States of Possibility
a review by Abby Falck
Whitehead, Colson. “The Underground Railroad”
2016, 320 pages, hardcover, $26.95
“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”
With “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead invites readers into his masterfully-wrought account of race relations in the United States, wrapped in the story of an epic journey. While this is a conversation between the past and present, Whitehead starts at the roots.
Cora’s grandmother was sold a few times on the trek to the fort, passed between slavers for cowrie shells and glass beads. It was hard to say how much they paid for her in Ouidah as she was part of a bulk purchase, eighty-eight human souls for sixty crates of rum and gunpowder, the price arrived upon after the standard haggling in Coast English. Able-bodied men and childbearing women fetched more than juveniles, making an individual accounting difficult.
The Nanny was out of Liverpool and had made two previous stops along the Gold Coast. The captain staggered his purchases, rather than find himself with cargo of singular culture and disposition. Who knew what brand of mutiny his captives might cook up if they shared a common tongue. This was the ship’s final port of call before they crossed the Atlantic. Two yellow-haired sailors rowed Ajarry out to the ship, humming. White skin like bone.
Whitehead has said that the idea for “The Underground Railroad” began to germinate 16 years ago, but at the time, he didn’t feel he had the experience or skill to tackle such a broad and complex subject as U.S. race relations. That’s a fair assessment; the book he was working on at the turn of the millennium, “John Henry Days,” has a similar focus on race and bridges between past and present but lacks the mastery of story-craft and language that make “The Underground Railroad” so exceptional. Years later, Whitehead shows he knows how to hook readers and keep them—fast-paced plot gives way to measured world-building and characterization, then picks up speed again, in alternating rhythm. The writing is rich and expressive; beautiful writing is used to create an ugly world. The contrast generates a feeling of revulsion author Chuck Palahniuk might envy.
Whitehead creates a story of Ajarry, a slave girl who was kidnapped and sold, from trader to trader and master to master, until she finally could no longer put up a fight. Still, she passed that willpower down to her granddaughter, Cora, who was 11 years old when her mother ran away and had just entered puberty when four slave-hands raped her. Trauma upon trauma slashed across Cora’s psyche in a cross-hatch of open wounds.
Five years after her mother’s escape, a thoughtful field hand named Caesar recognizes Cora’s iron will and realizes he needs her alongside him if he’s to have any chance of making it north.
Life on the Randall cotton plantation in Georgia is marked by occasional extremities of punishment and torture, but the narrative’s main focus is on the quotidian humiliations and casual inhumanity of white supremacy, “the travesties so routine and familiar that they were a kind of weather.” Whitehead’s narrative is well aware of how black suffering has historically been put on display to menace blacks and entertain whites—it calls attention to this history multiple times—and it refuses to participate. Cora’s rape and whippings are referred to but not described. Only once does the book detail the punishment of a slave, in a scene so sadistically twisted it becomes grotesque. Even Cora’s antagonist, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway, notes that the Randall plantation is exceptional.
The newspapers liked to impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa. Folks enjoyed that sort of thing, and it was politically useful given the combat with the northern states and the antislavery movement. Ridgeway knew that image to be false—he didn’t need to dissemble about the business of slavery—but neither was the menace of the Randall plantation the truth. The place was haunted. Who could blame the slaves their sad comportment with that corpse twisting on a hook outside?
The point is not to show what was normal, but what was possible—white dandies observing with impunity the medieval torture and execution of a black man. It’s a scene to interrogate the psyche of every white person who has clicked on the latest viral video of police brutality. It sets Cora’s determination to be free.
Caesar has made a contact in the Underground Railroad, and it’s to this contact that he and Cora flee. Here, readers who have avoided any promotion about the book will discover this is not a strictly historical novel.
“In general,” Whitehead said in an interview with NPR, “the technology, culture, and speech is from the year 1850,” but his vision of the Underground Railroad is more true to its name—a steam engine passing through massive, hand-hewn tunnels below the earth’s surface. This piece of the fantastic primes the reader for what’s to come: an alternate history in which events and attitudes from throughout the nation’s past are blended with Colson’s own imaginings. Each state that Cora travels through expresses a different answer to the “black problem,” an idea of how things might have gone. Try not to ask too many questions about coal smoke and ventilation, and enjoy the ride.
Tensions between the Slave States and Free States are running high as the South’s agricultural machine grinds up human fuel while abolitionist activists in the north work diligently to circumvent fugitive slave laws. South Carolina, here an economic powerhouse and destination for black flight on par with post-Civil War Chicago, has taken a relatively progressive stance to the slavery problem.
Most of the colored folk in the state had been bought up by the government. Saved from the block in some cases or purchased at estate sales. Agents scouted the big auctions. The majority were acquired from whites who had turned their back on farming. Country life was not for them, even if planting was how they had been raised and their family heritage. This was a new era. The government offered very generous terms and incentives to relocate to the big towns, mortgages and tax relief.
The ex-slaves are housed in government dormitories, offered a basic education and a trade, food and healthcare. Cora and Caesar have settled into comfortable lives as a nanny and factory worker, respectively. Though still haunted by the trauma of slavery, they have adjust better than most and decide to stay. Cora gets a new job, as part of a museum display that purports to show the history and lives of African-Americans. Despite a terrible revelation about the true intentions behind the government’s beneficence, it’s not until the slave catcher finds them that Cora is spurred to flee again, one state north. Although the direction is good in theory, her actual landing place could not be worse.
In North Carolina, she discovers, white people are terrified of slave revolts and black vengeance. Their solution is to outlaw black people altogether and replace their labor with indentured Irish and German workers. Bucolic towns celebrate the genocide with a weekly minstrel show and lynching. Further on, in Virginia, slaves are allowed a great deal of freedom and families are often kept intact, unless it’s inconvenient to their owners. Tennessee is barren, laid waste by a massive wildfire. In Indiana, now a Free State, Cora finds refuge in a community of black farmers and homesteaders who live in strained and resentful peace with their white neighbors.
As an author, Whitehead is a bit of a tease. He foreshadows major events, tells them up to the climax of the action, and then inserts a short, seemingly unrelated chapter that biographies one of the secondary characters. When the book returns to Cora’s story, it jumps forward in time and establishes a new setting and characters before eventually returning to the earlier action through flashbacks. The effect is highly compelling, if occasionally frustrating.
For the most part, these interstitial chapters are interesting and valuable to the story at hand: they introduce Arnold Ridgeway—the slave catcher who pursues Cora with Ahab-like passion, they round out Caesar’s background, and they reveal what happened to Cora’s mother after her escape. One exception is a chapter focused on Doctor Stevens, a character who barely appears in the novel; his backstory is wholly unrelated to the rest of the plot. Why Whitehead chose to digress on the distasteful practices that supplied cadavers to medical schools is unclear; at this point in the book, he has already—much more effectively—expounded on racism in the medical field, and the chapter doesn’t add anything to the conversation or the plot. It feels out of place, a strangely boring diversion in a book otherwise marked by very deliberate artistic decisions.
It’s possible, at least in theory, to read “The Underground Railroad” as simply a compelling, well-written story, but it would be difficult to miss every bit of reference and symbolism. Built into the plot and world-building is a conversation, the one we are all engaged in at some level, about the role of race and racism in the United States. “In America,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in “Between the World and Me,” “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” To show that heritage more clearly, Whitehead has cut pieces from it and sewn them together into a crazy quilt, this imagined version of history, his contribution to the cultural dialog.
“And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body,” Coates writes to his son.
“Patrol was not difficult work,” replies Whitehead in “The Underground Railroad.” “They stopped any niggers they saw and demanded their passes. They stopped niggers they knew to be free, for their amusement but also to remind the Africans of the forces arrayed against them.”
Spread the quilt before you and examine its pieces: here is stop-and-frisk, here are the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, here is birth-control-as-eugenics. Here is Ajarry beating her children in fearful hope that “they’ll obey all the masters to come and they will survive.” Here are young men fighting amongst themselves because there is nowhere else for their rage to go. Whitehead writes, “Take it out on each other if you cannot take it out on the ones who deserve it.” Here is the contemporary placed in its context, the lines binding present to past laid bare. Those lines seem like unbreakable chains at times, shackling this country to a Sisyphean repetition of its history. For those who prefer a nonfiction version of “The Underground Railroad,” Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” describes the historical cycle of black liberation and white backlash that has now brought us a Trump presidency. Whitehead’s character, Cora, seems trapped in a personal version of this pattern, repeatedly escaping persecution only to discover herself under a new system of oppression. South Carolina seems idyllic at first—how could it not?—but gradually Cora realizes that slavery has been replaced by other, more insidious forms of oppression. She escapes that state only to find herself at the mercy of North Carolina’s racial cleansing. When she finally makes it to a black collective farm in Indiana, she feels truly free for the first time, but even here, racial tensions smolder like hot coals, waiting to burst into flame.
Trauma, suggests “The Underground Railroad,” is a wound that will never heal as long as insecure whites keep reopening the wound. Little hope brightens the novel’s somber, almost fatalistic tone. Cora finds no comfort in Christianity, discerns no karmic scales balancing the universe. Cora knows: “Plantation justice was mean and constant, but the world was indiscriminate. Out in the world, the wicked escaped comeuppance and the decent stood in their stead at the whipping tree.”
Still, there is a sense that a better world is possible. Despite all the lessons of history, Cora drives on in search of a place where she might live in peace, her own vine and fig tree. Progress moves in stutter-steps, but it does move. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. Perhaps the next escape will be the last one. In the end, Whitehead offers no false promises, only the reassurance that the journey continues.
Abby Falck is a rebel Vulcan teenager, artist, and youth-services librarian in Chicago. They review young adult literature at teenlib.tumblr.com.