Tragically, there is still resonance in this awful tale that jibes with modern America, a place where African-American men are still routinely mistreated and harassed by the police
While literature by African-American writers is more important now more than ever with our government’s non-stop assault on civil liberties, Colson Whitehead’s National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, takes the slave narrative and makes it a chilling warning for our times. Rather than write about Harriet Tubman and her network of freemen and sympathetic whites working together to get runaway slaves to the North, Whitehead instead visualizes an actual railroad, running under the earth.
The Underground Railroad follows the travails of a Cora, a slave who decides to flee the wretched conditions of the Georgia plantation where she was born. At the insistence of another slave named Caesar, Cora finally decides to press her luck after witnessing one atrocity after another on the plantation. Whitehead does not spare the reader the lash of his vicious overlords and while some of the gruesome violence borders on too much, it is important that we understand just horrific Cora’s life is there and why running away is imperative to her survival.
Cora and Caesar embark on an episodic journey that takes them from the plantation to South Carolina and beyond. Each stop contains its own box of horrors as Cora wonders about the fate of her mother, a slave who fled the same plantation years before and was never heard from again. Whitehead populates his story with nuanced and eccentric characters, some who arrive to help Cora and Caesar, while others are there to hunt them down. Especially interesting is Ridgeway, an Irish slave hunter who could not catch Cora’s mother and has since made apprehending the daughter his personal goal to redeem that failure.
The author breaks up Cora’s journey with interstitial sections that add depth and shading to minor characters. We learn why a woman who takes Cora in really wants to help her. Whitehead fleshes out Cora’s family tree by introducing us to her grandma Ajarry, and showing us how she came to the United States. We also meet a doctor who moonlights as a graverobber. These vignettes go beyond world-building and show us just how integral, and awful, slavery had become to American society.
Still, the horror of slavery is what lingers after The Underground Railroad ends. Whitehead understands that no one is safe in this epoch and many characters, beloved or otherwise, meet terrible ends. Yet, violence and rape are facts of life here and Whitehead doesn’t revel in showing us hangings and dismemberments. It’s all there to remind us just how dire it is that Cora makes it to the fabled North and leaves behind the ruinous South. Sadly, there are a few times when Cora thinks she finds peace at last, yet she soon learns the truth behind the veneer of calm and must flee again.
Tragically, there is still resonance in this awful tale that jibes with modern America, a place where African-American men are still routinely mistreated and harassed by the police. It is impossible to rest assured that the atrocities taking place in The Underground Railroad are a thing of the past. All of these things come from somewhere. The white men in the novel believe they are acting in the name of public safety. It’s no wonder that someone would want to flee. Unfortunately, we don’t have a magical railroad waiting to escort us away from Trump’s America. Whitehead and The Underground Railroad leave us with a bit of hope, however. It’s a nod to the resiliency of mankind and the need to understand the past if we hope to survive the present.