Cora is the main character of the novel, and her journey begins with the Georgia plantation where she is enslaved. Ajarry is Cora’s grandmother, who was kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery in America. The book begins with the story of her passage across the Atlantic on a boat called The Nanny. Upon arrival in Charleston, she is sold to a plantation owner and then resold several times before arriving at the Randall plantation in Georgia. She marries three men and bears five children, but only Cora’s mother, Mabel, survives. Ajarry dies in the cotton fields of “a knot in her brain,” probably a stroke or brain aneurism.
In the opening chapter of the novel, Whitehead establishes the theme of slavery reducing human beings to objects. The horrors of Ajarry’s journey to port, across the ocean, and between different American plantations are punctuated with detailed notes on her sale price at each point. Ajarry observes that people are treated as things, worth more or less depending on what work they can do and whether they can bear children to do more work. Enslaved people are valued not in terms of their humanity but in terms of their potential for labor. That value in turn determines where they are sent and what they can do, as if they are tools rather than people. Whitehead compares Ajarry to an object being constantly weighed on a scale, her value as property continually reassessed from the day she is kidnapped until the day she dies in the fields.