The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead; 2016
In what has been a year so far of almost exclusively (disappointing) thrillers, Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award winner, The Underground Railroad, reminded me why I spend so much time reading. Cora is a young slave on the Randall farm, a cotton plantation in Georgia that is a synthesis of every horror ever told about slavery: slaves are beaten and raped for amusement, attempted escapes to freedom are met with public displays of execution, and women are used as breeders for more slaves. Cora bears her own scarlet letter, as her mother escaped the plantation when Cora was young, making her the only slave who succeeded in disappearing from the Randall planation to freedom in the North. Cora lives in a kind of exile in Hob house, a conglomerate of female slaves who have been rejected by the rest. Eventually, a way out arrives in the form of Caesar, an educated slave on the plantation who tells Cora about the underground railroad which can lead them to freedom.
A familiar narrative so far, but in in Whitehead’s rendering the underground railroad is not only a secret network of safe houses and passageways, but a network of safe houses where you can open a trapdoor in the floor and find a functioning railroad with actual steam engines and boxcars running beneath. Although imaginative – and certainly wondrous – Whitehead only shows the railroad occasionally, making Cora’s tale of escape towards freedom more realistic. First, in South Carolina, the state seems to have a more liberal attitude toward former slaves, and Cora and Caesar settle there until more sinister plans for their destiny are revealed. From there, it’s back on the train to several more stops: North Carolina, where they have abolished slavery and are also keen on abolishing the entire race; Tennessee, barren and hostile; Indiana, a temporary safe haven; finally, the North. With each stop, Cora is pursued by the bloodthirsty slavecatcher, Ridgeway.
The timing of this novel – with President Obama’s departure from the White house, with so much social change and unrest – is everything. The Underground Railroad did for me what (sorry, Zadie – I’m still your #1 fan!) Swing Time didn’t. It’s the novel we need right now; it’s more than a novel about race, it’s also highly concerned with narrative authenticity and authority, how the past influences the present and future – similar to Zadie Smith’s past novels, particularly NW. Whitehead’s novel is also about all of the different ways in which black history has been stolen by white narrators. Cora, too, is very aware of her own narrative changing with white hands:
“No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or even butchered for a tangle. But nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other wide of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”
It’s page after page of horror, murder, cruelty. But it’s an important book right now. Whitehead never strikes hard on the parallels between America’s current racial crisis and his slave narrative, but it’s all you can think about while reading it.
Must read, must read, must read!
“Black hands build the White House, the seat of our nation’s government. The word we. We are not one people but many different people. How can one person speak for this great, beautiful race – which is not one race but many, with a million desires and hopes and wishes for ourselves and for our children […] All I truly know is that we rise and fall as one, one colored family. We may not know the way through the forest, but we can pick each other up when we fall, and we will arrive together.”