“The Underground Railroad”: A Newfangled Re-Telling of the United States’ Tragic Sin

Underground Railroad
Art by Rachel Zhang

The unforeseen return of intense racial tensions in the United States, exacerbated by Trump’s hotly discussed presidential campaign and victory, invited impassioned disputes that often blew up into nothing but bitter name-calling.

In the midst of these debates, a story emerged that revisited the roots of the race issue, prodding the human conscience more than any argument could.

It soon garnered an incredible amount of critical acclaim. On the day of its publication, the book clinched a spot on Oprah’s Book Club for the month, and two months later, it nabbed the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.

“The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s latest work of historical fiction, turns the metaphor of an underground railroad into a reality. Set in the antebellum South, Cora, a young teenage slave blooming into womanhood and discovering its burden, escapes from the infernal Randall cotton plantation in Georgia and her master’s chilling sexual eye with a fellow slave, Caesar, through the use of a secret underground circuitry of railroad tracks and trains.

Constructed and manned by people of all skin colors sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, the underground railroad branches throughout the South to the North, taking Cora on a wild ride to freedom.

Whitehead’s decision to use a literal railroad adds an element of magic realism to Cora’s story, allowing him to play around with fantasy grounded in truth throughout the book.

“And so I bring in the Tuskegee experiments. I bring in [some] sort of Nazism and white supremacy,” the author explained in an interview at the BookExpo America in Chicago. “And even though it takes place in 1850, I’m allowed to rove in these different kind of modes and bring in a lot of different aspects of American history in a way that I couldn’t if I was . . .  sticking to the facts.”

While the railroad lends Whitehead a powerful literary tool, it simultaneously makes Cora’s escape less thrilling. The trip from one hidden station to another is almost too easy, too magical, the complete opposite of what a real trip on the historical underground railroad was like.

Ridgeway, the terrifying slave catcher chasing her heels, is arguably the sole character keeping the plot suspenseful.

Still, Cora’s realization of the inescapable nature of her chains is executed well.

Even as the protagonist travels farther away from the plantation, she never feels truly free, with a powerful understanding that she is forever branded, not only by her master, but also by memories of the plantation and of her perilous escape. Cora’s only physical scar is from a blow to the temple by Randall’s cane, and she initially considers herself lucky that her skin was never burned with a puckering mark, as slaves on other plantations were. However, as Cora’s journey progresses through the border states, taking on a darker tone, she thinks, “But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

Cora’s thoughts affirm that Whitehead’s detailed descriptions of the barbarism are not gratuitous moments included for the sake of moving the plot; the detached, matter-of-fact manner in which the scenes are narrated suggest that the author himself is unwilling to look too closely into the horrific violence.

On the plantation, Cora witnesses her master torturing a runaway slave. Randall’s visitors sip spiced rum as Big Anthony is “doused with oil and roasted . . . spared his screams, as his manhood had been cut off on the first day, stuffed in his mouth, and sewn in.”

South Carolina, her first stop, is ostensibly a haven, where she is able to find work as a nanny and build a new life with a new name, Bessie Carpenter. However, she uncovers that the neighborhood of free blacks is unknowingly part of an insidious human experiment and that she had played a part.

North Carolina is no better; as she rides into the town hidden in the wagon of the conductor, she sees streams of hanged black people swinging on branches, cruelly dubbed the “Freedom Trail” by the white denizens, who intend on completely exterminating the race in their state.

Although the book’s graphic scenes are utterly unforgettable, the characters are not. At each step of Cora’s symbolic re-building of herself, new characters are introduced, and others fade into the background, but they all seem strangely indistinct, contrary to what the author appears to be attempting by naming most of the chapters after a character: crafting individual stories that come together, not a chunk of history.

Whitehead does the greatest injustice to Cora, who should have been better fleshed out: at the end of the 306 pages, we still lack a sense of what she stands for. Her emotions are rarely described. We know Cora is rather pessimistic, distrustful of religion and of what she thinks are meaningless prayers, but she also doesn’t trust herself or anyone else.

In addition, the nature of Cora’s relationship with Caesar is ambiguous, and her small romantic fling in Indiana feels like a filler, lacking any real substance.

This lack of character development takes a toll on the story. Perhaps we only follow Cora because we are more attached to the freedom we want for her, rather than to her as a human, taking away from the reader’s investment into the characters and giving off the sense that the plot is lagging.

Ultimately, however, the essence of the story and the questions it raises make it a rewarding, necessary read. Stories like these matter not just to African Americans, but to everyone, not only because of the frightening consequences slavery has on our country’s contemporary issues but also, on a more hypothetical note, because it could have been anyone at the whipping post.

The book isn’t perfect, but Whitehead’s words skillfully encapsulate America’s rotten, embarrassing history that history textbooks gloss over: “The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they had denied others . . . Stolen bodies working stolen land.”  

It’s important to remember that living in this country should make us proud, but looking back at our mistakes is just as critical, because our country is branded, just as Cora and other slaves were. We can’t ever fully scrub off the repercussions of slavery, although we had thoroughly convinced ourselves that we could.

It’s easy to separate the content of our personal bookshelves from current events, but maybe it’s our responsibility as the younger generation to occasionally close our romance novels and open a book describing what our ancestors have done wrong, in all its ugly details, and promise to do better.

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