Transcendent Kingdom Themes

The main themes in Transcendent Kingdom are trauma, belonging, and spirituality.

  • Trauma: Gifty reflects on how the traumas of racism, immigration, addiction, abandonment, and depression have affected her and her family.
  • Belonging: As a Black woman from an immigrant family, Gifty struggles to find true belonging in the various communities she encounters and often feels isolated.
  • Spirituality: After leaving the Christianity of her childhood behind, Gifty searches for answers in science, through which she experiences a sense of sacredness.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 17, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

Trauma

The book centers on the effects of one profoundly traumatic event in Gifty’s life: Nana’s death from a heroin overdose. Yet that event is both the result and the cause of other traumas, both personal and social.

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Their father’s return to Ghana hurts Nana deeply, a pain that becomes “a burden” whose “weight” he tries and fails to escape. This hurt is part of what drives Nana’s addiction. Nana’s death also leads to the depression and attempted suicide of Gifty’s mother, a second serious trauma for the young girl. All of these events become clearer when examined through the lens of the underlying cultural traumas the family experiences, those of racism and leaving behind one’s own country for a place where one is unwelcome.

The broad and deep cultural trauma of racism in the United States pervades the book, creating the “pure fury” that “consume[s]” Nana. Racism motivates their father to flee the country, another trauma for Nana and Gifty, and one that contributes to Nana’s anger and addiction. Racism drives Gifty to work relentlessly for excellence and expect perfection of herself. She knows that she can only convince people to treat her fairly by being as impressive as possible. The book also portrays the trauma of immigrating to a place that never becomes home. Moving to the United States kept Gifty’s mother from ever becoming “at ease” with herself or her surroundings.

The book portrays personal and cultural trauma as an unavoidable part of life, especially for people of color and immigrants. It suggests that one can live a happy life even after experiencing trauma, but only if one is both determined and fortunate. For Gifty, the positive ending to her story is hard-won.

Belonging

The book makes clear that Gifty and her family never quite belong in any of the communities around them. It explores the effects of being isolated and out of place wherever one goes: Gifty grows up in a Black African immigrant family in Alabama, worships as a member of the only Black family at her church, becomes an uncomfortable visitor to her parents’ home country, attends Harvard as a Black person who was raised an evangelical Christian in the South, and is a Black woman in a neuroscience lab at Stanford University. Gifty has never truly felt she belonged in any community, though she has experience with many.

The book implies that being isolated is in the nature of the Black experience in the United States, as well as the immigrant experience. When Nana starts using drugs, the church and town communities that once supported him turn their backs on him, showing Gifty that her family had never truly been part of those communities in the first place: “I saw my church, and I couldn’t unsee.” She does not belong in the religious South, nor in her parents’ home country of Ghana; while she is there, she cannot wait to go home and “forget everything [she] had learned” about the place. At Harvard, Anne and “her group of many-gendered, multi-racial friends” give Gifty hope that there might be “a place for [her] in that East Coast tundra.” Yet Anne ultimately fails to understand Gifty’s life and identity. At Stanford, Gifty does her best to fit in by trying to keep anyone from thinking about her race or gender, a painful and isolating experience in itself.

Spirituality

Throughout her life and into the present day, Gifty has constantly tried to make sense of her world and find answers to the big questions about human life. As a child, she believes that the religion she is raised in holds those answers. Over time, however, her social and personal traumas prevent her from belonging in the religious community and make it difficult for her to believe in God. She grows away from the church and starts exploring those questions through science instead. In science, she finds a spirituality of sorts, though she does not want to call it that. Her work helps her appreciate the holiness of living beings and their connections with each other.

Yet that sense of holiness never answers Gifty’s most important questions about human life. Even in the epilogue, Gifty is still searching. She sits in the church, but she does not pray: “I sit in blessed silence, and I remember. I try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all.” Older Gifty seems happy, content with her life and relationships with the people around her, but life is still unclear and confusing. It always will be, the book suggests, and that is all right.

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