Violent realities in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
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Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of the rare American novels that brings the smell of slavery up into the reader’s nose: We inhabit Cora’s body, we run with her, and we dream her dreams. Yet even more strikingly, The Underground Railroad teaches us how to write history—in this case, a history of race and labor in America—without triumphalist scaffolding.
In this, Whitehead’s sixth novel, past and present sit jowl to jowl. Instead of moving forward through time, we take a Swiftian journey between imaginary lands. In each new place, Whitehead amplifies a different aspect of American racial violence. The book’s guiding character, Cora, travels along a literalized Underground Railroad to places as unreal as the island of Lilliput. Yet these creations are also real enough that the reader must pause a moment, half-wanting to check them against her history books.
We begin on the Randall plantation in Georgia, where Cora and her mother were born. Georgia’s extreme violence marks Cora and everyone around her. After she runs, plantation-owner Terrance Randall obsesses over her absence, as does a slave-catcher named Ridgeway. Indeed, Cora’s escape changes not just her life, but the lives of nearly everyone she meets.
South Carolina is Cora’s first stop. This is a Tuskegee-experiment land, a place of compulsory sterilizations, aggressive eugenics, clever technology, and a single skyscraper. Whitehead even knits in an elevator, a wormhole to one of his previous novels, The Intuitionist. To Cora, South Carolina seems like freedom, at least at first. Although Ridgeway remains a threat, this is not the place of regular whippings that Georgia was. Cora becomes different here, changing her name to Bessie and managing her own day-to-day life.
Yet the name change is not by choice: In her first flight, Cora and two other slaves ran into a group of whites. A boy grappled with Cora, and she accidentally killed him. Throughout the novel, she never knows how to think about this boy’s death.
In “progressive” South Carolina, Cora/Bessie lives in a dormitory and works for a white family. Later, she’s assigned a job at a natural-history museum where she performs in exhibits on Africa and plantations. This feels like an improvement over Georgia, but it’s not long before Cora understands the authorities’ goals: African-American women who are labeled mentally ill are forcibly sterilized. Men are given syphilis to see how it spreads.
The next stop, North Carolina, is an entirely different place. This is not the land of slavery or eugenics, but of the Klan. Here, African-Americans are being killed, singly or in groups, and Irish labor imported in their stead. Every Friday, in every town in North Carolina, there is a spectacle in the town square: a speech, perhaps some music, always a lynching.
By the time Cora arrives, the locals are having trouble finding new victims. In a foretaste of the NSA, the white population willingly submits to random searches of their homes and horse-carts. Indeed, they even boast of being searched. For several months, Cora hides in a secret compartment above an attic in one of the Railroad’s dead-ends. Eventually, she is outed by the family’s Irish maid. Searchers burst in, led by Ridgeway, and he drags her away.
The next stop in Cora’s Gulliverian horror tour is burnt-out, yellow-fever-wracked Tennessee. As she is forced through the state, she muses on the nature of power, progress, religion, work, ownership, and freedom. Cora is as densely real as any character found in contemporary fiction, but Whitehead doesn’t limit her. Her word choice may reflect a lack of education, but any philosophizing that Whitehead might do, Cora might, too.
In Tennessee, Cora is liberated by Underground Railroad workers who take her on a different, well-appointed Underground line. She comes to a fifth land: Indiana. Here, Cora lives on a successful cooperative farm that’s populated by a broad spectrum of African-Americans. It’s visited by poets and lawyers, musicians and speakers. Cora even tries to let herself grow toward love.
Yet even in Indiana Cora remains at the margins. She is not only a runaway, but a “criminal,” and a segment of the farm population fears her stigma. If they want to get on with white society, the influential Mingo argues, then they had better accommodate. Mingo is right about one thing: Whites will not suffer this paradise to stand.
The magic of The Underground Railroad is many-sided, but at the front is how tightly Whitehead holds together the absurd and the real. Nearly all characters are a mix of the prosaic and the queer. Ridgeway is a brutish slave-catcher who takes Cora’s flight as an affront to his manhood. Yet he also gives speeches on Manifest Destiny while a neatly dressed black boy in his employ, Homer, jots down his phrases in a notebook.
The same is true of each state-island where the Railroad goes. History books assure us that North Carolinians never lynched so many African-Americans that a path of dead bodies tracked all across the state. And yet it feels as though this must have happened, or be happening, somewhere just beyond our reach.
Even though Cora does make improvements in her life—reading Gulliver’s Travels, for instance—there is no straightforward historical progress: the plantations, euthanizers, Railroad, Klan, and self-determination all exist simultaneously, in different places on the map. Yaa Gyasi’s moving 2016 novel Homegoing attempts a similar feat, depicting the scope of racial control over several American centuries. It follows two sisters’ descendants, one chapter per generation, until the present. The end, perhaps unavoidably, gives a sense of historical accomplishment.
By contrast, Whitehead removes the arc of happily ever after. It’s not totally absent for Cora, who after all deserves a bit of rest. But he holds it away from the reader, who is left with all these violent realities: past, present, and future.