Written for The National Book Review
The Underground Railroad, written by Colson Whitehead, leads us through a journey taken by a runaway slave in search of freedom. The point of the book is not to learn about the realities of slavery and educate ourselves on our own history; but rather it is to ask the question: Was freedom ever a real status for colored people in America? Published in 2016, Whitehead takes a new twist on slavery. With his intertwined ironic tone and somewhat dramatic irony, Whitehead allows the reader to learn in a way that feeds off of our, hopefully accurate, previous knowledge. The novel takes place in many settings, a plantation in Georgia, a literal Underground Railroad, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and a long hoped for, mysterious place, simply called “The North.” In looking at the table of contents in the beginning of the book, it seems like quite the journey. Of course it is for a slave looking to escape bondage but in reality, it is the same story over and over and this is the essence of Colson Whitehead’s novel.
The Underground Railroad, formed in the early 1800’s, was a series of safe houses for runaway slaves looking to make a better life for themselves. Run by faithful, brave, abolitionists, the Underground Railroad brought hope and salvation to many slaves. This is not entirely the same railroad that is experienced in Whitehead’s novel. In his novel, the Railroad is in fact a real railroad; however, the details of the railroad remain ambiguous and the use of the Railroad by runaways seems to rely primarily on very large, extremely terrifying leaps of faith. But being a human being in an entitled, egotistical, Manifest Destiny world, stripped of all rights, sold time and time again, and living on the mercy of your owner, what do you really have to lose? “The steel ran north and south presumably, springing from inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.” In other words, there was no telling where the Railroad went, where it came from, or where you were headed when you boarded one of the trains that appeared at random hours. Colson’s distinct difference of Railroads brings a bit of irony into the novel. First being that there is a loud, man-made, constantly operating train running right underneath the noses of slavers and slave catchers. A big slap in the face for either person when you consider how obvious a train and system of networks should have been. The second bit of irony being that the Railroad was built by the hands and at the expense of previous slaves. Built for freedom and one day to establish a “new nation,” the Railroad could not have been made possible without slavery. Along with this, the continuing reliance on the Railroad signifies how a runaway is never truly free. Escaping the bondage of slavery just to rely on a system built on slavery so that you may live forever shackled by the chains of fear and oppressed by the racism of the White people around you. Once again, Colson Whitehead implies: is freedom really attainable?
The novel opens with a chapter on Cora, the protagonist’s, grandmother and this helps to reveal Cora’s background on the Randal Plantation, the grounds on which she was born and raised. At the age of 16, Cora escapes the Plantation and travels through many states, hoping one day to reach “The North,” but running into trouble at every turn. Through each state, the reality of her denied freedom hits her in the face but also strengthens her with every punch. She first ends up in South Carolina, an oddly advanced place for the time. Now owned by the government, she is free to do as she pleases, or rather she is as free as a runaway can be when the necessity to be owned by someone or something is still present. Life goes well for a while until she gets placed in a job at a museum and has an unnerving encounter with a new doctor. First, as is well known, museums are in existence to preserve history and educate those who cannot remember it first hand. “Like a railroad, the museum permitted them to see the rest of the country beyond their small experience.” This sounds enlightening but it is very ironic. The slaves on the Underground Railroad are indeed permitted to see the rest of the country as they hop from place to place, yet they are also permitted to come to the realization that no matter where they travel, they will be owned by someone and will never truly be free. In knowing nothing truly changes, is traveling even needed to really experience the rest of the country? Evident in Cora’s job at the museum, she is placed in three small rooms as an “actor” in a “living exhibit”, each conveying a piece of African history in the context of America. “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation” all downplay the harshness of slavery as Cora and her coworkers act out false jobs. As her boss argues, “while the authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions.” In other words, the room was too small that representing the real reality of a slave was not possible. Or rather, the small mindedness of the people could not encompass the pain and weight inflicted on the Africans who were now obeying ridiculous orders on the other side of the exhibit glass. Even when given the opportunity to be authentic as each title of the room in truth encompasses an aspect of the slave life, the efforts are shut down due to “budget” and “dimensions.” All valid excuses to someone who does not want to “speak on the true disposition of the world.” Freedom, in the slave sense, would come from learning from history and doing something different, and it just may be more of a dream than a goal as Whitehead again implies in this section. As mentioned previously, each story is the same. Each place allows for a sliver of hope to grow yet the journey ends with the unfailing reality of the lack of freedom and Colson Whitehead does this through his dramatic irony; the presentation of a circumstance knowing that the audience will pick up on the absurdity and the real meaning of it while the characters continue to act in questionably justifiable ways.
We find irony again as Whitehead analyzes the difference between a slave and those helping a slave escape. Along the way, Cora receives help from many White people connected to the Underground Railroad. Cora’s interactions allows Colson Whitehead to define three types of people in his novel, those who believe slavery is a “necessary evil” and the slaves must obey their masters as the Bible says, those who believe it is the “American imperative,” and those who simply believe that slavery is an “affront before God”. The common abolitionist being the latter of the three. Whitehead again puts use to his version of dramatic irony when Cora asks one of her hosts “You feel like a slave?” and “You were born to it [harboring slaves]? Like a slave?” to which her host has no answer. The irony being that they may feel like slaves, as Cora recognizes they are also “prisoners” like her, “shackled to fear,” yet given the color of their skin, they have the ability to stop and change. None of the hosts involved with the Underground Railroad were born into these shackles, and at any point in their life, they can take them off. To them it may be a hidden hobby to hide runaway slaves, yet to the runaways, hiding was their lifestyle, their career that they had to give 100% effort to at all hours of every day. Despite not having a written answer to the questions, Whitehead strategically uses them in his novel to allow for the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about the ironic difference between slave and slave freer.
The Underground Railroad, typically classified as historical fiction or a neo-slave narrative, is impactful because of the out of the ordinary yet captivating manner in which Colson Whitehead writes about slavery. His irony allows the absurdity to stand out even more yet also allows the audience to take a step back into history. Many times in the novel you may find yourself thinking “this is ridiculous,” and that is exactly what Whitehead aims at. He created a novel with characters that have legitimate arguments and motives yet also formed a gap in which the reader can clearly point out the illegitimacy with each step. It then becomes to readers job to ride the rails and find the authenticity.