Book Notes: A slave’s path to freedom
“The Underground Railroad” By Colson Whitehead. Doubleday, New York, 2016. 306 pages. $26.95.
Author Colson Whitehead has said during interviews that he did extensive research before writing his newly published and much-discussed novel, “The Underground Railroad.” Among the works he consulted were slaves’ oral histories gathered by the WPA and published slave narratives. No doubt they were as grueling to bear witness to as his novel is.
And that’s what an immersion into “The Underground Railroad” feels like — bearing reluctant witness, not only to a system of commerce reliant on the labors of a stolen and enslaved populace, but bearing witness to the human capacity for cruelty fully enabled. Whitehead takes a straightforward point of view that, while graphic, refuses dramatic flourishes.
“The Underground Railroad” is strange and mysterious, more so in retrospect. Whitehead brings his readers into the world of his imagination so smoothly and skillfully that nothing feels odd till the final wrenching away. Cora, a third-generation slave, is abandoned by her mother when Cora is 11-years-old. Cora, her mother Mabel and her grandmother Ajarry, all work on the Randall plantation in Georgia picking cotton. Connelly, the field boss, uses physical punishment routinely. No one escapes whippings and women are regularly and violently assaulted. The plantation owners, the Randall brothers, layer on additional savagery. Terrance is particularly sadistic.
Escape is nearly impossible. The high bounties that are put on escaped slaves drive slave catchers, disaffected freedmen, frightened whites (so many slaves are needed to satisfy the demand for cotton that blacks begin to outnumber whites) and law enforcement to hunt them down. In “The Underground Railroad” the hunt for escaped slaves is relentless. Once caught, slaves are just as likely to be made an example of as to be returned to the fields to work. Sometimes the return on investment is less important than a white plantation owner’s sense of honor. He, and most others, cannot be bested by a black.
Because Cora’s mother escaped, Cora holds a certain power over people’s imaginations. Caesar, also on the Randall plantation, wants to escape. He approaches Cora, who eventually agrees to accompany him. Perhaps escape and the eventual violent, often fatal capture is preferable to suicide.
Cora and Caesar do escape, but Cora is raped. While trying to get away, she kills a man, earning herself more trouble. Now she is a murderer. The couple is eventually brought down into a tunnel that is 20 feet tall and of indeterminate length. Steel tracks run the length of the tunnel. This railroad is operated underground by African Americans and abolitionists. It isn’t the metaphorical path that funneled slaves and endangered freedmen through sympathizers’ homes till they got to safety in Canada or elsewhere. This is a tunnel, dug out of the earth and lined with steel track. No one knows where all the tracks go. Some are discovered and closed down.
Some are rudimentary and others are luxurious. The black engineer, a jolly fellow, tells her to look outside to view “the true face of America.” But she’s in a tunnel. It’s pitch black and lacks any indication where it’s going.
Fiction and fact twist to form a series of wrenching chapters, usually with Cora as the focus. She is tough, observant, not prone to panic and increasingly radicalized. When she gets to South Carolina, where blacks are welcome, she is put to work in an odd cultural museum called the Museum of Natural Wonders. She is an exhibit there, sometimes in “Scenes from Africa” and sometimes in “A Typical Day on the Plantation.” She homes in on a pair of interested viewer’s eyes and she levels a hard stare that channels her complex reaction outward. The tableau she animates is nothing like the reality.
For a long while Cora hides in a tiny, sweltering attic space in North Carolina. She endures a state of inertia reminiscent of Anne Frank’s attic imprisonment. Cora’s body is stilled and painfully contorted, but her mind powers on. North Carolina is hostile to African Americans. For economic reasons and because of the shrinking white majority, plantation owners replace black slaves with paid immigrant labor. Blacks are banned. Cora’s hiding space looks out upon the Freedom Trail, a road that seems to stretch to infinity and that is lined with the hanging corpses of blacks. Cora is eventually found out and the couple that reluctantly houses her is captured, too.
Cora’s journey is made up of bad luck and chance encounters that move her further along the underground railroad. Readers eye the chain of words to come with growing dread. Escape is a greater fantasy than the underground railroad, it seems. Blacks were kidnapped from their homes in Africa, stored in warehouses, shackled, shipped in lots that didn’t include their own people, sold, murdered if unfit, bred, separated from family members, and put to work. For many, this cycle repeated itself numerous times. Slaves didn’t know their birthdates or their parents.
Cora is a watcher. She also reads. She is 11 when the novel starts and 15 or so at the end. She is the one Whitehead chooses to give voice to the human drama set in 1850. Because Cora does not give in to her fears and does not often dwell on the traumas she has endured, this presentation of slavery through her eyes is brutal yet dispassionate in a way that allows us to read on.
The invention of an underground railroad is fascinating but its existence complicates things. There’s the problem of fact versus fiction. By installing a fantastical railroad, Whitehead opens the door to doubt. What else in this harrowing novel is false? Prone to easy dismissal?
If only “The Underground Railroad” would change lives and minds in this perplexing era of conspiracy theories and accusations of racism in politics. But art won’t be bent by will. A readership that trusts the truth of the story may be what’s needed but Whitehead is a storyteller, too.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at email@example.com Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.