“12 Years a Slave”; the remake of “Roots”; “Django Unchained”; “Birth of a Nation” and the upcoming TV series “Underground.”
As author Colson Whitehead has frequently discussed in interviews about his blockbuster new novel, The Underground Railroad, it seems like stories of slavery have surged into the spotlight in American entertainment recently. The Nigerian author Ben Okri even argued that an expectation of writing about slavery and racial injustice presents an obstacle to black writers, an imposition on their artistic freedom.
But Whitehead, the author of acclaimed novels such as The Intuitionist and Zone One, doesn’t quite see it that way. “There are more writers and directors and screenwriters dealing with Black history. Still too few,” he told Kima Jones in an interview for GQ. “I think if you want to understand Black history, it’s slavery. If you want to understand America, it’s slavery.”
In a political moment when conservative figures might still say that black people were happier during slavery, or had more family stability, and even white liberals are prone to thoughtless moves like proclaiming “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, we can’t pretend that Americans (at least white Americans) have been close to well-educated about the historical realities of slavery.
The Underground Railroad, which hit bookstores for a surprise early release this month in conjunction with a major Oprah endorsement, aims to understand black history in America ― and America’s messy, messed-up evolution ― through slavery. Fans of Whitehead won’t be surprised by his less-than-faithful historical approach, which melds vivid researched detail with speculative alternative history, and plays fast and loose with chronology and setting to create a more cohesive, overarching thematic exploration.
In the book, Cora, a young woman enslaved on a Georgia plantation, bears daily witness to the vicious discipline and grueling labor of the estate. When a new master with a particularly baroque taste in punishment arrives, she joins forces with Caesar, a newly purchased slave, who has asked her to flee with him, as a lucky charm, because her mother was the only slave who, years before, successfully escaped, never to return. They know the unspeakable torments and gruesome deaths that await them if they’re caught as they flee, or brought back by the dogged slave-catcher Ridgeway. But Caesar has a contact on the Underground Railroad.
Here the novel takes its first dip into the fantastical: The Underground Railroad is made manifest, not as a metaphorical name, but as a literal subway system shuttling runaways up north in rickety boxcars. Cora is grateful to the white station agents who usher her down to hidden platforms, but not blinded by worshipful gratitude to a white savior. Some are well-meaning but weak, quick to turn informant. Some only help to hide Cora to save their own skins from draconian punishments exacted upon those who aid escapees.
She and Caesar first stop off in South Carolina, and decide to stay there for some time. In Underground Railroad, the state represents a more insidious brand of white-on-black violence. The government buys up the slaves’ contracts to allow them to live freely, work for wages, and mingle with white people in the town. But each time they go to their mandated doctor appointments at the town’s new hospital, their blood is drawn for vague “testing,” and Cora is incessantly pressured to opt for sterilization. (For women with children or diagnosed “mental defects,” the sterilization is mandatory.) This eerie society, seemingly plunked into the novel from a dystopian fantasy, in fact draws in historically accurate ― and horrifying ― medical atrocities committed against black Americans, from the Tuskegee syphilis experiments to forced sterilization of black women.
As Cora flees, first to North Carolina, which has established a slave-free white supremacist state with enforcement tactics reminiscent of the Holocaust, and later to Indiana, Ridgeway remains relentlessly in pursuit. At one point, he catches her and tosses her in his wagon along with Jasper, an escaped slave whose ceaseless singing irritates Ridgeway so badly that he finally does the calculations, decides to forfeit the bounty from Jasper’s owner, and just shoots the slave in the head. It’s a chilling moment, for Cora as well as the reader, a realization that while the slave-catcher would personally benefit no more from shooting a runaway than from simply letting him go free, he still would choose to end the slave man’s life in bondage. “I’m a notion of order,” he tells Cora. “The slave that disappears ― it’s a notion, too. Of hope.”
The depressing drawback to Whitehead’s compelling, fluid blend of historical and speculative fiction, and his brilliant collapsing-together of time and place, might just be that so many readers today have been taught too little about America’s true, unvarnished history of slavery to easily spot how much gruesome truth the novel holds up, unflinchingly, to the light. And yet these glimpses of a buried history, too little discussed, embedded in Whitehead’s daringly crafted novel, should inspire more of us to keep talking, keep learning and keep reading.
In the journey of Cora, one determined and ingenious yet all-too-vulnerable woman, The Underground Railroad doesn’t present simply one journey from slave to free, one escape, one life of torment. This isn’t a neat narrative with a winning white savior or an indomitable black escapee at its heart; it resists optimism and a comfortable conclusion. Instead, Whitehead layers in racial injustices and atrocities typical of different times and places, and in doing so reveals the full range of how such crimes can be perpetrated.
Some were so shocking they may seem straight out of a slasher novel, others more insidious, but the relentless inhumanity toward black people in America changed only in presentation. Even once you’ve escaped, Cora comes to realize, you aren’t necessarily free.
The Bottom Line:
The Underground Railroad is an instant classic that makes vivid the darkest, most horrific corners of America’s history of brutality against black people.
What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: “[I]t is carefully built and stunningly daring; it is also, both in expected and unexpected ways, dense, substantial and important.”
NPR: “The Underground Railroad is an American masterpiece, as much a searing document of a cruel history as a uniquely brilliant work of fiction.”
Who wrote it?
Colson Whitehead has previously published several novels, including Zone One, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, and Sag Harbor. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and has received a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors.
Who will read it?
Readers who love dark speculative fiction, books that explore the jagged edges of America’s racial divide, and anyone who wants to read a really f**king great book.
“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”
“Ridgeway watched them stagger down the gangplanks, rheumy and bewildered, overcome by the city. The possibilities lay before these pilgrims like a banquet, and they’d been so hungry their whole lives. They’d never seen the likes of this, but they’d leave their mark on this new land, as surely as those famous souls at Jamestown, making it theirs through unstoppable racial logic. If niggers were supposed to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to take this new world, he wouldn’t own it now.”
The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead
Published Aug. 2, 2016
The Bottom Line is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.