The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I guess this book would have value to a reader unfamiliar with literature about slavery, from Frederick Douglas to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Roots to Beloved. This book might inform how the onslaught of Jim Crow crushed the hopes of freedom for former slaves. Whitehead does show the suffering of those held in bondage, their despair at any recourse including escape, and the terrible violence visited upon these American citizens that ended Reconstruction. The portrayal of the relentless efficacy of the oppressor’s reign led my mind to European and Asian extermination camps and ethnic cleansings of the Twentieth Century, similar to how Native Son evokes Dostoyevsky. Any reader must accept America’s equal place among nations as perpetrators of pain and death.

But Douglas, Harriet Beecher Stowe and other pre-Civil War writers succeeded in stirring their readers’ moral outrage at slavery’s evil. Then those who believed slavery ought to be abolished killed those who defended the institution in sufficient numbers to abolish it. Chattel slavery in the United States doesn’t exist, hasn’t existed for quite a while. Educating contemporary readers about slavery might involve reading these founding documents, rather than a new book.

To relate another tale of that suffering, with its cause long gone, must then serve other purposes. Some of these may not honor the sufferers. Feeding readers’ appetite for stories of degradation, even the thrill of the escape, might turn pages, but debase the memory of those actually whipped or terrorized. Rather than being called to witness, or hallow, or consecrate, the reader’s entertainment might distract from us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. Or if the story of suffering evokes only a reader’s pity for the afflicted and hatred for the perpetrators, these emotions might inhibit an embrace of our common humanity by distancing from both victim and tormentor.

A new book about an old horror might justify itself if it serves to heighten awareness of the agony that the assertion of white supremacy causes. A story that focused on the racism that pervades our present institutions would have enormous value. Police violence and mass incarceration of Eliza’s descendants urgently need another Douglas or Stowe.

I fear this new book doesn’t connect then to now in any useful way. Too easily a reader might assert that was then. We are not those people.

The book strives to link directly slave-times with what happened after the Union forces went home. Cora escapes from southern Georgia slavery, then travels through various experiences of her people in the decades after the violent demise of the new birth of freedom. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment did indeed dupe its Negro syphilis suffers into thinking they were being treated for their disease. White people did attempt a condescending “Negro uplift”. Remembrance of slavery, in museums and histories, did depict a diorama similar to the one Cora participated in.  There were counties in former Confederate states where white supremacists drove away all former slaves and their descendants. Lynchings were public spectacles. The separate-but-equal Rosewood settlement in Florida and others were indeed destroyed by resentful whites. Most of the old west, of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and the new states formed later, prohibited people of color from owning land, or even settling in their states. Eloquent speakers for the cause of liberation, from early organizers through Malcom X to Martin Luther King, were assassinated.

Conflating all these terrible occurrences into one person’s experience on her travels might suggest that all this happened in one lifetime. Events in the novel don’t unfold in any historical progression or development. Such a depiction severs history from time. History becomes a nightmare of misery without causation or choice. All events possessed the same psychic equivalence. This might be said to express the felt experience of a contemporary person of color as they contemplate the past. Whitehead’s story expresses trauma. Psychological experience becomes the memory of the past.

A work of art that seeks to do this might use such distortions of time and space to achieve its purposes. Whitehead didn’t consider he was writing history. But linking his story to historical occurrences might cause a reader familiar with the history to consider to what purpose was the bending of actual events in this fashion. Douglas and Stowe’s intentions in writing were quite clear. They wished their readers to be willing to kill or die to stop this evil. What is this new novel trying to do?

Whitehead’s novel seeks to replace one imagined past with another.  The events Cora participates in or witnesses become part of an origin story. This Is How We Got To Now. Continuous suffering and destruction push aside everything’s-okay-because-slavery’s-over. Cora travels deeper and deeper into doom. The reader gains little understanding of what forces produced terrible events at some times and places and not others. Cora’s travels show that evil white people cause inescapable suffering and death upon Africans and their descendants. No measures, despite the courage or resilience or intelligence of the sufferers or the few white people who seek to aid them ever matter in their human affairs. The future leads to the destruction of hopes. Only despair greets Cora. Such a story-telling in no way explains the triumphs of an oppressed people who continue to overcome. The writer might have called his story No Exit.

The novel confines Cora and her people as victims and nothing else. Viet Thanh Nuygen offers this critique of victimhood. Nuygen writes,

Being a victim also forecloses the chance to wield real power, which the majority is not inclined to grant the minority and the other, offering them instead victimization and voice, two doors into the same trap. Ethics forces us to examine the power that we wield and the harm we ourselves can do, the dilemma that when one acts or speaks, even in the service of ghosts, one can be victimizer and victim, guilty and innocent (quoted from his book, Nothing Ever Dies, Vietnam and the Memory of War, p. 196).

The imaginary tunnel system in the novel implies that only if a slave lived in a magical world would escape be possible. Otherwise Ridgeway and other slave-catchers achieve their objective of complete dominance. Yet America today, despite the racist blowhards, is far different than what Cora experienced. Still cruel, still racist, still fraught with much pain for the descendants of slaves, yet somehow those who remained and endured contributed much to the history and vitality of the culture of this country. Almost all African-Americans descend from people who lived their lives in places like Randall. They neither surrendered nor committed suicide. They suffered and kept on suffering but did not give up. They saw to it that the nightmare did not determine their lives or their future.

Cora and Caesar might have been escaping from Auschwitz, or the Gulag, or Ukraine during the Holodomor, or a re-education camp in Vietnam after the Great Patriotic War. There’s a universality to their danger, their travail, their defeats. A true historical mash-up would have had the underground railroad go to Ireland in the 1840’s; or China, where entire populations of cities and countrysides were massacred in their mid-19th Century civil war; or, what the heck, into Rwanda in the 1990s, where these two descendants of Africans escaping from southern Georgia might be slaughtered as despised Tutsis or Hutus. Such travels for Cora would have then invited the reader to contemplate the true mystery of human life contained in stories of suffering. Those that survive go on living as best they can. Then they pass on their hopes for a better life to the next generation. There’s much to admire in that, which might ennoble and empower, if the reader isn’t too distracted by feeling only pity for the victims, or despair that the suffering will never end.