker
Racism, Slavery, and Systemic Oppression Quotes in Homegoing
“Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.